Post Summary: Car Camping 101: Our Complete Guide To Sleeping In Your Car (With Gear Recs, Tips, and Locations!)
Let’s face it. Wouldn’t we all want an inexpensive, no-fuss way to explore the world around us?
The closest way we can think of doing this is to throw our sleeping bags in the car, grab our camping gear, and hit the road!
To make travel cheaper, we’ve been car camping and learning a lot about sleeping in your car while traveling.
Berty and I got a little taste of #vanlife under our belts during our road trip down the Pacific Coast Highway, as well as during our most recent trip through the Southwest.
There are so many car camping tips out there, but we’re here to share our own version of sleeping in your car and what we’ve learned about a camping road trip.
We hope this car camping post can give you helpful tidbits, suggestions, and resources to make a road trip that fully fits YOU and what you’re all about!
*Note – we are sharing stories from our own personal experience road tripping within the United States. If you are taking an international trip, make sure to do your research about camping and sleeping in the countries you’ll be visiting!
Car Camping 101: Our Guide To Sleeping In Your Car
Before we share all the details of sleeping in your car, here are some suggested road trip routes we’ve taken (click articles to read more!)
- Pacific Coast Highway Itinerary (Washington to California)
- The Complete Oregon Coast Road Trip Route
- The Ultimate Utah Road Trip (All 5 Utah National Parks!)
- Olympic Peninsula Loop (Washington Coast)
- Northern Idaho Summer Road Trip (Idaho State)
- 10-Day Southwest Road Trip
WHERE DO WE STAY WHILE CAR CAMPING?
Location is extremely important when sleeping in your car. You’ll want a place that’s safe – where you won’t be disturbed – and, ideally, free! There are so many options out there from backcountry camping locations to Wal-Mart parking lots.
Berty and I have stayed in a variety of places and enjoyed where the journey took us. Here are some of our picks for a safe place to sleep in the car, the options we used, as well as some good resources we’ve found online:
FREE CAR CAMPING LOCATIONS
1. Staying With Generous Friends
Some let us stay in their house, while we asked others/acquaintances if we could simply park in front of their house for a safe place to sleep. Always say thank you and offer to return the favor in the future. The rules of how to be a good house guest still apply, if you’d like a safe place to sleep in your car the future!
2. Religious Buildings, Small Businesses, and Wal-Marts*
If you are in a town/city and strapped for a place to sleep, a good option would be local religious buildings or small businesses. This article shares a list of places and business that allow sleeping in your car on their property.
We suggest coming into the store and introducing yourself during business hours, kindly asking to stay, and informing them of how long you will be there. Make sure you make yourself presentable and thank them or simply move along if they decline.
If they agree, don’t overstay your welcome and park in an area that won’t bother their usual business traffic. Only use the lot for sleeping, and be on your way when morning comes!
Wal-Marts are a great option and are generally RV and car-camping friendly. However, make sure to read this no-park list and find out which locations do NOT allow overnight camping.
3. Backcountry Camping
Backcountry camping is defined as camping on public land OUTSIDE of a maintained campground. This also means no services – use the bathroom and brush your teeth at a gas station before you park for the night.
Make sure to be at least 1 mile away from a dedicated campsite (it’s a law), and if you are sleeping on a forest road make sure not to block traffic in either direction.
We’ve written a very in-depth article about exactly how to find free camping in the USA and how to camp there sustainably.
Be sure to do your research and see if there are special permits needed to enter the areas you want to visit, or if there are any fire bans in place.
4. Car Camping On Neighborhood Streets
Use this one with caution, and as a last resort.
If you need to park on a neighborhood street, make sure to be extremely respectful and quiet, especially if you are arriving at night. Only use the neighborhood for sleeping and get up early to be on your way.
If you’re feeling unsure about your location, we recommend sleeping in regular clothes in case you are stopped by a police officer and need to present yourself quickly.
5. Research on User-Based Websites
People from all over the internet will share their spots and knowledge about where to go car camping for free. Many will also share details about what to expect and maybe even photos, too!
One of the easiest ways to find these campsites is through The Dyrt. The Dyrt is a web tool and an app that helps us locate the best camping spots in our area, through helpful maps, photos, reviews, and lists of amenities.
We have The Dyrt Pro version, and absolutely recommend it if you are frequently out of service. We are able to search and read offline, have access to BLM maps, a road trip planner, and more features are coming out every week!
(We’ve got a discount code for 10% here, use the code MANDAGIES when you check out online!)
7. BLM Land
This elusive way of camping is growing in popularity – especially in the Western US where wilderness land is in abundance.
From our research (please, tell me if I’m wrong!) you are allowed to camp on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) areas unless otherwise specified not to.
Exceptions would be high-traffic/volume areas or places with sensitive environments. These places should be clearly marked.
Car Camping on BLM land isn’t an illegal activity but stop by a local ranger station to get advice on the best places to camp. We also recommend arriving during daylight so you can see where you are going.
You can find BLM land in many ways, but this Public Lands app clearly shows the difference between land and what government entity owns it.
Double-check the land-specific rules and regulations of that land before venturing out! If you haven’t already, we’ve written a guide to finding free camp sites, and how to determine if the land is acceptable for camping or not!
*We’ve encountered Wal-Marts in Utah that recently started banning overnight car camping, especially if the stores are located near national parks or attractions. Click this link to find up-to-date information on Wal-Marts where you can still camp for free.
CHEAP PLACES TO SLEEP IN YOUR CAR
1. Traditional Campgrounds
Designated campgrounds are very useful if you are wanting the convenience to local attractions, facilities with running water, or are traveling with a family.
Come early to claim a spot if it’s the first-come-first-serve type.
Most campgrounds in the spring and summer fill up by the early afternoon. If it’s an option, you should plan ahead and reserve a site. Make sure to bring extra cash on hand for those last-minute reservations.
2. Airbnb / Hip Camp / Glamping Hub
Sharing housing sites like Airbnb, Hip Camp, or Glamping Hub are a good way to find cheap and last-minute accommodations for car camping. Sometimes you just need a shower or a cozy bed, and that’s okay!
You can go as cheap as paying for a room in a house, or even a couch to sleep on! (Also, if it’s your first time trying Airbnb, click here to sign up and get $40 off your first place! Have fun!)
Important Note: Sometimes it’s okay to bail on plans sleep in your car if a place doesn’t feel particularly safe. When we stayed in Stanley, Idaho, the temperatures dropped to below zero at night and we didn’t have the proper gear to keep warm for car camping. So…
…we opted for a hotel and we were so thankful we did! Everything in the car that night was completely FROZEN by morning. Use your best judgment and know that it’s okay to do what is best for you – it’s your trip!
WHAT TO PACK TO GO CAR CAMPING
Berty and I love to go car camping because you can only pack what your vehicle can carry. One way we like to stay organized is by keeping our gear in bins!
You can buy cheap plastic bins at any general store, borrow them from friends, or even find them at thrift stores. We like to use bins because they keep your stuff organized and are easy to move around.
When you are preparing for sleeping in your car, you can take the bins out of the back and move them to the front seats to create space for your sleeping gear.
Here are some tips for organizing your car camping bins:
- Camping Bin: Classic essentials are items like headlamps, garbage bags, bungee cords, silverware, and our MVP: the jetboil.
- Food Bin: We pack freeze-dried food (our favorites are from Mountain House), instant noodles, cereal, instant oatmeal, and most importantly water in this refillable container. We also pick up fruit and veggies at a local grocery store when available. Click here to read about our favorite easy camping meals!
- Clothing: Clothes can be put in bins but also can be stored in packing cubes and separated into categories like shirts, pants, and socks + underwear.
- Toiletries: Pack essentials like a toothbrush and toothpaste, but also baby wipes, toilet paper, deodorant, and a brush. We take these Ursa Major wipes everywhere when sleeping in the car, because they are individually wrapped!
- Sleeping Gear: Make sure to bring a sleeping bag, sleeping pad, extra blankets (We love these stuffable ones from Rumpl!), and a hat to wear at night.
- Chargers: Depending on what electronics you need to charge, this can be as simple as taking along your phone charging cord up to buying a portable three-prong charger for bigger items like laptops. We use this exact one so that Berty and I can edit our photos and blog on the road.
Another awesome car camping traveler, Forrest Mankins, wrote a detailed blog post about what he packs for his trips in Montana and beyond. Definitely check out his post for ideas about what to pack when sleeping in your car!
HOW TO SLEEP IN A CAR
Depending on what kind of car you are using, this may look different. You can certainly lean back the front seat and sleep in the driver’s seat by the steering wheel, but the most common form of car camping we’ve seen is in larger crossovers/SUVs/vans where you can lay the backseat of seats flat and sleep there.
Here are our tips on comfortably sleeping in your car!
Sleep with your head elevated.
Sleeping in your car with your head elevated keeps you from getting sick and helps you get an overall better quality of sleep. If you are sleeping in your car on a hill, position your head at the highest part of the vehicle.
Use clothing as your pillow.
If you are wanting to save some space/minimize gear in your car, ditch the pillows, and use your clothes!
When Berty and I travel, we use these compartment bags for clothes and they conveniently double as pillows at night. Easy!
Crack the windows a tiny bit.
When going to sleep, roll down a window enough to breathe but high enough to keep prying hands out of your car.
If you’re trying to keep bugs out, you can drape a piece of clothing over the opening or bring a piece of mosquito netting to block the passageway.
Wear a sleeping mask.
The morning sun can also be a nuisance, especially if you want to sleep in late! If you are sleeping in your car in the city, you may also have streetlights shining in your window all night.
A sleeping mask can help block out that unwanted light. Alternatively, you can string some bungee cords around the inside of the car to hang a privacy sheet while you sleep.
Make sure to wear warm clothes at night to prevent your body heat from escaping. We’ve slept in some pretty cold weather, and a good coat and hat make all the difference.
Download Some Entertainment
Oftentimes, when we’re finding free places to camp, it also means these locations are out of cell service range too.
Before sleeping in our car, we make sure to download our favorite shows on Netflix so we can watch them offline, or make a list of our favorite road trip podcasts to listen to as we drift to sleep.
WHAT ABOUT SLEEPING IN COLD WEATHER VS SLEEPING IN HOT WEATHER?
If you are expecting to sleep in your car in extreme weather conditions, you may need to take extra steps to sleep soundly (and safely) at night.
Here are some helpful articles we’ve found for information on this topic.
- Cold weather: Take a look at this video about sleeping in your car during winter.
- Hot weather: This article is for general heat waves, but you can apply it to car camping as well.
Have you ever gone on an adventure while sleeping in your car? Tell us about your car camping experience in the comments below to share some tips with fellow travelers!
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