Welcome to Walmart’s… parking lot

Car camping at Walmart

Car camping at Walmart

On my recent 25-day road food trip to Colorado and back, I spent about $1,800 on food and gas. For the whole trip, I spent exactly $50 on accommodation. And I did this in October, when many of the national forest campgrounds, which would be cheap or free, were closed.

Did I mention I did this in October, often at high elevations and during a couple of early-season snowstorms? One early-October night in Laramie, Wyoming (7,165 feet), the temperature plunged to -8 Celsius (18 Fahrenheit). I had no motorhome/camper or even a winter sleeping bag and tent to keep me toasty. Indeed, I slept in the back of my Toyota Matrix, sliding the passenger seat as far forward as possible, inflating a Thermarest mattress, then crawling into a three-season sleeping bag and stretching nearly fully out. So how did I manage this, paying for camping at only two state parks and one KOA, as well as staying a few nights at a friend’s place in Colorado?

Thank you, Walmart! Many of you who blithely plunk down your plastic at comfy motels and hotels may be unaware that this bastion of retail capitalism allows free camping (formally known as “overnight parking”) at many of its stores. I think it started as a corporate gesture to customers, plus it doesn’t hurt that campers crawling out of their RVs in the morning are likely to head inside and buy some bananas, milk and maybe a t-shirt of the local college football team.

Over the years, there’s been a bit of a backlash, mainly from municipalities that don’t want overnight parking in their jurisdictions. I’m not sure what their problem is. In my experience, it’s mostly older couples pulling up in RVs and never coming out, other than to water the requisite dog that goes with these houses on wheels. Maybe these cities have been lobbied by RV park owners and the like who feel they’re losing business.

In any event, some Walmarts allow overnight parking, others don’t. Walmart doesn’t even officially acknowledge the practice on its website.

So how do you find out where overnight parking is allowed? Start by checking this website, which often indicates which Walmarts don’t allow overnight parking. When you drive into a Walmart parking lot, you can also look for signs warning of no parking, hefty fines, towing, blah, blah, blah.

I use two methods for checking. If I see a number of RVs in a corner of the parking lot, I figure it’s probably okay. To avoid having someone with a bright flashlight knock on my car window in the middle of the night, I also go into the store, wait in line behind the people returning TVs and cartoon-character pajamas, and ask at customer service if they allow overnight parking (I’d advise against using the word “camping”). If they do, they’ll usually tell you what corner of the vast parking lot they want you to park in.

So what’s it like “camping” in a Walmart? I would say the vast majority of folks who park there are in RVs and are thus cocooned in their little aluminum world, with a curtain pulled over the front window and the TV on. I, on the other hand, sleep in the back of my car and am thus completely exposed to the Walmart parking lot elements. Let me tell you, it’s a different world out there, with guys fixing their beaters, getting into exuberant arguments and entering and exiting the parking lot in strange loops rather than taking straight lines.

One guy, when backing out of his parking stall, booted his rusted junker and would certainly have crashed into my parked (but unseen) car if I hadn’t honked. I doubt he would have left a note.

All but one of the Walmarts I stayed in was open around the clock, so there was a constant parade of vehicles coming and going, with some drivers unable to resist the urge to floor the gas pedal on an unoccupied stretch of parking lot. Motorhome generators and idling semis added to the sound mix. I also experienced a little sweeper truck that must have made a dozen circuits of the parking lot throughout the night, often hovering a few feet away to remove little bits of dust…. or vomit.

It’s not exactly dark in a Walmart parking lot, either. In fact, you can almost read by the glaring, high streetlights. As well, there are flashing lights from the all-night security vehicles, or from police cruisers that perform the same duties at some stores.

So how do you actually sleep in such an unpromising environment? Good earplugs and an eyeshade are essential. I actually had some pretty good sleeps, once I got used to things, though not as sound as in a darkened, quiet campground.

The biggest problem was just killing time till I was ready to go to bed. This mostly consisted of writing food notes on my iPad in the car’s front seat, listening to NPR’s coverage of the U.S. election and wandering the aisles of different Walmarts. Occasionally, I’d go to a brewpub for a pint.

The idea was to get to bed no earlier than 10, so that I could arise eight hours later and head into the store for a pee and maybe a quick, furtive hair wash under the tap. Then it was time to head out, in search of a good breakfast place with early opening hours.

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11 thoughts on “Welcome to Walmart’s… parking lot

  1. web page

    Hello! I’ve been reading your blog for some time now and finally got the courage to go ahead and give you a shout out from Austin Texas! Just wanted to mention keep up the good job!

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  2. Patrick O'Bagle

    My sister and bro-in-law became members of the Elks club. Free MoHo parking (“camping”) all across the US. I recall the Spokane WalMart pavement sweeper/vacuum circling my Previa van in some kind of ritualistic “wake-up” call. I think those guys are all Zamboni-wanna-be-operators.
    A buddy of mine considers his Pontiac Vibe to be his MoHo rig during his travels.

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  3. Patrick O'Bagle

    For showers, can’t beat some of the rural golf courses (in season). Course, you could go all out and cash in on the “9 and dine” with a shower between the 9 and the dine. Downside: too many golf courses proffer food you don’t wanna eat.

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  4. Rachel

    We just finished a 6 week road trip from the FL Keys up to Nova Scotia and did the same thing…Walmart, Walmart, Walmart. No one bothered us, (we were in a truck with a little camper shell on back) and got lots of good night sleeps. We were even out there when it was 1 degree F. We’re about to do a 10 day stretch from Nova Scotia to Alberta so we’ll see how that goes!

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  5. Geo paget

    Greetings Marathonmouth. I have just completed my fourth anual western states road trip in my Pontiac Vibe. I am a foolish but adventurous man of seventy years. When I retired I bought what I thought was the perfect RV . I cut a piece of plywood which could nestle up against the passenger seat so I could strech out in the back. With good sleeping bags and an air matress I am cozy in all weather. My gear is kept in plastic bins so everything is inside at night. I have a cheap gas stove so I cook with the tail gate up. My healthiest and most memourable meals were were served at the back of my car.
    Before my trip I studied the geology of the Great Basin of Utah and Nevada. Therfore I had a guest. Serveral times a day I could be observed climbing up mountain sides for no appearant reason.
    I was most impressed by Utah. I was most pleased by my sense of freedom. Upon returning home nothing had changed and I had been saving money . Win win. My friends think I am mad. What do you think?
    George Paget (Vancouver BC ,Canada)

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    1. bcorbett907 Post author

      Thanks, George. I recognize a fellow genius.

      On many long road trips, I have camped in the back of my Toyota Matrix, which is essentially the same car as your Vibe. Perfect for sleeping, and it gets great mileage.

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