Sleeping in minivan while driving across the US?
July 24, 2017 12:30 PM   Subscribe

I will be driving from California to my new home in Philadelphia in mid-August, taking up to 3 weeks. I also need to buy a new-used car and am considering buying a minivan with tinted back windows so I can sometimes just sleep in it discreetly. Pros/cons of this method?

As the front page says - I'll be driving across country in mid-August. I'm on a very limited budget and dislike motels anyway (lingering bedbug paranoia from an event many years ago) and while I like camping, the freedom of just being able to pull over (almost) anywhere and sleep in the back of a minivan with tinted windows is very appealing; I wouldn't have to plan out a route as tightly (I want it to feel like an adventure, but a secure-ish one.) I would probably also do some camping and some motels so I can shower, but I like the security of having this option. I've slept in the back seat of a Corolla (I'm short) but a minivan seems like a better option because I can be discreet (plus with all my stuff in it there won't be space to sleep in a smaller car.)

If you've done this:
-Am I likely to get disturbed if I just park somewhere overnight and am discreet? I wake up pretty early anyway so I'm not concerned about being woken by street noise. More concerned about physical safety/the law.

-Assuming I have the A/C running in the car *up until I turn it off to go to sleep for the night* and I crack the window open for a little ventilation, will I be hotter than I would be tent-camping in the same environment?

-Also very open to hearing about your other suggestions for lodging/camping/etc while crossing the country on the cheap without advance campsite/motel reservations. (I know about Couchsurfing, though not sure how practical it is because I can't tightly plan a route in advance plus I'm a single "visibly queer" woman who can't offer a couch in return.)

-I would probably get a used Sienna or Odyssey and while that might not be what I'd pick to drive around Philly, I'm fine with that.
posted by needs more cowbell to Travel & Transportation (23 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Oh also my budget is too limited for an actual camper van of some sort and I don't want to drive anything bigger than a minivan anyway. It's minivan or nothing.
posted by needs more cowbell at 12:32 PM on July 24, 2017

Go to any RV forum and you will get tons of replies from those who do this all the time in all kinds of vehicles. The short answer is that this is pretty easy to do, you just need to do some research on places that welcome overnight parking (e.g. most WalMarts and truck stops).

In August, it's going to be hot in a car. Much more hot than in a tent. Parking lots heat up in a way the open ground under a tent never does. If you open your windows bugs will find you. But there are ways (e.g. there are special tents that pop out from the back of a minivan that will give you great airflow, and low-draw fans you can run all night).
posted by Patapsco Mike at 12:42 PM on July 24, 2017 [5 favorites]

24-hour Walmart locations tend to be pretty permissive about sleeping in a vehicle overnight in the parking lot. I think it's their general policy with exceptions at a few locations. I've stayed overnight at locations where there were tons of obvious RVs overnight in the lot. They're a pretty reliable place to go for this kind of car sleeping, plus it's convenient to a bathroom and most random odds and ends you might need along the way. You can check here for more info about specific locations.
posted by Gymnopedist at 12:44 PM on July 24, 2017

I have done this many times in various cars over the past 20 years so here is my loose advice...

- You are unlikely to get disturbed most places but to minimize your chances, especially if you are concerned about harassment, you can choose: midrange hotel parking lots, Walmarts, federal land (google "boondocking" for details of this) and rest stops
- Rest stops in most states allow overnight sleeping-in-cars. This is different from camping (sleeping not inside of your vehicle) which most do not allow. Do not let NO CAMPING signs deter you from sleeping in your vehicle. Also they have bathrooms.
- Cracking window will let in bugs. Find a way to put screens over windows (this will depend on the vehicle but is totally doable). If you don't park somewhere with a ton of bright sun and you use tint film and/or winshield screen you should be fine.
- You can find cheap motels in a lot of random places for $40/night which, in my experience, was the bottom limit of places that would be considered decent.

I've hosted Couchsurfers before sometimes with only a few days notice and I've enjoyed the experience, it really depends a lot on whether you want to hang with other people or not. And I don't think most people care if you can also host people, just make sure you have a filled our profile and get folks to vouch for you. Similarly there are a lot of "glamping" airbnb options where you are mostly renting a camping space which might be fun to try for a night or two along the way.
posted by jessamyn at 12:47 PM on July 24, 2017 [4 favorites]

One factor I'm especially curious about is running the A/C until I park for the night, so the car starts out cool, after dark, if anyone can comment on that. A tent will have more airflow and be on the ground, but starts out at ambient temps.
posted by needs more cowbell at 12:51 PM on July 24, 2017

If you are not sleeping on a seat, the car floor gets really hard after a night or two. Padding!! More padding!

I slept a few nights at interstate rest stops, and I usually felt safe. Nobody bothered me, and I was clearly not the only overnighter.

I also found rv parks that clasdifed my jeep as an rv and werent terribly expensive. Some, however, threw a fit about the car sleeping thing.

State parks were awesome for camping and car sleeping
posted by Jacen at 1:00 PM on July 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

Totally do-able. If you're not otherwise gung-ho about a minivan, pickups with toppers (just your standard shell, not a camp shell), panel vans, and long station wagons can also work for this type of sleeping/camping. All are pretty popular with the hardcore dirtbag skiing/climbing crowd.

As for your follow up question, even an a/c cooled car is going to suck up a lot of ambient heat sitting around in August. Do you currently have a vehicle? Drive around on a hot day and then turn it off at night and sit in the vehicle reading a book for an hour or two; that should give you a pretty good idea of what it'll be like temperature-wise.

As for places to sleep, the less-obvious it is that someone is sleeping in the vehicle, the safer you'll be, and the more likely it will be that you can find out-of-the-way places to sleep in your vehicle. Invest in blackout shades for the windshield and windows; extra points if they just look like sun shades. Then, in addition to the areas people mentioned above, you can often get away parking on a quiet cul-du-sac or in a hotel parking lot and sleeping for the night, particularly if you're only doing it for one night. The more popular the area is for tourists, particularly the hardcore dirtbag sports tourists (ski towns, beach towns etc.) the less likely you can ninja camp this way, but for the most part you can get away with it. Worst case, you get asked to move. Also keep an eye out for BLM and National Forest Service land for free disbursed camping. A paper Gazateer can be helpful to find it, since google maps and the like won't always have public land marked.

Since you're traveling in the summer, some bug netting solution would be helpful to allow you to open the windows, depending on where you're at. Also don't discount cowboy camping and just rolling out your sleeping pad and bag on the ground if its nice and the situation allows for it.

You'll want a good ground pad. Consider a paco pad.

It's less of an issue in the summer, but remember to take opportunities to dry your sleeping bag/gear/clothes. Cars can hold moisture. This goes double if you're traveling in the winter.
posted by craven_morhead at 1:08 PM on July 24, 2017

There are many Youtube videos on how to make cheap ice cooler air conditioners, this kid loves his. You'd just have to get a fan that can plug into the cigarette lighter (are they still called that anymore?). A car would cool down much quicker than a tent or actual room.
posted by NoraCharles at 1:13 PM on July 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

Definitely check out RV forums and the like. The search term you want is 'boondocking'. This term sometimes refer to staying without hookups out on the boonies, but is also used when referring to sleeping at places like Walmart, Cabelas, Flying J's etc. Note that some Walmarts are no longer allowing overnight parking (local regulations, Walmarts in strip malls, etc) but check out the Allstays app - they will tell you which ones will and won't.
posted by cgg at 1:14 PM on July 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

For bug netting you might try these universal window shades that are like a giant net you put over your car door. It keeps the sun (and probably bugs) out, but you can still roll down the window.
posted by kendrak at 1:25 PM on July 24, 2017 [3 favorites]

Cars are greenhouses and do not retain any coolness like a room with insulated walls will (and still, that's really only briefly once the AC is off). When you turn off the engine, out of the sun, your car will equalize with outside temperatures in less than half an hour, probably closer to 15 minutes if we're talking nasty Southern 80+ degree nights. And unless you are getting a brisk crossbreeze, it'll stay warmer inside because of parking lot heat and body heat. It's miserable if it's warm *and* humid *and* still.

There are some impressive rechargeable USB power banks out there now, and tiny USB-powered fans that are pretty impressive (I have several from Amazon, brand is BLUBOON, and one of them in my bathroom kept it from being too stuffy to pee during a recent power outage. I haven't tried it to see how long it'll run on a good 20000mah power bank. But that was on one of LA's warmest nights, which is pretty mild all things considered, and only for a couple minutes at a time.

If you stick to as northernmost a route as is reasonable, it might be fairly pleasant at night most nights, but that route will add days to your drive and just cuts across less-populated territory, which means if you were hoping to see certain places or people, that may not be the right route for you.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:55 PM on July 24, 2017 [3 favorites]

I agree that this will be very hot. Just wanted to mention that it is possible to fit a comfortable mattress or camping pad in the (very long) back of a Prius, and I wanted to recommend considering a Prius as an alternative to a minivan. Camping in Priuses is pretty common. As long as the windows are also tinted, I'd think you'd have as much privacy, and you'll get much better gas mileage.
posted by pinochiette at 4:29 PM on July 24, 2017

I road-tripped extensively in a Honda Odyssey. The back bench seat was not wide enough for sleeping, and I'm short. The floor of the van is not even. I got rid of the middle 2 seats, folded down the rear seat. You could just take 1 seat out and stow it in the van. I had my camping gear in plastic totes and milk-type crates along 1 side of the minivan, plywood on top of the crates, then a thick rug and foam camping pad. Sleeping bag is constricting, I just used a quilt. You'll probably want a cooler. I saved a couple large McDonalds cups, would stop for coffee and juice, and ask if I could grab a bit of extra ice. also, wifi and usually bathrooms. I slept in McDs lots once or twice - bright lights and noisy.

You'll want fresh air. get a roll of screening and a bunch of magnets. I threw the screening over the front of the van and secured it around the windows. Not elegant; next time I'll do better. I had curtains. Next time, I will glue small neodymium (strong) magnets to the windows and make cardboard window coverings, backed with reflectix (sturdy silver stuff similar to bubblewrap) and put bigger weak business card magnets on it. They will be quick & easy to put on & take off. I'm a female person and tinted windows wouldn't do it for me. In many cities, sleeping in a vehicle is illegal, so you don't want to be visible. I ended up making a tent extension to put over the back liftgate and that was excellent for fresh air and extra

It's totally do-able. Take time to visit national parks, museums, whatever, as you travel.
posted by theora55 at 4:50 PM on July 24, 2017

-Assuming I have the A/C running in the car *up until I turn it off to go to sleep for the night* and I crack the window open for a little ventilation, will I be hotter than I would be tent-camping in the same environment?

In my experience sleeping in cars invariably means being way hotter or way colder than sleeping in a tent, with rarely a happy, comfortable middle ground. In the west, sleeping in freeway rest stops is normal and usually safe (with some notable sketchy counterexamples); this is kind of a state by state thing so evaluate for the places you are traveling and trust your gut.

Personally I'd prefer to bring camping gear to use when possible and use car-sleeping for the nights when it is necessary, but plenty of people prefer it, maybe because it psychologically feels safer (more like being indoors) whether or not it really is.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:48 PM on July 24, 2017

In some areas, cops will definitely hassle you for this due to NIMBY attitudes towards the homeless. I'd recommend doing a Google search on the specific localities if you want to maximize safety.
posted by Candleman at 7:19 PM on July 24, 2017

If you get a vehicle that opens up from the back end, you might be able to get a tent like this. I would think it would go a long way towards venting and cooling your car down. And I would try to map out a few campgrounds on your journey. They have bathrooms, showers, laundry, and a car camping site, as opposed to an RV site, can be very reasonable. And that just entirely eliminates the possibility of being harassed. Oh, and then you can cook your breakfast on one of these which is just my favorite car camping thingy.
posted by Foam Pants at 7:49 PM on July 24, 2017

If you don't actually want a minivan for Philadelphia, this sounds like a tremendous waste. Have you priced out what a one-way rental of a minivan/RV would cost? How does that compare to the price difference between a minivan and a more compact, city-friendly car? How about if you factor in the extra money you'll spend on gas for the less fuel efficient minivan over the life of the car (i.e. not just this trip)? How about the cost difference in maintenance on an Odyssey compared to a Civic?
posted by Betelgeuse at 8:06 PM on July 24, 2017

You should check out all the YouTube videos on living in cars. You'll get ideas on showering and where to park overnight
posted by Coffeetyme at 8:43 PM on July 24, 2017

A one-way rental of any sort of vehicle for the amount of time I want to travel will eat up about at least 1/4 of my car-buying budget, so it is not a good option. The used minivans I'm seeing are actually similar in price to sedans of a similar year and condition. I have considered these factors; what I'm looking for advice on is the feasibility of sleeping in a minivan.
posted by needs more cowbell at 10:36 PM on July 24, 2017

I love my Odyssey, but we have been test-driving the Honda HR-V as a less-expensive vehicle with better gas mileage.
Often we take out the middle two seats in the Odyssey and keep the back seat flipped down. We boon-dock in Wal-Mart parking lots, near 24-hour MacDonald's, and at highway truck stops and rest areas. Also consider getting some sleep in the day when your vehicle is less conspicuous. I prefer parking in well-lit areas close to the restrooms, but others want to be away from foot traffic and noise.
Think of businesses that would normally have free parking 24 / 7 -- hotels, casinos, hospitals, restaurants. Some city and state parks and recreation areas have free parking in the daytime.
Back in the day lots near airports, train and bus stations were a thing, but probably not any more due to increased security. Be aware of parking garages that may shut down at night, trapping you in place until the next morning. On the other hand, a covered parking garage at a shopping mall will be cooler and offer protection from the elements.

Blackout curtains actually call attention to the vehicle. Instead, keep it as generic in appearance as possible. Use a sun visor in the front window, kid's suction cup screens on side windows. Minimize lighting at night.

Periodically starting the engine and cranking up the AC is a miserable way to spend the night. Bugs are a nuisance, and I would be concerned about unwanted attention from others noticing a partially open window. I use mosquito repellent and a 10-inch battery-operated fan, sometimes with a wet washcloth.

We usually just stay in the front seats (the most comfortable area) and use inflatable U-shaped travel pillows or regular pillows. Make the area more sleep-worthy with a duffle bag in the floor as a footstool and some soft items to fill in the gaps (rolled jackets as back supports, a couple of plastic shoe boxes and an afghan filling the space under the side window). A dark bandana makes a good eye mask.

One more thing -- try to keep the trash picked up and eat most meals outside of the vehicle to avoid the funky smell over time of unwashed bodies / spoiled food / moisture buildup in the fabrics. Keep footwear in Ziploc bags and in a sealed container. Bring an ice chest and add bagged ice (we use gallon Ziplocs to keep some of the leaking under control) for a supply of bottled water, chilled fruits and cheeses, and leftovers.
posted by TrishaU at 1:30 AM on July 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

You might find some useful info over at the Vandwellers sub reddit.
posted by Otis at 12:30 PM on July 25, 2017

A portable battery for my phone was the single most important item I bought for traveling like this. I charged both phone and battery in the car while driving, but used the phone for books and navigation a lot.

There were plenty of places in the middle of nowhere that had zero reception of any kind, so factor that in as well
posted by Jacen at 4:13 AM on July 27, 2017

Thanks everyone. I ended up getting a *great* (like seriously, great OMG I am so lucky) deal on an old Toyota Camry, so no minivan for me, at least this time around.
posted by needs more cowbell at 7:45 AM on August 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

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