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Urban Boondocking: What You Need to Know

Boondocking. Ever heard of it?  It is otherwise known as “dry camping” and the term is derived from the idea that you are going out “in the boondocks,” i.e. where there are no amenities or hookups for your trailer.

The Airstream trailer is perfectly designed for boondocking, and therefore is a popular activity for many Airstream enthusiasts.  In my opinion, there are two types of boondocking:  rural boondocking (anything from dry camping in a National Park to really getting “off the grid” on some public land) and urban boondocking (setting up camp in a parking lot or rest area).  Today, I want to talk about the latter: urban boondocking. 

When you’re pulling your home behind you down the highway, it’s easy to think that you have everything you need for a good nights rest because, well, you do.  Everything, that is, except for a place to stay.  No worries!  In your Airstream, you can stay anywhere… almost.

After a long day of driving in heavy rain, a Walmart that allows overnighters was the pot of gold at the end of this rainbow for sure!

There are a few unwritten (and written) rules about boondocking within an urban setting.  We’ll start with Walmart parking lots, and use them as our guide for this discussion because they are the most common boondocking site known among Airstreamers and RV’ers.  

Walmart has a corporate policy of allowing RV’ers to overnight in their parking lot, with a few exceptions.  If the local chamber of commerce (or any local authority) requests that people not overnight in Walmarts parking lot, Walmart complies.  Unfortunately, you will find this to be more common in popular destination areas, where it may be hard to find a campsite due to full campgrounds or a very late night arrival.  If the town in question doesn’t want Walmart to host overnighters, you will see a sign up in the parking lot stating just that. 

However, if you do not see such a sign, you’re safe to assume that you can set up camp, right? Well, not so fast.  First, find a place where you would want to stay.  It needs to be level, of course.  It should also be out of the way of any traffic entering or exiting the store parking lot.  We like to park over by the tire and auto service section of the store.  It usually fulfills the level requirement, and the area usually has adequate space to turn around in the morning. 

Your spot should also be well-lit to deter any unwanted attention.  I will say this now, and I’ll probably say it again, but if at any time you feel unsafe, leave immediately.  It’s just not worth it. 

After you have parked, look around for a security guard.  It has been our experience that security guards will approach us.  We just introduce ourselves, they typically assume and ask if we’re there for the night, then tell us something along the lines of “well, I’m here all night, so let me know if you need anything.”  So super nice!  If the security guard indicates that you’re good to stay for the night, thank him and offer him a cup of coffee.  But, if you don’t see a security guard, go inside the store and ask to speak to the manager on duty for the night.  Introduce yourself and ask for permission.  When you do, let them know where you are currently parked. If that is not a good spot, make sure you are clear on where they would rather you be.  I mean, you don’t want to spend the night in a spot just to wake up at 5:00 in the morning because you parked in the loading/unloading area.  Further, regardless of what the manager says, make sure you end the conversation by letting them know that you plan on doing some shopping immediately after your conversation.  And then actually do some shopping.  Even if it’s just cream for your morning coffee.  The first thing that should be on your Walmart list is the Rand McNally Road Atlas.  You can buy these pretty much everywhere, but Walmart carries a special edition that lists all the Walmart stores in an index in the back.  Further, they list the different amenities (such as auto and pharmacy) features of each store.  I firmly believe in always having an actual map/atlas in your car at all times, but this copy truly goes above and beyond and has come in handy more than once for us. 

If they do not allow overnight stays, please keep in mind this is not the decision of the manager, per se, but Walmart complying with the city ordinances.  Please remember that they have to comply with the local city government long after you leave, and their first obligation is to the city the serve.

Some etiquette:

Buy something.  I mean, why not?  You most likely have a list anyway, why not purchase from the people who are accommodating you, even if it’s just cereal for your breakfast the next morning?

Always clean up after yourself! During your pre-departure walk-around the next morning, make sure you leave the spot just as clean as you found. This also includes cleaning up after your pets, and never, ever dump anything down any drains.

Keep the noise to a minimum.  This is not the time or place for generators.  Some will make an exception if the area already has a lot of outside noise, such as 18-wheelers running all night.  I agree with this exception, so maybe it’s better to say: if your generator noise isn’t going to bother anyone else, then go for it. 

Unless it’s an emergency, stay less than 24 hours.  Stay even less if you can.  The point of overnighting in a parking lot is to get some sleep before hitting the road again. That’s it.  It’s not because you decided that Walmart parking lots are stunning and the end of your destination (although some of them have truly lovely landscaping).  So, unless it’s an absolute necessity, you should be out of there first thing in the morning. Unless you decide to eat breakfast there. 

Unless you absolutely have to, do not put down jacks or do anything that may compromise the integrity of their parking lot.  Many people say it’s bad etiquette to put out slides when you’re overnighting for free.  I agree!  BUT.  If our slide is in, our couch doesn’t fold out into a bed.  So, we do have to put ours out.   

Rest areas have their own set of considerations.  Because rest areas are not in towns, and by their very nature, a place for people to pass through, you may want to be more cognizant of safety issues.  There are two signs you’ll want to look for at rest areas.  The first one will indicate whether or not the rest area in question has 24 hour or nighttime security.  If it does, talk to the security guard and ask if it’s ok to stay the night.  If yes, ask if there is a particular place they do or do not want you to park.  

The second sign will indicate if overnight parking is allowed in the first place.  Even without 24 hour security, overnighting may be allowed.  If this is the case, exercise proper safety precautions: park in a well lit areas, preferably near others who are also overnighting.  Again, if something seems off, or if you feel unsafe at all, keep going.   

While the following places are known to allow overnight stays, the same rules and etiquette above apply across the board: 

Camping World 

Cracker Barrel

Cabellas

A special word needs to be said about Cabellas.  Apparently, Cabellas not only allows overnight stays, but has designated part of their parking lots to overnighters.  Further, some RVers have reported either free dump station/potable water availability, while others report there is a small fee for these services.  Still others have reported full hook ups available!  These reports are dependent on the specific store and location.  While we have not stayed at a Cabellas ourselves, once we do, I’ll report back on the experience. It is also worth mentioning that Cabellas has been bought out by Bass Pro Shops. While I am not sure if any of these policies have changed (or are even still in place), I will report back once I have more information.  

Bass Pro Shops (see above)

Some casinos have campgrounds, others will let you overnight in their parking lot.  The first night we owned the Monkey Barrel, we stayed at a (paid) casino campground on the trip home from Illinois back to Mississippi, so I wanted to mention this often overlooked option.  

The reasons these businesses want you to stay in their parking lot is, well, just that: business.  They want you to stay, and shop, and then tell other people about how nice it was to be able to rest your weary head for the night.  And do that! If you’re one of those people who likes to leave reviews on Google or Yelp, do so.  It does make a difference.

Remember, when in doubt, ask!  And be gracious regardless of the answer.  

Do you have a memorable experience to share of urban boondocking or have you found a unique boondocking-friendly place to stay?  Let me know in the comments section! 

Stay safe out there!

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2 thoughts on “Urban Boondocking: What You Need to Know

  1. Good content. Excellent writing.

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