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Is it illegal to sleep in your car? Whether you’ve found yourself suddenly homeless or if you’re living out of a vehicle by choice, it’s good to know the ins and outs about where to spend the night. As van life rises in popularity, many locales are creating rules and regulations about overnight parking. I’m here to help you understand your options so you can make informed decisions on where you sleep in your vehicle.
Sleeping on the side of the road in your car is illegal in some cities, but there are ways to stealth camp in urban areas when you need to. I’ll give you tips and ideas about where to spend the night, as well as a list of places you can legally camp.
I’ve camped on many city streets in my Promaster campervan and know how stressful it can be finding a legal and safe place to park for the night.
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Is It Illegal to Sleep In Your Car?
It’s not necessarily illegal to sleep in your car, especially if you’re just taking a quick nap on a city street. You also won’t find any federal or state laws banning sleeping in cars.
So, whether it’s illegal to sleep in your car is left up to the particular city, county or state you’re in.
Some cities don’t explicitly prohibit sleeping in cars but have time limits on how long you can park in a certain area. I’ve frequently seen signs on particular streets banning overnight parking. Oftentimes, you’ll see random hours where you can’t park, like 2AM-4AM. This can make finding a place to sleep difficult.
If you plan on sleeping in your car in a city, be sure to research local laws and ordinances and decide if you want to take the risk. It’s not always explicitly posted on signs, and you can find yourself getting “the knock” in the middle of the night or waking up to a costly ticket.
For example, in Jackson, WY it is illegal to camp on city streets, which is defined as sleeping in your vehicle overnight. However, I have only found this information in the local ordinances and not posted anywhere. For what it’s worth I’ve successfully slept on the street there for a night, but I was stressed and worried about getting a ticket!
Highway rest areas are usually a good place to rest, but they aren’t always a free-for-all. Some states prohibit overnight parking at rest stops and only allow you to stay a few hours to catch some ZZZs.
In Washington state, particularly around Seattle, many rest areas have 15-min to 1-hour parking spaces and limited 8-hour parking spots. Be sure to pay attention to all posted signage to avoid problems!
Here are a few examples of laws concerning whether it’s illegal to sleep in your car:
- Berkeley, California has banned RV parking overnight between 2am-5am. Law enforcement has been known to give tickets or tow cars people are living in.
- Los Angeles, California banned sleeping in cars for the fourth time in three years.
- In San Francisco, it’s illegal to sleep in a car overnight from 10am-6pm and you could be fined $1,000. (However, The Wayward Home founder Kristin has slept in her vehicle in San Francisco many times, and this has never happened to her.)
Usually, those laws are put into place to cut down on the number of homeless people sleeping in cars or to prohibit loitering, but with the housing crisis and lack of affordable options, more and more folks are needing to live in their vehicles.
Should You Sleep in Your Car Where It’s Illegal?
The amount of risk you’re willing to take when it comes to sleep in your car is entirely up to you.
Our writing team has slept in cars in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, New York, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, New Orleans, and other major cities without incident.
The trick is to be super stealthy, obey parking signs and restrictions, arrive late and leave early, and keep your vehicle looking clean and organized.
For example: Don’t hang white sheets from all your windows. It draws attention and you’re more likely to be ticketed or asked to leave. Use dark window covers when possible.
If you’re parking where it’s illegal to sleep in your car, your goal should be to make it look like nobody is in your vehicle.
Here are a few tips and tricks to make sure you’re stealth:
- Park late and leave early
- Move to a new parking spot every night
- Tint your windows, get blackout curtains or make your own, use a front windshield sunshade and hang a dark sheet or blanket between the cab and backseat
- Use dark bedding so you blend in
- Don’t use lights late, talk on the phone or watch movies
- Be very quiet and respectful
- Brush your teeth and use the bathroom far away from the place where you’re planning on parking for the night (unless you can do these things in your campervan)
- Crack your windows and/or open your vents so your vehicle doesn’t fog up overnight
- Make sure your vehicle looks clean and is in good shape to the best of your ability
Being ticketed or towed does not happen very often when sleeping in a city. You’ll usually just deal with a knock from a police officer or a security guard, asking you to move. But if you try parking in the same area again, you’re likely to get a ticket.
I personally got a knock in San Diego, apologized to the officer and asked if he knew of anywhere else I could go. He had started to write me a ticket, but after a bit of pleading, he let me go with a verbal warning and directed me to a different area.
If this is a risk you’re willing to take, you might be able to get away with sleeping in your car even in cities where it’s illegal.
TIP: Some cities are implementing Safe Parking Lots as a way to address homelessness. However, these are typically meant for people who are truly homeless and have to go through an application process. If you are experiencing homelessness, it’s worth looking into.
A Few Instances When It’s Always Illegal to Sleep in Your Car
Sometimes, it is just downright illegal to sleep in your car. Here are some examples when you shouldn’t be sleeping in a vehicle at all:
When you’re intoxicated. Depending on state laws, you could be arrested for DUI if you’re sleeping in your car while drunk. The point is to stop someone from turning the key and driving away while still intoxicated.
On private property. Obviously, you can’t just park on private property and expect it to be legal. Read signs carefully and choose a place to park wisely.
When signs expressly forbid it. It’s definitely illegal to sleep in your car in areas that are clearly marked. Some cities now have laws against car camping in particular areas, especially in areas prone to homelessness or with significant tourist traffic.
Places to Stealth Camp in a Car in an Urban Area
There are a couple of different approaches when it comes to sleeping in your car.
- You can park on city streets, which are public property.
- Or you can park on private property, like in large parking lots.
If you park on city streets, you might get a knock from a police officer. If you’re on private property, you’ll deal with a security guard.
Here are some places to try out when you’re sleeping in your car. You can use Google filters in the Google maps app to find many of these places.
- Near public libraries, where you can use the bathrooms and internet and sleep during the day hours if you need to
- In an industrial area
- In hospital parking structures or secure parking garages
- In hotel parking lots (I’ve done this in a pinch when the place I planned to park felt unsafe!)
- City streets in urban areas, like outside the gym or a park
- Outside a bar or brewery, just make sure you aren’t intoxicated or you could get a DUI in some states (It’s always best to ask the manager!)
- Marina parking lots (I’ve heard of lots of luck with this one)
- Church parking lots (some allow this)
- 24-hour restaurants (I’ve done this!)
- Apartment building parking lots with unassigned parking (be thoughtful to not disturb residents)
The Walmart Conundrum: Is it Illegal to Sleep in Your Car at Walmart?
Walmart parking lots used to be a safe haven for RVers and van lifers living in a city or moving through town.
While many Walmart stores still do allow overnight parking in their spacious parking lots, more and more are opposed to RVers on store property due to poor ettiquette and waste issues.
Here’s what Walmart’s website says about whether it’s illegal to sleep in your car overnight:
“We do permit RV parking on our store parking lots as we are able. Permission to park is extended by individual store managers, based on availability of parking space and local laws. Please contact management in each store to ensure accommodations before parking your RV.”
Our best advice if you’re worried is to call the Walmart store manager to make sure they don’t prohibit overnight camping in their parking areas. In our experience, some Walmarts have signs prohibiting overnight parking, but the managers give permission. It’s always worth asking!
You can use the Walmart Store Finder to look for Walmarts near you.
Places to Sleep in Your Car Legally
If you’re not into playing Russian Roulette with cops and security guards, you can just go ahead and find a completely legal place to park overnight to get your shut-eye.
Here are some of our top picks for a safe place to sleep:
Truck drivers often park their rigs in parking lots to sleep overnight when they work long hours. It’s an easy and safe place to find spots near the highway with security guards.
Truck stop parking lots are also often listed on websites like Rest Area Parking or Truckstops of America, and they will usually have a list of what truck stops allow camping overnight.
There are rest areas all across the country, but laws vary by state on how long you can stay in a rest stop.
In California, you can stay at a rest stop for up to 8 hours. We had a favorite one overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge where we’ve spent the night.
In South Dakota, by contract, you aren’t allowed to spend the night at a rest stop and it’s considered a petty crime.
Same goes for Minnesota: you are only allowed to spend 4 hours in rest areas. Still, it’s a good place to get a little shut-eye before moving to your next destination.
We recommend researching state laws before sleeping in your car overnight at a rest stop.
Many cities have campgrounds nearby or even within city limits. I’ve stayed at the Spearfish City campground right in downtown Spearfish, SD when I was getting my residency in that state.
San Francisco also has several nearby campgrounds where it’s legal to sleep in a car.
You can use apps like iOverlander or The Dyrt to find campgrounds near you and read reviews.
On Federal Land
If you’re able to travel a bit, you can usually find free campsites on public land, like National Forest land or land run by the Bureau of Land Management.
This is called boondocking, and is a great way to live in your vehicle on the cheap. Plus, you’ll have access to nature and the peace of mind knowing you’re in a legal place to spend the night!
To learn more about free camping, read this article: Can You Camp Anywhere in a National Forest?
Some casinos allow you to sleep in your car overnight and even encourage it! They hope people will come eat, drink and gamble inside the casino. You might need to sign up for a free players club card, but they often come with free goodies!
Boondockers Welcome & Harvest Hosts
Boondockers Welcome connects you with people who have private property that allow overnight camping. This is sometimes in a driveway or a field.
With Harvest Hosts, you pay a one-time membership fee to camp at wineries, breweries, museums, golf courses, and farms.
Both of these programs can save you money if you’re moving around a lot. The cost of an annual membership is about the same as two nights of campgrounds!
Parking Lots at Certain Big Box Stores
Some stores love the business RVers and van lifers bring to the property, so they allow you to park your car and sleep for the night.
Here are a few places to try sleeping in your car:
- Cracker Barrel
- Sam’s Club
- Camping World
If you’re nervous about sleeping in your car at any of these businesses, you can call the manager first and ask.
Sometimes that peace of mind when you’re car camping on private property makes for a better night’s sleep!
Apps to Help You Find Places to Park
More and more people are car sleeping these days, so there are apps now to address the need.
Here are my two favorite apps you can use to search for locations to spend the night:
iOverlander is a crowd-sourced app where you can see where other people have camped. People typically leave reviews, directions and photographs of campsites. You can click on the link to any car camping spot and the route will load on your phone’s map.
You can use this to identify places people have stealth camped or boondocked, and to find designated campgrounds.
The Dyrt App
The Dyrt App is one of our favorite apps to read campgrounds reviews. You can sort by price, location, amenities, etc. We like to search for campgrounds with showers after we’ve been boondocking for awhile. You can also use The Dyrt to look at boundaries for federal land where you can find free campsites.
How to Get Your Car Ready for Sleeping
There are a few ways to sleep in your car. It really depends on what type of car you have. I’ve heard of people sleeping in small sedans, hatchbacks, vans and pickup trucks. Some people just recline the front seat and sleep for the night.
If you have a small car…
Fold down the back seats so you can access the trunk area. Put down a camping mat and lie with your feet in the trunk and your head toward the front seats.
Make sure your back windows are tinted or covered somehow so nobody can see you if they try to look inside. Hang a sheet or blanket over the two front seats so people can’t see in the back when looking in a front window. When doing this, though, try to keep everything neat and tidy.
If you have a hatchback…
You’ll have a larger sleeping area if you have a hatchback like a Toyota Prius. Just fold down the two back seats and you’ll have plenty of space to create a bed. Again, make sure those back windows are tinted or covered up somehow so nobody will see you.
If you’re going to be living in your car for an extended period and you’re on your own, you might want to consider removing the front passenger seat so you have a dedicated bed area, with storage next to you.
Luno also makes mattresses for several different vehicle models, so this might be an option for you.
For more tips and resources about living in a car, check out this article: Living in a Car: The Ultimate Guide to Staying Comfortable on the Road
Some Final Thoughts on the Legality of Sleeping in Your Car
The legality of sleeping in your car is dependent on a number of factors. The most important factor to consider when deciding if it’s legal to sleep in your car is whether or not you’re trespassing, which means entering private property without the owner’s permission.
In some cases, parking lots at big box stores allow overnight camping or parking for RVers, van lifers, and other vehicle dwellers who bring them business; just make sure that you ask before doing so as sometimes they may have rules against it.
Apps like iOverlander can help locate places where other people have stealth camped or boondocked so that you know what types of sites are available near you. Reminder: if you stay at an iOverlander site be sure to review it to keep information current for others!
If all else fails, search through federal land boundaries for free campsites!
Just know this: In all my years of camping in parking lots or on city streets, I have only gotten that dreaded “knock” or been asked to move twice.
Take a little time to research local ordinances or find a legal place to park like a campground or rest area.
Make sure to read the comments below for additional tips, or leave one of your own!
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!