I don’t have much money, nor do I like to spend it when I do. Road tripping can be a surprisingly cheap adventure, given your country has fairly maintained roads, and interesting things that are accessible from the road.
In order to road trip while on a tight budget and still experience what this grand world has to offer you need to be creative, frugal, and versitile.
Frankly, it doesn’t make sense to spend $100 a night on a hotel, $25 on a hostel, or even $10 on a campsite.
FREE is the price you want: Save your money to buy gasoline or diesel, tickets to museums and cultural events, and for some tasty local cuisine.
To keep it as FREE as possible, I’ve taken to exploring ‘car camping.’ Not camping out of your car, but rather, camping IN your car. When I say car, I’m not talking about an RV, a VW Bus, or even a minivan; I’m talking about my 2004 Volkswagen Jetta. Sleeping in your car forms part of this experience.
Related Read: Ultimate Collection of Road Trip Tips
Safety, comfort, and hygiene are major factors to an extended stay in your vehicle. Here are some top tips for sleeping in your car.
1. Keeping your car packed with essentials.
At a minimum, I always keep a good warm blanket, however, I tend to just keep most of my gear in my trunk. It doesn’t take up too much space, and it’s always there when I need it. This can help you know how to comfortably sleep in a car.
Travel Dudes recommends this list of things to keep handy, on a road trip or just a couple hour drive:
Warm wool blanket, Emergency Bivvy, Sleeping Bag, Sleeping Pad, Tent, 1 Litre of Water, 2 Packs of Dehydrated Camp Food, an Ultra-Light Camp Stove, Camping Cook Pot, Camping Cutlery, a Large Pack Towel, Hiking Boots, Small Tool Kit, Mid-Sized Backpackers Backpack, Wool Hat, Gloves, Head Lamp, Pocket Knife, 50-100 Feet of Nylon Rope, an Eye Mask, and a Lighter.
This may seem like a lot, but there is a use for ALL these things when sleeping in your car. I have also had been surprised how many times I’ve been in need of one of those items and glad I had it readily available.
Also, make sure that you have comfortable clothes. For the ladies, make sure to have a few pairs of comfortable leggings, t-shirts, and a hoodie for when it gets cold. Gents, get some comfortable joggers, t-shirts, and your favorite hoodie.
2. Keep organized
You’re going to have a lot of things in your car and that means that they can easily get messy! Prevent spending hours looking for your phone charger, your socks and your water bottle by keeping an organized packing system.
3. Finding a safe, free place to park.
Just pulling over anywhere will leave you dissatisfied, in trouble, or towed. This is possibly the most important thing to spend time on when sleeping in a car. Despite there being a lot more people, cars, and general dangers, there are a lot of places to sleep in a city. ALWAYS look for signs that say you’re not allowed to be there! If it says no, don’t try it – unless you’re in a terrible jam.
This is one of the most important tips for sleeping in your car.
Department Stores: If you’re in a crunch and in a new place, look for a major chain store such as Target or Walmart (in the USA), these have large parking lots, are usually patrolled by security for safety, and unless it is explicitly noted, there aren’t often rules against being in your car overnight.
Religious Buildings: If a chain store isn’t handy, find a Church, Synagogue, or other religious building. You’ll be appealing to the goodwill and nature of people to not disturb or vandalize a car parked at the house of God, so they are generally safe. Make sure you’re not parking on the night before a major service, or you’ll likely wake up to a lot of people, cars, and confusing movement.
Residential Neighborhoods: If neither of the above is available, look for an upscale neighbourhood with on-street parking and no signs asking you to ‘pay to park’ or ‘parking for residents only.’ You’ll also want to find an area where other cars are already parked, particularly expensive cars. If someone is willing to leave their BMW outside, then chances are, you’ll be safe in your little Volkswagen or Honda.
Rural / Highways: DO NOT pull over on the highway or the side of a road. You’re asking to get hit by a car, towed, or bothered by people or the police. In general, exit a main road and look for a Trucker’s pull off or a dirt or gravel turn out. These are rarely used, and if they are, they’re usually used by long-distance truck drivers for the same reason you are!
ALLWAYS LOCK YOUR DOORS!
Waking up to someone looking in at you is scary. It’s also a lot more comfortable to feel like your are safe and tucked in away from the scary night and outside. Use your pack towel or similar fabrics to block out your windows from the outside. Particularly you’ll want to block the side that faces human or automobile traffic.
Alternatively, in a parking lot, you’ll want to park with the front of the car facing out, if you’re sleeping in the back, or pull straight in, if you’re sleeping in the front – keep more car between you and whatever might be looking or coming toward you.
Generally, you’ll want to take your belongings and push them to the sides, upon the rear window area, and possibly on the dash board. Give the illusion that the car is packed full when actually you are the thing filling up the interior.
This is one of the most important tips for sleeping in your car for your own privacy.
Perhaps surprisingly, this is a major deal. If you lock up your car tight, with the windows shut, you’ll wake up hot, sticky, and smelly; the windows will be covered in condensation, and you’ll feel gross. If you have a sunroof that opens, buy a small piece of window screen from a hardward store that is 2-3 inches long on all sides than your sunroof.
Open the sunroof halfway if possible, and wedge the screen around the opening. This will keep out bugs, and let LOTS of ventilation happen, turning your car into a super solid tent. Alternatively, this might work in a window as well. If it’s raining try just poping the sunroof a bit, if you have that option, or cracking a window. Even a little bit will help you wake up feeling fresh!
This is one of the most important tips for sleeping in your car for your hygiene.
6. Make it Comfy!
Let’s face it, this is obviously not the most comfortable place to sleep, but you can try your best! If you don’t have a pillow use a backpack, duffle filled with clothes, or sleeping bag in a stuff sack as padding! You can also unroll your camping pag in the car to use bedding!
If you have the option to fold down the back seats, this will be the most comfortable option. Laying down is 100x better for rest than sitting up in your front seats, and since you’re using your gear for privacy and sleeping material, you can unpack your trunk into the car at night, and make yourself a cacoon of comfort in the back! For those 6 feet tall and over, you’ll want to lay on an angle, to maximize space, but you may have to lay on your side and put your legs into a slightly bent position.
Finally, bring an eye pillow or eye mask to make it nice and dark for your sleeping pleasure! It really helps!
NOTE: This travel tip is from a USA perspective and many not work well for traveling outside of the US and Canada.
Before you leave to sleep in your car research travel insurance, e.g. World Nomads provides travel insurance.