The answer to this question, as is the case with most of life’s greatest inquiries, is both yes and no. In a perfect world, we would be free to post up whenever and wherever we wanted. But alas, trespassing and loitering laws say it isn’t so. Local laws often have time, place, or manner restrictions that make some types of extended stay illegal. Every state has its own jurisdiction over parking laws; sometimes regulations even vary within each state municipality. You can find every state’s department of transportation site here. These different rules can get confusing, so we have put together this handy guide for perfectly legal car camping solutions for your next trip.
Rules of the road
There are some glaring legal pitfalls to avoid when scouring for an overnight parking spot. You're obviously going to want to stay off private property. Unless you have the owner’s permission, tangling with private property is asking for a trespassing charge. Avoid parking in obviously illegal areas at all times—don’t count on the cover of the night to disguise your folly. And of course, always, ALWAYS read every possible sign nearby. Reading the signs that are right in front of your face will save you time and money when you avoid a citation.
Give it a rest
Some states have deemed it illegal to sleep in your car in an effort to combat homelessness. A reported 81 towns have banned sleeping in your car since 2014. Luckily, rest areas are available for weary travelers to lay their heads. Rest areas are stops along main roads or highways that offer drivers a place to pull over for a break from driving. Most rest areas have restrooms, food, and fuel available. States that allow overnight parking at rest areas include California, Idaho, Minnesota, Iowa, Washington, Oregon. Almost all of these states permit cars to be parked for a maximum of eight consecutive hours. Minnesota and Oregon differ with six and twelve-hour limits, respectively. Head over here to learn more about the particulars of rest area use.
This (BLM) land was made for you and me
Car camping on public BLM land is completely legal and often free. The accessibility regulations for BLM land are also very liberal. You may cross private land to get to BLM land so long as there is a public road to reach those areas. Even if the land has mining claims, you may camp there unless posted otherwise by management. 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. Keep in mind that these acres are usually undeveloped so car campers may need to make a few unique preparations prior to their visit. Enjoy the wilderness as you sleep in your car legally!
Hit the sack in a cul-de-sac
Suburban cul-de-sacs, while ideal for neighborhood kickball, are not recommended for overnight car camping. Sleeping in your car can be viewed as understandably suspicious and may make residents a bit uneasy, particularly if there are little kids around. If you find that sleeping overnight in an urban area is your last resort, it’s best to draw the least attention possible. Avoid loitering accusations by arriving later and rolling out before the sun rises in the morning. It’s advised that you sleep in presentable clothes just in case a police officer comes knockin' on your car door in the middle of the night.
Walmart for the win
Walmarts are well-renowned in the car camping community for their accommodating parking lots for legal car camping spots. So much so that there are online directories of Walmart locations that allow free overnight car camping. If you’re going to spend the night at a local store, it’s best to park further away from the store entrance. Try to stay discreet during your stay. Refrain from whipping out your beach chair and sunbathing under the glow of parking lot lighting. It’s also widely recommended you give patronage to Walmart as a token of your gratitude for the safe place to stay.
Up all night to get lucky
Finally, some small businesses and churches will allow weary wanderers to rest in their parking lot. But don’t be a creeper! Go inside, introduce yourself, and ask for permission to spend the night. Tell the business owner where you’re coming from and when you plan on leaving so they feel at ease with the situation. As always, make sure not to overstay your welcome. In the event that you can’t find a kind local to lend you their lot, other 24-hour establishments are also options for an overnight stay in your car. (Think 24-hour fast-food restaurants, movie parking lots, or gyms.)
As you can see from this guide of places where you can sleep in your car legally, there are plenty of perfectly legal options for car camping. From rest stops to the wild west and every Walmart parking lot in between, there is no shortage of permitted places to rest for the night! Safe travels!