The yellow artificial glow filtering through the icy window tells me it’s not quite light enough for the parking lot lights to turn off. I carefully unlock the car doors anyway, then I gather up my shoes and coat, crack open the car door and glance around. I wait for a car to drive out of view on the street that runs by our parking spot. Then I pull myself out of bed and step into my boots while Nick does the same on the other side of the car. We walk nonchalantly into Walmart and straight to the bathrooms.
It’s been more than a month since Nick and I have slept in a real bed. During that time we haven’t payed for a place to stay, or park for the night, once.
There have been a couple close calls, a run-in with a campground host and a long talk with a police officer at 2 a.m. (he ended up letting us stay where we were), but during this time we’ve be gotten used to not knowing where we are going to sleep each night and using our coats as a pillow in the back of the Taurus. We’ve also noticed a few qualities that tend create the best spots to park for the night.
There are three main qualifications we look for when choosing a spot to sleep.
1) Legal to park overnight
2) Accessible bathrooms
3) A spot where you won’t stand out or — more importantly — be kicked out.
Considerations such as spots that are quite, flat or not to bright were given up on a while ago.
Walmart parking lots that are open 24-hours are our best guarantee for these attributes. We try to pick a spot that doesn’t “scream we are sleeping in our car” and always park directly under a light rather than trying to get away from them. Keeping the light directly above you minimizes the amount of light that shines through the windows as compared to parking between lights. Walmart’s bathrooms are always near the entrance and in the same spot in every store so you don’t have to waste time wandering around first thing in the morning. Even better, no one blinks and eye if you walk straight in, go to the bathroom and head back out again.
Added perks: If you realize you need to pick up some tooth paste or grab some milk in the morning, you have everything you could ever need right there. If you chose a Walmart with an adjacent Sam’s Club — or a Lowes or HomeDepot next door — you may be able to pick up some free wifi. Walmart’s generally have Redboxes inside if you want to grab a movie, watch it on your laptop in the car, and then return it in the morning.
Rest stops are a go-to spot in most states. However be careful with this one as some states have strict no camping signs in rest stops and others limit your stay to 3 hours. But, if no signs deliberately state either of these limitations, you’re good to go. While rest stop parking areas are generally bright and often loud, their bathrooms are open 24-hours a day, and you get less weird looks for brushing your teeth in the bathroom than you do when you brush your teeth in stores.
Added perks: Some rest stops (cheers, Iowa) have free unprotected wifi. Most have electrical outlets and a spot to fill up water bottles, and occasionally they host vending machines that produce hot coffee.
National Forests are free to park and sleep in. However, National Parks and State Parks are not. This means pulling off on some random National Forest road is good to go, but don’t get involved with the actual parks if you want to keep it free. While this spot is better than Walmart when it comes to lighting, you will be on your own for finding a discreet spot to pee.
Added perks: National Forests are generally dark and quite so they make for a great night sleep. They can also be a beautiful place to wake up in the morning. Plus, you don’t have to see strangers the minute you wake up and step out bed/your car.
Bar parking lots can be a great spot to sleep for the night. It is not uncommon for people to leave their car parked at a bar and get a taxi home so it usually doesn’t catch any attention if you park there all night. If someone does bother you, you can always use the excuse that you didn’t want to drive after drinking so you had to stay there. The bathroom aspect of this location needs to be planned a little more carefully than a Walmart or a rest stop. Your best bet is to use the bar bathroom right before bed (or anytime up until 2 a.m.) and then get going early and find a nearby cafe that is open early or a spot along the way.
Added perks: You can get a drink before bed and not have to worry about driving anywhere. Some bars have wifi that stretches to the parking lot.
Street parking is sometimes a convenient and simple option. Check the parking meters to see what time they start charging so you know how early you have to be up, and other than that you are good to go. No one expects someone to be sleeping in their car right on the street so you don’t have to worry about potentially being bothered by security like you do in store parking lots. Lack of bathrooms is the number one problem with this option. However, some towns have public bathrooms that are open all night.
Added perks: You don’t have to go out of your way, just pull over and park.
Other places we’ve parked for the night: Movie theater parking lots, in front of the Iowa capital building, in a Nature Conservation area, along rivers where we planned to kayak the next day, at city parks, free campgrounds, along the Ozark trail and numerous other random spots.