5 tips for sleeping in your car

Although I’d say I was always a traveler, the meaning of travel didn’t fully kick in for me until my early twenties. I found myself touring with my old band during this time of my life. And while it’s difficult to accommodate a single poor person every night of a 30-80 stint on the road, it’s even more difficult to accommodate four poor people every night for that long. Because of this, my band mates and I took the easiest way out and routinely slept in the car.

Our respective cars were (in order): a Honda Odyssey, a Suburban, a Ford 12 passenger van, and a Ford E150 van. We filled these cars tightly in a Tetris-like fashion with drums, guitars, amps, merchandise, and the personal belongings needed for several weeks on the road. I could see the mound of gear every time I checked my rear-view mirror. The sleeping area was abbreviated at best and the coping skills I developed along the way became monumental lessons learned in how to sleep in cars.

Last fall I moved from New York City to Austin and I drove south for four days with my boyfriend and a backseat/trunk area clogged with instruments and clothing. The car (which is still running) is a 1996 Honda Accord with 272,000 miles on it. Sleeping in this car wasn’t easy when we pulled over at a rest station in Charleston, West Virginia, but it’s wasn’t impossible, either.

Skip to a recent embarkment on a 10 day road trip across Northern California. We upgraded our economy car rental for $5 more a day at the last minute and we did so for a good reason: the seats in the slightly more expensive car fold down into a debatable version of a bed.

It’s not that we can’t afford hotels or Air B&B rooms. It’s just that we can spend our money on other things if we sometimes bypass the budgeting for accommodations. We can have a few extra nice meals out and a few extra drinks at those meals. We can attend a few more shows and afford a few more guitar pedals for our studio in Austin. We can do these things with just one less hotel room per trip in some cases. It’s not for everyone, but if you’re interested, here are some tips from my own experience for skipping lodging expenses, staying the night in a car, and actually getting some sleep.

1. Visualize your bed
Since every car is built differently, your sleeping options will vary from car to car. The worst case scenario here is often times the Honda Accord scenario I outlined above: a small car with a trunk and a backseat filled to the brim. The best case scenario is a van or a truck with a covered bed. But no matter what kind of car you’re traveling in, take a close look at where you’ll be sleeping. Know whether you’ll need to sleep in a seat upright, on seats that fold down into a somewhat flat surface, or on a bench seat, for instance. Tip: If you’re renting a car, consider your potential sleeping space when choosing your vehicle.

2. Acquire bedding
Whether you’re packing from home and planning well in advance to sleep in the car during an upcoming trip or deciding on a whim to give it a go, you will, I promise you, sleep better with some bedding. Pillows and blankets will make you a happier car-camper than you would be without them, but sleeping bags will make the world of difference you need on a chilly night. Something thick enough to cover any jolting uneven surfaces will save your tired soul–and your neck. Foam bedding is good for this because it can later be rolled up and stowed. Tip: If you’re in a jam, piles of clothing as bedding is better than nothing at all.

3. Prioritize privacy
Ok, I’ll admit, you sacrifice a certain level of privacy when you sleep in public, even if it’s in your own car. But some measures you can take will at least make sure your sleeping quarters are a little more private. If you have a choice in cars, go for one with tinted windows or no windows at all in the back. Some people suggest covering your entire sleeping area with a tarp. I haven’t tried this yet myself, but I’m sure it works. At the end of the day (when you’re likely to be car-crashing), you’ll sleep better the more you feel like you’re in a bed and not a car. Block the outside world as best as you can and you’ll start thinking of your car as your bedroom before you know it. Tip: While touring, we often rigged up a sheet or blanket against the back windows–this works fine.

4. Park wisely
You can’t sleep in your car just anywhere. Well, ok, scratch that. You can, but you run the risk of being rudely awakened by someone asking you to move. It’s no fun waking up to the bouncing beams of an intrusive flashlight at 4am, so try to avoid this. Don’t park in lots for businesses that aren’t open 24 hours. Avoid standing out as the only car in an area. Instead, shoot for rest stops, 24 hour parking lots, and, my favorite, residential streets. As long as you’re respectful and private in your car-sleeping affairs, it probably won’t even be obvious to nearby strangers that you’re sleeping in your car. The better job you do at forging some semblance or an ordinary unoccupied parked car, the better you’ll sleep. Tip: Stay away from street lights.

5. Bring your morning routine with you
Your best car sleeping experiences will be had when paired with proper morning planning. A quick trip into a public bathroom with these items in hand will get you ready for the day ahead: toothbrush, toothpaste, face wash, hair bush, and razor. Also be sure to have any medication you need on hand, something for an easy breakfast (granola bars do the trick), and clean underwear. Tip: If your hair gets greasy easily, have some baby powder with you. A sprinkle of it brushed into your hair will absorb the grease.

I have a soft spot for sleeping in the car, uncomfortable as it sometimes is. If you find yourself wanting to save money and avoid planning while traveling, take my advice and try it out. In the meantime, let us know in the comments of your personal car-sleeping tricks, tips, and tales.