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Is it Legal to Camp in my Car?

Young man sleeping in car - in-car camping

To us, Car Camping simply means that we carry all of our family camping gear in our car.  We drive up to our campground and, hopefully, all the way to our campsite, where we unpack and set up our tent.

To a growing number of people, car camping involves them sleeping in their cars. This leads directly to the question, “Is it legal to camp in my car?”

The answer is, as always, it depends.

If you are planning on staying at an established National or state campground you are unlikely to have a problem camping in your car, particularly if you have recognized camping gear like air mattresses, sleeping bags, camping stoves and the like.  Indeed, there are many tents available that remain attached to your car.  Roof tents and awning tents are very popular in other parts of the World and are growing in popularity in the US.

car with large roof tent - ideal for in-car camping
Car with large roof tent

You are also going to remain untroubled if you park up in any one of the thousands of designated wild camping sites across the country.

The legalities of where and how you can car camp differ depending on time and place.  If you have a car tent this should be seen as normal camping. The rules for overnight camping in an RV will normally apply.

If you take the more usual definition of in-car camping, you are just going to camp in your car. This is more tricky.

In many cities sleeping in your car runs the risk of breaching local vagrancy laws.  Sleeping in truck stops or interstate rest areas could also get you into trouble with the law.  Perhaps of more concern, these areas are known to be frequented by hobos, petty thieves and other criminals.

In the Florida Keys, you may get one warning from the police.  After that, you will get arrested.  They take a strong line against camping in cars.

The bottom line is to check the laws of the cities, counties and states where you plan on sleeping.

Camping Sage – Family Camping and In Car Camping

For us, in car camping is not an option.  We consider a family to be 4 people of more.  There is just not enough room in a car for that many people to sleep in a tent.

However, we recognize that there are many people who are interested in camping in their cars.  It is quick, convenient and requires very little setting up.  For a young couple, just getting started on camping, in-car camping can be a cost effective way to start.

Here’s an article we commissioned from Lucy Scallone on the subject of in-car camping.

What is In Car Camping?

What is in car camping? Car camping can be considered as just pulling over on in a parking lot or side of the road to rest for the night, it doesn’t necessarily always involve a tent or the ideal “camping” atmosphere. Car-campers can attach a tent to the vehicle to create their campsite without the hassle of leaving your car to unload everything you’ve packed.

The basic understandings and how to’s of car camping can be overestimated. The legalities of where and how you can car camp differ depending on time and place. Car camping can also be unsafe depending on certain circumstances. We’ll let you know the ins and outs of enjoying the outdoors with your car.

How Do You Go In Car Camping?

Car camping can be done by simply sleeping in your car for the night or when you attach a tent to the trunk or top of your vehicle. Sleeping in your car can become more comfortable if you prevent sleeping across the back seat by using a car mattress. Car mattresses supply a more comfortable night’s rest than laying across the back seat of the car.

Sometimes it is more beneficial to sleep in your car rather than a pop-up tent in the woods. Car camping has other advantages:

  • Less bugs and curious animals will enter your sleeping quarters.
  • Car camping allows you to have the ability to charge electronic appliances.
  • Rather than being stranded for the duration of your entire camping experience during a terrible rainstorm, you can pack up and leave immediately.

Can you sleep in your car at a campsite?

When you think about camping, one typically imagines a pop-up tent with:

  • Campfire
  • Smores
  • Sleeping bags

Sleeping in your car without a tent at a campsite sounds a bit different than that, but it also has its benefits rather than sleeping on the cold natural ground. Sleeping in your vehicle is acceptable in some campsites across the country, but not all of them. In order to make sure car camping is permitted contact your campground’s:

  • Rangers
  • Office representatives
  • Other faculty

Is it legal to sleep in your car in other places?

The answer depends on where exactly you are choosing to rest your eyes behind the wheel. Some car campers find themselves financially struggling to spend the night in a hotel during their travels and opt to sleep roadside in their own vehicle to save money. However, as of 2020, no federal law constitutes sleeping in your car to be illegal. While some states prohibit overnight parking in rest stops or other public places, it is still not considered an illegal offense. Regional laws, however, restrict drivers from napping in their vehicle in select cities. These regional laws have sporadically sprung up across the United States.

Risks of Sleeping in Your Car

Just because you can lock your car door with the push of a button does not mean you are safe from threats of danger. There are many risks of choosing to sleep roadside inside your car rather than inside your house.

Sleeping in your car with the engine running increases the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.  Avoid sleeping in your car in confined places that will prevent your exhaust from ventilating as carbon monoxide buildup will occur. Carbon monoxide is an invisible, odorless gas that produces from incomplete combustion of such fuels as natural gas, propane, oil, wood, coal and gasoline. Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include:

  • Headache,
  • Dizziness
  • Muscle weakness
  • Upset stomach
  • Vomiting
  • Chest pain
  • Confusion

If choosing to car camp in a public area rather than a campground, park in places that do not promote catastrophic instances. Dozing off in your car in a dangerous neighborhood or heavy-traffic commercial area also leaves room for disaster. Semi-truck and eighteen-wheeler drivers could lose control of their vehicle and run off the side of the road, where you could be innocently shutting your tired eyes.

Ventilation is important. Without an open airway, moisture will fog up your windows due to the exhaled oxygen from your sleep. It is suggested you create a small 1 to 3-inch opening in a window or sunroof so that intruders such as humans or wildlife do not intervene on your car camping experience.

What is the best car camping tent?

Firstly, what is a car camping tent? A car camping tent is a tent that attaches to the roof, side or trunk of your vehicle to create an extended space for your covered outdoor sleeping headquarters.

The Backroads SUV Tent provides a 10 x 10 tent which can sleep up to 5 people

The Smittybilt Overlander Tent attaches to the roof of your car. One person can handle it. It’s great for when you just want to go off the map alone for a short time. The bathtub flooring eliminates the risk of crawling critters and insects from invading your personal space.

Tepui Explorer Kukenam Rooftop Tent guarantees that you will be safe from any creepy crawly nocturnal wildlife as you rest throughout the night. The fabric of the tent is weather resistant and can hold up to three people. Rather than a tent that bases itself on the ground, this tent rests overtop of your vehicle. This doesn’t leave much room for those who toss and turn in their sleep, however.

Sleeping in Your Car

It is easy to fall asleep just sitting in your car seat. Take it from me, if you try to spend a full night sleeping in your car you want to lie down fully. If you don’t, you are sure to wake with all sorts of aches and pains.

Fortunately, there are several air mattresses sold expressly for sleeping in your car.

Some, like the HAITRAL Portable Travel Camping Inflatable Air Mattress with Pillow, are designed to fit across you rear seat. The air mattress includes inflatable supports that are designed to fit in the rear seat foot well area.

More commonly, in car air mattresses are designed to fit in the back of the car when the rear seats have been folded flat provides one example – Berocia SUV Air Mattress

These mattresses will allow one person to sleep comfortably. As you can see, they are supposed to be double mattresses. If you are not used to sleeping very close to your partner you may find car air mattresses are very cramped.

Where to go car camping?

Car camping should take place in a safe camping-based area such as a campground or trailer park. The ultimate camping experience should take place at an amazing campground with reasonable amenities to assist your camping needs. Here are some of our own favorites:

Coopers Rock State Forest, West Virginia

Coopers Rock State Forest is a great place to camp for families of all ages. This state park in West Virginia is home to scenic wonders such as:

  • canyon overlooks
  • historical sites
  • picnic shelters
  • 50 miles of hiking and biking trails
  • sandstone cliffs for climbing and bouldering
  • cross-country ski terrain
  • a lake perfect for reeling in trout
  • a nearby river for rafting

The famous trails of Coopers Rock such as Ravens Rock trail have perfect photogenic opportunities to document your camping experience.

Salt Fork State Park, Ohio

Salt Fork State Park is home to a tremendous campground and lodge. As visitors of the largest park in the state of Ohio, campers can enjoy over 17,000 acres of the park’s available recreational facilities. This Ohioan state park offers wheelchair accessible camping that also features amenities such as:

  • 172 campsites with electricity
  • Heated shower houses
  • Flushable toilets
  • A waste dump station
  • Private beaches to campers
  • Boat launching
  • Docking facilities for campers

Other amenities for campers can be found at the Salt Fork Lodge, such as:

  • A state-of-the-art swimming pool
  • Multiple playgrounds for kids
  • Classic arcade games
  • Dining restaurants
  • Beach volleyball courts
  • An arts and crafts center for kids of all ages

How to pack your car for camping

Packing your car can be a procrastinated hustle as you try to cram everything into suitcases and duffle bags inside your vehicle. Here are a few packing strategies for making your next camping preparation stress-free:

Use a Camping Checklist

You take a lot of gear with you when you go camping. In Car camping is not different. Unless you have an incredible memory, you are going to benefit from using a camping checklist when packing your car.

Pack According to Priority

The average car trunk does not give optimal room for packing camping supplies. That being said, packing methodically based on what you’ll need most is an ideal way to avoid digging for your fire making supplies or tent when you reach the campsite. By packing your necessities last, it allows them to be the first supplies you unload upon arrival.

Packing A Clean Car

As your camping trip is coming to an end and your campfire is snuffed out, it is almost certain that the camping supplies coming home with you are bound to be covered in:

  • Dirt
  • Sand
  • Remnants of whichever terrain you have chosen to camp on

Remember to pack a broom for brushing that debris off your belongings before it leaves traces in your car. Mud can be cleaned off tents and tarps and chairs by folding them inside out to prevent other packed supplies from also becoming filthy.

Any smaller items can be packed in containers such as the Yeti cooler you once filled with:

  • Food
  • Ice
  • Drinks

 Empty containers make great improv suitcases.

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Keith Longmire

Keith Longmire

I’m the guy that loves camping, insists on family camping trips, and the editor and owner of Campingsage.com

I love camping and the outdoors. Through this site I hope to help you enjoy it too.