Boondocking? Once just a secret among the caravaners and hippy kids camping on the cheap, boondocking has gone mainstream. Now grandma and grandpa use it as necessary part of long-term RVing to cut costs. Boondocking means free camping. Originally done only out in the boondocks, it now is popping up in suburban parking lots across the U.S. The National Parks TravelingMom boondocked in a Walmart parking lot last summer. Here she passes some hard-learned tips.
How does a middle-aged mom of three end up sleeping in a van down by the river? (Really an SUV in a Walmart parking lot.)
Blame it on Summer Vacation
Summer vacation offers moms the opportunity to regress. It’s not fun being good all the time. It’s exhausting and I’m over selling good behavior by the time June rolls around.
The nutritious snacks are the first to go. We loose the snack war and I let the kids grab the sweet and salty snacks of their dreams. The “it’s just for vacation” excuse wins again.
The next to go are the nightly baths. I can’t muster the energy to fight with my boys any longer. And really, if the teachers aren’t there to smell them, does it matter that they splashed around in the pool instead?
Blame it on the Summer Long Road Trip
With all the talk about reconnecting as a family and decompressing while unplugging, I headed to the most remote areas of the continent, the national parks. Places where kids can make smoke signals easier than find a Wi-Fi signal.
After a spending nine weeks exploring the national parks of the west coast alone with my three kids, I shipped them off to summer camp for a week. I got a week to work in peace at the location of my choice, Lake Tahoe. So I got a little zealous with my freedom from motherhood and might have temporarily lost my mind.
Who am I?
I’m a normal mom. Well, I’m a normal Traveling Mom. As a Traveling Mom, we are always exploring new travel trends and living by our motto, we’ve been there.
I have three kids, 9, 12 and 14, who attend school, play soccer, act in school plays and go to academic competitions. Normal kids who like to travel and are always ready for an adventure.
As a gingham-shirt wearing, PBS binge watching and PTA volunteering mom, I look like the last person you would except to roll out of the back seat of a Mom SUV in a Walmart parking lot at 5:15 a.m.
But I’m an adventurer at heart, especially when the kids aren’t looking. So here I am sharing my miserable night of pseudo-sleeping in the Walmart parking lot.
I know a lot of Walmart haters. I respect that. As a National Parks travel writer, I spend a lot of time in a rugged wilderness without much more than a dusty convenience store.
After driving across the Lower 48 to see the jewels of the continent, I see Walmart as a beacon of civilization with supplies beyond the basics of gas, ice and bread. Walmart provides replacement camping gear and everything I need for a classic cookout.
I didn’t wake up in the morning and announce to the world, “I’m boondocking today.” It just kinda happened. But unlike that camping trip 15 years ago where I got a cute little souvenir 9 months later, there were no lasting side effects from this experience.
Here’s the backstory. I dropped my kids off at the Seattle-Tacoma airport to attend a week-long camp in California and I needed to get to Lake Tahoe fast. Then the skies cleared and Mount Rainier National Park called my name. And I lost track of time and Timberline Lodge at Mt. Hood had to be explored.
I enjoyed a day of peaceful mom-exploring before I realized I was in an Oregon national forest without cell service. So I continued to drive and hoped for the best. Not worried, but the map looked a little lean on towns.
After driving for a few more hours, I saw a mountain lion. Added it to my summer road trip animal list, then took a glance at the map. Still looked like I was in the loneliest corner of the Pacific Northwest.
My Experience Boondocking in a Walmart Parking Lot
At some point, I realized it was late and I was tired. I needed a break. But if I got a room, I would stay through to late check-out. Lazily, luxuriating in a nameless roadside room instead of spending a glorious day on the prettiest lake in the U.S. So I needed to sleep for a few hours and continue on to my destination.
The big blue Walmart sign looked like a lighthouse, shining the way to safety in the tiny town along the Oregon and California border. I pulled in to scope out the scene. In a dark corner of the parking lot, I saw several RVs and a pick-up truck.
Looking around, it seemed safe. Security in numbers, right? Those RVs definitely looked expensive so I assumed retirees. If the Grands feel safe, so do I.
I parked my Mom SUV next to the others and climbed over the driver’s seat to hop into the backseat. That’s when I realized I was not prepared; namely, a sleeping bag or a real pillow.
Exhausted, I grabbed a wadded up fleece blanket and a beach towel. I tried to wallow a comfy spot in the bench seat, ignoring the crunch of pretzels and cheese crackers left by my kids. I closed my eyes and miraculously fell asleep, for a while at least.
What Would Have Made it Better
So I learned some stuff. Sleeping in the backseat of a smallish SUV could top the list for miserable nights. Better than the slowly deflating air mattress nights that I collect like keychains. Think the lack of air-conditioning is a tough night? Then don’t do this. Really, you’ll die.
Here’s what I learned the hard way:
An RV offers the most boondocking comfort. Don’t even think about doing this with a family without an RV.
Backseats are not beds. It sounds fairly simple. I needed an air mattress of some sort and my body was definitely achy in the morning. I slept in the same position all night and I couldn’t stretch out my legs.
Beach towels are not pillows. I didn’t have one and should’ve walked into the 24-hour Walmart and bought one for $3. A universal truth: decisions made at 1 a.m. usually aren’t the decisions made at 8 a.m.
Crack a window for fresh air. If your windows fog up, security might tap on your vehicle at 3 a.m. just to check in.
Pack earplugs and a sleep mask. They are must-haves for a quiet, dark backseat sleeping environment. Walmart keeps the lights on all night.
Bread trucks deliver in the wee hours of the morning. And they rumble through the parking lot. They will be followed by the milk truck. It’s a boondocking alarm clock.
The ultimate walk of shame: Walking into the Walmart at 5 a.m. for the morning routine with a toothbrush my pocket. But hey, since I don’t even know the name of this town, I probably won’t see my perfectly coifed neighbor either.
After the restroom break, I take a few minutes and restock. Hop back in my SUV and see a drive-thru coffee sign blinking to life across the street.
Dos and Don’ts for Walmart Boondocking
Walmart is generously allowing RVers and car campers to use its parking lot. Be courteous to the store and its customers, even in the middle of the night.
- Do Look for No Camping signs or check with Store Management to see if camping is prohibited.
- Don’t park in front of the store.
- Do look for a dark, quiet corner of the parking lot.
- Don’t use RV levelers or pullouts.
- Do walk into the store and restock.
- Don’t use a camp stove or set out lawn chairs.
- Do pack up and leave at first light.
- Don’t stay more than one night.
A golden rule here: Walmart is not a campground. It’s a safe place to sleep for a few hours before continuing on to your destination.
Other Spots to Boondock
National forests and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) sites have long been the spot for traditional boondocking.
Highway rest stops offer a spot to sleep for a few hours, if permitted. Look for commercial drivers and RVs for safety in numbers.
Truck stops along the interstate offers another spot to sleep for a few hours.
Disclosure: My children wish to remain anonymous. Please protect their privacy. They don’t want their friends at school knowing their mom fell asleep in a Walmart parking lot. Middle schoolers don’t appreciate suburban camping adventures.
Tips for a TravelingMom:
- Driving while sleepy is dangerous for your passengers and other drivers.
- Take a frequent breaks and get out of the vehicle to walk around. Or better yet, take a nap.