Is it illegal to sleep in your car? If you’re a road tripper, this is a crucial question with a painfully dynamic answer: sometimes. Legality depends on location. Why? Because federal legislation doesn’t explicitly forbid sleeping in your car, but state and municipal legislation can.
To aid you on your quest for a good–and legal–night’s sleep on the road, we put together this quick guide on how to sleep in your car legally. Below, we’ll touch quickly on why we love to sleep in vehicles–feel free to skip this section if you’re well-versed with the joys of snoozing in the back of an SUV. Then, we’ll break down the difference between federal and local laws, how private property can be a blessing and a curse, and the nuances of rest area regulations. Not only that, but we’ll discuss a few of our favorite places to crash for free, including BLM land and Walmart parking lots. Fasten your seatbelts, and don’t fall asleep yet–we’re about to punch the gas.
Why Sleep in Your Car?
Here at Luno, we’re such big fans of sleeping in cars that we made a tiny fan for sleeping in cars. Jokes aside, road tripping with a Car Air Mattress in the trunk is our favorite way to travel. This will come as no surprise if you also love to bunk in the trunk, but if you’re unsure why anyone would willingly sleep in their vehicle, here are a few reasons why we recommend it:
- Affordability: You don’t need to stay in pricey hotels or invest in mountains of expensive camping gear.
- Accessibility: If you didn’t camp growing up, exploring the outdoors can be intimidating. For newcomers, throwing a mattress in the back of a car is much less daunting than investing in a tent, sleeping on the ground, and being at the mercy of snakes, spiders, bears, chupacabras, etc.
- Comfort: With a cushy, rugged, purpose-built air mattress, sleeping in your car is much more comfortable than sleeping on a thin sleeping pad on uneven ground. Vehicles are also watertight and can withstand wind and weather, making them preferable to tents in many instances.
- Exploration Potential: When you’ve got a sleep system in your trunk, you can travel quickly and camp comfortably in cities and wilderness areas alike. The exploration potential is infinite.
We love sleeping in vehicles for hundreds of reasons, but these are a few of the main ones. However, no matter how comfortable your car camping setup is, sleeping in your car can become uncomfortable if you’re anxious about waking up to a ticket-wielding cop knocking on your window in the middle of the night. So when is sleeping in your car legal versus illegal?
Federal Laws vs. Local Laws: When–and Where–It’s Illegal to Sleep in Your Car
There’s no specific federal law that expressly forbids sleeping in your car. However, there are federal laws that indirectly limit the instances in which sleeping in your car is legal:
- Private Property Laws: Trespassing on private property is a quick way to make sleeping in your car illegal. Federal laws protect private property, which applies to parking lots of private businesses, driveways of private residences, and more.
- DUI Laws: Driving under the influence is prohibited under federal law. Even if you’re sleeping in the trunk, you can still be prosecuted for a DUI if you’re over the legal limit.
Pro tip: Some vanlifers register vans as RVs, affording more leeway with libations when parked for the night.
That said, you don’t need to worry about federal laws as much as local laws. Every state is different, as states have jurisdiction over parking laws. Not only that, but regulations can vary by municipality. Take Colorado, for instance: it’s legal to sleep in your car in Denver, but the mountain town of Telluride has prohibited sleeping in your car in any public zone.
There are two quick tricks we use to determine if it’s legal to sleep in your car in a specific location:
- Google It: Search “Is it legal to sleep in your car in ____?” While this isn’t a foolproof method, it’s worth a quick, specific Google search ahead of your trip. Say you were planning a trip to Telluride and thinking you’d sleep in your car. If you ran a quick Google search, you’d be alerted to local regulations ahead of your trip. Maybe you’d book a campsite, gun it to a first-come, first-serve campground before the weekend, or pick another location entirely.
- Look for Signage: In many cases, if it’s illegal to sleep in your car, you’ll find signage prohibiting overnight parking. In overrun places like Telluride, you may even find signs explicitly prohibiting sleeping in your car.
Four Places You Can Legally Sleep in Your Car for Free
1. Private Property: When to Avoid Private Property and When to Embrace It
As we mentioned above, sleeping in your car on private property is asking for a trespassing charge. Always be on the lookout for “Private Property” and “No Trespassing” signs, and if in doubt, chicken out.
However, there’s one key exception to this rule: if you have permission from the property owner, you’ve got a greenlight to camp on private property. If you do camp out in the driveway of friends or family, we suggest you bring a case of beer or help with yardwork to cover your rent.
2. Rest Areas: The Perfect Place to Park in a Pinch
What’s the opposite of private property? You guessed it: public property. Rest areas are public lots along main roads or highways that offer sleepy drivers a place to pull over for a break. Most rest areas have restrooms, vending machines, and a pet relief area. Camping is usually prohibited, so pitching a tent or unfurling your sleeping bag on the grass isn’t allowed. However, if you have a self-contained setup–i.e., a van, RV, or SUV with a Luno mattress–rest area parking lots are worth keeping on your radar.
Legality, again, depends on location–states, not the federal government, dictate rest area regulations. A few states, like Colorado and North Carolina, do not allow overnight parking at rest areas. Some restrict the number of hours you can rest: Illinois, for instance, limits stays to three hours, while Washington limits stays to eight hours. Additionally, Hawaii doesn’t have any rest areas and prohibits sleeping in cars across the state, while Georgia allows overnight parking at rest areas but not welcome centers. Indiana allows overnight parking at most of its rest areas, but there are several rest areas in the Hoosier State with signs that prohibit the act.
Given these befuddling differences between states, be sure to do state-specific research before your road trip. Our go-to source for researching rest area regulations? This guide on Boondocker’s Bible. It breaks down the nuances of each state, any hourly limits you’ll encounter, and more. If you’re a frequent road tripper, we recommend bookmarking the page.
Pro Tip: While rest areas are generally a safe and accessible place to sleep in your car, they’re usually busy, next to highways, and semi-trucks pull in and out all night long, meaning they’re extremely noisy. Rely on rest areas in a pinch, but don’t treat them as your home base. Also, invest in ear plugs if you’re a sensitive sleeper.
3. Public Land: Dispersed Camping on BLM Land is Our Favorite Way to Camp for Free
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages roughly 245 million acres of publicly owned land–that’s one-tenth of America’s land base. The organization is tasked with a double-sided, seemingly contradictory mission: it administrates logging, mining, and energy production on public land and simultaneously conserves wilderness areas and resources for future generations. Much of that land is perfect for car camping.
Dispersed camping–camping outside of established campgrounds– is fair game on most BLM land. However, there are a few exceptions. Certain authorized zones like mining claims or logging areas may be off limits, and the bureau may step in and limit access if overuse harms flora and fauna. As always, it pays to do your research ahead of your trip and be on the lookout for “Closed,” “No Trespassing,” and “No Overnight Parking” signs.
If you do decide to car camp on BLM land, here are a few Leave No Trace tips to keep in mind:
- Stay on designated roads.
- Camp in existing sites and pull-outs to reduce impact.
- Properly dispose of human waste.
- Research and adhere to fire bans.
- Camp at least 200 feet away from bodies of water (lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams).
For a deeper dive into the Bureau of Land Management’s mission and history, the difference between developed campgrounds and dispersed camping, and the tools we use to find free camping on BLM land, check out our post What’s BLM Land–And Why Do Car Campers Love It?
4. Walmart Parking Lots: A Tried-and-True Staple of Car Campers Across the Country
Walmarts are revered in the car camping community for generously allowing weary travelers to park overnight in their football-field-sized parking lots. (Park–not camp. Pitching tents on the pavement is a no-go.) However, some Walmarts have put the kibosh on overnight parking in the past few years. This decrease is partly due to poor parking lot etiquette from an increasing number of car campers, vanlifers, and RVers on the road.
If you’re planning to spend the night at a Walmart, call ahead to ask about that store’s specific overnight policies. Another smart move is to download an app like iOverlander, which maps out thousands of user-generated campsites. We love iOverlander for two reasons. First, you can search exclusively for free sites. Also, if a particular Walmart doesn’t allow overnight camping, chances are you’ll be able to ascertain that from recent iOverlander user reviews.
If you park overnight at a Walmart, be discreet and respectful. Park far 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. If you need to use the restroom, do so inside the Walmart–not in the bushes.
Looking for more free camping tips, tricks, and apps? Check out our Comprehensive Guide to Free Car Camping.
See You On the Road
Whether or not sleeping in your car is illegal depends largely on location, but finding a place to sleep and avoiding tickets comes down to common sense. If you pay attention to signs, don’t drink and drive, avoid private property, leave no trace, and do a bit of research before your trip, you’ll be just fine.
All told, sleeping in your car can be nerve-wracking at first, but after a road trip or two it starts to feel like second nature. We hope this guide helps make your upcoming adventures stress- and ticket-free and the road feel a little more like home. Safe travels, and we’ll see you on the road–or maybe a Walmart parking lot.