Is it Illegal to Sleep in Your Car?

By Victoria Langley - Updated February 27, 2018
Man driving car and falling asleep

You may need to sleep in your vehicle for any number of reasons: You might have had too much to drink or experiencing homelessness. If you are unable to afford housing, you are not alone. In 2017, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reported the number of homeless persons increased for the first time since 2010. Whatever the reason for sleeping in your car, you need to know the potential ramifications. Whether or not you can lawfully live, or just temporarily sleep, in your car depends on a number of factors, such as what state and city you are in, where you park and the time of day. It is usually not explicitly illegal to live or sleep in a vehicle, but parking in certain places at certain times may be prohibited, and some states have outlawed the practice entirely.

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It is generally legal to sleep in your vehicle, however you need to check state, county and city laws regarding where you can park for extended periods of time. Most rules regarding when and where you can sleep in a vehicle are local.

Rely on Rest Stops and Campsites

If you are planning ahead, public rest stops are typically places where it is legal to sleep in your vehicle. While you cannot camp there, you can park and rest in your car for a number of hours or, in some rest stops, even overnight. However, if it appears like you are living there, the police who monitor the rest stop might notice that your vehicles has been there nightly or for too long, and could consider this illegal camping. There may be affordable or public campsites in the region; many campgrounds around the country have low fees, especially for longer stays and offer access to bathroom and shower facilities. Do not stay in a campground without permission or paying. Use apps like AllStays and Hipcamp to find legal free or economic places to stay.

Be Careful on Public and Private Property

State law and local rules regarding sleeping in vehicles apply on public property. You may be able to park and sleep in your car on public property, but this depends on local regulations, where you are parked and what time of day it is. If you are unable to determine your county or city’s rules, always follow the posted parking rules to avoid being ticketed.

You may have a greater chance of finding a safe and legal place to sleep on private property, but you need permission to do so. Wal-Mart is generally known as a 24-hour store that allows overnight parking, but this is not true in all locations. Ask around about any private businesses that allow overnight parking. If you are caught parking on private property without permission, you may simply be asked to leave. However, your vehicle could also be towed and you could be charged the fee. If you are asked to leave and you do not do so fast enough, the owners or employees could call the police for trespassing, which could potentially lead to criminal charges.

Turn off Your Vehicle Wherever You Sleep

You may be able to lawfully sleep in your car while the engine is running, but this is not a smart move. Keeping your vehicle on while you sleep is potentially dangerous as carbon monoxide can build up in the vehicle, particularly if you do not keep a window or two cracked for ventilation. Also, keeping the vehicle running will cause you to run out of gas faster.

If you are facing extreme cold, do your best to obtain warm clothing and bedding, such as a well-insulated sleeping bag. You can also purchase electric blankets or socks that plug into the vehicle, though you need to be careful not to drain your battery. Consider running the heat until the vehicle is warm inside, and then shutting the engine off and getting some sleep. You may need to wake up throughout the night to warm up the vehicle again.

Never Drink and Drive

You may not be planning on sleeping in your car for extended periods of time. Instead, you may simply want to be prepared for the night you and your friends have too much to drink. In this case, do not hesitate to sleep in your vehicle if that is your only or safest option. If you must sleep in your vehicle because you had too much to drink, do not sleep in the front seats – go to the back. Do not have the vehicle running and put your car keys away and out of view from the windows.

You still could get a parking ticket if you're parked in a spot beyond the time allowed or after your parking meter runs out. You could also be arrested for a DUI or related offense. Many states DUI laws allow criminal charges for being in control of a vehicle while you are inebriated, and the authorities may consider that you were in control of the vehicle while sleeping in it. Despite these risks, it's still best to sleep it off in your car and not drive when you have had too much to drink.

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