Sleeping in your car used to be something that automakers used to be proud of. Seats that reclined into beds were a major selling point for cars like the Rambler, for example. Now, thanks to anti-homeless laws and a sick desire not to spend a miserable night in a car, hardly anyone still does this. But I thought it would be worth a go.
The car-sleeping concept really was a big deal back in the day; aside from car-snoozing enthusiasts like Nash/Rambler, there were options and kits for all kinds of cars, even genuinely small cars like the Beetle and Type III. Now, I can't think of any car company that actively talks about the ability to spend the night in their cars. Hell, the last time I think any company publicly acknowledged that they designed a car you could sleep in was about a decade ago, with the Honda Element.
Since the first half of my cross-country trip in a BMW 2 series was going to be done solo, I thought I may as well try out all those things I was sort of curious about but could never find a person who'd be willing to put up with this manner of bullshit: in-car urine management, my awful spoken-word pieces, and sleeping in a car.
So I slept in the 2-Series last night, which is BMW's smallest available coupe*. It wasn't great, but it's do-able. Sort of. Here's what I learned.
First things first:
Pick a location that's out of the way, but not too dangerous.
You want to find somewhere away from cops that will arrest you for acting like such a bum, which means most public parking lots are out. I went for a small dirt road off a side street not too far from a highway exit, and aside from the curious Sasquatches, I think it worked out okay.
I was around Little Rock when I felt I was about done driving for the day, and started to consider my night-time car sleeping plan. It was pretty cold outside — snowing a bit, in fact — so I found a theater and watched Interstellar to buy myself about three hours of heated, indoor time and have some interesting robot images to ponder while I drifted off to sleep. That brings me to Lesson One of Sleeping In Your Car:
Minimize the amount of time you have to stay cooped up in the car.
This will also help you be a bit more tired when you finally do go to sleep in the car, which should make the process easier.
Next, you've got to figure out exactly where and how you'll sleep in the car. Most modern cars have high-backed seats with headrests that, even if removed, won't recline far enough to meet the back seat and form a continuous mattress-like surface. Some do, sure, but by no means all, or even most. So you need to find a place to actually lay down in the car, which brings us to this rule:
Find a configuration in the car that offers the longest unbroken area of space.
If you're a toddler reading this, slowly and carefully, you can probably just sleep across the back seat. But most of us are just too big for that. So, if the front seats won't recline far enough, as in this BMW 228i, try this solution: fold down the rear seats so they give access to the trunk, and sleep with your lower body inside the trunk.
If you're in a wagon or hatch, this is much easier, but that's what I had to work with. And, besides, there's hardly any challenge to sleeping in a wagon. A coupé's a different story.
Next, and this one is pretty basic, but here you go:
Bring some minimal bedding.
In my case, I wanted to keep things very minimal, so I just had a jacket wadded into a pillow and a blanket. That's about the minimum you can get away with.
This layout fit me pretty well, but I'm short, and I'm not sure someone much taller than me would be able to pull this off. Plus, my legs were in the relatively uninsulated trunk, which brings us to
Heat is a consumable
Well, maybe not really, but it acts like one. Since it was so cold out, I had to run the car heater at full blast, then shut the car off to sleep, only to be awakened an hour or so later to start it up and re-heat it. This cycle continues on into the night. It felt like running out of heat, so the car had to run to produce more. Since I had to get into the driver's seat and push the clutch in each time to start the car, this was sort of a pain in the ass, but it beat dying of hypothermia.
By morning, I checked the fuel gauge and found that my decadent anti-freeze-to-death policy had only really used up 1/7th (around 14%) of the car's gas. That's not such a bad price — that's a bit under a gallon, so, about $2.70 not to die. That's a steal! If you're doing this obviously be careful to note if your car has any sort of leaks in the exhaust system as you could put yourself at a safety risk. This was a brand new car so I didn't have to worry.
I think the biggest lesson about car sleeping, even over the one above there that keeps you from dying, is
The actual sleeping is easy. It's every other goddamn thing that's hard.
Once you actually lay down in the warmed-up car, sleeping's not so difficult. But doing things like taking pants on and off and getting something out of a suitcase are actually much more vast ass-pains than just laying down and sleeping. Getting dressed, washing up, keeping your stuff in any kind of reasonable order — that's where things really feel impossible.
The sleep I got wasn't great. At all, really. But, it was better than nothing, and this was all in a car that in no way was designed to be slept in. If you really want to sleep in your car, you can certainly make it happen. It's just a shame it's not the big deal it used to be.
But just maybe, with vigorous and public napping campaign, we can change all that.
* smallest currently for sale in the US market. There.