So, let’s get down to the business of sleeping around, shall we?
We all know how fun it can be to sleep in a different place each night (no, I’m not talking about your Tinder account), but like your mom has always told you, you need to practice safety and precaution (this could be applied to your Tinder account).
As a solo female nomad who lives in a Jeep, I’ve learned by trial and error ways to find safe places to park each night, and I have a list of mental guidelines that I adhere to as often as possible.
Back in the days when Walmart first became a thing (wow, totally dating myself here…) they were, believe it or not, a pioneer in the nomad movement, which wasn’t yet a movement because Instagram didn’t exist back then (there I go dating myself again).
When I was growing up in the early 80’s, people traveled in RV’s. People didn’t live in RV’s. They would pile all their kids into an RV or motorhome (my family had a Toyota Chinook pop-top that was a hideous shade of baby-shit green) and drive to National Parks on spring break. Walmart capitalized on this, and allowed people to park overnight in the far reaches of their parking lots. It was quite a brilliant marketing move.
I began my #vanlife lifestyle with a Subaru Impreza hatchback, long before the days of #vanlife. Everyone thought I was so adventurous and brave to travel around by myself and sleep in the back of my tiny car. Hell, maybe I was brave. Maybe I still am. All I know for sure, is that I’m adventurous and that will never change. I’m also very poor and can’t afford hotel rooms. I’d be okay if that changed.
I would sleep in Walmart parking lots every night, but then something changed – Walmart became a 24-hour store. Let’s just address the elephant in the room and acknowledge that not many people of class shop at Walmart at 3am, which means that sleeping in a Walmart parking lot as a solo female nomad became quite sketchy.
It began in Newport, Oregon in 2012 – a Walmart I had spent many a night at. The Subaru didn’t have tinted windows. I awoke to the sound of revving engines to find three redneck trucks surrounding my car and dudes with confederate flag hats standing around laughing inches from my vehicle. I reverted to my five-year-old self and hoped that hiding under the blanket would keep me safe from the monsters. As I laid there sweating inside my sleeping bag, too afraid to breathe, my mind kept racing through all the things I should have done to conceal the fact that a girl was sleeping alone in a car. I honestly don’t know if those guys even knew I was inside that car or not, but it was terrifying none-the-less, and prompted me to be safer in the future. And I was done with Walmart. Fuck that place, am I right?
So, I moved on to Emergency Room parking lots. What could be safer than the ER? I had overlooked the fact that most hospitals have security guards. His flashlight shining in my window at 2am reminded me. When he knocked on the driver window, I leaned into the front seat and rolled the window down a crack, the keys still in the ignition (bad move). I explained to him that I was traveling to see my family and had become too tired to drive. He in turn explained to me that one of the nurses had come out to her car and gotten spooked because there was a Jeep (peace out, tiny Subaru!) with the keys in the ignition and a shirt hanging in the back window (that streetlight was bright, damnit). Being a girl alone does have its advantages – he let me stay where I was until 5am. Three more hours of sleep. Score!
Years later I tried another ER parking lot in another town. Damn those security guards. I woke up to him parked right next to my car, sitting in his driver seat with the window down, drinking coffee and talking on his cell phone. I stayed very still hoping he would move on. He didn’t. I was late for work that day.
So, Walmart is out. Emergency Rooms are out. A big hell no to any and every rest area unless you’re caravanning with a group (you might as well stand outside your car with a piece of cardboard that says, “murder me”), and residential areas are out as well, unless you really love a man (or woman) in uniform. I’ve tried sleeping in neighborhoods before, but that seems to be a little too obvious. If it’s a close-knit neighborhood, people are more likely to notice a new car parked on the street in front of Helen’s house. Pretty soon the phone tree is going off and the Neighborhood Watch is shining flashlights in your windows (seriously, it seems to happen to a friend of mine quite often).
I’ve driven all over this country by myself, including to Alaska, and have found that, hands-down, the best place to sleep in your vehicle at night is in hotel parking lots.
However, you have to choose the right hotel, and take certain factors into consideration, such as:
1. If the hotel is too fancy, they might require a parking permit for your windshield. Circle the parking lot to see if other cars have parking passes. If they do, keep driving.
2. If the hotel is too shitty, you might get abducted. You can tell right away just by looking at it if it’s a shitty hotel. If there’s one or more people sitting in a lawn chair outside their room smoking cigarettes, keep driving.
Here’s a list of hotels that have pretty great parking lots and are widespread throughout the United States and Canada:
1.Holiday Inn Express. This is my personal favorite. They’re a newer off-shoot of the regular Holiday Inn (I probably didn’t need to tell you that) and are a bit more upscale without being so fancy they require a parking pass. It seems to be more business people that stay here (I have no solid data on that other than my expert-level parking lot creeper status. More on that later…) and some families. Minivans are a good sign. Painter vans with no windows are a bad sign.
2.Courtyard by Marriott is another good one that’s very similar to Holiday Inn Express.
3.Four Points by Sheraton, again, like the two above.
4.La Quinta Inn and Suites
5.Red Roof Inn
I’ve stayed in the parking lots of these hotels across the USA and Canada and have never had any problems. However, later I’ll give you tips on how to avoid problems and conceal the fact that there’s someone sleeping in their parking lot.
But first, here’s the more important list – the list of hotels to avoid…
1.Best Western. This one can be hit or miss. They seem to have gone downhill in the class department over the years. Some of them are now franchises that give the entire BW name a bad, well, name. But there’s still some great ones out there so don’t completely write them off.
5.Any hotel with the name Bates. Do I need to say more…?
Clearly, I am not a hotel expert (just a parking lot expert) so don’t discount any of these hotels simply because they’re on some list on some blog. This is my personal experience only, which might not be worth anything but hey, I’m still alive, with no emotional or physical trauma from living in my car (you know what I’m talking about). If you’re driving out in the desert of New Mexico and stumble upon an Econo Lodge that looks like a Hilton, you go get some of that parking lot!
If you’re having trouble keeping your eyes open during the day and could use a good snooze-fest in broad daylight, a great place to do that is a fast food or grocery store parking lot, or a day-use park. Just don’t park next to the playground. For many reasons.
I’ve gotten into the habit of finding a parking lot and sitting in the driver seat for 15 minutes or so giving my thumbs a good social media workout while I discreetly scan the parking lot, the main hotel doors, etc. (like I mentioned – my creeper level is extraordinary). It’s a good way to get a feel for the type of parking lot it is.
Basically, you gotta case the joint. And then you have to be subtle. Don’t crawl into the back seat (i.e. your bed) while there’s a family of five unloading their luggage from the car next to yours. Bad form. And such a quick way to have the front desk person calling the cops on you.
I like to find a parking space that’s not too close to the main entrance, yet not way back in the darkest and furthest corner of the lot either. Go for the middle ground. If there’s a sidewalk going along where you’re parked, think about if you should back in or pull in forward, depending on how your sleeping set up is arranged. When I’m asleep in my car, it would be easier for people looking in the front windows to see me sleeping in the back, so I’m careful to choose parking spots where people would really have no reason to walk past the front of my car. I also put one of those big silver sun visors in the windshield and then hang a towel between the front seats in a way that makes it look as if the towel is simply drying, and not meant to conceal the back of the vehicle. My ultimate goal while living in my Jeep is to make it not obvious that someone is living in it, especially being a solo female nomad. I don’t need to advertise my presence.
I realize that all of this may seem like overkill. I have male nomad friends who will pull into the darkest, scariest rest area in the middle of nowhere and leave the keys in the ignition, the doors unlocked and the windows partially down while they sleep like a baby in the back. Yeah…no thanks, dude. The brutal truth is that women are at a higher risk living the nomadic lifestyle (more like any lifestyle, all the time, anywhere), especially when they’re a solo nomad. It doesn’t matter how strong you are (physically, mentally, emotionally) or how capable you are – disregarding your personal safety is irresponsible and foolish. I’ve been very fortunate that nothing has happened to me during all the years I’ve been a solo nomad, and it’s a sad reality that I even have to say that because we should all be able to roam freely and safely. And we can, but we need to be wise and aware as well (like wearing the I.D. bracelet that your mom sent you because she loves you and worries about you. Yes, I speak from experience, and yes, I’m wearing my bracelet as I type this).
My next blog will cover the basics of living in your vehicle - you know, like toilets and showers and brushing your teeth.
Until then, be happy and roam on.