This is an incredibly important question with a painfully dynamic answer. As is the case with most of life’s greatest inquiries, the answer is both yes and no. Simply put: every state is different. Every state has its own jurisdiction over parking laws; sometimes regulations vary even within each state municipality. And then, once you start exploring different types of land within a state, you are sure to find different laws there as well.
If you are completely confined within your car (ie: no need to set up a tent, awning, chairs, etc.) then you fall under the legal category of ‘overnight parking’ and a lot more opportunities are available to you as you travel. These different rules can get confusing, so we have put together this quick guide on how to stay legal when you car camp.
How to Recognize Private Property
Obviously, you are going to want to stay off of private property. Unless you have the owner’s permission, tangling with private property is asking for a trespassing charge, no matter which state you are in. Don’t count on the cover of the night to disguise your folly. The easiest way to distinguish private property from public spaces are the signs: ‘Private Property’ and ‘No Trespassing.’ The easiest way to avoid the temptation of staying on private property is to plan ahead. There are a handful of great resources out there to help you distinguish private property from public land. OnX is one resource to help you determine if land is private or public. If you plan to be on the road for an extended period of time, investing in the OnX app would be worth your time and money. There is no harm in asking a local business or resident if you are unsure, and above all else, be respectful.
Understanding the Rules of Rest Areas
Rest areas are designated exits along main roads or highways that offer drivers a place to pull over for a break. Most rest areas have restrooms and vending machines available as well as a pet relief area and a big parking lot. However, you may be shocked to find out that a lot of rest areas do not allow overnight parking. Rest area legalities are incredibly complicated, and a blanket statement as to whether or not overnight parking is allowed just does not exist. Most rest areas are open 24/7, but you could find parking limits to be anywhere from 3 hours to 8 hours to 24 hours. It’s important to plan ahead and know which states allow overnight stays and which states have shorter time limits.
You can really get into the weeds with rest area laws, especially when you start running into the states that don’t have rest areas (Hawaii) and the states that also have welcome centers (Georgia doesn’t allow overnight parking at welcome centers). In general, If you are worried that you might be overstaying your welcome, it is safer to try to find an answer or move on. The last thing you want is someone knocking on your window in the middle of the night.
Below is a simplified overview of overnight parking laws at rest areas. States in green are fully open to overnight parking. States in yellow are open to overnight parking but have some restrictions in place and require further research. States in red do not allow overnight parking. Always look for signs that may indicate whether overnight parking is not allowed at a particular location. For more information on rest areas, head over to Boondocker’s Bible and read up on each specific state.
Dispersed Camping on Public Land
The Bureau of Land Management manages roughly 245 million acres, or one-tenth, of America’s land base (Bureau of Land Management, 2021). There are four different types of BLM-managed land, with public land being the most geared towards camping and recreation. As long as it does not conflict with other authorized uses, violate ‘closed to camping’ signs, or have a negative impact on wildlife, dispersed camping is welcome on most of the public land.
Navigating public land is straightforward. Stay on designated roads. Search for spots where there is evidence that someone has camped prior, as to reduce impact. Properly dispose of human waste and/or pack it out. Pay attention and adhere to fire bans. Camp at least 200 feet away from bodies of water (lakes, ponds, rivers and streams). Be respectful of the other campers.
Dispersed camping is allowed on most BLM land for up to 14 days. Once those 14 days are up, campers are expected to relocate at least 25 miles away from the space they last occupied.
Oh, And There is Always Walmart
Walmarts are well-renowned in the car camping community for generously offering their parking lots to weary travelers. However, in the past couple of years we have seen the numbers drop in the stores that allow overnight parking. These changes are due to a number of reasons, with bad etiquette at the center. If you’re going to spend the night at a Walmart, it’s best to call ahead to ask about that store’s overnight policies. If you need to stay for the night, try to remain discreet during your stay. Park further away from the store entrance, preferably out of the main channels of the parking lot. Refrain from whipping out your beach chair and sunbathing under the glow of parking lot lighting. It’s widely recommended you give patronage to Walmart as a token of your gratitude for a place to stay.
As you can see from this guide of places where you can and cannot sleep in your car legally, there are plenty of perfectly legal options for car camping. From rest areas to public land and Walmart parking lots in between, there is no shortage of permitted places to rest for the night! Just be respectful, pack out your trash, and travel safely!