How to Sleep Comfortably in a Car – My Experience

Being able to sleep comfortably in a car relies on finding a location that has plenty of light to stay safe, not a lot of sound, and in a region with mild outside temperatures. It’s also important to make sure you and your setup are ready to sleep as soon as your head hits the pillow.

Probably the first concern I had when thinking about living in my car was my uncertainty towards sleep quality. Sleep is incredibly important to me, so traveling or the possibility working a full-time job would be out of the question if I couldn’t get a good night’s sleep. Here, I share some of my thought process to build my setup, and how I found that sleeping in my car was actually more comfortable at times than my bed at home!

Location Location Location

By far the most important factor to getting a good night’s sleep is where you park your bedroom. Now I’m not talking about the specific store or public space you park at. That’s a topic for another article. But, I’m talking about general location and what that location offers you. Is there a forecast for rain that evening? What’s the outside temperature like? Is it humid or dry? Are there lots of bugs?

Just like making sure the thermostat is set to your favorite sleeping temperature at home (as long as your roommate doesn’t wake and changes it to the tropical setting), you can pick and choose where you park or travel based on the weather and temperature of that location.

Of course, this isn’t always going to be as consistent as your thermostat (mine was never consistent when my roommate was home), but it’s still smart to at least look at the temperature of where you’re planning to take a trip or where you’d like to work.

Checking the Weather

And I can share a tip to do this. You can look at immediate forecasts to get a sense of what it will be like when you get there, as long as you know if it’s getting colder or hotter week to week. But I like to use a feature in the weather app Dark Sky called Time Machine (scroll down to the bottom of the forecast page to see this feature). It uses meteorological history to give you a better idea of what the weather will be in the months or weeks you’ll be there.

When you do look at weather data, remember that the peak temperature doesn’t matter at all. Unless you want to take naps during the day, which I would recommend a hammock for. We care about the temperature right after sunset and right before sunrise.

If where you’re staying is going to be hot most of the time, look at the temperature right after it gets dark and see if you can tolerate that, if you can (and you will be able to with some of the suggestions below) then it will only get cooler after that time so it should be easy to stay asleep.

If it’s already pretty cold out, make sure the temperature doesn’t dip too low during the early hours of the morning, if it does you may need to plan ahead and go to sleep a little warmer than necessary.

Sound

Another very important location based factor to think about is the ambient noise level of wherever you park. Is there a busy road nearby? Are people walking around making noise? Will there be a street cleaner that works its way through the parking lot your sleeping in at two in the morning (ask me how I know to ask that question)? All of these questions are going to have a direct impact on how comfortable of a night sleep you can get. And, slightly counterintuitively, we have very little control over this.

Well why can’t I just wear earplugs, you ask? Because it’s not safe to go deaf in places where you could very likely get someone knocking on the outside of your car. Whether that be law enforcement or someone trying to play a prank.  I set it as a rule for myself to only wear earplugs when I knew that I wouldn’t be bothered with 100% certainty. And that rule ment I barely ever saw my earplugs.

Maintaining situational awareness was more important to me than complete silence, and the good news is you’ll get used to it. As long as there isn’t someone carrying on a conversation outside your window, the human brain is really good a drowning out consistent and subtle noises like car traffic. It also helps to have something make white noise in your car like a fan. I used this one: Amazon Link

When I did have opportunities to wear earplugs, I often chose not to because I had gotten used to falling asleep to the sound of my fan and the environment around me. This, and needing to be constantly mindful of the weather, is part of being ever present that I wrote about in my “Why” post. I found this forced presence to be very pleasant especially when my mind was in so many other places planning where and when I would go next.

Light

Another location dependent thing to keep an eye out for is the light level of wherever you choose to sleep. When I was first planning out how I would live out of my car,  I thought to choose the darkest spots so that I would sleep the best. Unfortunately, in many cases, sleeping in dark places is a pretty big safety risk as these areas are usually not monitored by cameras or foot traffic. I will of course go into more depth about picking safe parking spots in a future post. For now, just remember that parking in well lit areas is always beneficial for your safety.

Okay, so now what? Personally, I don’t sleep well if there’s even a little blinking LED in my room. I needed a solution to block out the light since I actually do want it on outside the car. This is why I built my custom window covers!

If you’ve read through my conversion post you’ll remember these. As you can see from above, they do a great job of blocking out almost all light from outside, even in the middle of the day. Now, I did modify these to let in air through the cracked windows, and that means they let in more light now, but sleeping with my head at the back of the car (where no light can come in) meant I never had a night’s sleep ruined by the light that kept me safe.

If you want to learn more about how I made these, watch out for a future tutorial on this blog.

Bathrooms

This one’s a little self explanatory. Having a way to go to the bathroom before you go to sleep is really important to being comfortable through the night. The first way you can facilitate this is by parking next to a public restroom that’s open through the night. Supermarkets are great for this but some might close around midnight. Some spots you choose to park at won’t have any kind of facilities so it’s important to take care of your business right before you park for the night (which is really easy in the commercial and franchised world we live in).

The second option is taking things into your own hands… eww… ummmm… I mean get a pee jar. Having a way to easily go to the bathroom in your vehicle is very very helpful, and relieves you from getting dressed to looking like someone who isn’t sleeping in a car before you head into that public restroom.

Anyway, in my RAV4 I couldn’t fit a full toilet, but I could at least take care of number 1’s. The important thing about having a pee jar is making sure it has a really good seal, and that you clean it out regularly. I went way overkill and bought a cheap-ish 40oz vacuum insulated water bottle, color coordinated of course: Amazon Link (and no, I don’t regret getting such a big bottle). Having it insulated meant the bottle never condensed moisture and it has a really great seal.

You of course don’t need to go as overboard as I did, but having a way to urinate in your vehicle is really convenient. Actually, call me crazy, but not having to even get out of bed to go to the bathroom is quite a luxury that you don’t get in a home or apartment.

Keeping Clean

I don’t know about you, but I always sleep better when I feel clean before going to bed. If your a morning shower kind of person who doesn’t mind to take a shower after that mud run until you’ve woken up, more power to you. But for the rest of us taking a shower before bed, especially after a long sweaty day, is crucial to our sleep quality.

Now, taking a shower while on the road is actually not that difficult. I’ll go more in depth about finding bathrooms and showers in the future, but for now just know that having a gym membership, frequenting truck stops, or seeking out natural bodies of water are all great ways to stay clean while sleeping out of your car. But, what if you can’t find any of those?

Well, we can do a number of things to fix this. The first is nothing at all. I would often look at myself and ask, “do I really need a shower right now?” As much as I love taking a daily shower, if I found that all I had done that day was drive to a new destination, and cook a few meals, then I wasn’t really that dirty, and therefore I didn’t really need a shower to stay comfortable. Just realizing that was often enough to allow me to sleep well that night, but what about when you are dirty?

Sponge baths! or more appropriately, Towel showers!…no one calls them that?…well you get my point. My prefered method of doing this was with a microfiber towel (Amazon Link) that I would wet by dispensing a very watered down foam of Dr. Bronner’s Unscented Castile Soap (Amazon Link) from a soap dispenser (Amazon Link). I put so little soap in the dispenser that I never needed to do a rinse with the towel.

You could also use baby wipes… or the more aptly named Dude Wipes (Amazon Link), or the gender neutral Cottonelle FreshCare Flushable Wipes (Amazon Link), which doesn’t have the same ring to it. Either way, having these systems allowed me a way of washing off dirt and sweaty bits before bed, which was so helpful!

Temperature Regulation

The previous ways I’ve mentioned here, to staying comfortable when sleeping in a car, were mostly passive and location dependent. Now, we start taking personal responsibility of the situation and actively make our vehicle more comfortable to live in!

The first and most important comfort conundrum to get right is achieving a comfortable temperature in your vehicle. This is very dependant on the outside temperature, as we’ve discussed, but you can still make a hot humid night or cold winter evening comfortable using a few simple techniques.

Staying Cool

In my car, I had several ways of staying cool during my summer road trip. I would keep my windows all cracked open to let in new air. I used my extractor fans, that I showed in my build post, to pull out all the hot air lurking around the ceiling of my car. And I had a large 10″ rechargeable fan (Amazon Link) with me at all times which would blow air over me all night making 82°F feel like 72°F.

All of this allowed me to get the temperature inside my vehicle to be about equal to the outside ambient temperature. That doesn’t sound like much of an achievement, but without an air conditioning system, extractor fans and windows can only match the outside temperature by removing any heat your body generates. Having a fan that blows directly onto you makes the temperature feel much lower than it actually is and this is how you can get through nights that are a little to hot to be comfortable.

Most of the time I didn’t need these tools because I had chosen a destination that got down into the 60s and 50s at night. But there were several occasions in more southern states that I used every trick in the book to keep from drenching my bed with sweat.

To learn more about staying cool check out this dedicated article: How to Stay Cool When Sleeping in a Car

Keeping Warm

I actually used the same system that I talked about above to also stay warm. The windows would have to stay cracked and my extractor fans were still running to draw outside air in, and push moisture out. But I only cracked one or two windows, not all four, and the extractor fans were running at their lowest setting. Doing this actually allowed the inside of my car to be a whole 10-20°F above the ambient temperature, that’s the heating power of a human body for you.

My sleeping platform was well insulated with my thick foam mattress, and I wrapped myself in a warm blanket. I kept my big fan off and without it the warmth stays pretty close to my body. And I have a zero degree sleeping bag just in case. This way of keeping warm is very comparable to tent camping, and while I will agree that it’s totally passive (no attempt to actually heat the air) it worked for me all the way down to temperatures in the low 30s.

There are a few things you can do to keep warm if the ambient temperature drops below zero, but ideally you wouldn’t stick around long in those conditions. If you absolutely have to stay put in a location through winter, I will make a post exploring several heating options in the future.

Sleeping Platform

I’ve shown how I made my sleeping platform in a previous post, but here I’ll talk about how I designed it to make sure I would sleep comfortably in my car.

First before I built anything, I tested whether I could stretch out fully in the back of my car. I put the back seats down and the passenger side seat all the way forward, and when I closed the back door my head and feet (which are separated by 6ft of me) weren’t touching anything. This was good news since I really didn’t want to need to curl up all the time to sleep in my car. Alternatively though, sleeping on your side does take up less length, so if for some reason you can’t get all the length you need then you can still sleep comfortably in a car.

Another important thing to consider is building an actual platform. I’ve seen many people who just put down their back seats and call that enough. While this definitely works when your car’s seats fold flat, my RAV4 had so many bumps, weird angles, and gaps everywhere, which eliminated that easy option for me. So I removed the back seats and built a flat and very level platform in the back of my car.

The platform’s size and height was dependant on the cars internal structures and plastic moldings, but I did have a criteria that it needed to meet. I needed to be able to sit up in bed without hitting my head. For me, this would mean the inside of my car wouldn’t feel so cramped, and doing things like changing my clothes or brushing my teeth wouldn’t be so tedious. And it worked, definitely something to consider in your conversion.

One last thing, for a while I thought I would roll up a blanket and plop that onto my platform for a mattress. But, as I thought about it more and more it started to sound like a bad idea especially when I knew the blanket would just shift around and cause problems unflattening itself into a crazy lumpy surface. Around the same time I also happened to stumble upon a foam mattress that perfectly fit the dimensions of my sleeping platform. This really did change the way I thought I could sleep in my car. I fitted the mattress with all the same bedding I normally had at home and this made the inside of my car feel so much more familiar, and comfortable. It’s not cheap, but I would recommend this mattress to anyone seriously wanting to sleep comfortably in a car: Check the current price on Amazon

Summary

In summary, you don’t need a lot to get a good night’s sleep in your car. Building a comfortable sleeping platform with a mattress,  thinking through how to cool and keep your car warm at night, preparing yourself, and strategically choosing your parking spots before you hit the hay is the gist of it.

Did I miss something? Do you have a car sleeping ritual that you can’t live without? I’d love to hear your questions and comments on this content below!

 

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