Photos: author

You can go fully independent and free – instead of having to spend money and time in hotels or campgrounds, learn how to turn your vehicle into a safe and comfy crash pad.

Taking an extended, months-long trip around the U.S. may not seem financially feasible, but it can be if you have a van large enough to sleep in. If you’re adventurous enough, sleeping in your vehicle can save you hundreds of dollars and allow you to extend your trip by months. This article touches on the whys, wheres, and hows of sleeping in your vehicle while traveling.

Why sleep in your vehicle?

The obvious reason is to save money. If you’re going on a long trip, hotels are way too expensive, and the price of staying at hostels and campgrounds can add up after a while. The cost of staying in your car or van? Zero.

If you have an RV, you’re all set. If not, a small van could be a valuable purchase. I recently spent four months traveling around the country in a 1994 Chevy G-20 conversion van, purchased on Craigslist for about $2500. The conversion van is ideal because it’s fairly inconspicuous – it doesn’t scream out “Someone is sleeping in here!” like a VW van might. I’ve even read about people sleeping in compact cars, though I wouldn’t try that route myself.

Another reason to sleep in your vehicle is that it can be fun to embrace this sort of minimalist lifestyle – and the challenge of finding a place to park and sleep safely every night.

How to sleep in your vehicle

There are numerous websites which describe in great detail how to convert basic vans into living spaces, with kitchens, stoves, televisions, and comfortable beds. That was more effort than I wanted to give. I just pressed a button – the button that lowered the back seat into a bed. The bed was large enough to sleep two comfortably.

My van had shades on every window, which could be pulled down when it was time to hit the sack. The only sort of handiwork I bothered with was installing a curtain rod behind the front seats. The curtain, combined with the window shades, offered complete, total privacy, so that no one knew anybody was sleeping inside.

You should be prepared to adjust your sleep schedule to fit Mother Nature. Even with shades on the windows, it’s likely that the sunlight will wake you around 6 am, so you may want to get to bed as soon as it gets dark, to ensure a full night’s sleep. Also, be sure to keep some blankets on hand, because it will probably get a lot colder at night than you’d think.

The biggest challenge is getting used to the noise around your vehicle. At first, you might bolt up every time a person or car passes by, but eventually you get used to ignoring those sounds so you can relax and catch some Zs.

Where to sleep in your vehicle

Many (if not the majority of) 24-hour Walmarts across the country allow those in RVs to park overnight in their lots. Since I was sleeping in my van, I pretty much followed the protocol for RV parking. It is recommended that customers confirm with the store manager whether the store allows overnight parking. Sites like park free overnight and the Walmart RV Yahoo! Group are good resources to use if you want to determine which Walmarts allow overnight parking.

The site freecampgrounds.com is a good resource for finding cheap or free places to sleep. This site lists campgrounds where you can stay for $15 or less, and also includes information about rest areas in some states. Arizona, for instance, has separate areas at some rest stops where those in RVs or vans can park undisturbed for the night.

Walmarts, rest stops, and campgrounds are ideal overnight parking options because they have restrooms available, should the need arise.

The other good alternative for sleeping overnight is the stealthy, on-street method. Find an urban area with street parking, pull the shades, and settle in. This practice can become an art, as it’s important to look for streets that are congested enough that your vehicle won’t stand out. The last thing you want is a suspicious neighbor calling police to report an unusual vehicle parked in the neighborhood!

One caution with this method – there are a handful of cities, such as San Francisco, that explicitly prohibit sleeping overnight in vehicles, so be sure to know the local regulations. Also, parking on the street means you have no available bathroom. Better keep a pee bottle handy!

How to stay clean

It’s necessary to touch on one last factor regarding sleeping in your vehicle – the question of where to find a shower (assuming that’s important to you.)

Couchsurfing is good for finding a bed and shower for a night (not to mention good conversation with local residents). Springing for a hostel or campground every now and then is an option. Pilot truck stops offer showers for the general public at about $10 a pop. If you’re really cash-strapped or stuck in your vehicle for an extended period, there’s the bare bones method – keep a bar of soap and a washcloth around.

My preferred routine was to sleep in the vehicle for a couple of days, then spend a night couch surfing or staying at a hostel or campground.

Conclusion

Obviously, this type of travel isn’t for everyone. But if you’re adventurous and can get by on minimal accommodations, sleeping in your vehicle can be a great way to bring down your travel costs.