Confessions of a Wal-Mart Camper

author image

August 11, 2008

Airstream RV Blog #76 – Wal-Mart Camping from Sean Michael on

Q: How many times have you camped in a Wal-Mart parking lot?
A: I’m not sure exactly. Maybe a dozen.

Q: Is it safe?
A: Yes, as far as I can tell. I’ve never felt threatened in a Wal-Mart parking lot. At times, I’ve even seen private security making their rounds, and thus felt an extra layer of protection. Most Wal-Marts have security cameras running at all times.

On the other hand, I’ve read stories in which bad things happen to good people in Wal-Mart parking lots. The first time we camped at a Wal-Mart, I was a little nervous. But my concerns were soothed by the presence of several other RVs and big rig trucks alongside us. One suspects the principle of “safety in numbers” applies here. Quite simply, most places are safe most of the time — especially if potential criminals know they are being watched.

Q: How can you call this camping? Shouldn’t you call it overnight parking?
A: I guess you can call it “Fred” if it makes you happy. But what you’re really asking is the definition of the word “camping.” Some people cling to a narrow definition of the word, insisting that all “camping” must take place in a tent! Others believe that camping can also include RV-ing, but must occur in a campground. I have a more inclusive definition of the word: if my wife and I are sleeping overnight in our RV, we dub it “camping” regardless of location. Note that just because we “camp” at Wal-Mart, that doesn’t mean we treat it like a private campground or national park. A different protocol applies.

Q: So, what elements of protocol that apply to Wal-Mart camping?
A: Park in a remote corner of the parking lot. Make it obvious that your visit is temporary by keeping your awning furled. Don’t clutter the parking lot with chairs and so forth. Visit the store and do some shopping.

Q: Is camping at Wal-Mart any fun?
A: Surprisingly, yes — Wal-Mart camping can be fun. I enjoy the “boondocking” (dry camping) aspect of the experience. You are responsible for providing your own water and electricity, so there’s an element of self-reliance.

Q: You save a lot of money camping at Wal-Mart, right?
A; Yes and no. Of course, there’s no question that you save the campsite fee (typically ranging from $15 to $45) you’d be paying if you stayed at a campground. However, if you want to use electricity for an appliance (TV, air-conditioner, or water heater), you will need to run your generator. So, with the price of fuel on the rise, the economics of Wal-Mart camping are affected. Sure, you may save a $30 campground fee. But if you burn $20 in generator fuel, was it worth it? Really, your savings depends on your generator usage.

Q: What are the downsides to Wal-Mart camping?
A: Obviously, the ambiance isn’t exactly Glacier National Park. You’re sitting in a remote corner of an asphalt parking lot. You will usually have the curtains drawn shut. You simply don’t care about taking in the view. In fact, you want to obfuscate it.

Since there are no hookups, you can’t empty your water tanks. And protocol demands that you don’t extend your awning, lower your stabilizer jacks, or unhitch your RV. It really is more like “overnight parking” than camping.

There are no amenities such as a swimming pool.

You usually walk into Wal-Mart and spend the money you “saved.”

And let’s face it, you’re not sitting in the Wal-Mart parking lot to meet people. Whereas RV campgrounds are friendly places, parking lots are not.

Q: What are the upsides to Wal-Mart camping?
A: It’s free!

There’s no check-in or check-out procedure. There will be no one rapping at your door the next morning because you’ve stayed a couple of minutes past check-out time. (This is one of my chief annoyances with certain privately owned campgrounds.)

The campground store is a DOOZY!

And really, we should not underestimate what’s happening here. In our ridiculously litigious society, an American retailer has “opened its doors” (or at least its parking lot) to RV owners. We have to respect Wal-Mart’s generosity and hospitality. Where else on earth does this sort of thing happen? In most countries, you’d be chased off the property.

Q: So are you for or against Wal-Mart camping?
A: Yes. 🙂

Moderation in all things, including moderation — and Wal-Mart camping.

I see nothing wrong with the occasional night at Wal-Mart, especially when you are just passing through a town. There are times when I enjoy making a spur-of-the-moment decision, pulling off the highway, and getting some quality sleep at Wally World. I really, really appreciate the fact we have Wal-Mart as an option.

But there is a cost attached to “free.” You sacrifice some more pleasant camping experiences in the process. So we won’t make it our primary choice of campsite. I’d rather support reasonably priced independent RV parks, not to mention state and national campgrounds. And when you factor in the cost of generator fuel, the savings aren’t that great any more.

But enough of what I think. What do YOU think?

Kristy and I are back on the road! For the latest updates, check out our blog:!

Leave a Reply


  1. A.W. Walker

    Judy: Re; your September 3 post regarding Smith and Wesson sign on your door.

    First; Do you have any idea what anxiety/angst your advertisement on your door will cause a law enforcement officer who might happen to approach your RV with the idea to “protect” you?????? You undoubtedly will enhance the possiblity of spending a sleepless night in encarceration because the unneeded alerting of the local gendarmes of your method of self-defense which is often illegal in many jurisdictions, and subject to spotty legal interpretation in others. So what:? I may carry firearms or other measures for protection, but I certainly do not advertise it! Egads.

    Second: As a firearms-knowledgeable advisor, I would tell you to NOT advertise your protection system to the bad guys. You are asking for major trouble and alerting an adversary on what defenses you have. Kinda dumb, if you’ll excuse the bluntness of my advice. A lethal firearm is the LAST means of self-defense!!!! Go ahead and protect yourself, but DO NOT tell your potential adversaries what they need to do to succeed with you! Ok?

  2. A.W. Walker

    I would like to express my hearty support for Jim Norman’s statements on this thread. Well said.

    Same as when you stop at a business to use their restrooms…at least go in and buy a Coke or something.

    Overnight parking: You’re staying on someone’s property for free…whether it’s FJ, Cracker Barrel, Walmart or your cousin’s chicken farm. Buy something from them for crying out loud!

  3. A.W. Walker

    Two points to make here:
    1. Parked in a Walmart lot or any retail establishment’s parking lot is parked. This is not camping; it is parking. When you camp, you set up a camp. When you merely sleep in your vehicle for several hours in someone’s parking lot, whether you eat in it or whether you sleep in it or not, and you don’t enhance your exta-vehiclular environment you are parked… in your vehicle. There are not a lot of definitions. You are parked in a retail parking lot…period. When you camp, that is something much different. No experienced RV traveler would be confused with the definition. Staying at Walmart is overnight parking, and their policy clearly states whether it is allowed, as do the local ordinances of municipalities who have jurisdiction over the property’s use.

    2. When asking for permission to park overnight in a private property such as Walmart, you should ask a Manager! Don’t rely on a greeter, a clerk, the cart retriever guy, or rent-a-cop security for any kind of authority to grant you permission on behalf of the owner. Ask the store manager on duty! Otherwise, you may get an opinion or a view, rather than an expression of fact.

  4. Gail Richter

    We have stayed at a few WalMarts while traveling and generally also end up shopping, so it’s not an issue of saving money often! 🙂
    However, in Gallup NM I was a little uneazy because of the occasional panhandler who wandered in. There were a couple of other RVer’s and 18 wheelers. We were told however, that they are not supposed to bother the people.
    In Yuma, AZ we were kicked out at 11 PM along with a couple of other RVer’s. Local ordinance. Naturally, the police wait until you turn out the lights and crawl into bed. They did tell us that we could park in the local Indian casino lot. The moral of the story is to check with the management first.

  5. K&D, that is an interesting story. I guess that most Wal-Mart parking lots are private property, and the stores are open overnight…so why not allow people to park there? An overnight stay does no one any harm.

    I love the security at Wal-Mart parking lots. In fact, I wish some campgrounds would offer the same!

  6. Terry, that’s a great tip about Flying J dump stations. We also have made use of those from time to time. Also, in some (if not all) states, welcome centers have dump stations.

    Steve & Teresa, our experiences has been much like yours. We’ve seen Wal-Marts with “no parking” signs that have allowed overnight stays anyway. Gotta love it! 🙂

  7. k & D

    We have stayed at so many Walmarts we can not count them. Had one problem with an assistant manager one time and sent an email to their HQ. Got a response fromt the manager. City said no RV parking and the AM said if we stayed there he would call the police. We had stayed there the week before after asking the manager. The manager call us and told us Walmart paid for the parking lot and since they were an all night store if the police came for us to just say the other one was in the store shopping.

    Most Walmarts have security driving thru the parking lots. We stop them and asked them where to park. They tell us where they would like us to park and they will keep an eye on our rig for the night.

    True we probably spend as much in Walmart as we would at a campground but then again we probably need the stuff any way. When you are retired and on a fixed income you look for the most economical way to go.

  8. Wildcat Steve & Teresa

    Oh,you can set a small radio ontop of our Honda 3000 and not be able to hear it runnin unless the air-conditioning is on.Its great for those places that you can’t be loud at.And Reliable.

  9. Wildcat Steve & Teresa

    From Mich. to Alaska & back,summer of 08 we encountered many Walmarts with signs-No Rv Parking Or Overnite Camping-City Ordinance bla-bla-bla. I would go inside and ask the Greeter if they enforced the ordinance the same way the rest of the Walmarts we stayed at on our trip did.We got to stay at those because we asked and found out that they don’t call the cops on overniters,just those who try to overstay their welcome,and then they would usually tell us which end of the parking lot was the quietest.They did say that the city could come and knock on our door and ask us to leave or be towed-BUT all of them said that has never happened at their store.We saved a bundle crossin the US and ate like kings and met alot of really nice people.Always Ask!!!

  10. Terry

    We have spent a few nights at Walmart. Only had an issue one at Walmart in Winter Haven Fl. My husband had asked the security guard in front of Walmart when we arrive. This we found out in the morning. We were told Walmart didn’t own the lot. We moved the rig in front of Walmart and then went shopping.
    When traveling NY to FL I lke Flying J.
    I have also found dump stations at Flying J.
    There is also a walmartrving group at yahoo

  11. Judy, I like your “Smith & Wesson” sign idea. It never hurts to drop a subtle hint. 😉

    Thanks Bill, I appreciate it. Not so long ago, Kristy and I were new campers too! There’s a lot to learn at first.

    Doreen, it sounds like your experience has been very similar to ours. We’ve never felt unsafe in Wal-Mart parking lots. In fact, the only place we’ve really felt unsafe was at the Las Vegas KOA – a privately run campground.

    Bruce, I understand your position. From our point of view, we stay at Wal-Mart when we are traveling from point A to point B, it’s getting late in the day, and we are only planning a brief overnight stop in a town. There are times when we pull off the road at 9PM, with the intention of departing early in the AM. For us, Wal-Mart has been a good choice in these situations.

  12. Bruce Lefebvre

    We have never stayed at a Wal-Mart and I have no plans to unless an emergency arose. We do our best to time our travels so we stay at RV parks. Whenever we went fulltime, parking lots were not on our list of things to do. But like someone else mentioned, thanks to Wal-Mart, Cracker Barrel, and places like Flying J for allowing it, there may be a time when we all have to do it at least once.

  13. When we lived in our rig for a year traveling all over the US, we stayed at Wal-Marts whenever the need arose to overnight on our way somewhere else. Very convenient and we never felt unsafe. We were rarely the only rig there, except by the time of our morning departure (we’re not early start kind of people).

  14. Bill Dumire

    Love your blogs, we are new campers.

  15. Judy

    We stay at Wal-Marts when we can’t find a campground, or are going from point A to point B. One in Texas had designated RV parking. We always shop in the store, plan our shopping around Wal-Marts.

    Last spring another RVer told us that they weren’t staying in WM because they heard that people were knocking on RV doors after dark and then robbing people. We stayed in well lit area and put a sign in the window. THIS DOOR IS OPENED AFTER DARK BY SMITH & WESSON. No one bothered us!

  16. Mark, our generator is a Yamaha EF3000iSEB — it’s extremely quiet and so far (after 15 months of use) has been completely reliable.

    Thomas, LOL – I know what you mean about “money savings” and Wal-Mart. We typically walk inside and find all sorts of things that we “need” to buy.

    Kav, that Google map of Wal-Marts is fascinating! Everyone interested in Wal-Mart camping should check it out. Thanks for sharing…

  17. kav

    I have camped at super walmarts in my ford taurus wagon in texas, colorado, south dakota, wyoming, montana, and idaho. I put up cardboard covers over the rear windows for privacy. Not sure if anyone even notices I am camping. I actually feel safer than at a rest stop or remote campground. Walmarts are everywhere, so it is really convenient to stay at them. Each one has it’s own personality and parking layouts. I’ve never had a problem with people or walmart employees, but then again my car isn’t too obvious. Some walmarts are newer and nicer than others. Some are in the bad part of town, but there are always another not too far away. I usually park in a area that is away from side streets or fields or other areas where there is less security. I prefer the middle where it’s not too obvious I am staying overnight. Some walmarts have parking areas specifically for trucks and rv’s, like at west pueblo, co.

    The only major con is when you are in a hot weather, it is very uncomfortable to park in a walmart with no air conditioning. I’ve used a portable propane heater in the winter. Also the all night lighting could bother some people who like it dark.

    Here is a google map of walmarts. It also shows which ones do not allow overnight parking, which are quite a few, depending on the area.

  18. Thomas Becher

    My wife and I spend 2 or three nights at a Wal-Mart each year on our way out of Wisconsin to warmer climes. You got to remember that after Oct 1 almost all campground are closed for the season Something about ICE and FREEZING. Most Wal-Marts we’ve stayed in are ok, but we did have some (twice) begging. (I’m out of gas) We’ve eaten quite a few rotisery chickens and a lot of potato salad from their deli.Then in the morning donuts. Save money? Not a chance, convenient YES

  19. Mark Sickle

    Just one question Sean and Christy – what make and model of generator do you have? It is SUPER quiet – I gotta get one!

    My wife and I are fifth wheel RV’ers and are about 1 year away from retiring and going on our “full time long long honeymoon”. We LOVE your blog and check it out on a regular basis. Sean – you are a HOOT!. Christy – my wife and I are perplexed about you. We SWEAR we have seen/met you somewhere. You look so familiar. Maybe you just have one of those faces….. Oh well, surf on dudes, surf on!

  20. Bob, we’ve had good luck everywhere with Wal-Mart parking lots, though I’m sure it’s good to check in with management.

    Roadrunning, it sounds like you found a rare friendly parking lot! Thanks for sharing your story.

  21. Roadrunning Sometimes

    We have stayed at two Wal-Marts (first one was in Grand Prairie, AB, Canada (bought merchandise there) because of very close proximity to the road and because we were tired and did not know where a campsite would be located….and we found many full campgrounds in Canada…color that ” no vacancies”. The second one where we stayed was in Whitehorse, YT, Canada and it was like a grand reunion with a large amount of mostly Canadian campers with a several lower 48 campers sprinkled in who were going and coming. We had a great time there visiting with different campers while we conducted our business and bought lots of merchandise from that Wal-Mart. Both of those Wal-Mart parking lots were wide open and we felt very secure. Other than that, we pulled off the road (next to the road) on a turn out.

  22. Bob Burgstrum

    Just a reminder to check for signs when you pull into a Wal Mart or other parking lot. A number of cities have banned overnight parking in any parking lot. Also check in with the store managers if possible.

  23. Stephen, THANK YOU for making that point. I’ve done my fair share of travel overseas, and I really don’t think I’ve seen the equivalent elsewhere. In most countries, security will chase you OFF the property! But at Wal-Mart, they are there to help. This “corporate hospitality” is rare in this world, and it really helps to promote RV-ing and travel. I’m glad to hear you had a positive experience while visiting the USA. 🙂


    My wife Mary and I had the pleasure of spending 12 months in your wonderful country from Oct 2006 to Oct 2007. To start with we bought a Wild Cat 5th wheeler and an F250, and started from Florida to see as much as we could. One of the things we found to our benefit was the option to stay overnight in a Wal-Mart car park. We did not class it as camping but as a stop between A and B when the next actual campsite was too far reach in one day. The main benefit we saw was the security aspect, as, when the local patrols found out we were English, they took a pride in letting us know that they would be there all night and if we needed them they would be there to help, a great change from our own stores and rest areas who inform you that if you stay longer than two hours, you are likely to be fined. Please Wal-Mart, keep up the good work.

  25. In a future post I’m going to compare Wal-Mart camping with staying at a local campground. Obviously, it’s a very different qualitative experience. It’s sort of like comparing a dinner of corndogs to a dinner of filet mignon and fine wine — either way you’ve had dinner, but we all know which was more satisfying. 😀

    Maggie, there’s no question that Wal-Mart is a lightning rod for controversy. As a filmmaker myself, I’d advise against taking any documentary at face value. Filmmakers usually have an agenda (except for me, of course – LOL). There are two sides to every story, and it’s rare that you get 50/50 balance. That said, I’ve heard that the Greenwald film is interesting. I’ve also heard that the 2004 Frontline episode “Is Wal-Mart Good For America?” is well done and at least somewhat balanced. But anyway, it’s a free market and you are expressing your views in the right way — with your wallet.

  26. Maggie

    My husband and I have in the past stopped for a night a Walmart’s as we travel. After viewing a documentary on the business practices of Walmart, we will never do that again. Walmart, High Cost, Low Price, by Robert Greenwald, is an acclaimed documentary that should be viewed by all! A part of this documentary, showed how the security cameras that are in the parking lots usually are not running at all. There is no one viewing the monitors in the store. This film interviewed victims of crimes that took place right under the cameras.
    We try to support local businesses when we travel, so now that will include local campgrounds as well as local stores, definately not Walmart!

  27. TXBrad

    Traveling A-B, we called to a RV park & they were full ( Rally group ?) Asked for alt. park, said Wal-mart , x-miles up the road on same highway. Even w/ ? times, RV parks often get full .

  28. Bob

    I agree with Jim, Wal-Mart is a good place to stay and get some sleep and a little rest before going from point A to point B but not a stay at for more than one night. There are some C.G.s in Californa near the Beachs that have had there Cities pass ordinances not allowing over night parking.


  29. Jim Norman

    I will add and or reinforce my earlier post.

    Stay at a Wal-mart if you must, but to make it your camping destination is wrong. Wal-marts and the like should be used as waystations on trips. If you are planning on staying in an area, go to a local CG.

    CG owners are not all bad, most aren’t. BUT if they start to think that free camping at the local WallyWorld is hurting them too much, they just might start campaigning for no overnight paring laws.


  30. Gloria, we usually take a similar approach. If we’re just going to spend a few hours in a town (ie. get some sleep) then Wal-Mart or Flying J it is. But I will say that we spent one night in a paid campground recently and had a great experience (more on that subject next week).

    Darrel, we haven’t stayed at a Cracker Barrel yet, but I’m sure we will before long. We stayed at a Flying J a couple of nights ago (BTW, I’m told that truckers refer to Flying J as “The Hook” — ha ha).

    Rob, we haven’t tried church parking lots, but I agree that’s a nice idea!

  31. Rob

    Another often overlooked camping opportunity is church parking lots. Just ask permission and maybe leave something in the donation box.

  32. With the exception of at the lake we have probably spent 10 nights at most at a campground in our 8 years of RV’ing. We normally stay in a Wal-Mart, truck stop or Cracker Barrel parking lot.

  33. gloria brandt

    When we left Virginia to head home, Kino Bay Mexico, we stayed every night at Wal Mart, Lowes, or Sams. The only time we paid in a campground was when we had to dump, get water & do laundry or if we stay a couple days in one place to sight see. I had a hard time at first convincing my husband to travel this was but now he will ask me to get the Wal Mart Atlas out to see where we will stay at night. The only down side to this is we cant do it in the heat of summer–these places do not offer airconditions—maybe one day?

  34. Jim, you make several great points. We need to be good citizens when occupying Wal-Mart parking lots. There are many places (in fact, most places) in the world where this sort of thing would not be allowed. I really appreciate the fact it’s possible, as it’s a great boost to the RV industry and to travel in America.

    Brad, I agree — it’s tough to beat the convenience of Wal-Mart, Flying J, etc. when you are doing interstate travel from point A to point B. That’s also a good point about how gas prices affect all of this. Last week we took a wrong turn in Tupelo, Mississippi. It wasn’t a big deal, but by the time we maneuvered back to our original path we’d probably burned through $10 of diesel fuel. Yikes! It makes sense to stop in easily located places.

  35. brad sears

    Hi folks:
    It took a little convincng to get Lucy into the Wally World and Flying J stops when traveling. Now she handles the Wal-Mart directory and the Copilot programing for trips and includes wal Mart except when we hit a destonation. For the most part Wal Mart in right off the road that we are traveling and the fuel saved at 5 bucks a gallon are significant. We have done this type of travel for over 10 years and believe it ornot have made some friends in the parking lot. Lucy was a wild life camper. She and her family were featured in Ford Times back in the 1960’s when Ford first introduced thier conversion camper on an Econoline van chassis as they bought one of the first of those units. Keep Kamping

  36. Jim Norman

    Wal-Mart, Flying-J, Lowe’s and probably others may, location dependent allow an overnight.

    We as the transient need to keep in mind that the parking lot we are staying in is not free. It costs a mortgage and taxes and insurance to maintain, plus the actual maintenance costs of plowing, stripping and fixing potholes etc.

    Be a good camper when you decide to stay at one of these places.

    Don’t complain if their delivery trucks show up at 3 am and idle half the night to keep their driver warm. Don’t put out your awnings, set up a barbecue, put your jacks down etc. Pull in, sleep, SHOP, SPEND a few dollars, leave. Do not leave a trash bag in the lot.

    If everyone behaves as we’d like people to behave were they to park in our driveway, all of us will still be welcome next week.’

  37. Lou & Linda, I agree… We do the Wal-Mart thing when we’ve been driving all day (often into the evening) and are ready to rest before leaving the next morning. It’s usually too late in the day to enjoy the atmosphere and amenities of an actual campground. And the next morning, we’re hitting the road anyway.

  38. We think that walmart is just fine, if you’re tired and just want to have somthing to eat and call it a night; then up early to hit the road.
    We have done this several times when we are just going from point A to point B. However, if we are going to stop about 3:00 pm or so we will look for a campground. Then leave later in the morning; as that is what campgrounds are for. Remember getting there is half the fun of going somewhere.

  39. Thanks Nick, I guess we all have different definitions of “camping.” Some folks think that camping necessitates sleeping in a tent, after toting all of your gear a few miles into the back country. Or maybe even sleeping under the stars in a sleeping bag. My definition is more inclusive; if we are spending the night in our RV, we consider it camping whether we’re in our backyard or a friend’s driveway or Yellowstone National Park (or in a Wal-Mart parking lot). It’s just that each location offers a different qualitative experience.

    Thanks also for sharing that info about the apparent safety of Wal-Mart parking lots. It’s good to know!

  40. The thing is, parking at WalMart overnight is not camping. It is just a safe, free place to park. We have done it many times and saved a lot of money. But to compare a night at WallyWorld to camping is to compare apples to oranges.

    As to the safety issue, in 9+ years of publishing the Gypsy Journal RV Travel Newspaper, I have only heard of one verifiable incident that involved violence directed to an RVer at a WalMart..

    That was in Cedar City, Utah a while back, where an RVer got into an altercation with someone in the parking lot, and a shooting resulted. And that could have been avoided. All he had to do was stay inside his RV, call the police, and/or drive away.

    There was a murder in an RV at A WalMart in Arizone a while back, but the police investigation revealed that it stemmed from a drug deal that went sour. I guess the moral to that story is “Don’t deal drugs from your RV at WalMart.”