When you’re planning a road trip, you’ll likely build the itinerary around rest stops and overnights. But the best night’s sleep you get may not be at your destination or even at night.
No matter your trip’s duration, we’ve put together a guide on safely and comfortably sleeping, whether you’re traveling in a compact car or recreational vehicle. Discover how to create a schedule and routines that account for where and when you want to sleep, and how to do it comfortably.
Great sleep is just over the horizon. Let’s get rolling.
Sleep might be your new favorite part of a road trip
Keep in mind that we’re aiming for the kind of deep, fulfilling sleep you had as a kid, where time melts away and nothing disturbs you. For Joel Johnson, a veteran of multiple cross-country driving trips and the co-founder of Pretzel.io, good sleep as a passenger starts with knowing exactly who is behind the wheel.
“The number one thing that allows me to sleep in a car is trust in the driver,” Johnson says. “If I have that trust, then I can sleep like a baby.”
A nap can leave you feeling refreshed and help pass the time, especially since the GPS app is likely your driver’s first choice of navigator. It’s also a nice way to switch off responsibilities with a driver. They rest when you arrive at your destination while you set up camp or fix dinner.
Wonder why it’s easier to fall asleep as your recreational vehicle rolls down the road? It may be because cars and camper vans are like traveling white noise machines.
Similar to the low repetitive sounds produced by a white noise machine — the gentle fall of rain, whale sounds or the ‘fwip-fwip’ of a rotating fan — vehicles can gently lull you to sleep. If you focus on the steady hum of the engine or the rhythmic rotation of your tires, you may find your breathing slowing down and eyes getting droopy, similar to the calming practice of box breathing.
Sleeping in different vehicles on a road trip
There are several options for vehicles when you plan to hit the road, and each one offers different possibilities for sleeping. Here are some ideas for tailoring each option to your sleep routine from the biggest (bus) to the smallest (the car you drive every day).
Bus: Look for a window seat in the middle of the bus to avoid noise from the driver and people getting up to use the bathroom in the back. Wear layers, so you can either remove or add clothes to account for blasts of air conditioning or the warmth of the sun shining through the window. Opt for a neck pillow for additional support and a face mask to block out light.
Recreational vehicle: Before you stop for the night, figure out exactly where everyone is going to sleep. Recreational vehicles often have fold-out beds, and larger models come with sleeping lofts or separate bedrooms. Then, rely on some of the techniques that help you sleep at home such as turning off screens and creating a separate sleeping space for your dog. Bring a favorite pillow or sheets to make a new bed feel more familiar.
Camper van: If you’ve been thinking about embracing “van life,” and seeing the country in a camper van, consistent sleep is an important piece of the puzzle. In order to sleep in a van, consider investing in a nice mattress, moisture-wicking sheets to stay cool, and blackout curtains to keep out the light.
Station wagon or minivan: Station wagons and minivans can be great choices if napping is part of the plan for your road trip. Minivans often offer more space to spread out. They also often offer the ability to adjust the temperature near your seat. If there are more than two people in your family or travel pod, travel expert Jill Robbins recommends considering a minivan because most have a second row that reclines.
Your car: Take advantage of the fact that you can store more in a car than in your luggage. Pack for comfort, even if it means bringing an extra pillow, blanket, or sleep mask. When traveling in your car, Johnson suggests bringing a pillow to hold or lean against, depending on your preferred sleeping position. Your car can be transformed into a comfortable sleeping spot with careful packing and scheduling.
Plot out when and where to sleep
If you are taking a long road trip, avoid racing to the finish line at breakneck speed. Pushing yourself to cover more miles can mean less time to wind down at night, which increases sleep debt and could even ruin your vacation (or at least your mood).
If you’ve planned your road trip based on how fast someone can drive and push themselves, this is your cue to rethink your plans and work in time for walks in parks you pass or meals at roadside diners. Not only will your sleep schedule thank you but so will your brain and anxiety. Most importantly, it’ll help decrease the risk of drowsy driving.
Start with a goal destination for every day on the road. If you’re reserving a hotel room for the night, be conservative with the miles you’ve got to cover. This gives you extra time to sightsee and takes away the stress of having to stay on the road after you’re tired. Planning on sleeping in the back of your camper van or RV? Making a reservation at a campsite can give you a natural stopping point in your day and keep you from pushing yourself too hard.
And if you are traveling with little ones, consider their meal, nap, and sleep times. A car ride of “Are we there yet?” is much easier to endure and entertain than midnight chaos energy in a hotel room. Sing songs, play road games, or tell interactive stories to keep kids awake for the last leg of the trip and try to combine bathroom breaks with stops for gas and stretching. You, the driver, and your kiddos will appreciate it when you arrive at your destination.
How to establish good sleep routines on the road
Road trips mean you’ll be away from your bed at home; but you don’t have to leave behind the sleep routines that help you fall asleep.
“Sleeping is something that needs to be planned and thought out in advance, just like any other aspect of trip planning,” Robbins says.
Robbins notes that kids and adults do have different sleeping routines, which makes pre-planning car sleep even more important. For example, taking multiple sleep routines on the road into one vehicle might mean making multiple playlists: a sleep playlist for passengers to listen to on headphones and a podcast or upbeat mix for the driver. Grab the book you read each night to help signal to your kids that it’s time to quiet down. Help yourself relax by dabbing a small bit of lotion infused with your favorite essential oil.
To prioritize comfortable sleep on a road trip, pack things like:
- ear plugs or noise-cancelling headphones to stifle loud noises
- a weighted blanket for travel anxiety
- layers of clothing to help with hot and cold sleep
Robbins points out that the driver can pitch in by using the audio controls to steer noise away from the part of the car where someone is sleeping. She also suggests taking little pieces of home like “any comfort item that kids normally use to sleep.” Whether that’s a stuffed animal or favorite blanket, it can help little ones transition into sleep with less of a fuss.
How to sleep comfortably in a moving car
Often road trips are planned with more of reaching the destination and less of what you should do during the journey. Planning with your sleep habits in mind before you even hit the road will help boost your overall sleep quality even more. For future road trips, sleep psychologist Sarah Silverman recommends trying to take your good sleep habits with you.
“Your sleep space in the car should be comfortable, cozy, and free of distractions, just as you would try to keep your bedroom at home,” she says. This means taking a break from screens and building in screen-free activities – like a scavenger hunt or podcast – for kids and adults alike.
Block out the light
“It’s important to have a dark, cool temperature and quiet environment wherever you sleep,” Silverman says. If you turn around and see your kids squinting in their sleep, pull up the sunshades or window screens to block out the sunlight. You can also hang up a towel or blanket for the side windows.
Johnson recommends a sleep mask.
“It’s not just about light, it’s about the light changing, as the sun moves or you go past streetlights at night,” Johnson says. “A sleep mask puts you in your own little world.”
Adjust for a comfy sleep position
The challenge for those looking to sleep or to get kids to sneak in a nap during a long trip is that seats in car aren’t designed with sleeping in mind.
“Car seats are made to hold you in one upright position, so you have to find safe ways to make yourself more comfortable,” Johnson says.
In a pinch, you can use a rolled-up sweatshirt or packing cube as a headrest to avoid getting a crick in your neck. Don’t have one right now? Be sure to grab something out from the trunk at your next rest stop.
Stretch your legs
Resting your legs up can help with circulation and prevent it from swelling — an important comfort factor for if it’s your turn to drive. You don’t want your foot seizing or feeling weird when it’s on the accelerator. Thankfully, the passenger in the front seat does have a secret sleep weapon: leg room.
“Stretch your feet all the way out, take advantage of the space you have up front,” Johnson says.
Slightly recline your seat. Move it backward. Stretch your feet out below the dashboard. Some car models also have a small shelf beneath the glove compartment, which can double as a footrest.
If you’re in the backseat, look to angle your body while still belted in to help stretch out your legs.
What to do if a road trip nap is necessary
You may set out on your trip determined to stay up to help your driver out; however, sometimes a nap is inevitable. If a well-lit parking lot or rest stop for shut eye isn’t feasible, then getting sleep as a passenger may be important for folks who want to keep making progress on the road. As a passenger, the first thing you should do is tell everyone you intend on napping.
“Make sure the driver knows they can wake you if they need something or agree on how long you’ll sleep,” Robbins says.
Pre-planning also comes in handy for emergency sleep situations. If you need to suddenly pull over due to extreme fatigue, you may not be able to be too picky about where you are stopping. In these cases, Silverman suggests a “napping for driver safety” sign could come in handy to put up in the windshield.
“Visual sleep cues help communicate to others that you are intentionally napping and not in distress,” Silverman says.
Lastly, not many drivers enjoy being the only one awake on a long ride.
As the passenger, the unspoken rule is to be the driver’s second brain, whether that’s navigator, snack distributor, or DJ. So, if you haven’t had the convo before the wheels start turning, discuss whether you need to sleep or not and if the driver has the OK to wake you up if you do fall asleep. Waking up in the middle of a sleep cycle isn't usually recommended but there are exceptions, and road trips are probably one of them.
Road trip sleep, unlike regular in-bed sleep, is a unique situation. Often, we just close our eyes “for a moment” and those minutes fly by, leaving us to wake up with a crick in our neck. Sleep at night might not happen that quickly but at least our necks aren’t sore. By pre-planning and clearly communicating with passengers, car sleep doesn’t have to be a win or lose situation.