In a previous entry, I discussed How to Sleep in a Car—that is, how to physically do it. Now I'll talk about where to sleep in a car—or where to position the car so you are safe during your unconsciousness and won't be disturbed.
The short answer is: You can sleep in a car almost anywhere you would normally feel comfortable parking a car overnight. The primary aim is to not attract attention—from thieves, neighbors, police and security guards.
One of my first experiences in sleeping in the back seat of a car was in Lisbon, Portugal, many years ago. I had rented a car in Madrid—a tiny one—and was touring Iberia, sleeping in hotels and hostels. When I got to Lisbon, I didn't have a place to stay and was totally exhausted from driving, so I parked where I was, on a busy residential street beside a big apartment house. I curled up in the back seat, almost in a fetal position (since it was a very small seat) and went to sleep. It worked! I slept well, and no one interrupted me. All night, people walked by my car, but since I parked in a place where residents commonly park overnight, I was invisible to them. To my knowledge, no one looked inside the car, because they had no reason to.
And what would have happened if someone had looked inside and seen me sleeping? Probably nothing! I wasn't intruding on anyone's space, and no one had any reason to call the police. And if the police had found me, what would they have done? They might have woken me up and asked for identification but probably would have let me stay. I'm a harmless tourist; I don't speak Portuguese, and it's obvious I'm just passing through. What threat am I to anyone?
After this one experience in Portugal, I realized, "Hey, why do I need a hotel at all?" If you have a rental car, you have a hotel!
Almost every city has some sort of ordinance against sleeping in cars on public streets, and most property owners wouldn't want you doing it on their land either—if they knew. The reason, of course, is that if it were allowed, some people would abuse the privilege. They would linger in one neighborhood, be obvious about it and make a nuisance of themselves. No one wants a visibly homeless person living in a car on their street (especially when the observer is slaving to pay for their own home). Our aim, however, is to be completely invisible, which is a whole different game.
Let's say you choose to disobey a local ordinance and sleep in a vehicle where you know it's not allowed. What's the worst that can happen? Will you be arrested, ticketed, fined? Probably not. What is likely to occur is that someone will knock on the window, wake you up, and ask you to move on. That's it!
You judiciously select a parking spot to avoid this inconvenience. If your car is parked in a place where cars are commonly parked for the night, it won't attract attention; no one will bother to look inside, and your sleep won't be interrupted.
Compared to sleeping in a tent or in the open, a car gives you an extra element of security, because no one is going to sneak up on you. If the window is open just a crack, no one can assault you or steal your stuff without making a lot of noise first (by smashing a window). You add another layer of security if you are parked in a busy location with people passing by all night. Any potential thieves will be deterred by the visibility.
I know sleeping in a car may seem to make you vulnerable, but think it through: What are the risks? As long is you park in a relatively busy location and your presence in the car is nearly invisible, there really aren't any.
The key rule to remember is, "Don't park in remote locations." This may seem counterintuitive, because when you want to sleep your tendency is to try to get away from it all. However, if you park on the side of remote road or in an empty parking lot, you are bound to attract attention. Car thieves are going to see this as a prime opportunity, and police and security guards are going to wonder what a car is doing parked way out here. Instead, you want to be in the thick of things, in a relatively busy location where a car parked overnight would be safe and unnoticed.
(The other possibility is to park in an extremely remote location where there is little or no chance of anyone else passing you at night. For example on public land.)
Twice, when sleeping in cars, I have been awoken by people testing the door handles, apparently intending to steal my car. They quickly left, however, when they found me inside it. I have also been awoken by police and security guards. However, in almost all these cases, I was parked in places where wisdom now says I shouldn't have been—where my car stood out like sore thumb. No that I've learned to be discreet, interruptions are rare.
What happens when the police find you sleeping in a car? They may ask for I.D., run it through their database and ask you a few questions. Then they make ask you to move on or they may let you stay. (When they've asked me to move, they've usually told me where I can move to.) What happens when you're woken by security guards? They simply ask you to move off their property. Private security guards don't have the power to demand I.D. Given my choice, I prefer security guards, because the encounter is much less intrusive. Also: Whenever you have contact with police, it creates a local contact record that could conceivably be used against you later. They may let you off with a warning the first time but give you a ticket the second.
If you are driving cross-country, where is the best place to park? Well, you could try the Evil Mega-Mart™. Many EMMs are open 24 hours, and there are usually restrooms just inside the front door. EMM is also a food source if you need it, and a source of cheap sleeping bags, pillows and other camping supplies. In rural areas, EMM is very tolerant of RV's parking overnight in their parking lots, almost encouraging it, so a car parking overnight should be no problem. In urban areas, however, the EMM lots are often posted with "No Overnight Parking" signs, and you are probably best to respect it, because there is usually an active security patrol (the little Parking Nazi in his pickup truck with the flashing light). If you are not sure whether to park there, the key criteria is the presence of overnight RVs, usually in a distant corner of the lot.
Other parking lots are okay if cars are parked there overnight. Truck stops are fine, and certain shopping center parking lots may work. As with urban camping, a site that is secure and comfortable at night may not be during the day (or vice versa), so you may need to clear out of some sites before dawn. (You need an alarm clock to assure this.)
But the most reliable places to park on a cross-country trip are highway rest areas. Here there are free restrooms. There's usually at lot of traffic, which deters random crime, and some Interstate rest areas have active security patrols at night (not usually concerned with busting sleepers). A few rest areas, like many in Texas and Iowa, have free WiFi™.
I've slept in a lot of rest areas, even those marked "No Camping" and "No Overnight Parking" or "Use Limited to 4 Hours." Look around you: You see those big 18-wheelers on one side of the rest area? They are parked for the night, with the driver sleeping in the box behind the cab. Truckers often sleep in rest areas or along the side of highway access ramps, regardless of the posted signs, so wherever you find them, you can usually feel comfortable doing the same. You figure that the authorities won't dislodge you unless they are prepared to wake all the sleeping truckers and ask them to move also.
For example, here's a sign in a rest area on I-95 in northern Florida...
But that doesn't prevent truckers from parking here for the night. (Photo below taken at dusk, and both they and the author remained here all night.)
This illustrates a phenomenon you see throughout society: The law as it is written and posted can be significantly different from what is actually enforced. Often signs and laws are just there for political reasons, to control the dumb mass of humanity or address some grievous abuse in the past. They are tools that law enforcement can use if someone becomes obnoxious, but they may not pay much attention unless someone is complaining. After all, police usually have better things to do than bust illegal sleepers!
Only once have I been woken by a police officer at a rest area. It was in a zone marked "Parking Limited To 4 Hours." The officer simply asked me if I was okay, and that's it. No request for I.D. or anything. I had been there well over four hours at the time, but that didn't seem to be an issue. (On an 8-hour shift, a state trooper doesn't have a lot of opportunity to determine whether you have exceeded the limit.)
Consider the sign shown at the top of this entry, from a Interstate 40 rest area in Iowa. Item #2 says "Overnight Camping" is prohibited. On first glance, that would seem to mean you can't sleep in a car. But now look at #3: You can't stay at the rest area for more than 24 hours. That implies that you CAN stay for 23 hours, which entails sleep. And look: You can stay for more than 24 hours if you have a legitimate need to, like "need for rest." All the sign is really saying is that they don't want you living in the rest area like you owned the place. What does "camping" mean? Let the lawyers argue over it. If you have a legitimate "need for rest," just do it! Isn't that what "rest areas" are for?
When I first started sleeping in cars, I used to hunt all over for the "perfect" place to park, only to have people waking me up and telling me to move. Turns out the perfect place was usually just under my nose: some busy and unromantic parking lot or street side where my car would not be noticed.
Two things that may complicate the parking equation are rain and mosquitoes. Both might require you to drape something over the breathing crack in your window (fabric or plastic). This, in turn, might attract attention to your vehicle. This is something you'll have to work out based on the circumstances and opportunities you encounter. (More than once, I have spend a rainy night under the awning of an abandoned gas station.)
Sure, sleeping in a car is kind of creepy and takes some getting used to, but if you have the skills to sleep anywhere, it can greatly streamline your travels, not to mention saving you a boatload of money.