Sleep: One of the most natural of animal needs and recurrences, necessary for growth and revitalization. It’s as free and simple as lying horizontally, closing your eyes, and relaxing your muscles and mind away from stimuli and toward a shifted consciousness of dreamland. Ahhh…sleep.
However, if you’re not planning on sleeping in a house, hotel, RV Park, or designated campground (i.e., if you want to sleep for free), then sleep is, um, not always that simple. Sleep shouldn’t be ‘illegal’ and you shouldn’t have to always pay for it. It should be free and simple, so we intend to make it that way!
Scenario 1: Interstate & Highway
Interstate – The ‘Hilton’ of roadside camping are rest areas. If you can plan your trip to stay at a rest area, then you will reap the rewards of bathrooms, running water, picnic tables, and the safety of others who are also looking to drift off into cloud cuckoo land. Falling asleep to the hum of diesel engines idling has easily become one of the most comforting things to us and we are grateful for rest areas when we are on the road. Sleeping at a rest area also means that you don’t have to be sleeping ‘illegally’ and you don’t have to pay–that’s right, you can sleep legally and for free! The only main regulation is that you do not set up a structure to sleep, so this means no tent and no tarp — just you in your sleeping bag under the stars.
A note of caution: If you are going to sleep on a grassy area, check for sprinklers!
— One night, just north of Santa Barbara, California, we found a closed rest area just off of Highway 101, right by the tunnel from the movies The Graduate and Wayne’s World. It was perfect! It offered areas for us to set up the tarp to shield ourselves from the wind, and it was closed so we would be all alone. In the middle of the night, I was dead asleep but David woke up to the sound of sprinklers. He hopped to action and started moving the bikes and everything away from the shooting water. He inspected our area for sprinklers, found them all, and started pulling the corners of the tarp down to prepare us for the water storm that was about to forcefully spray at us. I, however, was half-awake (or shall I say, half-asleep), and could be of no other assistance than to ornament the experience with shouts of “Dear lord!” and “Jeee-sus!” punctuated by deep sleep again. Luckily he was awake enough to act, and to save our bodies and our gear from becoming drenched in the night. You rock, David!
At times, darkness approaches quicker than you think, and options are limited, whereby you have to just find some bushes and plop down next to them on the roadside (preferably on the other side of some guardrails).
— In southern California on the border of the U.S. and Mexico, we were traveling by interstate and found ourselves in precisely the scenario described above. We scouted for some bushes that seemed to hide our existence from the traffic, laid the bikes down, our sleeping bags out, and our bodies down ready to snooze. At around 1:30 AM, I awoke to the truest fear in David’s voice; panicked, exclaiming, “Oh my god! Oh my god! What the f*@#! NO!” I look over and am instantly jolted into fear, thrusting up, trying to see what was attacking him because surely, with all of the commotion and fright, something must be hurting him. Unable to escape from my bivy which was fully zipped like a coffin barrier, and utterly confused, I started to panic and let out a chilling, nightmarish scream (that I still can’t believe came out of my mouth). Then I heard rustling in the bushes around us, my hands feebly fumbling with my bivy zipper until I could open up a tiny hole to poke my face through. “It’s ok! It’s ok…”, David’s shaky voice hesitatingly trying to sound convincing. Then we see figures popping up out of the bushes, silhouetted in the full moon sky. The figures started gently making their way around our bicycles and bivied figures, then they bolted, arms flailing, due west into the well-lit night. Illegal immigrants. We were apparently sleeping on a popular immigrant footpath.
And sometimes you just have to get creative with places to sleep, especially when 45 mph crosswinds and blasting rain and dust force you off the road…
Highway – However, if you are traveling on a highway, then there may not be any rest areas as those are usually dedicated to interstate travel. In this case, watch for roads that intersect the highway; this will offer a path away from immediate highway shoulders and toward an often safer, less visible site to set up camp.
Picnic areas are also great for setting up camp. Wait till dark to actually lay out your sleeping bags or set up a tarp/tent, and pack up quickly in the morning to avoid hassle from any police officers.
Which brings me to my next point…police officers. If you see one and darkness is approaching without any visible places to sleep, it is an option to flag them down and let them know that you just need a place to sleep for the night. Ask if they have any recommendations. This provides them with the knowledge of where you will be so as to not bother you and to inform other officers not to bother you (if they are nice).
Truck Stops – Another great place to sleep is a truck stop. Again, I feel delighted inside thinking about sleeping in the presence of large, idling diesels. The places we find to sleep will usually lie on the perimeter of the trucks’ parking lot behind a masking bush or even on the other side of barricades as we recently did at a truck stop in Van Horn, Texas. If there are RVs parked, then sleeping closer to them provides a nicer sense of safety as well, and is a good way to meet kind people.
Scenario 2: State Parks
I will just offer a tip we learned within the first week of being out. If you find yourself with only a state park as an option for sleep, a way to avoid a fine for illegal camping is if none of your sleeping gear is laid out. If your sleeping bag, bivy, tent, tarp, what ever, is packed away, then you cannot be fined for illegal camping, even if you had the intent of doing so or already did so. So when you arrive, do not immediately set up camp; wait until literally right before you’re about to fall asleep so as to reduce the window in which you could get caught illegal camping. Similarly, when you wake up in the morning, do not linger in your sleeping bag or leave your gear lying out; immediately pop out of bed and stuff your sleeping bag and bivy into your bag as quickly as possible. Once you have done that, you are safe during any possible ranger encounters.
— David and I had a run-in with a ‘Peace Officer’ at the State Beach in Carpinteria, California. We had slept elsewhere for the night, but went to the State Beach the next morning because there were picnic tables that we could utilize for sprawling our sleeping bags and bivy sacks out to dry from the super humid night. The officer approached us and asked, “Where did you sleep last night?” whereby David responded, “Not here.” This didn’t matter to the officer because, since our sleeping bags were laid out, it looked as if we slept there. The encounter turned very rude, but he basically explained to us that he could fine us for illegal camping simply because we had our bags laid out, even if we didn’t sleep there. Thankfully no fine, and we learned a new tip to sleeping illegally on state park property. Thanks officer!
At a state park campground, you could also talk to someone who already has a site, and ask if they would mind sharing the site with you.
— At Leo Carrillo State Park just north of Malibu, California, we didn’t want to spend the $45 for a camp site and there were no hiker/biker spots. We were about to stealth it, when we met a guy named Scott who offered to share his site with us for free! We spent the night polishing off a bottle of Brandy together, sharing conversation, and Scott showing David some of his sick karate moves.
Scenario 3: Urban Areas
Gas Stations – As for gas stations/convenience stores, you could wing it and just head out back for a place to sleep, or ask the attendant inside if they mind you finding a place to hunker down for the night.
— In Fort Hancock, Texas we found ourselves on the narrow, no-shoulder highway at night searching for a rest area that a local misinformed us would be closer than we expected. Eager to get off the highway and find somewhere to sleep, we rode our bicycles exhaustingly around the small town. Stopping at a gas station, David ran inside for a beer and figured he’d ask the cashier if they minded if we found a small area to sleep out back on the property; the person kindly agreed. Of course, if you’re in a sketchy area or intuitively have a bad feeling about where you are, then you may be better off not talking to anyone at all (so they won’t know your whereabouts) and quietly finding a place to sleep on your own. Which brings me to another great safe-place to sleep…
Churches – (The religious buildings, not the fried chicken joint.) If you show up when someone working with the church is present, you can simply ask them to sleep somewhere on the property. If no one is present, then respectfully find a nice, unobtrusive place to lay only your sleeping bag (not your tent or tarp), and make your way out early the next morning, leaving no trace of your presence.
— When David and I were still living in Big Sur, California, we took a few days by bicycle to make a 180 mile loop through Big Sur down to Cambria, up to Paso Robles, across to Fort Hunter Liggett Military Base, and down Nacimiento-Fergusson Road back to our home. When we arrived on the military base, some officers informed us that we could only sleep at the hotel on the base or we may be able to go to Mission San Antonio, if they would let us in. The hotel was $80 a night so that was a ‘no’, therefore we made our way to the Mission. It was well into darkness and the temperatures had plummeted to below-freezing in the moisture-laden air. I. Was. Frozen. We met a lady who worked at the Mission who informed us that the rooms were full; we explained that we needed only a place to lay our sleeping bags. Not only did she allow us to sleep safely there, she even brought me ‘disaster blankets’ for warmth since I was quite a disaster and had resorted to being akin to a lump of ice.
“Warm Showers” via www.warmshowers.org – A favorite and a real treat is something called “Warm Showers”. If you are familiar with “Couch Surfing” (www.couchsurfing.org), WS is the bicycling-specific equivalent. Create an account online, search for hosts in the city or town in which you are interested, contact the host/s of your choice letting them know what you’re all about, and they will respond whether they are able to host you for the night with a place to safely stay, usually providing (you guessed it!) warm showers and great company.
We are grateful to have stayed with amazing people, some of whom we can call good friends now. I want to send a hug and a big thank you to these folks for their trust, kindness, and our wonderful experiences with them:
Tom and Nancy in San Luis Obispo, California; Mike and Rich in San Diego, California; Bob and Jessy (and their friends Sil and Susan) in Phoenix, Arizona; John and Donetta in Las Cruces, New Mexico; Alonna and Larry in El Paso, Texas; John and Deb at McDonald Observatory by Fort Davis, Texas; Austin and Shelby in Austin, Texas; Alan in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Sleep remains one of the most exciting parts of our travels; both falling asleep and waking up in new places each day. Completely new adventures lie in the places we choose to lay our heads.
— Written by Virginia, with photos by David