How long can you stay at a rest area in Wisconsin? Is overnight parking allowed at Wisconsin rest areas? Can you sleep in your car at rest area in Wisconsin? Is camping permitted? What are the full Wisconsin rest area rules?
Wisconsin Rest Area Rules
The only law that the State of Wisconsin has with respect to its rest areas is a ban on camping along highways and lands immediately adjacent to. This law can be found under Wisconsin Revised Statutes, Chapter 86, “Miscellaneous Highway Provisions”. The law does not specifically mention rest areas. However, the Wisconsin Department of Transporation (WisDOT) believes it applies, and has gone on to post signs at its rest areas prohibiting camping. You can read the full text of this law at, “Rules for Using Rest Areas in Wisconsin“.
Camping versus Overnight Parking
The above mentioned law against camping does not define what camping is. The purpose of the law, along with similar laws in other states, is to prevent people from sleeping on ground or erecting tents. Overnight parking, on the other hand, is generally not considered to be the same as camping. As long as you are inside your vehicle while parked, most states treat that as simply resting, which is generally the purpose of rest areas.
WisDOT has also published a set of “guidelines and policies” on its website with respect to rest areas. These guidelines and policies do not have the same power of law as the above camping ban has. However, WisDOT uses these guidelines and policies to help them decide how to handle troublesome visitors. Below is a synopsis…
- Any activity which is not directly related to promoting highway safety is not compatible with rest areas. WisDOT uses this to determine if you’re at a rest area to rest or to have fun.
- Using a rest area as a geocaching site is prohibited.
- Hunting or discharging firearms at a rest area is prohibited.
- Long term parking is not allowed. WisDOT uses 24 hours as standard definition of “long term”.
- Service animals are permitted throughout the entire rest area, including indoor facilities. Non-service animals are limited to designated pet areas.
You can read the full set of WisDOT guidelines and policies at, “Rules for Using Rest Areas in Wisconsin“.
Rest Areas versus Waysides
Waysides are smaller versions of rest areas found along secondary highways criss-crossing the state. Some have restrooms, but many others do not. The State of Wisconsin nor WisDOT has enacted any other laws or regulations with respect to overnight parking at waysides. Camping, as opposed to overnight parking, is still not allowed.
How Long Can You Stay at a Wisconsin Rest Area?
Twenty-four (24) hours appears to be the standard length of time that WisDOT uses to determine if or when your vehicle is ready to be impounded. However, WisDOT also states that one of the primary purposes of rest areas is to promote highway safety. Thus, if you can demonstrate that you need more time to resume driving safely, no one is going to kick you out. On the other hand, if law enforcement or WisDOT personnel witnesses you enjoying activities outside of your vehicle, they’re not going to believe you’re still tired.
Is Overnight Parking Allowed at Wisconsin Rest Areas?
Yes, overnight parking is allowed. This is because there is no rule against overnight parking. There is only a law against camping. Because Wisconsin rest areas are open 24 hours a day, you are well within your rights to arrive at a rest area in the evening, and then stay into the following morning to get enough rest. Again, as long as you can demonstrate that you are here only to get rest, no one is going to kick you out.
Is Sleeping Allowed at a Wisconsin Rest Area?
Yes, sleeping is allowed. There are no rules against sleeping in your vehicle at a Wisconsin rest area. Overnight camping, however, is specifically prohibited. As long as you sleep inside your vehicle you’ll be fine. On the other hand, you’ll be asked to leave if you sleep on the grass, on picnic tables, or inside buildings. You may be fined or sentenced to jail if you pitch a tent or erect other structures.
Is Camping Permitted at Rest Areas in Wisconsin?
No, camping is not permitted. There is a law in Wisconsin specifically against camping along highways and adjacent lands. WisDOT believes this includes camping. Moreover, they have posted signs at the entrance to every rest area prohibiting camping.
Camping is considered a form of recreation, whereas resting is an act of highway safety. WisDOT will allow you sleep overnight at a rest area as long as you remain inside your vehicle, and as long as you’re getting rest. On the other hand, most of the rest areas in Wisconsin include recreational facilities, namely picnic tables, scenic walkways and viewing areas, children’s playgrounds, and informational kiosks. So while WisDOT prohibits camping, it’s clear that they do welcome some form of recreational activity. We believe that recreational use is fine as long as it does not extend through the night and into the following morning.
If your goal is to stay overnight at a rest area, we recommend limiting outdoor activity, and spend most of your time inside your vehicle. Don’t put out your camping equipment, don’t roll out your awning, and try behave like someone who is in need of sleep.
Where is a List of All Rest Areas in Wisconsin?
A map of all rest areas in Wisconsin can be found here… https://freeroam.app/places/overnight/rest-area
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