Though it’s often overlooked as a sleeping apparatus, a car can be useful when it’s three in the morning and you’re too cheap to pay for a motel room, if there’s even one around. But it’s not as simple as pulling over and passing out. Finding the right place to park for the night is like when a dog walks around a room trying to decide where to lay down. You have to consider foot traffic, sightlines, and whether someone is going to make you move.
Sleeping on the Shoulder
Unfortunately, you can’t just take your foot off the gas and go to sleep in the middle of the road, and shoulders count as “middle of the road.” One time in Montana, a cop knocked on my window while I was sleeping on the shoulder.
“Sir, you’re sleeping in an avalanche zone.”
“Is that a reason to wake me up?”
I didn’t say that, but I was so tired at the time that an avalanche sounded kind of nice, as if God was laying a blanket over me. That’s the issue: Sleeping on the shoulder is only advisable if you’re far too tired to make it to a rest stop or some back road. Your chances of being woken by a cop, or worse, a criminal, go a little up, and the signs—Avalanche Zone, Emergency Parking Only, and Falling Rocks—are often not your friends (and barely noticeable when you’re half awake).
If you do sleep on the shoulder, find a spot as far off the pavement as possible, even if you have to go into the woods, so drivers asleep at the wheel don’t veer into you. That would unnecessarily wake two people up.
Rest Stops Are Your Friends
If you prefer not to be roused by a cop knocking on your window with their flashlight, you’ll feel right at home at rest stops. The key is to find an area where other cars are parked, but there’s not a ton of activity. There’s little worse than being woken by a family eating fast food and listening to the radio in an adjacent van, while the children stare and the father lectures them on how to avoid becoming a bum who sleeps in his car. Otherwise you’ll find yourself saying, “Do you mind? I’m trying to sleep,” and moving your car throughout the night.
Always face your car away from foot traffic, and if you want to ensure no interruptions, park next to someone who’s already sleeping, because their car will often sit there all night as well. This is also useful in case you want some pillow talk. Just roll down your passenger window and go, “Do you ever wonder about life?”
What’s great about rest stops is that in the morning you can head to the drive-thru and get breakfast in bed, so to speak.
Assume the Position
How you sleep in the car heavily depends on your body type. I’m a little too tall and wide to sleep in the back seat. Whenever I try to, I just end up kicking out the windows like when Carlos was strangled in The Godfather. Putting down the back seat with your feet in the trunk is also an option, but tends to be a little uncomfortable, especially if your trunk is filled with luggage or dead bodies.
The driver’s seat is best, and gives you the ability to drive away quickly if the parking lot is haunted. You won’t be able to sleep in the starfish position, and snoozing on your stomach is a little tough. But if you put the seat all the way down, use a pillow, and hang a dream catcher, it can be as comfortable as sleeping on a plane (in an empty row).
Nevertheless, feel free to experiment with different positions, like laying across the front seats with your feet out the window (A), resting your head on the gas pedal (with the emergency brake on) with your legs around the headrest (B), or curling up in that shelf space beneath the rear window like a cat ( C ). Everyone’s different.
The problem with sleeping in your car is that there’s never an easier time for someone to rob and kill you, to be quite frank. There’s about as much protection between you and a killer as there is for a candy bar in a vending machine. In fact, I’d probably feel a little safer in a vending machine (on the upper rows).
None of us can hermetically seal the car like the Batmobile, so planning is essential. Parking in an area with high foot traffic and other cars is a great precaution, even though the noise may prevent you from falling asleep. You have to weigh peace and quiet against the possibility of dying.
They say you should never leave valuables in the car, but that’s exactly what you’re doing when you sleep in it. Yet items like your phone and luggage are far more appealing to some bad guys than you are. Keep everything out of sight. I leave nothing out, put a Club around my steering wheel, and put another Club around myself. You never know.
Oh, and lock the doors. That’s a big one.
The Morning After
Waking up in your car is a bit rough. Your back will be shaped like a V, the air will be a greenhouse of body odor, and for a split second, you’ll believe that you fell asleep at the wheel and will hit the breaks in a panic. Sometimes you’re jarred awake by your foot hitting the horn, and think that someone else is honking at you. It’s not quite the same as rising to the sweet whispers of Beethoven’s sixth symphony.
Whenever I wake up, the first thing I do is open every window, because my body is the opposite of one of those little tree air fresheners. Obviously, your car lacks a shower, but you can get a great deal done in a rest stop bathroom like Harrison Ford in The Fugitive. I also recommend stapling hundreds of wet naps to each other and rolling around in them, or finding a river with sexy Sirens in it.
Once you’re speeding down the highway with your wet head out the window, you may, just for second, feel a little clean. Remember, it’s not how you smell on the journey that matters, it’s how you smell at the destination.
Chason Gordon is a writer whose work regularly appears in Seattle Weekly, City Arts, Splitsider, and Nerve. You may find less of him at @chasongordon and literallyhumor.com.
is a graphic designer living in Charleston, SC focusing on illustration, branding and web.