A Different Kind of Car Camping: Tips for Sleeping in Your Car

Ashley Brown

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Camper sleeping in the back of an SUV

Sometimes, outdoor adventures require an early start. Sleeping in your car near a trailhead can make for an efficient and flexible alternative to tent camping, especially if you’re trying to save time on setup or if there’s no space for tents. Spending the night in your rig can also offer some additional protection from the elements.

Here are a few tips and hacks to help make your next outing in your car more comfortable, organized and enjoyable. We cover where to park, what to pack, some creative upgrades and more.

While car camping, make sure to follow Leave No Trace principles and common sense safety practices; never sleep in a vehicle with the engine running. 

Park out of the way and know what permits you need

The first question every car sleeper must answer: Where to park? With apps like AllStays and Hipcamp, you can figure out where you can stay legally and not be bothered. They offer a variety of free and paid locations to set up for the night. U.S. Forest Service roads are generally open to overnight parking and camping. Be sure to follow any local or temporary exceptions, display any required passes or permits as indicated, and don't block the way for others. And dispersed camping is widely available in national forests and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) areas.

Person looking for campsite on an app

Set up your campsite

After securing a spot that allows overnight parking and camping, set up camp in a flat, shaded spot. When it’s time to unload the vehicle, avoid crowding other campers spending the night nearby. Check out our camping essentials checklist for an overview of what to pack, including items like a folding table, camp chairs and a camp stove that can make for a more comfortable setup. And, if it’s your first time camping, our Camping for Beginners article covers the basics.

Sleep with your head toward the front of the car

Flat places are obviously preferred, but they’re not always available on windy Forest Service roads or in remote areas. If you find yourself at an angle, make sure to position the car so your head is above your feet. Sleeping with your head to the front of the car will also give you more elbow room generally, since most cars have wheel wells at the back that take up precious space. Comfort still lacking? Check out these camping hacks from REI Co-op Member and staffers. 

Be prepared with the ten essentials

The Ten Essentials are just as important on the road as on a trail.

Keep your electronics charged

Keeping electronics charged can be a challenge on the road. Though you can plug devices in while the car is on, you’re out of luck overnight. Use a solar panel on the dashboard or a portable power device to keep your phone, tablet, camera and any other battery-powered item alive and well for the duration of your trip. Not sure which one is right for you? Learn more about how to choose solar chargers and portable power.

solar panel charger

Keep food in the car, ideally in a cooler

All it takes is a little time in the fresh air to work up an appetite when you’re car camping. Our camp kitchen checklist can help you determine which utensils and food to bring on your adventure. While car camping, plan to keep all of your food secured in your car—whether you’re trekking to the outhouse or curling up in your sleeping bag for the night. Consider packing a cooler to prevent perishables like meat, cheese, eggs and milk from spoiling. Pro tip: Pre-chill your cooler with ice or ice blocks to get the interior frosty before adding any food. For more tips on food handling while car camping, read our article, Food Storage and Handling for Campers and Backpackers.

Invest in a comfortable bed

One of the best parts of sleeping in your car is that you aren’t carrying your bed on your back. So, you can splurge on heavier, cushier mats, pillows and blankets. You can go for a compact camping pillow or just bring a full-size pillow. Don’t forget that cars can get just as cold as tents at night, so pack an insulated blanket like a Rumpl or a temperature-rated sleeping bag. Not sure which sleeping bag or pad best meets your car camping needs? Our experts can help you determine how to choose a sleeping bag and sleeping pad for car camping.

warm blanket and pillows

Have your own drive-in movie

Unwind from a long day of driving or exploring with a movie on your smart device. Just make sure to download your content of choice before venturing out to potentially poor service areas for Wi-Fi-free entertainment.

watching a movie on a phone

Bring a headlamp or hang lanterns

Getting comfy for the night doesn’t mean you’re ready to hit the sack right away. Hang lanterns or headlamps from car handles to illuminate your interior for reading, organizing or snuggling with your adventure pup. Other reasons to bring a headlamp on the road? It can help light the way when nature calls in the middle of the night, or if you want to do a bit of hiking at dawn or dusk.

headlamp in a car

Stay squeaky clean

If you’re sleeping in your car, you may not have access to sinks and showers. Keep your hygiene up with a fully stocked toiletry kit that is road-ready, including items that don’t need much water like no-rinse shampoo and hand sanitizer.

Open a window enough to ventilate

Breathing all night in a vehicle will fog up windows and collect moisture where you don’t want it. Ventilation is key. Open your sunroof or a window just wide enough so that an animal or person can’t get in. Get some cheap mesh and cut it 2–3 inches wider than the opening. Stuff the edges around the space to keep out the bugs and voilà, no moisture. Try to dry out wet clothes as much as possible before turning in for the night. As a just-in-case, keep a squeegee in your car to wipe down windows in the morning.

critter screen

Rise and shine (when you want to)

Cars are great for getting around, but aren’t so good at blocking out light and sound. Create privacy and keep the morning sun out of your face by using cordage or bungees to hang curtains on all windows and behind the front seats for a nice, cozy bedroom-like feel. Bring earplugs to prevent any late arrivals, early risers or restless partners from disturbing your sleep. This can be particularly important if you’re parked in a less-than-secluded place.

Build your own shower

A warm shower after a long hike or bike ride feels amazing. Take that feeling on the road with you by building your own camp shower.

Car-top solar camp shower

Looking for more camping advice? Our Expert Advice articles offer a wealth of information on topics ranging from How to Set Up a Tent to How to Build a Campfire.