How to Travel & Sleep in Your Car
There are some legalities you must know first.
So you are all packed and ready to hit the road in your temporary home. It is going to be a little nerve-wracking during the first night in your new 9’x5’ home.
If you’re like me, you are most likely going to drive around for at least half an hour looking for the most comfortable, “safest” place to park and set up camp.
The truth is, you will never find a place that is 100% safe when car camping. There, simply, aren’t those kinds of guarantees with this kind of traveling.
But if you let the one-off horror stories overshadow all the safe experiences living out of a car, you will never feel comfortable. The good outweighs the bad in this situation.
So, where can you park that will make you feel comfortable?
Truth be told, you’re likely not to run into danger. My concern is a knock on the window from the police rather than a crazy serial killer.
Despite what Hollywood movies say, you can’t just overnight wherever you want in America. So, if your plan is to park it on the beach for a few weeks, good luck.
Unfortunately, there are strict laws in many places. Places that would be a perfect place to wake up in the morning. You just can’t do it.
With that being said, there are a few places where it is always OK to set up camp for the night.
Wal-Mart parking lots
Sam Walton (the Owner and CEO of Wal-Mart) has made it known he doesn’t mind car and RV camping in his parking lots. That is true for Wal-Mart locations across the nation.
Be a gracious nomad, however. Don’t overstay your welcome. My rule is to never stay more than one night in the same parking lot. Try to arrive later in the evening, wake up, and move out early in the morning. And park in the back of the lot!
Don’t take it upon yourself to cook dinner in the parking lot, either. No need to treat this as your pre-game tailgate. That will ruin this privilege for the rest of us.
As a courtesy gesture, if you have to use the bathroom inside the store, also buy something small from the store.
Pro Tip: Despite Walton making it clear that all Wal-Mart’s should allow overnight camping, some store managers are jerks. They will post “No Overnight Camping” signs in their parking lots. Respect these signs and move on to the next Wal-Mart.
“The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is an agency within the United States Department of the Interior. They administer more than 247.3 million acres (1,001,000 km2) of public lands in the United States. That constitutes one-eighth of the landmass of the country.”
This land is public and 100% free to camp on for anybody. It is well-located and usually the best camping scenery you can find for free. This is something I didn’t know about until I was waist-deep into my car-living experience. To learn more, visit here.
Highway rest stops
The most well-known place to car camp is the highway rest stops. These can also be the most convenient as they are along the highway and you hardly have to diverge off your route.
All travelers are welcomed to take a rest here. Overnight sleeping isn’t really the purpose of them. With that being said, I have slept overnight plenty of times at rest stops across the nation. I have never once run into any trouble.
Rest stops are found all over the nation. Especially in the West. You can locate them in a Rand McNally Atlas (Wal-Mart’s are also marked).
Designated camping grounds
Designated camping grounds are in every state. Generally, you’ll pay anywhere from $7-$30 per night. Despite what you may think, they’re the least affordable option.
Still, they are always in some of the most beautiful areas in the state. It can be nice to wake up surrounded by nature. But who wants to pay for a campsite when car camping?
Residential/highway shoulder parking
I do not recommend either of these tactics. However, I have used both of them in desperate measures.
Late at night, when you are getting heavy eyes and can’t seem to find any of the above places, use these as a last resort.
By residential car camping, I mean finding a neighborhood and parking curbside. As if you are visiting someone in the area.
If you must do it, be quick to leave in the morning. If residents see a mysterious car outside for too long, they may be quick to call the police.
Highway shoulder camping is by far-and-away the most dangerous. Only do it when you’re putting yourself in more harm by driving tired.
Try your best to find a wide shoulder and park as far away from the highway as you can. I am always nervous when doing this. All it takes is one driver drifting to the shoulder to put you in serious danger.
As you get more experienced, you will be surprised at the places you feel comfortable. Especially in comparison to your first night in your car home.
At the end of your trip, you will be completely satisfied with your decision to car camp. Not to mention, you’ll have saved money for other enjoyable experiences.
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