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Sleeping in a car never sounded comfortable to me, but I realized how comfortable it could be once I tried it. All you need to actually enjoy car camping, are a few comfort items, some common sense, and a great overnight parking spot.
I learned so much about car camping after a 3-month solo cross-country car-camping road trip. I lived out of my car for weeks and enjoyed the ease and freedom of car camping. Car camping is a great way to see the country while saving a TON of money. Whether you are going on a cross-country road trip or only a few hours from home, sleeping in a car can be a comfortable experience as long as you know what to do.
Here are nine tips to help you get the best night’s rest while sleeping in a car.
Build a Comfortable Sleeping Platform
One of the most important things when sleeping in a car comfortably is choosing the best sleeping setup. Options include car-top pop-up tents, sleeping platforms, or padded mattresses. A quick internet search will reveal many possibilities for setting up a car for car camping and sleeping.
I built a wood platform to set on top of my folded-down seats to make my sleeping space level. I drew out a plan, measured twice, and used 3/4 inch plywood, screws, and a hinge from Home Depot to build the sleeping platform. My platform was about 30″ wide and long enough for me to stretch out flat. I’m only 5’3″, so I didn’t need too much length. I can’t imagine sleeping in my car for weeks at a time if I couldn’t completely stretch out. To gain a few more inches, move the front seats all the way forward when you are sleeping.
In addition to the actual sleeping space, you need the right mattress and linens to sleep in a car comfortably. There are many types of mattresses to choose from, from blow-up to roll-up and foldable memory foam. I bought a foldable memory foam mattress with a removable zipper cover from Amazon that I love. Memory foam is perfect for cutting down to size, which I had to do.
I used a sleeping bag and summer weight comforter, which kept me warm on 20 degree nights or below. I also love pillows and brought two feather pillows that made sleeping in a car that much more comfortable!
Use Window Coverings for Privacy
Window coverings are a must when sleeping in a car. They give you privacy, help regulate air temperatures and block outside light. I made mine from roll-up insulation, black spray paint, and duct tape. I painted one side with black spray paint to cover up the reflective insulation and not draw attention to my car. Ideally, if the reflective side points to the sun, it’s supposed to reflect heat and keep your car cooler. Likewise, when the black side is toward the sun, the heat inside the car is supposed to reflect and keep the car warmer.
I definitely feel they kept my car cooler, but I am not sure about warmer. I left my window coverings up during the day when I was gone for long periods of time. They work well to prevent car peepers, block out light, and add privacy to a car camping setup. I would not go car camping without them!
If you are not a DIY-er, Weathertech makes custom coverings for about $60-$200 for virtually every model of car out there. It’s a great investment if you are an avid car camper.
Drown out Noise and Light
I am a super light sleeper, so one of the biggest issues sleeping in my car was drowning out noise and light pollution. Of course, parking off-grid would be the best way to avoid noise and light, but if you don’t have 4-wheel drive or aren’t comfortable in the back-country, a public lot may be your only option. Unfortunately, many public parking lots are heavily lit up; although great for safety, lights can prevent you from sleeping well. Also, most legal overnight car camping spots are near highways or shared with semi-trucks and motor homes whose generators are not kind on the ears. Hence, it’s important to come prepared.
My window coverings did a great job blocking out light, but a sleep mask was beneficial too. Of course, by the time I woke up, my mask wasn’t on my face anymore, but it always helped get me to sleep.
Road noise was a bit harder to avoid. During my first trip, I listened intently for voices or cars approaching mine during the night. Once I got more comfortable car camping, the road noise became more of a nuisance. I started listening to music and podcasts on earphones before bed or used a white noise or meditation app that helped drown out the noise (I used calm or white noise apps). I was surprised at how well it worked.
Find Some Fresh Air
If you want to sleep in a car comfortably, fresh air is necessary. You shouldn’t leave your car idling for long periods of time, so when you are parked and the air conditioner is off, getting a soft breeze and fresh air is imperative to sleep soundly.
At first, I used a magnetic mesh net to cover my open sunroof at night. It works well on cool nights and prevents bugs from flying in, but you still have to watch out for rain. On warmer nights, I really didn’t get as much of a breeze from my sunroof as I did from my windows being down. Many companies offer mesh window coverings and rain guards for windows which are great to use while car camping but better for more secluded parking areas. In public lots, rolling down a window increases roadside noise which isn’t a good exchange for fresh air in my book.
A portable fan was the best thing to increase airflow when I couldn’t roll the windows down. This fan really pulls its weight when sleeping in a car in temperatures above 70. Although this exact one is not perfect (the battery doesn’t last too long, and the airflow doesn’t go very far), something like this is all you need for a comfortable night’s rest while sleeping in a car.
Always Have a Reliable Power Source
One item I am so glad I spent the money on is the Jackery portable power station. It is a handy system for car camping. I almost left home without it, but now I am so glad I didn’t. Its size fits perfectly in my car without taking up a lot of space, and the Jackery was a champ at charging phones, laptops, and cameras all at the same time, which made my car camping experience all the better.
At first, I thought my car battery and two-car outlets would be enough to charge what I needed while driving, but everything charged so slowly off my car battery. The Jackery 500 kept its charge (didn’t go lower than 20%) for at least a solid week with multiple phones and laptop chargers, which gave me peace of mind knowing I wouldn’t have to scramble to charge a device if needed. I charged up the Jackey during my hotel and family stays which worked out perfectly, but the Jackery comes with a car charger as well.
I also purchased the SolarSaga100w solar panels to recharge my Jackery system on the road but never used them. I moved around too much and was only parked for long periods to sleep or hike. If you are backcountry camping in open areas with ample sunlight and hanging out near your car, it could be a great system to charge up your power source if you have no other charging options, but I wouldn’t spend the extra money on the solar charger otherwise.
Take a Hot Shower
If it is one thing that helps me sleep better, it is that fresh, clean, showered feeling! At the most, I went 3 days without showering during cooler temps, but daily showers were a must when the temperatures got warmer.
I began planning out route stops near Flying J truck stops, YMCA centers, gyms, and campsites that had pay for showers. I paid $3-$15 for a shower at each location. Some provided towels and toiletries, and others were merely a concrete box with a cold water spigot, but I was happy as long as the water was clean. Flying J Truck Stops showers were the most expensive and the nicest, with Italian marble bathrooms, hot water, fresh towels, and toiletries.
If I couldn’t get a shower, I’d use body wipes and I would always wash my face and brush my teeth with my Rinse Kit at least 2x a day. Without feeling clean, it would be tough for me to sleep comfortably in a car.
UPDATE: After my first few road trips I decided to get the Black Card membership to Planet Fitness which means you have access to any of their clubs across the country. I was traveling in areas where there was a Planet Fitness nearby so it worked out perfectly to take hot showers at the gym rather than at travel centers. The black card is about $23 dollars a month and $50 a year. It is a great idea to help save money as Travel Center showers can cost $20 per shower. Having 24/7 gym access also helped keep me in shape on the road!
Always Keep Enough Water
Water is so important on any road trip, but more so when sleeping in your car. Aside from a 5-gallon jug of drinking water, I used a 2-gallon Rinse Kit Plus to wash my face and brush my teeth, at least 2x a day every day during my 12-week road trip. As I said before, I can’t sleep without that fresh, clean feeling, so extra water is a must for washing up and the Rinse Kit makes pressurized water on the go so easy!
A Rinse Kit is a great system for washing dishes, washing hands, rinsing feet and great for pets.
Go to the Bathroom Right Before Bed
Waking up in the middle of the night is definitely not something you want to be doing if sleeping comfortably in a car is what you are after. At first, I was so concerned about using the restroom while car camping I brought trowel, Go Anywhere Kits, a collapsible portable potty, and absorbent toilet bags to make sure I was prepared. It turns out there wasn’t anything to worry about. I only ended up using a few absorbent toilet bags the whole trip. Public toilets are pretty common in the US and weren’t hard to find along most state roads and interstates.
The only problem is finding one that is open when you need it.
I parked where I knew there would be a restroom until late (usually 10 pm or 11 pm) at a grocery store, Walmart parking lot, or 24-hour casino. I made sure to use the restroom right before bed, and I stopped drinking liquids 2-3 hours before that to avoid waking up in the middle of the night. I also had my front seat cleared off just in case I needed to pop a squat during the night in one of the absorbent toilet bags. If I made it through the night, I usually didn’t have to go until 5am at the earliest and always headed to a Starbucks since most locations open between 5 and 5:30 am.
Find a Safe Place to Sleep
I didn’t think about how important this would be to getting a good night’s rest while sleeping in a car but choosing a safe place at night is the number one thing you should do.
Knowing you are in a safe place and not parked illegally, helps eliminate any anticipation of a knock on your door in the middle of the night, which could ruin a good night’s sleep. It took me a few nights to get comfortable and stop listening for voices or cars approaching, which always kept me on edge, but once I relaxed a bit, knowing I was in a legal overnight parking spot helped me sleep more soundly at night.
I definitely recommend using a reliable car camping app (iOverlander, HipCamp, Dyrt, Free Roam), reading reviews, asking locals, and doing your homework on the area you want to sleep in to ensure you are parked legally. I always slept more soundly if I paid for a spot at a campground or was in a parking lot with other campers rather than chancing it alone on a roadside pull-off.
Sleeping in a car is not for everyone, but it’s an experience everyone should try once in their lives. I hope these tips will help you on your first (or next) car camping adventure. In addition to sleeping well, you should know what gear to bring, have a car emergency kit and familiarize yourself with these car camping safety tips to ensure you have the best experience while out on the road.
More To Read:
- How to Plan a Cross-Country Car Camping Road Trip
- The 15 most popular car camping questions answeres
- 13 Important Car Camping Safety Tips for Solo Female Travelers
- 13 Practical items don’t want to car-camp without (+FREE Checklist)
- 49 Essentials for your road trip packing list you can’t travel without (+FREE Checklist)
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