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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.

 

 

About The Author

Scott Shetler

Scott Shetler traveled through 46 states during the summer of 2009 and runs a travel blog 9000 Miles. He enjoys biking, dive bars, thrift stores. If he hasn’t visited your town yet, rest assured he will be there soon.

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  • http://www.dirtbagwriter.com Amiee

    Awesome piece! Someday I have to get me a van but for now my Subaru wagon works just fine (and is great on gas mileage) – I just put down the backseats and am cozy as can be. I wouldn’t recommend the wagon though to anyone taller than my 5’2’’ for extended periods of times.

    I’ve gotten away with sleeping at trail heads and National Park parking lots without much problem. My personal favorite is finding a campsite and bailing early (before the camp host wakes) so you don’t have to pay.

  • http://nomadneedles.wordpress.com/ Robyn

    Good info – you have a lot in common with Ken at http://spartanstudent.blogspot.com/2009/10/walden-on-wheels.html

    I am so drawn to the EuroVans – I’d love to find a used dependable one and do something similar to what you’re doing next year.

  • http://matadortrips.com/ Hal Amen

    My wife and I have gotten a few hours of restless sleep in our sedan on numerous occasions–not doable more than one night in a row, though.

    Also, I’d heard ALL Walmarts allowed overnight sleep-parking, so good to get the clarification here.

  • Pingback: How To Sleep In Your Vehicle « The World Is Getting Smaller

  • http://carlo-alcos.com Carlo

    Nice one Scott. My wife and I are big proponents of van travel and have spent many months in Europe both pay-camping and wild-camping. Once on the Almafi Coast we parked on this really steep hill, it was almost like sleeping standing up! haha.

    We’re currently converting a Mitsubishi Delica to tour around Australia. Check it out: http://iamsamthevan.blogspot.com/

    And yes. Pee bottle is KEY.

  • http://www.natashayoung.wordpress.com Natasha

    For the ladies out there, who know that pee and bottle do not go together in a sentence, may I present:
    www. shepee.org

    • http://carlo-alcos.com Carlo

      Good call. We had a special bottle and attachment for the wifey.

  • http://9000miles.wordpress.com Scott

    It’s cool to hear about the different methods of vehicle sleeping people have used. Thanks for the blog links!

  • http://carlo-alcos.com Carlo

    Here’s one more link for you. It’s not free camping, but it’s heavily discounted camping in Europe (18 countries) – 11, 13, 15 Euros/night for places that might normally cost up to 45, 50 Euros. There are some superb camping options (some are like resorts with huge pools, etc) especially if you’ve been free camping for a while and feel like entering “civilization” again. It’s called the ACSI Camping Card and it’s valid in the seasons around peak season:

    http://www.campingcard.co.uk/gb/en/home/uc33-l2-n253/

  • http://matadorabroad.com Tim Patterson

    Good info on the Walmart parking lots…

  • http://onceatraveler.com Turner

    Nice one, Scott. I tried forcing myself to sleep in a compact quite a few times with little success. I’ll be sure to keep this article handy.

    Side note – anyone ever been sleeping in a car as they were towed?

  • http://www.traveldroppings.com/ Mike

    The last time I slept in my car was at a truck stop in Illinois. I dreamt of a creepy truck driver walking up to my vehicle and knocking on the window. I immediately woke up and decided I would continue driving and get a hotel from then on.

    Next time, I shall try Wal-mart. Thanks!

  • http://www.poorpenmanship.com Erin

    There are some places in the U.S. where you can get a DUI if you’re drunk and try to sleep it off in your car.

  • Benjamin

    From Aimee: “My personal favorite is finding a campsite and bailing early (before the camp host wakes) so you don’t have to pay”.

    So, what you are saying is that your personal favortie is thievery? Would go into a store and take something without paying because that is the same thing. Well, maybe you would, but I am no one’s parent.

    When I left the military I was driving through the country with all of my belongings in a sedan and I parked at a highway rest stop in Texas maybe about an hour outside of Houston. My back seat was full of clothes so I crawled into the space between the back seat and the rear window and curled up like a cat. In the middle of the night a trucker turned on his bright as hell lights and freaked me out because I forget where I was. I basically jumped from my perch to the driver’s seat and had the engine started in one move before I realized that I had no need to run for my life.

  • Brett

    Is sleeping in a Walmart parking lot safe? I am planning a trip soon and would like to save on $. Would you recommend a Walmart or a truckstop?

  • http://9000miles.wordpress.com Scott

    I didn’t sleep at any truck stops. The constant noise was too loud and the parking area for cars was usually pretty small.

  • Jon

    Great info, Scott. Thanks! I’ve spent many a comfortable night, along the highway, at rest stops, truck stops (away from the trucks), stores which have large well-lit parking lots and which are closed for the night, graveled entrances into farmer’s fields, in my very reliable and inexpensive 1992 Chevy Astro Van, which incidentally, gets 25mpg @ 55 on the highway, in spite of its current 246,000 miles. The stock back seat/bed is a little short for my 6’2″ height, so I took it out and used couch cushions on the floor.

    I also found an inexpensive port-i-potty ($30 new on clearance @ Sears), which takes up barely more than 1 cubic foot, a sure favorite for ladies, as it has a seat, can be flushed (good for #1 & #2), is self contained, and can be dumped at service station restrooms and RV parks which have sewer disposal. It’s important to add (rubbing, etc.) alcohol to the flush water tank in extreme cold weather top prevent its freezing.

    It’s also important not to sleep off a drunk state (even in the back without the keys in the ignition), as a Police officer can issue a DWI (basically the same things as a DUI), as Erin replied earlier.

    The freakiest time I’d experienced was across the street of a truck stop, where semi-trailers were parked. I kept hearing rustling noises not far away, eventually arose to investigate. It was a homeless man who’d suffered the loss of everything in his world and was utterly destitute. I bought him a sandwich, a coke and a pack of cigarettes, for which he was extremely grateful. The next time I bought something at a K-Mart (the next day), the automatic teller gave me back a little more than what I’d spent on him. Normally I’d return the extra money, but this time I was already down the road several miles before I knew.

    The best time I had was when I had an angelic visitation, God showing me to trust Him, that He’s watching out for me and I didn’t have to be afraid, sleeping in a strange place, at a mountain rest stop in the middle of nowhere.

  • bob

    Are you serious? They can give you a dui for sleeping in your van?

    What a way to promote drunk driving.

    What’s wrong with our lawmakers? Seriously. Arrested, jailed and lose your license for 6 months… for doing the RIGHT THING.

  • jeff

    bob- i got a DUI while i was sleeping in my car out-of-state. 90-day license suspension, 1k fine, plus court, DUI school.. in my DUI class there were people who’d actually been driving who had a lesser penalty than me. as an extra kick in the pants, my home state REVOKED my license for one year. i had to retake the driving tests before i could be reinstated.

  • Derek

    Hey man thanks for all the awsome info. I’m kinda on the down side of my luck lateley and had to move out of province from Alberta, Canada to British Columbia (Canada). As anyone knows its a heck of a lot of mountains. But towns are not usually far off and there is always a Walmart. My Ford Explorer has all the room I need and packing light I find is a must. Always have my Coleman stove so I can have hot foor anywheres and stock up with cans and a pot and pan. Tank of gas pedal to the metal keep on rockin the free world people.

  • http://twitter.com/eileenludwig eileenludwig

    Scott, UR an amazing traveler with a lot of initiative to do it the least expensive way.

  • John Koller

    I have often thought the best place to park is the parking lot of Ntional gym company like 24 hour fitness. If you are a member they cannot complain too much even if one of the staff sees you. the best part is you have a great place to use the bathroom especially the shower.

    • Anne Carney

      Let’s see if I understand this, John. Oh well, will re-read.

  • John Koller

    I have often thought the best place to park is the parking lot of Ntional gym company like 24 hour fitness. If you are a member they cannot complain too much even if one of the staff sees you. the best part is you have a great place to use the bathroom especially the shower.

  • John Koller

    I have often thought the best place to park is the parking lot of Ntional gym company like 24 hour fitness. If you are a member they cannot complain too much even if one of the staff sees you. the best part is you have a great place to use the bathroom especially the shower.

  • John Koller

    I have often thought the best place to park is the parking lot of Ntional gym company like 24 hour fitness. If you are a member they cannot complain too much even if one of the staff sees you. the best part is you have a great place to use the bathroom especially the shower.

  • John Koller

    I have often thought the best place to park is the parking lot of Ntional gym company like 24 hour fitness. If you are a member they cannot complain too much even if one of the staff sees you. the best part is you have a great place to use the bathroom especially the shower.

  • John Koller

    I have often thought the best place to park is the parking lot of Ntional gym company like 24 hour fitness. If you are a member they cannot complain too much even if one of the staff sees you. the best part is you have a great place to use the bathroom especially the shower.

  • John Koller

    I have often thought the best place to park is the parking lot of Ntional gym company like 24 hour fitness. If you are a member they cannot complain too much even if one of the staff sees you. the best part is you have a great place to use the bathroom especially the shower.

  • John Koller

    I have often thought the best place to park is the parking lot of Ntional gym company like 24 hour fitness. If you are a member they cannot complain too much even if one of the staff sees you. the best part is you have a great place to use the bathroom especially the shower.

  • John Koller

    I have often thought the best place to park is the parking lot of Ntional gym company like 24 hour fitness. If you are a member they cannot complain too much even if one of the staff sees you. the best part is you have a great place to use the bathroom especially the shower.

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