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Is it illegal to sleep in your car overnight?

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When Tom and I were living in the Prius, we constantly wondered if it was illegal to sleep in your car in California. We always felt like were on alert, ready for that dreaded 2 a.m. knock on a window.

We concocted stories we'd tell the cops, changed our location almost every night, thought of new and interesting places to park. I did research, read news stories, tried to figure out whether it truly was illegal to sleep in your car, and found places to stay safe overnight parking.

Here's what I found out.

It's usually illegal to sleep in your car on city streets and city parks

Sleeping in your car on property owned by cities is usually illegal.

And in cities where the wealth gap is growing, it seems government agencies are cracking down even harder on people who live and sleep in their cars.

Here are a few sobering examples of places that specifically prohibit sleeping overnight.

  • Results from a 2016 homeless count figured 7,000 people live in their cars in Los Angeles. The excess of cars and RVs parked on neighborhood streets at night prompted the city to completely ban sleeping in your car on residential streets during the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. It's illegal to sleep in your car at all times near schools, pre-schools, daycare facilities and parks.
  • In Silicon Valley, the city of Mountain View recently cracked down on dozens of RVs that parked on a tree-lined street in the same city where Google built its headquarters. At last count, people were living in around 330 vehicles parked throughout the city.
  • In San Francisco, California, there's an ordinance that prohibits people from sleeping in their car between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., but you still see vans and RVs parked in outlying areas.
  • In Portland, Oregon vans that parked on streets in the idyllic Lad's Addition neighborhood were vandalized.
  • But Berkeley, California seems a bit more lenient than other cities. Check out this guide on where to park and sleep in your car without being hassled.
  • While you might be able to get away with sleeping in your car in Berkeley, the city is giving the boot to oversized vehicles such as RVs and campers.
  • San Diego also just banned homeless people from living and sleeping in vehicles between 9pm and 6am, or at any time 500 feet from a residence or school

One place that's great to sleep in your car is rest areas.

According to the California Department of Transportation state law, people are allowed to park and sleep in cars in rest stops for up to 8-hours, a law that's similar in other parts of the United States as well.

However, some states do ban sleeping in your car in a rest stop, so be sure to check regulations before getting some shut eye.

If you're heading to San Francisco, I'd highly recommend the rest stop that overlooks the Golden Gate Bridge.

I swear, it's the most beautiful place to sleep in your car in California you'll find.

The bottom line is this: If you want to sleep in your car overnight on city streets, you have to be ultra-stealth. 

  • Sleep in a small car nobody would guess could be slept in.
  • Tint your windows so no one can see you sleeping in your car
  • Park late and leave early.
  • Crack your windows so they don't fog up overnight.
  • Keep the visible part of the interior of your car very clean.
  • Change location frequently when you sleep in your car
  • Be prepared for that knock on your window and be polite

It's possible to park and sleep in your car on city streets, but it's not the most relaxing night of sleep you'll ever have.

Sometimes, you can sleep in your car on private property

Parking lot full of parked cars. Wondering if its illegal to sleep in your car? Find out where you can be safe and park overnight.

There are several big box stores where it's not illegal to sleep in your car.

Those stores include:

  • Walmart, which even says this on its website: While we do not offer electrical service or accommodations typically necessary for RV customers, Walmart values RV travelers and considers them among our best customers. Consequently, we do permit RV parking in our store parking lots as we are able. Permission to park is extended by individual store managers, based on athe vailability of parking space and local laws. Please contact management in each store to ensure accommodations before parking your RV.
  • Cabellas, which sometimes has a designated area for overnight campers
  • Camping World, but make sure to ask at that particular location
  • Sam's Club, but depends on location. Call ahead to make sure

Trucks stops are also a great place to sleep in your car, van or RV while you're traveling. You can also take a public shower at a truck stop.

In San Jose, California, officials are allowing the Winter Faith Collaborative to let people park and sleep in their cars at places of assembly like gyms and churches.

If you don't mind paying a $30 annual fee, you can park in people's driveways as much as you want with Boondockers Welcome.

Sleeping in your car is legal in campsites or public lands

Is it illegal to sleep in your car? Many federal and public lands allow boondocking, which means you can sleep in your car for free

Camping is one option if you want to sleep in your car 100% legally. The unfortunate thing about this option is you'll have to pay the campground fee, which is often up to $35 per night.

The good thing about this is you'll have access to bathrooms, showers, and hookups if you're in a van or an RV.

Sometimes, we could sneak into campgrounds late at night and leave early in the morning to avoid paying the camping fee.

Another option is boondocking, or sleeping in your car for free on federal lands, or what they call "dispersed camping".

Click here to read our Ultimate Guide to Boondocking.

Random other places to try sleeping in your car

  • Marinas. We often sleep in boat marinas when we're traveling by car. It's most likely illegal, but many are completely empty and desolate with no security. We've gotten away with this in many states and its one of our go-to places to sleep in the car.
  • Shipping container storage unit facilities. We've slept in our car in our shipping container storage unit facility many times, and also slept outside another storage facility in the Bay area.
  • Casinos. Read why one RVing couple loves sleeping at casinos.
  • Church parking lots. I've heard from some people that it is possible to park and sleep at a church
  • Vacant buildings. Some say its safe to sleep in your car in the parking lot of a vacant building with a "for lease" sign out front.

Conclusion on sleeping in your car

Sleeping in your car is illegal in many places, so you'll have to be sure to know what you're getting into. It is possible to stealth camp on city streets without anyone suspecting what's going on.

We've slept in the Toyota Prius on city streets - the latest spot was in Newport Beach, and nobody ever knew.

Hopefully, this information will help you determine that one niggling question: is it illegal to sleep in your car?

You might also be curious about the 7 Best Cars You Can Live In.

FAQ about sleeping in your car:

Can you get a ticket for sleeping in your car?

It depends on where you're caught sleeping in your car. However, some municipalities, like Los Angeles, do issue citations and monetary fees for people caught sleeping in their cars.

Is it illegal to sleep in your car in California?

According to the California State Department of Transportation, it is legal to sleep in your car in rest stops for up to eight hours. Cities and counties have varying laws, but most don't allow sleeping in cars overnight. Big cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego don't allow sleeping in cars overnight between 9am-6am, and never within 500 feet of schools or residential homes. Berkeley just banned RVs from overnight parking on city streets.

Is it legal to sleep in your car at WalMart?

It depends. Many WalMarts do allow overnight parking, and often you'll see campervans and RVs lined up all over the parking lot. However, some WalMarts don't allow sleeping in your car. The best thing to do is call the WalMart before you stop for the night. You can also use an app like iOverlander to see where other people have spent the night in their vehicles.

Where can you legally park overnight?

Even though it's usually illegal to park on city streets overnight, you can find legal places to sleep. You can usually sleep in your car at WalMart, Cabellas, casinos, rest stops, campgrounds and for free on many public lands owned by the Bureau of Land Management or the U.S. Forest Service. You can also legally sleep in your car overnight in someone's driveway or private property.

Is sleeping in your car safe?

To stay safe while sleeping in your car, it's all about location. Don't park and sleep in your car in bad neighborhoods. Even sleeping in your car on city streets can result in a break-in and a scary situation. The safest places to sleep in your car are usually at rest stops and campgrounds. Also, make sure you leave the windows cracked and don't leave your car on overnight! This can result in carbon monoxide poisoning.

Can I sleep in my car at a campsite?

Yes, you can sleep in your car at a campsite. You don't have to bring gear to set up a tent. We often pay the fee and spend the night in our campervan at various campsites where we feel safe. We've also crept in late at night and slept in our car in a campsite without paying the fee.

How do you sleep comfortably in a car?

There are many ways to make sleeping in your car comfortable. When we slept in a Toyota Prius, we flattened the two back seats to make a bed bigger than a twin bed. If you have a small car, you can put your feet in the truck and your head on the back seat. Many people just recline their front seats to sleep in cars, but that's not as comfortable. The best way to sleep in your car is to own a campervan.

Where are spots you've slept in your car? What's worked for you? Add your comment below so other readers can learn from you!

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49 thoughts on “Is it illegal to sleep in your car overnight?”

  1. Nope, not illegal at all! But as you say, you just can’t here, and there, and THERE, oh, and not over here either … Big pain. I wrote a post about it, too. You did a better job giving suggestions on where you can sleep in a vehicle. Kudos.

    Reply
    • Thanks! And yes, it’s always a struggle. I often wish it was easier to sleep in a vehicle and live in a tiny home.

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      • I would just like to say, I am homeless and have been sleeping in my car a few months. I have a full time job pumping gas and am trying to save money up for a place to stay. I became homeless because i left my last place( Renting a room) the environment wasnt best for me, they would drink everyday and i do not drink any more.( Former alcoholic) I have had 2 apartments on my own. Have good rental history but theres no way in the world i can afford my own place again. I am in recovery and have 8 months sober. I dont bother anyone and try to park my car when it is night. Just the other day someone threw a brick at my back window when i was sleeping in my car. This scared me, and just really hit me. I broke down the other day and i am prob going to hit a breaking point. I am homeless but i am not a bad person. I dont have any family and i apologize i am just useless space to this earth.

        Reply
        • Hi Allen, that sounds really difficult. I hope you find a place to stay soon and a comfortable situation. Keep your head up! Sounds like you’re working hard and trying, and that’s a good thing to be doing right now. Good luck!

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          • Put up a sign on your employment, say “Looking for a Room to Rent”, and let them know you work at the gas station so they can meet you and vice versa. Living in a car is not for everyone, and isn’t a long term solution. Best of luck to you, and I am praying for you, Allen.

        • You are definitely not useless. I hope things are looking up for you and that you’ve been able to save enough to afford rent. You’re not alone in this struggle. God hasn’t forgotten you but loves you enough to die on the cross for you to be forgiven and to become His child. He too was homeless and can relate. Please know you are loved and clearly not forgotten❤

          Reply
        • You are not useless. I’ve been at the end of my rope too. Jesus came to me in a dream and told me that He loved me. Jesus Loves You Too!!! Find a Salvation Army mission or go to a Christian Church (Baptist, Methodist, find a church that teaches from the Bible. Jesus Loves You!!!

          Reply
        • I am so proud of you that you gave up your addiction.The other posts were right,God is the answer.Your life will be completely different once you give your life entirely to him.It would be great if you could find a church because churches can help you and they become your family. Calvary churches and Assembly of God might be good options for you.Our church is small but kind ,loving and helpful.Jesus will change everything for you as he changed our family.God Bless you😊

          Reply
        • You are very useful. You are a child of God. Get a Bible. Go to church. They will give you a free one. Since you are online, contact the Billy Graham Evangelical Association. They can help you with your next step. Also go to orb.org. You can read daily devotionals on their website.. you can also read the Bible online at Biblegateway.com. You can choose the version you want to read too (NIV, King James, or Easy-to-Read). God Bless You and Jesus Loves You.

          Reply
        • BS you’re a free spirit living a beautiful honest life and should be free to live how you can. You have a God given right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Don’t let anyone ever take that from you. God bless

          Reply
        • Hey,
          If you still checking this thread, just wanted to say that I personally find Sadhguru (youtube videos) a good companion to shine a light on life that can be quite daunting at times.

          Reply
  2. I’ve been kicked out of so many Walmart parking lots that I’ve stopped using them altogether. Often times (especially northern California) the store leases the lot from the city, so the city makes the rules. My most successful strategy has been to find a quiet side street or parking lot that is close to a highway. But honestly, I’ve been bothered by police so many times, it doesn’t annoy me anymore, and they’ve never written me a ticket. So if they tell me to move, I ask them where I should park and they usually have an answer. It’s good to rotate spots too. I like to have a spot for each day of the week if I’m staying somewhere for a while. I looked up the law for Sacramento County, you aren’t allowed to sleep outside of a building designed for habitation between certain hours of night. So I guess if you are nocturnal, you can sleep wherever you want, or if you wake up before the cop sees you, just tell them you were playing scrabble or something.

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  3. I slept in my car for two years and spent nearly every single night at the same spot: The rest stop at Vista Point at the Golden Gate Bridge, on the Sausalito side. 😉

    Reply
    • oh wow, for two years!!! I did it for four months and thought that was a lot, haha. We slept at that rest stop several times. Great location, huh.

      Reply
      • Vacant buildings with for lease signs posted are normally a good call and buisness districts. Cops typically only will bother you if you are a problem. They do not consider themselves to be parking maids. Stay away from anyplace like veterinarian offices or doctors offices where drugs are stored. Also stay away from banks, schools and residential neighborhoods. I have a class b rv and have been doing this for two years. I have only been asked to move on once. Just use your common sense.

        Reply
        • Really good advice, thanks! I think readers will find all these comments quite helpful.

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    • Haha! I am from Georgia and I slept there too when I was visiting San Francisco in a rented SUV :). The only issue was that it got very cold at nights.

      Reply
  4. Can we brainstorm other ideas? I’ve done some research and I’ve heard: hospitals, some churches (if you ask permission), if you are a vet, American Legion type places, abandoned developments that had roads installed but were never built on.

    Reply
  5. Vacant buildings with for lease signs posted are normally a good call and buisness districts. Cops typically only will bother you if you are a problem. They do not consider themselves to be parking maids. Stay away from anyplace like veterinarian offices or doctors offices where drugs are stored. Also stay away from banks, schools and residential neighborhoods. I have a class b rv and have been doing this for two years. I have only been asked to move on once. Just use your common sense.

    Reply
  6. Motels are sometimes excellent location to park for the night. More so in smaller towns where travelers are expected.
    They usually think you’re there for the night and will be gone the next morning.

    Reply
  7. Hello this is hobo George I work travel & sleep in my car ( SUV ) Living a nomadic lifestyle for 7 years full time 15 yrs part time . I park @ Walmart / Gyms / night clubs / bars / friends and family drive ways pretty much anywhere I’m allowed .

    Reply
  8. It seems that you can car camp, meaning sleeping in your car if you do the following: 1) stay clean. No one likes the look of someone who looks like they are living on the street, 2) do not leave trash where you car camp, 3) assuming you have a car, wash it every so often. It looks good to have a clean vehicle, 4) do not bother other people around you such as at parks, parking lots, and similar, 5) keep the inside of your car as clean and tidy as is possible, 5) if you know anyone that will let you use their address, it will help. For most bits of help, you have to have somewhere to receive mail. I worked out a plan with my former landlord to receive mail at my former address – this is important, 6) if you are questioned by the police do not argue, they might arrest you for some charge or other, answer their questions and move on – very important. Police have more important work to do than hassle you, but you have to respect them or you will lose your freedom. Good luck!

    Reply
    • Update: Recently Seattle moved to build affordable housing for homeless people. This is after Amazon’s Jeff Bezos said that Amazon would donate some millions of dollars for that purpose. Apparently, Seattle government is working with or adopting the plans of Los Angels, CA and San Francisco, CA to provide shelter for homeless people. However, you can still be either moved from where you car camp or sleep in your car or given a ticket which you have to pay or you can be arrested. The figure that is given by the Seattle government is that there are 12,000 homeless people in the Seattle area and 7,000 in Los Angeles. It does seem right that Seattle has more homeless than Los Angles, but those are the figures. Due to the cold weather, homeless people are moving out of the northwest to sunny Southern California. However, I checked local law in most of the cities in Southern California and found that most of the Orange County cities will give you a ticket for living in your car or RV. The fine is $1,000. If it is not paid, you can be arrested and jailed. Stay away from Southern CA. Word of advice, it is highly recommended that you check the laws regarding homeless people, car camping, and living in your RV or car. A public library will let you use their computers and you can browse the Internet and find out the law pertaining to living in your car or as pertains to homeless people. If you are reading this you know how to use a computer and the Internet, if you do not, a librarian will help you. It is a lot better to know what you are getting into than experience grief.

      Reply
  9. Another option is The Elks Club. There is an annual membership but the allow RV parking at , I think, over 5000 locations nationwide. There are 163 locations in California. As stated previously, Hospitals, and hotels are good options but need to be considered on case by case basis.

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  10. Camp grounds that have the AAA Auto Club sign in front of their entrance. It may be worth the cost of membership if you use this option enough. Plus, you have their coverage too,on flat tire change, free toeing, etc,

    Reply
  11. Great write up and great information.
    I’m going to be driving up to San Francisco in about a week to do some Uber/Lyft driving for a couple of days but can’t afford a room. What’s the name of the rest stop you mentioned in San Francisco?

    Reply
    • Hey Robert! The rest stop is just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, off Highway 101. To sleep there and drive in the city you will have to pay the $7 bridge toll every day.

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      • Thanks for the fast reply Kristin. Is that $7 toll per day or $7 every time I use the bridge?

        Is that rest area just west of Horseshoe Bay?

        Sorry for the all questions. Lol I’m just pre-planning. Thank you!

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        • No problem! It’s a bridge toll whenever you enter San Francisco from Marin county. I’m not sure where Horseshoe Bay is, haha. The rest stop is literally right on the other side of the bridge. It’s where all the tourists go for a view of San Francisco off Highway 101.

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    • I find that wind deflectors/rain guards for car windows help A LOT. You can leave your windows cracked but don’t have to worry about rain getting in, or people peeking inside.

      Reply
  12. Some of the places you suggest sound dangerous.
    When on the road, I stop to sleep in a small town and call the cops to tell them that I’m stopping to rest.
    When I did a lot of stealth camping I went straight to bed and stayed as silent as possible.
    Pot, booze, guns, and other contraband are a bad idea for stealth campers. Hell, it’s even risky to have wild sex with your wife if you are stealth camping.

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  13. Hey, you used to write fantastic, but the last several posts have been kinda boring¡K I miss your tremendous writings. Past several posts are just a little out of track! come on!

    Reply
  14. We used to sleep in hotel parking lots until our van was mistaken for a construction workers van and broken into while we were sleeping in it. We parked in a lot full of construction trucks and vans, our van is just a big white van. Turns out construction trucks and vans are targets for theft in hotel parking lots. Fortunately we only needed to yell “Hey!” to thief and he ran away, Could have been worse. And frankly I’m glad we weren’t spending the night in the hotel, he would have fully ripped us off.

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  15. At the time I had a dodge van and it was always a struggle to find a place to sleep in peace. A couple times I was lucky enough to find a dodge dealership. When all was closed and quiet I pulled in next to the dodge vehicles for sale. I thought that if I got caught I would just say I had trouble with the van and was waiting for the dealer to open. I never got caught.

    Reply
  16. USED CAR LOTS!!
    No one’s gonna knock on a car in a used car lot. My mom went all the way across the county this way. Admittedly it only works for cars though, probably not large capers and RV’s.

    Reply

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