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
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
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".
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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Kristin Hanes is a journalist who founded The Wayward Home as a place to learn about alternative living. She currently lives on a sailboat and in a Chevy Astro van, and has written articles about alternative living published in Good Housekeeping, Business Insider, Marie Claire and SF Gate. Read more about Kristin here.