We’ve all seen the Instagram account of the guy with the tricked out Sprinter, complete with custom solar panels, multi-sport racks and off-roading wheels. But you don’t need a decked out camper van to sleep in your car. In fact, with the right planning and proper gear, you can rest well in virtually any vehicle. Whether your goal is to road trip around the country, camp out the night before Black Friday, or simply to beat the other weekend warriors to the trailhead on Friday night, these tips, hacks and techno gadgets will help you get quality sleep in four wheels wherever you go.
Give yourself some privacy
Even at a remote trailhead, chances are you’ve got fellow adventurers somewhere in your midst. And if you’re gearing up for a big day of adventure, the last thing you need is strangers peering in your windows. The solution? Simple window curtains. You’ll be amazed how far these will go to create a sense of privacy and make you feel at ease. Not only that, the curtains comes with extra perks: they enhance security and help regulate the car temperature—the shade will keep you cooler in summertime and the added insulation will keep you warmer in the winter.
If you prefer something pre-made, Shade Sox makes a universal window fitting for about $20. The shades are made out of flexible 40D Nylon mesh and meant to fit any vehicle. All you have to do is pull them over the window and close the door.
There are also plenty of cheap DIY options:
- Cut out cardboard into the shape of your windows
- Rig a bungee cord by the ceiling and cut sheets for curtains
- Buy rare earth magnets and attach them to the corners of a pillowcase
- Get some Reflectix insulation and custom-shape it for your vehicle
Block out the noise
Although we’d like to think that every excursion into the wilderness will find us alone in nature, silent except for the rushing river, the reality is sometimes less pristine. You might instead find yourself at a truck stop or highway rest area where the ambiance consists of diesel pushers and florescent lights. This is when a quality set of ear plugs will become your best friend.
If you’re on a budget, you can pick up a set of disposable foam or silicone ear plugs for a few bucks. However, if you can afford to splurge a little, check out DUBS. These high-tech “acoustic filters” use a 17-piece filtration system and “Dynamic Attenuation” to reduce the volume around you without distorting or muffling sound. They match the ear’s sound sensitivity and offer 12 dB of noise reduction using a combination of stainless steel, polymer foams, silicone and durable plastics. The result is you’ll be able to chat comfortably with your activity partner while filtering out the excessive noise. (And as a bonus, they look cooler than those orange foam bullets).
Another strategy is to opt for a pair of high-tech noise canceling headphones. Those will allow you to tune out the noise with happier sounds of music or your favorite podcast. Even better.
You can also add an eye mask since there’s bound to be some light creeping into your rig—even with your privacy curtains. The added darkness will keep your melatonin cranking and increase your chances of better shuteye.
Keep yourself warm
Whether it’s winter, summer, or somewhere in between, sleeping in your car gets cold. You’ll be surprised how frigid that scorching desert can get once the sun goes down. For that reason, warm sleeping provisions are essential for a night in your vehicle.
The surest way to stay warm is with a zero-degree sleeping bag. Pick one with real goose down for maximum durability and compressibility. Western Mountaineering’s Kodiak MF 0 Degree Down features MicroLite XP, taffeta lining and 850-fill down.
If a zero-degree bag is too bulky, or out of your price range, consider going with one with a higher temp rating and adding an electric blanket. You’re in your car, so you can. Try something like the Klymit KSB 20 or the NEMO Moonwalk and pair them with a plug-in blanket made just for your vehicle. Trademark Tools makes one from 100 percent polyester fleece that has 8 feet of cord and connects to your 12V cigarette lighter socket.
You can also try a Super Fleece hoodie for added warmth.
Dial in your topo
Don’t underestimate the power of flat, even ground to help you get a restful night of sleep. There are tons of ways to do this but the easiest is to take advantage of technology with Google Map’s Terrain and Satellite features. Here’s how:
Pull up your current location. Scroll for green plots of Forest Service or BLM land and look for roads labeled “NF” (for “National Forest.”)
Hover over the Menu in the top left and select “Terrain.” This will change the view to dark green topographic maps. From there, you can zoom in and out to find the flattest, most ideal spot nearby. Look for areas near streams if you want to be near water. Typically, when National Forest (NF) roads cross rivers, there will be an access road on one side—artifacts from the bridge construction.
For extra scouting options, switch to the “Satellite” view to get a better idea of what the area will look like. Zip around your map, toggling between views to find the perfect spot.
Once you arrive, hang a small weight from your rearview mirror to use as an improvised level. If it’s not even, you’re on a slight slope. Drive around until you find the most even spot to park for the night.
Choose a legit location
Flat, level ground isn’t the only consideration when choosing your location. You also want to make sure you’re sleeping somewhere you won’t be harassed by authorities.
Truck stops (Loves, TA Travel Centers, etc.) and rest areas are always permissible sleeping areas, as are most Walmart parking lots (check Walmartlocator.com), or call ahead, as some Walmarts prohibit overnight camping). However, these options are often noisy and crowded. For a quieter, more scenic night’s sleep, look for public land, which is always free and legal to camp on. As an alternative to Google Maps, try downloading the US Public Lands app. For $2.99, this can help you determine which agencies own the land in the vicinity (US Forest Service, National Park Service, BLM, Army Corp, US Fish & Wildlife, etc.). It includes color-coded layers and links to the various agency’s websites to help you research land use rules. Best of all, it doesn’t require an internet connection, so you can use it in remote areas. The boundaries aren’t as precise as Google Maps and the territory covered isn’t nearly as comprehensive; however, it’s a great tool for off-the-grid locations, or to use as a cheat-sheet to make sure you’re not trespassing.
If you’re unable to find suitable public land, or other factors force you to sleep in a “not-technically-legal” spot, there are still ways to reduce your chances of being hassled. First, take whatever measures you can to prevent your vehicle from standing out. If you’re in a Class A RV, for example, which is covered in bike racks and outdoor tech stickers, you’re basically screaming “I’m sleeping in here.” Do what you can to make the outside of your vehicle look as inconspicuous as possible and if you know you’re going to be doing a lot of covert car camping, consider trading it in for something more nondescript. Smaller vans, Subaru wagons, and pickup trucks with sleepers are always less noticeable, especially with curtains. If you have lots of gear to haul, you can opt for a stealthier camper with a cargo trailer — not totally low profile but still better than a full-sized RV.
Another trick is to check the “No Parking” sign. Typically, these signs will tell you in the fine print what enforcing body patrols the area (Forest Service, Ski Resort Security, State Police, City Police, Sheriff, private company, etc.). Use this information to help decide if it’s worth the risk and prepare for who could potentially knock on your door at 3 a.m.
One of the biggest drags about sleeping in your car is the inevitable condensation that builds up on the windows from breathing throughout the night. If you don’t do something to address it, you’ll find yourself waking in the night to a dewy fog.
The easiest solution is to crack a window; however, in many climates you will find yourself covered in rain, snow or other elements. A better way is to invest in a small fan or a window ventilator. These tiny contraptions fit at the top on either side of a closed car window, drawing in fresh air while pumping out the stale mist inside. Although these fans are notoriously bad at cooling down cars in sunny parking lots, they do a decent job reducing condensation while you sleep at night. Most of these ventilators are solar powered, so look for one that can operate on an alternate power source.
Another, more DIY option is to thread a climbing sling or other rope through a carabiner and attach it to the hatch door. This allows you to crack the hatch without the door coming all the way open, letting in air but still shielding you from the elements. All you need are two toy-sized carabiners and some type of cord. (You can use a climbing sling, cam strap, parachute cord, or any other type of rope — just aim for something smooth or coated so it runs easily through the carabiner). Attach a carabiner to each side, clipping one to the hatch door ring and another to the latch. Be sure to use the toy-sized, keychain style carabiners—actual climbing carabiners will be too thick for most car door latches.
Click them together and voilà—you’ve got instant air circulation without the rain. (As a bonus, this will also shut the light off in many cars because the vehicle will think the door is shut).
If you don’t have a hatch-style vehicle, another DIY option is to simply roll the main window partially down and prop an umbrella up outside, handle inside. This quick and dirty fix is effective and requires no fancy gadgets.
Set up before you arrive
If you know you’re going to be rolling into a trailhead or another camping spot after dark, you can save yourself a lot of fumbling around, as well as remain more inconspicuous, by setting everything up before you arrive. Pull over ahead of time at a well-lit gas station or other open spot and get your bed set up, put your PJs on and prep your rig for nighttime.
If you have light-blocking curtains, keep them open while you drive but pull over a few hundred yards short of your final sleep destination to set them up. That way, when you arrive you won’t be emitting light, nor will you be rooting around outside the vehicle with the headlights on, disturbing others and drawing more attention to yourself. This strategy will make your sleep routine smoother and also prevent you from being hassled.
Watch Your Drinking
After a long drive, it may be tempting to kick back and crack open a couple of cold ones under the starlight. However, in many states you can be charged for Driving under the Influence (DUI) or Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) if you’re over the legal limit in a parked car. Although specific laws vary from state to state, DUI’s can typically be issued any time you’re deemed “in control” of the car while under the influence. Usually “in control” means the car is operable and you are in possession of the keys. Although some lawyers argue you can reduce your chances of a citation by sleeping in the back seat or keeping your keys in the trunk, the bottom line is you’re at risk any time you’re in your vehicle and considered legally drunk. To avoid hassles, limit your drinking or avoid it altogether when sleeping in your car.
Organize Your Space
Crashing in your vehicle will quickly acquaint you with the concept of “space efficiency.” To avoid going crazy, it’s important to stay organized. Fortunately, there are tons of gadgets out there to assist. The Drop Stop, for example, is a polyester and neoprene shield you can slide into the gap between your seat and center console to prevent your cell phone and other small items from falling into the abyss. The DashGrip is a sticky, rectangular pad you can put on your dashboard to efficiently store keys, phones, tablets, GPS mats, sunglasses, spare change, and other small items. ZoneTech’s Mount Tray is a portable car tray that mounts to the steering wheel to provide a space to eat, write or watch movies while in your car. It folds up and stashes easily when not in use.
On top of all the gadgets and gizmos, there are lots of practical ways to keep your space organized too. One easy hack is to bring a waterproof tarp to store things under the car overnight. This will free up a lot of extra room inside for sleeping and stretching out. (Note: keep the food inside the car with you so your breakfast doesn’t become bear food). Another technique is to thread some rope through the ceiling handles and bring clothespins to hang things from them.
Bring Your Pillow From Home
Last but not least, bring your pillow from home. Do not — we repeat, do NOT — use a backpacker’s pillow. It doesn’t make any sense to worry about extra kilograms when you’re sleeping in your Subaru. Bring the ultralight pillow for the hike in, but make sure to have your comfiest pillow in the car. You can leave it stashed in the vehicle once you start your adventure but don’t leave it at home. Trust us, you won’t regret this one.