How to sleep in your car overnight (7 steps make it easy)

We’ve always thought that taking a quick budget-friendly road trip for a few days was a fun idea. One of the best ways to save money on a road trip is by keeping overnight accommodations cheap. And you can do that by sleeping in your car.

You can sleep in your car overnight on a road trip or camping trip by finding a safe place to park where it’s allowed. You should also make your sleeping space as level as possible, be ready for heat or cold, be sure you have a bit of ventilation, and take only what you need.

Road trips are a great way to get out of town for a two or three-day weekend. We love a quick road trip and a great way to save money is to sleep in your car overnight. Here’s how to make sleeping in your car overnight an enjoyable experience.

SUV with lights on hatch open hatch
Its hard to beat the budget friendly option of sleeping in your car on a road trip

Prepare your vehicle for sleeping

How easy it will be to sleep in your car depends on the type of car you own. And we’ll say upfront that sleeping in your car is a great option for one or two people. More than two people in your party and you’ll want to plan on taking a tent, or hammocks. But that’s another article for another time.

Your car is likely wider toward the front than at the back where the wheel wells make the car more narrow. So plan to sleep with your head near the front of your car.

Most hatchback cars can be made into a suitable place to sleep since the back seat usually folds down. It’s even easier if you have an SUV.

If you own a minivan or large SUV like a Chevy Suburban (our favorite ride on four wheels!) or Ford Expedition there’s plenty of room for two people to stretch out for a good night’s sleep.

The larger your vehicle the easier it gets to sleep in your car overnight. But even a smaller SUV like a Honda CR-V or Toyota Highlander can be used for sleeping overnight.

To prepare your car for sleeping overnight think about how you’ll get comfortable. The flatter you can make your sleeping arrangement the better.

If you’ll be sleeping in your car while camping or road tripping regularly you may want to consider making a simple platform from plywood to put a foam mattress on. Not only will they provide the most comfort, but it will also give you some space underneath to keep gear so you aren’t cramped or have to take your gear outside. In possible bad weather, it’s not fun having your traveling gear get wet.

But if you plan ahead and keep things to a minimum, as we’ll discuss below, you should be able to stow baggage and other items in the front of your car while you sleep in the back.

So when it comes time to arrange your sleeping quarters front seats can fold forward in smaller cars to make more room and in many cars and all SUVs, the second row can fold down too. But they don’t always fold flat.

So you’ll need to experiment a bit to get your sleeping foundation right. For many SUVs, you can purchase an air mattress that fits your model of car. That’s an option. Just remember that if you’re camping or road tripping in the cold you’ll want a layer of insulation underneath.

Cars can get cold pretty fast, even from underneath. So plan for a layer of memory foam or a sleeping pad underneath you, not only to make you more comfortable but also to keep you warmer.

So prepare the foundation of what you’ll be sleeping on. Practice getting it flat and lay on it in your driveway at home for a few minutes to be sure you’ll be happy with your sleeping setup.

enjoying the view from back of car
Enjoy the views from your own car on your next camping trip

Plan for where you’ll spend the night

Let’s talk about where you’ll be parking your car. While it’s possible to park your car in a public spot overnight that permits this, such as at a truck stop, an all-night gym, or on public land, you’ll want to take a little time to plan ahead.

It’s frustrating to be on the road trying to figure out where to open the night at the last minute.

For the safest and most convenient accommodations for you and your car, we recommend finding a nearby state park campground. Yes, you’ll have to pay a fee to camp overnight, but we think the advantages are worth it.

For one thing, you’ll have your own space to park your car. Plus most campsites have a picnic table and a fire ring. This will give you space to unpack a bit, stretch and relax.

There are many state park campgrounds that aren’t too far from major highways and those often have a bathhouse where you can use the restroom and get a hot shower. But yes, this isn’t the cheapest option and there are other options for where to park.

Another option would be reputable truck stops, such as Loves and Flying J. These can be safe places to park your car for the night and often make showers available for a few dollars.

Stay comfortable while sleeping

Having the right sleeping bag can make all the difference. You’ll want to consider how cold it will be when you’re traveling. We think a quality 0º sleeping bag is a must. If it’s too warm you can always unzip it to let off excess heat. As long as you won’t be traveling in below 0º temperatures you’ll have the warmth you need in your sleeping bag.

You can also be sure to stay warm in cold weather and give yourself a few more options by taking along a couple of wool blankets. Wool blankets are great because they don’t retain moisture as a cotton blanket or quilt will.

Put one wool blanket underneath to help insulate you from the cold coming from under you, as we noted above, and put the other wool blanket on top of you.

A couple of more tricks to keeping warm if it’s cold is to protect your extremities. Wear a pair of socks on your feet to keep those toes toasty. And a stocking cap on your head is a good idea too.

Keep your space private

Lightweight bungee cords and dark sheets cut to size make for an easy way to put up privacy panels. Hook a bungee cord on the passenger side mirror and stretch it to the back of the car where you’ll usually find an overhead handle or coat hook. Use the same method on the driver’s side.

On each bungee, you can hang a dark sheet that will not only give your sleeping space some privacy but will also block outside light from keeping you awake.

A similar method can be used for the back window.

For the front window, a car windshield sunshade will give you privacy and block stray light.

man with headlamp at night
Always bring a handy light better yet a headlamp

Bring a light for the night and power for your devices

You’ll need some light inside your car once you’re ready to get ready to sleep. It will take some time to get things settled down for the night and you don’t want to rely on your dome light for everything.

A headlamp is a great way to provide a versatile lighting option. Not only can you wear it to use while you’re getting in and out of your car and moving things around, but you can also hang it from one of the bungee cords or from a front headrest to share the light before you go to sleep for the night.

You also don’t want to put a drain on your car battery overnight by plugging in your devices to charge. One way to handle this is to be sure to charge your devices while driving.

Another idea is to bring along a charging power bank. These are pretty small, can often charge two or three devices at a time, and can be recharged while driving. Our favorite is an Anchor PowerCore portable charger.

Be sure you get fresh air

Plan to get ventilation by keeping a window slightly open. Even in the cold, you shouldn’t keep your car sealed tight all night otherwise you’ll be making condensation all night as you breathe.

Keeping a window open even slightly will give you the fresh air you need to breathe freely and you’ll keep things dryer inside the car which means you will also be warmer. It seems counterintuitive to open a window a little when it’s cold but it works.

If it’s warmer where you’re traveling you may want to open your windows several inches for fresh air.

If you have a sunroof you can open that in the elevated position and open a couple of windows a few inches to get plenty of fresh air. But, this may present another challenge. Bugs.

Bring along a few pieces of mosquito netting which can be held in place with pins stuck in the headliner of your car and you’ll be able to keep out pesky mosquitos and other bugs.

Keep it simple, minimize what you take

While traveling on a budget sleeping in your car for a few nights is a great option. It’s also a good way to enjoy the sites on your trip while saving quite a bit over staying in a motel.

It’s also much easier and can be far more comfortable than setting up and sleeping in a tent.

But if you can’t or don’t want to sleep in your car the tent I recommend is the one I own, the pop-up hub tent, the Gazelle T4. You may find helpful what I’ve written about the value of a Gazelle tent.

This means you’ll also need far less gear. So consider carefully what you really need to take.

One note here is that you don’t want to leave the first aid kit at home. Don’t simplify so much that you fail to prepare for minor injuries while having fun. That can ruin any road trip. Check out our recommended first aid kit gear guide here.

Keep it simple by minimizing what you bring along. Major instead on making a comfortable sleeping environment and your next camping trip or road trip will be much more enjoyable.

  • Kevin

    About the Author

    Hi, I'm Kevin and I love getting outside. I want my articles to be as helpful as possible so that you can learn to enjoy getting outside more often yourself. So leave a comment if you have a question, find a typo, or think I missed something. I'd love to hear from you.

    You can learn more about me and find more of my articles here.

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