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I will be visiting California and some parts of the US West Coast in the coming September. I'd like to rent a car for travelling, and to reduce travel expenses I would like to sleep in it some nights. I've already done it on a past trip to Iceland and I'm accustomed to it.

  • Is it legal to sleep in the car during the night in California and USA in general?
  • Is is generally safe to sleep in the car during the night? I'll be traveling around LA and San Francisco.

I'm an Italian citizen and never been to USA before, if that matters.

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I wouldn't say it's safe even if it's legal, even though I've probably done it. It will depend a lot on which areas on LA. – hippietrail Feb 6 '14 at 17:51

7 Answers 7

The area you will cover is a bit broad but there are generally rules that you can follow:

  1. If you see the No Overnight Parking sign that has an obvious meaning.
  2. There are plenty of roadside motels and camping grounds where you can park overnight and sleep.
  3. The municipalities may institute their own rules for overnight parking and sleeping in cars so when you enter one you should check for signs that may indicate possibility of overnight parking.
  4. If you need to sleep on a highway find a parking area rather than the side of the road.

Now for more details you should provide more exact places you will be visiting and routes you will be taking because between San Francisco and LA is about 400 miles/650km by the shortest route and for example Greater Los Angeles Area is about 85,000 Sq/km with about 18 million people and a large number of individual municipalities. San Francisco adds a bunch more

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California has some rigorous laws against vagrancy and homelessness and depending upon local ordinances or just plain bad luck you could be in for a nightmare. If you have to do it, try to be outside the city limits.

Based upon what you wrote, you will most likely have a license plate that identifies a rent-a-car. That will flag up as unusual for anybody who takes notice, like the police. It means it will be more difficult to 'blend in'. That might be enough for an alert cop to justify checking you out on 'probable cause'.

Someone could report, for example, that you appear to be an unresponsive person inside a vehicle, and that will bring the police to check you out.

Or alternatively, a local whacko might decide you'd be better off without that shiny new car, your cash and valuables; and in the best outcome the police will show up and start asking questions. In the worst outcome, you're dead so it's a moot point.

If you get caught, you'll have to demonstrate that you're not 'homeless' and not under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and most awkwardly, that you're not soliciting for prostitution. If they are not satisfied, it's off to the nick with you. If they see you have an Italian passport, DHS will get involved.

And heaven help you if there was a violent crime in the area and they are sweeping the area.


You also need to read the fine print on your rent-a-car agreement. If they disallow sleeping overnight, the contract may become invalid, and then the attached insurance and what-not might be invalidated, and that means you are in a big time problem if you get caught.

Other than that, fine!

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Not sure that diorderly conduct or loitering will apply unless you're in a local jurisdiction. A vehicle in a parking area or a rest area is normal occurrence since motorists pull off on long ridest to catch some sleep before continuing. – Karlson Feb 6 '14 at 22:14
Also, they have to prove or at least be reasonably certain that you are homeless, under the influence, or a prostitute. All the burden of proof is on them, you don't have to do anything.. California is still in america after all, right? Sorry but this post makes no sense. – Andreas Bonini Feb 7 '14 at 14:36
Most of this is irrelevant if you find a legitimate rest area -- that's why they're called rest areas: places for drivers to pull over and rest. As for safety, choose one that's well-lit and well-traveled with lots of cars. Choosing a rest area with a single flickering light and no one else in sight might be a Bad Idea™. – Doktor J Feb 7 '14 at 16:14
The rental car probably will not have identifying plates; after a spate of crimes against European tourists in Florida in the 1980s, most states did away with such things. – choster Mar 4 '14 at 15:22

Don't sleep in your car in cities and suburbs in California. Most have local laws covering this, and I wouldn't consider it safe, especially in a new-looking car.

Consider getting out of the cities (which can be very unfriendly places) to smaller towns and more countryside. There can often be free camping spots in parks.

One resource for free camping is Be aware that some of the listings may be only for those camping in RV's (campervans). Tourist offices, especially in small towns, may be able to point you to other suitable places.

In short, if you're going to camp, look for a place to camp that is designed for it. It is often free or cheap.

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According to ny daily news, sleeping in cars is no longer illegal.

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According to CALTRANS the maximum stay in a 24 hour period at a CALTANS rest area is 8 hours. I live in the North West corner of the state; while there are roads that I won't drive for fear of getting shot by growers in Southern Humboldt most of the rest areas are pretty safe.

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Could you provide a link with this information? Not saying you're wrong, it's just useful for someone to be able to print out. – Mark Mayo Aug 17 '14 at 15:51
Here is the location of the Caltrans policy for rest area usage: – BowlOfRed Jan 22 at 6:14

Idk...Calif has become really hyper-aware of everything in recent years. Almost to the point of paranoia. If you are going to sleep out then do it where you won't be noticed. Residential areas are out. Someone will most surely notice you and call the cops. Rest areas are ok for a night. But don't answer any raps on your window at 2:00 am. Truck stops are great. They're transient oriented with plenty of car parking and 24/7 facilities. Plus security whose main interest is preventing break-ins. Happy trails.

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I lived in Los Angeles for 30 years and have only been hassled for sleeping in my ride 2 times in my life - I lived out a van for a year in LA and I own a 3 bedroom corner house built in 1915 now in the midwest - Paid for !!! - 80% of home owners in So Cal are closer to being homeless then I am because they live in bank owned homes - some do have equity but very few really own a house or ever will in So Cal - Renters are just 30 days away from a kick out notice the whole 9 - if they can't pay the rent their SOL

The important thing is ( being discreet ) about it. Don't park in the same place 2 nights in a row - don't park with other guys doing the same thing - don't park in residential areas or near schools - parking lots in Los Angeles are endless - there are 100's if not thousands of them - As far as safety is concerned - I've felt much safer sleeping in my car parked in Manhattan Beach Calif for the night then I would renting an apartment in Compton Calif. I do it for the savings - keeping my cost down when I want to visit - rent a motel for a few days - flop in my ride a few days and shower up at the gym - it lowers my cost nearly 50% - thats not what homeless laws are made for. People bust the speed limit by 3 to 5 miles an hour all day long right in front of cops in LA and it's acceptable most of the time - Discretionary rules apply to all minor offensives - and this includes sleeping in your ride

I am also a truck driver and I've been thru 46 states - I've earned up to 58 G's a year - we park places were not supposed to at times just to get some sleep. Parking in Los Angeles is usually a hassle regardless of the situation in any vehicle - car truck buss ect - Parking meters in San Francisco by the way last time I was there were 5 bucks an hour lol - Parking is SF sucks for everyone unless you got a bankroll and enjoy being generous a lot - I actually agree with most homeless laws - they depreciate the true value of the city - The soup kitchens near skid row in downtown Los Angeles should be relocated to the Mojave desert - The majority of those guys are spun out drunks and users - Some of them snap out of it most don't - either way there not good for the community and they are a prime example of why homeless laws exist in the first place.

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