Hi Guys! Greetings from ALASKA! I am currently on a solo road trip from Southern California to Alaska and back…in my PRIUS [her name is Priscilla] and she handled the famous Alaska highway like a champ, despite what some people told me!
I’m so grateful to be on this amazingly beautiful adventure and as I have been posting on social media, I have been getting some questions about sleeping in my car and the deets involved. Sooooo, let me start by answering the most common…
How do you sleep in your car for free?! And where the heck do you park overnight to do so??
Okay, quick little disclaimer to start…first, you want to be respectful of fellow humans, businesses, and nature in general SOOOO it is best to follow the rules whenever possible.
And second, you want to feel SAFE and super comfy when you do this – if you do not, you need to find a new spot or PAY for proper camping, hotel, lodging.
I travel because I LOVE to explore new places and experience all that they have to offer. I sleep in my car a lot while road tripping because I LOVE to “wine + dine” the town/city/area that I am visiting. I take the lodging funds and put them in to new experiences AND…
I DO IT FOR MORE THAN JUST SAVING MONEY…by only sleeping in my car, it forces me to leave it!
This means that when I wake up, I get up and go somewhere. I meet new people, have new convos, explore where I am, and work in local hangout spots [again forcing me to not be alone], and not just stay in the hotel or airbnb or whatever.
This forces me to be away from TV and other distractions. To be in nature more. To treat sunrise and sunset as my clock. Away from hitting snooze and laying in bed much longer than I wanted to and all the regular routine I do at home that isn’t always beneficial. So whatever your reason, sleeping in your car for free can be such a FUN and exciting way to travel!!
Okay, with alllllll of that said…
Here is where I park my car and sleep FOR FREE while road tripping:
FREE Camping AKA BLM Land
The Bureau of Land Management is an agency within the US with approximately 247 million acres of public lands. On this land, they allow you to park and ‘camp’ overnight for free for up to 14 days. Check out their website for locations, these are mostly in the Western US states only.
Legal Overnight Parking
There are some SUPER HANDY apps that can help you locate spots that are both technically legal and some that are just ‘not prohibited’ LOL (meaning it is more vague – IE there is no signage saying not to).
These apps have led me to beautiful cliffside stays overlooking the ocean, off-the-grid gorgeous forest-y spots and some last minute just-need-to-find-somewhere truck stops and rest areas.
The best part is, other people looking for overnight parking use these apps too, and they leave feedback of their experience which is soooo helpful! They note when rules change…like if a Walmart no longer allows overnight parking, or if the pricing went up on a paid camping spot etc.
My favorite app is: iOverlander
And here are some others that I use as a backup: park4night, The Vanlife App and FreeRoam
Retail that is open 24/7
If you find a store that is open all night there will be people coming and going and thus, overnight parking is permitted (just double check the signage). This includes Walmart who even allows overnight (for a single night) RV parking. Be sure to check the rules of the Walmart you are going to first, as some vary but usually if 24 hours, overnight parking is allowed.
Oh my gosh, I just discovered that many casinos have a section of their parking lot reserved for RV overnight parking!!
You check in with security and provide your vehicle info (I never said out loud I wasn’t in an RV, I just provided my car’s info FYI) and they provide an overnight pass PLUS YOU GET FREE PLAY! heehee!
So far, every casino I have done this with gives some sort of free play (usually $10 slot play) when you check in with security and get a player’s club card. Also, casinos are usually super clean, have very late closing hours (if they even close at all) so you can use the restroom any time!
*I found all of the casinos I have tried on the iOverlander app mentioned above
Truck Travel Centers + Rest Areas
I used to think truck stops wouldn’t be a good option – I was wrong!
They usually have tons of parking, a gas station, a large convenient store with food options, a lounge, large bathrooms and even showers (all depending on the size of the center)! I’ve only tried a couple but they were both good experiences.
*I found them both on iOverlander app
There are also rest areas, like the ones off the freeway/highway or nearby. Quite a few rest areas do permit overnight parking (where the trucks park) – but lately, I have seen more signage noting that only a few hours max are allowed. I check via the apps listed above.
Actual Camping + RV Parks
I do love to camp and only really switched to sleeping in the car because camping was adding up very quickly BUT you can still find very reasonably priced campgrounds if you do some research.
I have even asked an RV campground owner if I could just park in a regular spot (no hookups nor utilities) and they let me pay a few bucks to do so. Sometimes you just need to ask what’s possible, especially if you are just in a car.
If you need a better night’s rest, a shower, sometimes even laundry – find a paid campsite! Even just doing this once or twice on your trip can be awesome and still not break your budget.
*all of the apps I mention above show paid camping options too
Please use with extreme caution for the following:
The following 3 options are my absolute last resort.
I hope you NEVER have to use them, but if there are no other safe options here is what you can do.
Like I mentioned before, it is important to follow existing rules whenever possible – out of respect for businesses + everyone around you, your comfort level AND to not ruin this awesome budget way to travel for everyone else trying to do it too!
Back in 2014, I went on my very first big solo road and ended up exploring ALL 48 Continental US States! This was when I got the idea of just sleeping in my car for free to extend my trip and stay within budget. Obviously, it worked, BUT I slept in hotel parking lots a lot.
I really didn’t like that I was breaking a rule, in that I wasn’t a hotel guest… but I was a newbie and at the time, didn’t know what others options there were OTHER THAN places that didn’t feel safe as a solo female.
IF YOU HAVE NO OTHER OPTION, here is how I did it in the past to be as courteous as possible: I would arrive late at night, make sure there were a lot of free parking spots that I am not taking away from guests, AND MAKE SURE I’m not leaving any footprint behind.
I would find a mid-range priced hotel (IE parking lot is well lit and nice but not so nice that security is patrolling it all night) and I park as far away from an entrance as possible. I looked for spots where one side of the car can be next to plants (aka only a parking spot on one side) to be as discrete as possible.
Okay, I super don’t recommend this because people paid a lot for their home and they don’t want car people sleeping in their neighborhood ya know? And in quite a few neighborhoods, now with van life being so popular, the neighbors will report you.
IF YOU HAVE NO OTHER OPTION, here is how I did it in the past to be as courteous as possible: I have done this twice as a LAST RESORT when I literally was too tired to safely keep driving AND you better believe I got my butt up at the crack of dawn to leave before anyone saw me.
And even then, I didn’t park directly in front of a home, I found some bushes as far away as possible and slept there. Just be respectful of the neighborhood and use this only when you’re in a real pickle. Heehee.
I actually haven’t tried hospital parking lots before, BUT I have met a few people who have. Obviously, they are open 24/7 too and therefore have people in and out and overnight parking is okay. Just like retail though, with people coming and going there is noise and bright lights. Ear plugs and an eye mask are a must!
PARKING OVERNIGHT TIPS
Don’t Stay Downtown
The closer you are to a city’s downtown the harder it is going to be to find a spot to park. Downtown’s require paid parking majority of the time everywhere. Hotels even charge for parking in larger cities. Drive about 10+ miles away and you will find wayyyyy more options.
You don’t want to freak someone walking by out, and you don’t want to receive a parking ticket or violation of any kind. [FYI I have never had someone knock on my window and ask me to leave or receive a violation of any kind, and I truly think it is because I try to be as courteous as possible to others].
I asked the visitor’s center where in town I could park overnight recently and the lady literally said “you aren’t sleeping in your car right?” Lol. I LOVE that more people are trying this out and I LOVE all the people converting their actual homes in to vans and living the #vanlife.
It has put a bit more of a spotlight on the overnight parking subject and I’ve seen more and more ‘NO OVERNIGHT PARKING’ signs than I used to – but its all good. I LOVE that people are making travel a priority in their lives!!!
On this trip alone, I have made some amazing van-life friends and been able to park with them too! [Priscilla the Prius was a little worried she wouldn’t fit in, but they loved her LOL]. So make some friends and see where they are gunna park.
Note: As a solo female though, I don’t always tell people I’m alone until I feel comfortable doing so. Just use your intuition, and trust your instincts.
I suggest locating your spot when you first arrive in town [if you’re staying all day that is] and then you don’t have to worry about it later. At bedtime, you just drive back there and go to sleep. Bam! Super easy! Sometimes, being super tired and searching is the worst!
I have black cardboard cut outs that I made to fit my windows, and I put them up each night. It looks like I just have dark tint and I get instant privacy. Check Amazon or your car company’s website and see if they have custom window shades available…if not just make your own! They even have black out screens for the hotter months.
If you ever search and search and can’t find a spot that is safe, just park where YOU feel safe.
In my opinion, the worst that can happen is you have to explain to a patrol officer/cop your true story of how no where felt safe and you were too tired to continue on. A fine to pay is wayyyyy better than jeopardizing your safety.
Don’t Ruin It For Others
Just be courteous. By saving this money you are making the rest of your travels possible so don’t make a mess, don’t draw attention to what you’re doing and just be grateful for the safe, comfy spots you find.
Lastly, this is a great site that will help you and when all else fails google, google and google some more. Read town/city rules and where they may have overnight parking spots. Often times, the Visitor’s Center has a section of parking for RVs and even though you aren’t in one, just park there.
Please let me know if there is somewhere I haven’t tried that has worked for you!
I wish you nothing but amazing, safe + absolutely gorgeous travel adventures! Cheers to trying new things and exploring this big beautiful world of ours!
Love following your adventures. Thanks for sharing your tips. Looking forward to doing some exploring soon. Safe and happy travels!
Thanks sooooo much Dayna! I can’t wait to hear about your adventures! ALL the hugs!!!
I’m so glad I found my sotoilun online.
So glad to hear this! Happy road trippin’! 😀
How do you take care of yourself while your doing this? Like for example where do you take showers if you sleep in your car?
Hi Becca!!! Showers and overall bathroom access isn’t always the easiest when you travel like this…for showers, many campgrounds offer paid shower areas, some larger gas stations and laundromats as well AND I have a gym membership for a larger chain so that I can use their showers as I travel in some states. For the bathroom situation, I use the restaurant I am dining at, shop I am shopping at or any public restroom. It is basically a lot like camping, you have to make do with what you have but if you are loving the cost savings and enjoy a good adventure, you don’t really notice that much. Plus, on my longer trips (exceeding a few weeks), I do get a hotel as needed or stay with family/friends too. If I am hiking a ton (especially in the Summer/hotter months), showers are going to be much more needed than colder travel. I suggest you make yourself as comfortable as possible and if that requires spending more money to get lodging more frequently, just save more $ before you leave. You definitely want to enjoy your travels, and you know yourself best – sleeping in the car isn’t for everyone. Give it a try for a day or two before doing a long trip and just get a feel for it to see if it’s your thang! I hope this helps!! HAPPY TRAVELS!!! *HUGS*
Hi Amy, Good advice, I’m a older travel writer and am thinking of car camping one night in Texas as I have press trips set but one stretch where I will need to stop overnight. I am looking at Flying J or Pilot truck stops mostly. Knowing other women travelers are doing this makes me feel safer about it. Like you blog and ma going to follow you on Twitter.
Thanks so much Kathleen!! I hope you have a wonderful trip in Texas! Sending you a big travel hug!!!! 😀