How To Sleep In Your Car In (Relative) Comfort

sleepingSince it’s peak camping and road tripping season and I’m in the midst of moving from Seattle to Boulder, using my car as a motel room, I decided it’s time for an update on car crashing (of the slumbering variety).

Last year, Gadling contributor and musician Elizabeth Seward provided useful tips she’s picked up during her years on the road touring. Like Elizabeth, I feel eminently qualified to discourse on this topic, but for different reasons.

In my mid-20s, I lived in my car for a summer. Not by choice – unless you take into account the fact that I chose to follow my recent ex-boyfriend, at his suggestion, to San Diego, despite my lack of a job, friends or housing. These situations seldom have a positive outcome, which is how I ended up living in my aging Volvo sedan and peeing into a Big Gulp cup at 3 a.m. – more on that in a minute.

I was in good company, however. The cul-de-sac where I parked was located just off a prime surf break, so each night the street would host a line-up of battered VW buses and surf-rack-bedecked, decrepit cars, as homeless surfers pulled in to roost.

The point of this anecdote is that I have a long, if somewhat cramped, history of sleeping in my car. It helps that I’m 5’2″, but I’ve known many men who have also resided in their automobiles (my brother once lived in his pickup for an entire semester of college).car camping I’ve also logged a lot of zzz’s in cars because I travel a lot. I frequently road trip on assignment, but I’ve also made numerous drives to and from the West Coast to the Rockies over the years, for long-term moves and seasonal work.

For the most part, I enjoy sleeping in my car for the spirit of adventure it conjures. Sure, I own a tent, but when I’ve logged 10 hours behind the wheel and the weather is vile, I’d rather just bust out my sleeping bag, tuck a thick blanket over the console between the front seats (if the back seat and rear of my Honda CRV are loaded) and pass out.

For a more restful car-sleep, here are my non-negotiables (Elizabeth covered the need for adequate padding and a sleeping bag in her post):

LED headlamp and extra batteries
Not only is this helpful for middle-of-the-night bathroom trips if you’re in a campground, but it will also save your sanity if you like to read and/or are an insomniac (I fall into both categories). It also prevents draining your car battery by using the overhead light, and won’t attract attention should you be parked somewhere public but not necessarily legal for overnights.

Reading material
See above.

Sleep aid
I’m not advocating pill popping, but it can definitely be helpful to take something if a good night’s rest is crucial. If an iPod does it for you, use that. Drinking alcohol just means having to get up to pee more often, and a dehydrated, puffy-faced morning after.
cup
A large cup
How do I put this delicately? Sometimes, you’re just not parked in a place where it’s feasible, as a woman, to pop a squat. I learned this while “living” in San Diego. All of the homes in the cul-de-sac had motion sensor lights and a lack of shrubbery, making bladder relief extraordinarily complicated. After complaining about my issues peeing in a spotlight, a fellow car-dweller told me, “Dude, you totally need to get a Big Gulp cup.” Dude, it totally solved the problem. Just remember to dump it down a storm drain, and not on someone’s landscaping. You’re not an animal.

A shower plan of action
Depending upon your situation, you can often shower for free at the beach (skip the soap and shampoo or ask a ranger or lifeguard if biodegradable products are okay to use), or pay at a rec center, gym or campground. I confess I’ve snuck into campgrounds before and poached a shower but I try to avoid such nefarious behavior (mainly because I’m afraid of getting caught). Tip: Baby wipes and skin-cleansing towelettes are your best friends on the road. And be sure to keep a clean bath towel in your car at all times for these situations.

Extra supply of drinking water

Do your research
If you’re somewhere urban, be sure to scope out signage so you don’t end up ticketed or towed. It’s a fairly well known fact that most Walmarts allow overnight RV parking; there’s even a locator app for it. It ain’t the Ritz, but it works in a pinch.

Lock your doors, but crack your windows
Don’t compromise your safety, but you do need fresh air.

Be sure your cellphone is charged and within reach
This is useless if you’re in an area without service (if you have an inkling that’s going to be the case, call, text, or email a family member or friend with your approximate location for the night before you get out of range). A phone can prove invaluable if you run into trouble.

[Photo credits: napper, Flickr user miss pupik; car, Flickr user russelljsmith; cup, Flickr user Bruce W Martin II]

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.