Sleeping in a van without trouble or worry

 | February 22, 2008 9:06 pm

It’s one of the questions I get a lot. “How can you sleep there with the lights and all the people around.” Honestly, it’s the sort of thing you get used to. When I first “lived” in my car it was because I was commuting once a week from San Diego to LA and staying there for three nights before coming back. I used to drive each night 35 miles from Burbank out to Malibu to stay at the only campground in LA that stayed open after 10:00, (which is when I got off work). Really I got used to sleeping in the van in public places because I was so sick of making that drive when all I wanted to do was go to sleep. And really if you want to get comfortable sleeping in your car the only thing you can do is sleep in your car. Even if that first night you stay up the whole time worried then at least you’ve gotten through that first night. Staying up all night won’t kill you. Then the second night will be easier. After those first couple nights, after nothing’s happened, and you’ve had no problems, then it gets easier and easier, till it’s no big deal.

The way I look at it,  three unlikely things have to happen for me to have “trouble” with people bothering me.

First the person has to notice that I’m there in the van sleeping. This is unlikely because my windows are tinted dark enough that it’s hard to see in. You can see in right now, (and that’s something I’m working on and will post about soon), but it’s pretty dark and just walking by you’re not going to see in.

Once someone notices me sleeping in there the second unlikely thing that has to happen for me to have “trouble” is they have to actually be bothered by it. If they notice me sleeping and don’t care, then I don’t care that they’ve noticed me. Honestly I don’t think most of the people who might notice me will care. Overnight grocery store workers or shoppers have other things on their mind. They are the center of their own lives and to actually think that they care what someone is doing sleeping in their car is to presume too much of my own importance. And honestly, I’m the center of my own universe. If some random guy passes me in the parking lot when I’m sleeping and thinks down on me or takes pity on me that’s ok. ‘Cause I don’t care what random-guy-in-the-parking-lot thinks of me.

If they’ve noticed me and they’re bothered then the third unlikely thing that has to happen is they have to actually go to the trouble of making trouble for me. This particular point is perhaps a silly thing for me to be relying on, since I seem to be finding out more and more often that people don’t think like me, but I still believe it’s fairly universal that people are lazy. And I think I’m pretty well covered by the first two unlikely events.

So there it is. They have to notice me, they have to be troubled by it, and they have to actually take the time and effort to do something that would bother me. And that’s why I’m not up nights worrying about random people noticing I’m sleeping in my van.

Course that’s just covers being intentionally bothered by “random people.” Random people being loud as they walk has occasionally woken me up, but no big deal. I’ll roll over and go back to sleep. Bight lights and loud noises are a whole different category, as are cops.

Cops, I imagine are more likely to notice, just because they’re a little more in tune to what a van or car that looks like someone’s living in it, and (theoritcally at least) they’re more in tune to what’s going on around them in the first place. But I’m careful about where I park, (and I assume the likelihood of me randomly choosing to park in front of an FBI safe-house and looking like I’m staking it out is pretty small,) and so as long as I’m not breaking any laws they’re not going to care. I have been woken up by the police a number of times, but always when I was in my car rather than the van and driving between San Diego and LA. I explain that I got tired while driving and sometimes they let me go back to sleep and sometimes they tell me to move on.

Bright lights and loud noises are another beast all together. For those you just have to be careful about where you park. I like parking directly under lampposts, actually. Then I’m usually at such an angle that the light doesn’t really shine through the back windows directly. Plus, that way I can sit up in the front seat and read for a while before going into the back of the van, closing the black curtain that blocks off the front and the light. That curtain, by the way, also does a very good job of blocking off the view of those random people who walk by. It’s black and if you pass by all you see is darkness.

I still get bright lights, and even with the tinted windows, depending on how I’m parked and the angle of the light people could see in and see me sleeping there. So whenever I have a couple minutes here during the few slow periods of work I’m sewing up some curtains for the back windows. I did add some extra tinting to a couple of the windows as an experiment and it does really block off the light very well, but I can’t put it on the back window because that makes it too hard to see out when driving. And it’s hard to put on the back windows that roll down because that came peel off when you roll them down.

So I headed over to the fabric store on Tuesday night and picked up some dark fabric. I’m currently spending 13+ hour days at work during our pledge drive this week so I haven’t had much time in the van for measuring and cutting, but I’ve put velcro up on the windows and I’m sewing the other half on to the fabric itself. Soon I’ll have something that blocks out the light but I’ll still be able to take it off when I’m driving.

Soon as it’s done, (like I said though, it might take a while since we’re so busy at work this week), I’ll have pictures for you.

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20 Responses to “Sleeping in a van without trouble or worry”

nelson wrote a comment on March 3, 2008

What do you do when it gets really cold?
Dont you get sick or get back aches or something?
I think the cold must be worse than the noise.
I once sleeped some hours in my car and it was so cold it was terrible… I dont think some blankets will do the trick. The car is metal and metal gets really cold…

Jessica wrote a comment on March 4, 2008

My first response is that it depends on where you are, of course. In LA it doesn’t really get super cold so I haven’t really got to too much trouble with insulation or heating systems. It’s definitely something that can be done, though for the most part I’ll be keeping warm by not traveling to places where it’s super cold.

One way to think about it is this: The inside of the van is not going to get any colder than it is outside. And if it’s cold out, the inside is going to get just as cold. But people go camping in weather that’s -20 below so it’s possible somehow to sleep in those conditions.

During the time I spent in Flagstaff and Albuquerque in November and December it got to be in the teens and twenties. It was definitely cold, but I didn’t have a very good sleeping bag for cold at the time so I think that will help.

As for getting sick or getting backaches, yeah I get them sometimes, but no more than I did when I lived in an apartment and slept in a “real” bed. I’m working on a page for this website with a description of what my van looks like. The bed is really very comfortable. It is a more narrow than a normal bed, but otherwise just as good.

Steph wrote a comment on July 22, 2008

Where do you take a shower or bath?

Jessica wrote a comment on July 22, 2008

Hi Steph,

That’s a question I get so much I wrote a post about it. You can find it at:

RomanaS wrote a comment on April 27, 2009

Hey there Jessica.
Noise and light at night can be annoying when you are living in a car, van or bus. I use ear plugs to cut down on noise. They do not block out all noise, but they do cut down on it a fair bit. Thankfully here in Oz the cops are not at all anoying, and so far I’ve had no issues. Even if they did knock on my door, they would probably only do so if they thought I was in danger.

Cheers again,

scott wrote a comment on January 26, 2010

Hey Jessica, I just want to say that this is awesome! Would actually say that its fun or just necessary? So many people make it sound so sad and that they are just down and out. But I want to have fun and not pay for hotels!!! Im getting a van soon so i was just wondering.

Good vibes,

Jessica wrote a comment on March 29, 2010

Hi Scott,

This is definitely something I’m doing for fun. I have a weird part-time work schedule that involves working full-time for about a month and a half and then having a about a month and a half off before I come back to work again. This life-style makes it easy to have a job like this and take off in between to travel. I’ve been keeping my eyes open for a job that would want to make me settle down and stay in one place, but haven’t found it yet!

clean harry wrote a comment on February 2, 2011

i have been sleeping in a van in northern and southern cali for 4 years now and i actually prefer it .i get up every day and surf and/or goto work i have saved enough money on my plan to go on vacation.i have been on a month long surf trip.had ajob interview yesterday and should be back to work shortly.i rent a camp space every once in a while to shower if their is no surf.its going to take one hot cougar mama to take me in; to change my lifestyle. freedom!

John wrote a comment on July 14, 2011

Cold: From what I’ve read, a good, warm sleeping bag will take care of most cold issues. Since space isn’t crucial, you don’t need a costly high-tech one — just a nice bulky cloth one. Sleeping bags always retain heat better than blankets. You can also wear socks, long underwear, sweats, and even a hat & gloves — that should keep you pretty warm. Finally, a cloth sleeping-bag liner will both keep you warmer and keep your bag cleaner.

If you have a van, you can also set up a reserve, deep-cycle battery, an inverter, and plug in a heating blanket inside your bag. I’m sure that would take care of you even in the worst cold. (You’re also off the ground with all wind blocked, so that makes it a lot better than camping on the ground in the cold.

My experience is from camping and road-tripping a lot. I’ve slept in the front in a newer oldsmobile, and much preferred sleeping on a mattress in the back of a hatchback Saab. Any van, I think, would be superior, because you can stretch out more in back, and you’re less visible.

I’d really like to get a newer VW Camper, as they have everything you need (2 beds, poptop for cooler sleeping, ventilation and headroom, stove, fridge, heater, storage, screened windows for ventilation, etc.) You can get VW Eurovan Campers from the mid 90′s for $15K, and VW Westfalia Vanagon campers from the later 80′s for under $10K. I’d like to try living in one of those on Hawaii for awhile, maybe with a small, secluded plot of land somewhere as a home base. I think cops respect property-owners a lot more, and you’d always have a place to safely park then. (Lots can be obtained on the big island for $10K – $20K.)

But places like California, the Northwest, Hawaii, and perhaps Florida would all be good, because you’d avoid the Cold. The heat might get a little bad in Florida in the summer, that could be avoided in Hawaii simply by seeking higher elevation.

Conrad wrote a comment on August 13, 2011

I have never lived full time in a van, but I have used my vehicles to overnight on cross country trips or when I needed to be somewhere early in the morning and didn’t want to face horrid driving conditions. I use a down comforter and have never been cold, even in windy west Texas or Lake Tahoe in the winter. I used a Futon in my K5 Blazer–which made for a much quieter ride, and a Long Twin mattress in my pickup bed. Now I use a pad from my lawn recliner in my Volvo. I tend to drive long and far, and don’t want to look for a hotel/motel or bother with checking in, when I am tired and stop somewhere safe and sleep for a few hours–anywhere form 1 to 3 hours typically, and occasionally as long as six hours before pressing on.

I’ve always tinted my windows, and have used painters paper and tape to obscure the windows. I can make small opening in the paper to see out and no one can see in. I like the idea of a curtain at the front seats. I have used windshield blinds–like a ladies fan but bigger, and these don’t attract notice in warmer climates–I can’t find these any more. If I could find them now, I’d do it. I’m tinting my front windshield with 70% tint, 3M Crystaline. I use 3m Crystaline 40 for the back windows and this is the best tint for heat rejection. The 70% tint is almost unnoticeable, but does a great job, if you read the reviews–blocking 40% of the heat. The 40 tint I am using elsewhere blocks a whopping 60% of the heat–this is equivalent heat rejection to limo black 5% tint, but you can see out easily.

Noah wrote a comment on December 15, 2012

I am planning on going on a big roadtrip in europe (I am located in Scotland).
I am going to go with a friend in hopefully a VW T4 (I am not too sure yet which van to get but this one seems to be very reliable and reasonably priced) and was wondering if it was better to just have a nice duvet or a sleeping bag? I personally prefere having a duvet to sleep under but if the sleeping bag is outweighs it strongly with its advantages I guess I would be willing go through the trouble of sleeping in one. (and I guess I would also get used to sleeping in a sleeping bag)

John wrote a comment on December 15, 2012

Noah, having read these kinds of pages for awhile, the general consensus is that a sleeping bag is much better for warmth, because it retains your body heat. So you should definitely have one, suitable for the temperatures you’ll be in. (The inside of your van will get as cold as the outside, unless you have a heater. It will block the wind, of course, but that’s about it after a few hours.)

You could take both a sleeping bag and a duvet, and that would be my suggestion. The sleeping bag could simply be extra cushioning to sleep on below you. However, if you get a fabric/cloth sleeping bag, instead of a down one, it may feel as comfortable as a duvet.

Note: In a van, or when otherwise car-camping, you don’t need an expensive, high-tech, compact/light down/nylon bag. A cloth/fabric or otherwise bulky sleeping bag will be fine, because weight and space isn’t really an issue. And since fabric/cloth feels better against your skin than nylon, that will probably be the better option, even if you also take some sheets, as you should. (This will keep your bag clean in addition to making you more comfortable. A set of flannel sheets for cold, and jersey sheets for milder/warmer weather, might be beset.)

I have an expensive, high-tech nylon bag for hiking, but I recently got a bulky, cheaper cloth/fabric bag for car-camping and other uses. I use it as a comforter on my bed most nights. It’s rated to like 20 degrees below, is very warm, and the main problem I have with it is that it’s sometimes too warm when it’s not cold out. You may therefore want to take a lighter duvet as well for mild nights. (The cloth bag also makes a nice “featherbed” mattress cover, and is almost like a sleeping mat when camping when it’s warm out.)

Noah wrote a comment on December 15, 2012

Thank you John for the quick response.
I think I will take your advice and take both a duvet and a sleeping bag.
Just in case it is a warm night and I don’t really want to be sweating inside the sleeping bag.
I also often feel a tiny bit claustrophobic when sleeping in a sleeping bag and need to at least get my arms outside of it. So covering myself up with a duvet on top for cold night sounds like a good idea.

Jessica wrote a comment on December 18, 2012

Hi Noah. Thanks for the question! I used a very big sleeping bag, but had it unzipped like a duvet. It was a really big rectangular sleeping bag, not the normal mummy bag like the usual kind. I preferred to use it like a duvet, but could zip it up if it was colder. If I was traveling somewhere particularly cold, I would carry with me a mummy sleeping bag. Mostly it stayed packed up at the bottom of the trunk, but if needed I could pull it out and put it under the main duvet/sleeping bag. This system worked pretty well for me and if you can find a large sleeping bag like that, I definitely recommend it. Like John said, you don’t need to worry about having the super-light or super small gear. Traveling by car let’s you go with what’s comfortable.

Noah wrote a comment on December 18, 2012

Thank you Jessica,
Surprising how much feedback you get on a website that is not very active anymore! =D
And great – looks like now I have all my sleeping equipment sorted.

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