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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
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    I would sleep at an airport parking lot, usually cheaper than a hostel, hospital parking lot or 24 hour fitness. – Rosalie Hodges Mar 10 '17 at 2:36

12 Answers 12

30

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

28

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.

READ THE LAWS: http://codes.lp.findlaw.com/cacode/PEN/3/1/15/2/s647

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disorderly_conduct

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loitering

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
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    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. – Thomas Bonini Feb 7 '14 at 14:36
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    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
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    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
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 Freecampsites.net. 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.

16

My partner and I have been road tripping in the states for the past couple of months and spent quite a bit of time in L.A. We too wanted to keep our costs down so lived out of our rental car and then eventually our van we ended up buying. We did camp at the beginning and then lived out of the van. I would say most places are safe to sleep but research the area first. And be on the look out for no overnight parking signs because almost guaranteed you will have someone waking you to tell you to move on. You can legally park overnight at Walmart. Shopping mall parking lots are also tempting but not always the safest bet...There are plenty of state parks you can stay overnight at but most will have a fee involved (somewhere between 10-30). Rest stops are another option and there will be plenty along highways.

I have written a list of some awesome locations that are great for road trippers to spend the night in their vehicles. You can read it at this link:

A Guide To Overnight Parking Locations Whilst Road Tripping

  • 1
    The link is dead :'( – IEatBagels May 23 '18 at 19:28
  • Link has been fixed!! – Road Trip USA Sep 12 at 2:01
9

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.

8

Lots of people do this, some every day, and they blog and vlog. Their hashtag is #vanlife. There is plenty of stories and advice.

Varies dramatically depending on where you are. California is very large (bigger than Italy, Switzerland and Austria combined), and so it has two very distinct personalities: rural and urban California.

Rural

Rural means lots of long-haul driving, and drowsy driving. As such, they provide places for people to sleep "on the road".

In rural travel, your trifecta are rest stops, truck stops (aka travel centers) and RV campgrounds. RV campgrounds must be paid for. Other than that, you are looking for places lots of trucks congregate, because they are doing the same thing.

Some rest stops are informal, essentially chain-up areas which the trucks have colonized - in that case, park to be seen as they are not expecting a 4-wheeler in their midst. The best are truck stops which have been gussied up with a pretty front area for automobiles.

Lots of people have good luck with small-town Wal-Marts, I've never had a need due to other options existing.

Keep in mind, these things will not exist in the city. There are no Love's truck stops, but there are plenty of Starbucks.

In the city - oh boy.

Because of the sheer density of urban California, and its symbolism to starry-eyed dreamers, things are much harder than even normal US cities. So many are homeless-with-car, and they need a place to park and sleep, and nobody wants them. Where they congregate, trouble follows, along with police.

So if you are trying to car-camp in the city, you are fighting this enormous prejudice, and you are better off getting a paid campsite or better, a hotel room if able. Not least, for the value of your time - given the cost of getting to the US, your limited time is fairly expensive! That said, it can be done.

A weird cultural thing in the US is Walmart. Walmarts which are open 24x7 tend to be tolerant of #Vanlife campers passing through. However they don't always have a choice - sometimes their mall regulations, or their city regulations, will not allow it. You park more toward the outside of the lot, so other customers aren't walking by your car. If you see a community of campers you are probably OK.

There are also areas in each city where this is grudgingly tolerated moreso than others. In San Francisco, that's the park side of Golden Gate Park, particularly on Lincoln rather than Fulton. But remember what I said about time?

These possible campsites are far from downtown. Between commuting, parking, and dealing with grooming and bodily needs, it'll cost you 2-4 hours to camp out in Golden Gate Park instead of an SF downtown hotel or near-downtown AirBnB. Every nearby business violently hates #VanLife people, so "borrowing a local business's bathroom" is not gonna happen. And if a City cutie falls in love with your accent, you are not going to have an enchanted evening.**

Don't forget AirBnB. California is its birthplace and has a high density of participating homes.


Edit: we just had a change in the law. Yesterday, the Ninth Circuit Court ruled that it's unconstitutional to roust and arrest people sleeping on the street. This will likely reduce police hassles of people sleeping in their car.

The Ninth has a bit of a reputation for being an activist court (and a bit left, just like the coast it serves), so it's yet possible this will be reversed by the more conservative Supreme Court.


**irony is, cutie was kinda hoping you had a place, because due to the same market pressures, they live with parents, in a crammed roommate share, or an hour away.

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    Very interesting answer! Thanks a lot for the hashtag hint :-) – Alessandro Da Rugna Jul 14 '17 at 7:16
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According to ny daily news, sleeping in cars is no longer illegal.

http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/court-overturns-law-bans-people-sleeping-cars-article-1.1837189

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    To clarify, the article is about the federal circuit court striking down a Los Angeles ordinance as overly broad. It didn't overturn any other laws, not even others within the Ninth Circuit. And in November 2016, the LA city council passed a new, more carefully worded ban on sleeping in vehicles, though it's unclear whether it has been signed into law or not. – choster Jan 30 '17 at 23:37
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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: dot.ca.gov/hq/maint/ra/policy.htm – BowlOfRed Jan 22 '15 at 6:14
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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.

1

It's simple. Park in a hotel parking lot and go to sleep. I do it all the time. Police RARELY check hotel parking lots SPECIFICALLY for people sleeping in cars.

0

The only issue with Hotel lots is that it's private property... And in SoCal they usually have security to make sure no one is sleeping in their vehicle... I just got got kicked out of a Hilton while asleep at 1am so... In a public area it may be against the law, but no one is really actively checking...

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I sleep in my truck in back since I have a camper shell a lot. I just started working and I can't afford to drive home everyday. I have stayed quite a few times behind Jack in the Box off of Arch Road and HWY 99 in Stockton, CA Chevron Gas Station with 7-Eleven there too. It is a little noisy with freeway traffic right next to you and watch out for the homeless that stays around there too but I have never got bothered there. I'll be working soon in Woodland, CA; I just wish there was a place I can stay up there for free overnight parking around the Woodland Sacramento area. It is not fair only truckers have the right to park almost anywhere legally those of us who have to commute long distance for the work should have the right to park anywhere overnight.

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