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Is Car Camping Legal in California? (My Experience)

From my experience of car camping in California, it is only legal to sleep in public areas as long as there are no parking regulations or signs prohibiting vehicles from parking overnight.

I recommend car camping in campgrounds, but if you can’t find one, national forests are a good next option. Personally, I avoid neighborhoods as they’re not keen on sleeping in your car and often have street parking enforcement (unless you are sleeping outside of a friend’s house and they are aware).

In this article:

  • Can You Sleep By The Road in California?
  • Where Can I Sleep in My Car in California?
  • Best Areas In California To Car Camp (South, Central, & North)

Can You Sleep By The Road in California?

My boyfriends van in big sur


It is illegal to sleep in your car along a freeway or highway. This is a law mandated by the state of California. The only time you are allowed to stop on the side of a freeway is for emergencies only. If law enforcement catches you, you will likely get a ticket.

City Streets

In California, it is generally legal to sleep in your car on public property, such as on a city street, as long as you are not violating any other laws, such as parking regulations or prohibitions on overnight camping. However, sleeping in a car on private property, such as in a parking lot, would require the permission of the property owner. 

Civil Rights Lawyer, James L. Arrasmith

If it is illegal and law enforcement catches you, you will receive a ticket.


It is illegal to sleep in your car on neighborhood streets in California.

As for city streets, there are exceptions. No matter what, before parking to sleep anywhere I would recommend you look out for street signs.

Where Can I Sleep in My Car in California?

Many people swear by sleeping in the parking lots of Walmarts and Planet Fitness. In my experience, even these lots were hit-and-miss. Plus, there can be a lot of noise if the gym is open 24/7.

So, my number one recommendation is to sleep at a campground. If you are on a budget or don’t have the means, there are 4 free options below that are also great.


Our car at a campground in san luis obispo california

I found it to be most comfortable car camping at campgrounds out of any other place but also found it to be super expensive if you are doing it every day. If you can switch it up between dispersed camping (in National Forests or on BLM), the prices don’t get out of control.

Reserve here for camping at State Parks in California.

Reserve here for camping in National Forests in California (the cheaper option).

4 Free Options:

1. National Forests

Sierra National Forest

In National Forests, you can take part in dispersed camping anywhere that is outside of a campground.

All national forests offer land that is free to be explored and camped on with limited rules and regulations compared to National Parks. Without an established campground, you can expect a lack of common amenities like a bathroom, showers, fire rings, and even phone service.

To take part in dispersed camping on national forest land, research the rules to follow beforehand. Most forests have forest roads that can be trickier to find without a map and may require an off-road or high-clearance vehicle to access.

Check out the U.S. Forest Service’s website for all of the National Forests in California.

Check out this page for rules and regulations regarding car camping in National Forests.

Remember there are no amenities in National Forests!

2. Bureau of Land Management

Our hike in big sur with redwoods

Dispersed camping outside of National Forests and State Parks can be done by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). BLM covers 245 million acres nationwide with about 80% being land anyone can camp on.

BLM is generally less monitored compared to bigger and more popular parks and is always free with no reservation required, but it does have rules and regulations to follow at all times.

Always drive on established roads and use established dispersed campsites when dispersed camping instead of disturbing new land.

Your campsite must be at least 200 feet away from water and fires are dependent on the land’s regulations and weather. 

Some BLM offers established campgrounds for a fee with fire rings, trash services, and toilets but many times they are only available seasonally. Campsites run on a first come first serve basis and paying a camp fee helps maintain services and amenities for visitors and allows access to the land. 

Just like National Forests, there are no amenities.

3. Rest Stops

You can sleep in your car at rest stops for a total of 8 hours in any 24-hour period.

There is a total of 88 rest stops in the State of California.

For more information about California rest stops, check out this website.

4. Designated Parking Lots

If you are homeless and need a place to sleep in your car that is closer to the city, these three cities below in California offer parking lots designed for people to sleep in their cars.

Los Angeles: Safe Parking

San Diego: Safe Parking Program

Santa Barbara: Safe Parking Shelter

Now, let’s go over the best places to car camp at in California!

Best Areas In California To Car Camp

Car camping

Southern California

Campsites: San Elijo State Beach Campground, Point Mugu State Park Campgrounds, Leo Carrillo State Park, Silver Strand State Beach, San Onofre State Beach

National Forests: Angeles National Forest, Cleveland National Forest, San Bernardino National Forest

Check out my articles on car camping in the following Southern California cities: San Diego, Los Angeles, Orange County, Joshua Tree

Central California

Campsites: Oceano Dunes Campground, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, Andrew Molera State Park, San Simeon Creek Campsite

National Forests: Los Padres National Forest, Sierra National Forest

Check out my articles on car camping in the following Central California cities: Big Sur, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo.

Northern California

Campsites: Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park Campground, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, Yosemite National Park Campsites

National Forests: Los Padres National Forest, Stanislaus National Forest, Eldorado National Forest, Sequoia National Forest, Tahoe National Forest

Check out my articles on car camping in Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks.

Final Thoughts

Some areas and cities are friendlier than others when it comes to car camping. Cities I noticed that are much more strict on car camping include Santa Barbara, Ventura, and San Luis Obispo.

Avoid suburban neighborhoods as they’re usually not friendly and commonly have street parking enforcement. Be prepared to have a knock on your door in the middle of the night and be asked to move.

To be successful in car camping in California, all I can say is watch out for those street signs and opt to camp in National Forests, on BLM land, and at campgrounds!

Happy car camping, my friends!