Is boondocking in parking lots facing extinction?

coffee and biscuitsIs the parking-lot-style of boondocking facing extinction? There are several signs that point that way, which is unfortunate. What’s worse is why extinction may be on the horizon.

Jessi and I enjoy a serendipitous style of travel. That means we sometimes have a destination in mind, but not necessarily a route or overnight stops along the way. That’s because we prefer to let serendipity play a role and — when we have time — stay on back roads or take a detour to see “The World’s Biggest fill in the blank.” 

So when nighttime creeps up or fatigue starts to set in, we sometimes opt for “Wallydocking.” That refers to staying overnight in a Walmart parking lot. We also have been known to frequent Cracker Barrel parking lots. They both have advantages and disadvantages. Mainly, the Walmarts tend to be further away from freeway noise but still relatively near freeway interchanges and are useful for picking up needed supplies. Cracker Barrels can be right next to the freeway, which sometimes means a less restful night. Although, Cracker Barrels have fresh coffee and biscuits available the next morning!

Here’s a quick video where I explain this style of boondocking when we started one of our days in a Walmart parking lot:

Here is the official answer from Walmart on parking overnight:

While we do not offer electrical service or accommodations typically necessary for RV customers, Walmart values RV travelers and considers them among our best customers. Consequently, we do permit RV parking on our store parking lots as we are able. Permission to park is extended by individual store managers, based on availability of parking space and local laws. Please contact management in each store to ensure accommodations before parking your RV.

There seems to be a growing trend involving Walmarts having to end the practice of RV parking. Walmart and Cracker Barrel, along with other businesses such as Cabela’s, have been long-time supporters of people in RVs. They get that it’s a good marketing ploy. If you stay overnight in the parking lot of a business, chances are you will find some reason to go inside and probably purchase something. It makes good business sense.

Two primary forces are at work that could make this style of boondocking extinct. First, some people are abusing the privilege they are being provided. Second, local campgrounds seem to be stepping up their lobbying efforts to block the use of free overnight parking. You can see some recent news reports about the change in overnight parking here, here, and here.

Companies being gracious enough to allow RVers to park overnight in their lots is something we should never take for granted nor take advantage of. That means you stay one night and then move on. I am in no position to judge the circumstances of other people’s lives, but that also means those parking lots are not meant to serve the homeless. For others, it means you “park” overnight, you don’t “camp” overnight.

I know there are some trailers that require you to put the slides out in order to fully use the floorplan. But if that’s not the case, then don’t use your slides. Don’t set up camp by having your chairs and grills out. And whatever you do, make sure you leave no trace. That means being careful when using leveling jacks and also picking up your trash. You should even consider leaving a place better than you found it and picking up trash left by others.

In towns across the country, local campground owners are encouraging elected officials to ban overnight parking by RVs. They usually will have ordinances passed that are all-encompassing and sweep up all parking lots within the new regulation.

Many times, people will use the unsightly trash left behind as a main reason for the change. See why it’s so important to keep things tidy?! But the harsh reality is that the local campgrounds are feeling threatened by places offering overnight spots for free.

I can see their argument if people are spending days at a time in a Walmart. Or if they are pulling in for lunch at Cracker Barrel and then staying overnight.

I do not agree, however, that they should shut down true overnight parking. There are some of us who simply need a place to catch a few hours of rest because we are weary from the road. I do not want to pay for a full-priced campsite at a campground that offers amenities I will not use. And it’s not just being cheap or wanting something for nothing.

When possible, Jessi and I will stay at U.S. Forest Service campgrounds, as an example. Even though we are just pulling in, sleeping, getting up, and leaving, we still pay the overnight fee at the self-serve pay box. But those run about $10 a night. Why would I want to pay multiples of that to do the exact same thing? I just need a parking space. And on long travel days — which aren’t ideal but do happen — we sometimes are pulling in around midnight and leaving soon after sunrise. Those are outside the normal hours of operation for offices at many campgrounds.

If private campgrounds wanted to cater to people who opt for boondocking in parking lots, they could have a tiered payment system. Maybe they have certain sites that aren’t the greatest but would do just fine for a few hours of sleep overnight. They could charge a minimal fee for a minimal spot with no amenities. That seems a lot more honest than manipulating elected officials into doing your bidding. And it’s less heavy-handed than establishing new laws to prohibit other businesses from doing a nice thing.

With the recent boom in RV sales and more people camping, campground space is starting to reach a premium. I find it hard to believe that local campgrounds that offer at least a decent spot for a reasonable price aren’t able to make a profit. They could all use some better public relations. What better way than reaching out to weary travelers rather than trying to force an issue that just tarnishes their image?

What do you think? Is boondocking in parking lots going extinct? Does it matter? If you care to save this practice, how can the RV community make a positive impact to do so?

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