By Lana Adler
Updated March 29, 2021
With the popularity of air travel, old-fashioned road trips sometimes get overshadowed. However, some people find that it’s hard to compete with a road trip in terms of quality time and making your trip as much about the journey as the destination.
How to Stay Rested While Road-Tripping
To avoid drowsy driving (2) and keep up with your sleep while on the road, try the following tips:
Break Up Your Trip
Ideally, your road trip driving schedule should complement your natural sleep schedule, with as little variation or interruption as possible. This usually means driving during the day and then stopping so everyone in the car can sleep at night. If possible, break up your trip into segments that allow you plenty of time to stop and receive the recommended seven or more hours of nightly sleep (3).
Take Turns Driving
Some road trips call for straight shots from point A to point B and don’t allow for overnight stops. In these instances, you and other passengers can break your trip into driving shifts, taking turns between driving and sleeping in the car. The goal is to keep each person well-rested enough to stay alert and safe throughout the duration of their driving shift.
To make the driving shifts successful, set a plan beforehand. Identify specific times or locations at which one driving shift ends and another begins. It’s also helpful to communicate about tiredness levels and stay open to schedule changes, so one person is less likely to keep driving for the sake of time, despite being too tired.
There are a number of items you can bring with you on a road trip to make sleeping in the car easier and more comfortable. Your packing list may include:
- Blankets and pillows, including specialized travel pillows
- Sleep masks and sunglasses
- Earplugs (4)
- Window shades (clippable or adhesive)
- Warm clothing and hand warmers, for cold nights
- Solar-charged fans, for hot nights
- Sleeping bags
- Mattress pads and certain air mattresses (depending on the space in your car)
- Anti-nausea medication
- Melatonin to encourage sleep
- Headphones and a phone charger
How to Sleep Comfortably in a Car as a Passenger
If your travel partner is driving and it’s your turn to sleep, there are a few things you can do to improve your odds of sleeping well.
Choose Your Position Wisely
Depending on your car and how many people you’re road-tripping with, you may have your pick of the front or back seat. Each has its own distinct advantages. Think back to other times when you’ve had success (or lack thereof) sleeping in a car, and use that as a reference point.
Break Out the Bedding
Don’t be afraid to stop the car and get your bedding out for a mid-drive snooze. Pillows can be particularly helpful if you’re sitting up or propping yourself up against a window. Blankets can also be key, as some people have a much easier time falling asleep when they’re covered up, regardless of temperature.
Keep Light and Sound Controlled
Light (5) and sound (6) are known for interfering with sleep. A sleep mask can help block sun and bright lights. Another helpful tool for light-blocking is a portable window shade, many of which can clip onto the side of the car door, or stick onto the window with suction cups. To minimize outside noise, you may be best served by a pair of earplugs, or headphones if you like to listen to music or soothing sounds while falling asleep.
How to Sleep in a Car Overnight
Many road-trippers like to avoid the time, expense, and effort of finding a hotel or a friend’s house for the night by simply sleeping in their car. While this might not be right for everyone, some people find that sleeping in the car is a useful, economic, and even fun alternative to more traditional lodgings. If you do decide to camp out in the car, here are a few helpful tips:
Find the Right Parking Spot
One of the most important considerations when sleeping in the car overnight is where to park. Travelers often discuss the best local spots and share other tips online, so make sure to do a quick internet search beforehand.
In general, look for large parking lots, especially those of 24-hour establishments. You can also look for designated overnight parking spots around hospitals, truck stops, rest stops, and campsites. Public lands also often offer spots, which you can find via the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, or the U.S. Forest Service. Ideally, your parking spot should be in the shade to avoid overheating in the morning. Being close to a public bathroom is also beneficial.
There are a few safety tips to keep in mind when sleeping in your car. Do not leave the car running, as the exhaust could be dangerous. Also, keep at least one window cracked for ventilation. Remember to turn off the car lights, so as not to run out your battery. It is also very important to keep your doors locked. Even when parked in a safe location, taking safety precautions can give you peace of mind.
Make a Comfortable Bed
Finding the right configuration for sleeping in the car might take some trial and error. You may want to figure out how you'll sleep in the car before you leave on your trip. There are specific products, such as inflatable mattresses meant for cars, that can help you make a comfortable resting spot out of your car. Before investing in a mattress or other accessories for your car, you’ll want to take into account how much available space there is.
Dress for the Weather
Since you will not be able to keep your car running all night, you won’t have the use of the car’s air conditioning or heating. Look up the night's weather forecast in advance, and pack gear accordingly. If cold weather is in the forecast, layer up with clothing and blankets. If it is supposed to stay hot at night, wear breathable apparel and bring a lightweight sheet for sleeping.
Keep in mind that the daytime temperature isn't usually the same as the nighttime temperature. In fact, some of the hottest places, like deserts, are actually far colder at night. As a result, research is required both before and during the trip. Beforehand, learn about different locations' climates. During the trip, check daily weather forecasts.
Planning ahead can make it easier to get a good night’s rest while on the road.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10487339/ Accessed on March 26, 2021.
- https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/features/drowsy-driving.html Accessed on March 26, 2021.
- https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/about_sleep/how_much_sleep.html Accessed on March 26, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20398302/ Accessed on March 26, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28214594/ Accessed on March 26, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21952296/ Accessed on March 26, 2021.