Yes or no, depending on a state’s specific laws and regulations concerning use of highway rest areas. Whether it is legal to sleep in a rooftop tent while at a rest area is often at the discretion of a law enforcement officer. Otherwise, it’s a gray-area in just about every state.
Is it Legal to Sleep in a Rooftop Tent While at a Rest Area?
Rooftop tents and truck tents (pickup truck tents), fall into this gray area when it comes to sleeping in (or on) your vehicle. It all comes down to the definition of “camping”. Unfortunately, none of the 50 states in the USA have defined camping with respect to rest areas.
Camping Versus Rooftop Tents
Twenty-three (23) states have laws or regulations that ban camping at official highway rest areas. See our other article, “Which States Allow Overnight Parking at Rest Areas” for a list of these states.
These bans also include viewing areas, parking areas, and picnic areas as long as they are located along state and federal highways.
However, none of these states have specifically defined “camping” with respect to its rest areas.
- In our years of boondocking across the United States, through our discussions with law enforcement officers and state DOT employees, the term “camping” refers to the act of sleeping outdoors. This would include erecting a tent, sleeping on benches and picnic tables, sleeping on the ground, and even sleeping inside rest area buildings.
- The term “camping” excludes sleeping inside a vehicle. Sleeping inside a vehicle is allowed because the purpose of a rest area is to help relieve driver fatigue.
- None of the 50 states have addressed the issue of rooftop tents, truck tents, or other tent designed to be erected in or on a vehicle.
The legality of erecting a rooftop tent at a rest area largely comes down to the discretion of a law enforcement officer. You must convince that officer that you are not camping because your rooftop tent is technically a part of your vehicle, and thus you are still sleeping in your vehicle.
Always Explain that You Are Too Sleepy to Continue Driving
Because rest areas are intended to relieve driver fatigue, you should always tell a law enforcement officer that you are too sleepy to continue driving.
- No officer will force a sleepy driver to get back on the highway.
- Make sure, however, that you remain inside your roof-top tent. Do not loiter outside, do not keep the lights on inside, nor make any noise. You must demonstrate to an officer that you truly are “sleepy”.
- If an officer tells you to sleep inside the vehicle itself, and not in a roof-top tent, explain that you need to lay down to get rest, otherwise it’s too difficult to do so while seated in the vehicle.
- Let the officer know that it is your intent to respect the laws and regulations, and that you are staying with your vehicle and not loitering on rest area grounds.
What if You Get Cited for Erecting a Roof-Top Tent?
Should you be given a citation for erecting a roof-top tent on your vehicle, and ordered to appear in court over this matter, your argument should be that the roof-top tent is an inherent part of your vehicle…
- A roof-top tent does not meet the state’s definition of camping because it was intended to be a part of the vehicle, just like a van or RV.
- You are using a tent that was specifically designed for roof-top use.
- It has a ladder designed specifically for access.
- The tent was designed to be secured safely to the roof.
You should also point out to a judge that the State made no specific definition of “camping” in its laws and regulations concerning use of rest areas. Moreover, you were not actually “camping” at all, you were simply using the rest area in the same way that RVs and vans are used.
More About Overnighting at Rest Areas & Truck Stops
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