Wednesday, September 27, 2023


When you think outside the ‘conventional campsite’ box, a whole new world awaits

Where is the strangest place you ever camped?

When I was a kid growing up in the ‘60s, our summer trips in our Skamper pop-up trailer took us to some pretty sketchy places to camp overnight. We were on a budget, of course.

Mom used to say it didn’t cost that much for us to hit the road because gas was something like 28 cents a gallon and we rarely ate out. I remember lots of bologna sandwiches!

We probably camped for little to nothing. National Parks were wide open and free or a few dollars. I clearly recall the peculiar little trailer camps where we seemed to be the only transients when we hit cities like San Francisco and Houston.

The Steele family (Plus Grandma and minus Cousin Bill at far right) get ready to head down Route 66 in 1965 where they will find some weird campgrounds. Jan Steele, in striped shirt, still looks for the odd place to park.

The strangest place I remember was near the middle of nowhere next to a motel that was literally falling apart. Still, a toilet worked. There just weren’t any doors and other pieces of the building were also missing.

Mom must have asked someone if it was OK. And here’s my point: The power of asking.

The travel group I belong to, Wandering Individuals Network, used to park for five nights in tiny downtown Patagonia, AZ, southeast of Tucson, every February, because we asked. Other RVs who drove by and saw this weren’t allowed to overnight with us because they didn’t ask first.

One of our older members would write the city council every December to ask. She was old-school, so she actually wrote the letters. We are good, tidy citizens and spent money at the small shops and Velvet Elvis restaurant, so we were welcome. A wide strip of land goes right through “downtown.” It must have contained railroad tracks at one time but now is a linear city park. Maybe 12 or 15 of us used to arrive each year, but our circuit differs these days.

Here is another point: Asking in advance will get you a lot further.

The same kind of group stayed one summer for six days in the city or county employee parking lot in Grand Marais, Michigan, six years ago, overlooking Lake Superior. Apparently, that lot wasn’t used much. One of our members called a few months ahead to ask where we could stay. We gathered a $5 nightly donation and again were good citizens and spent a lot of money in town.

This spring I ran into trouble at the DMV in southern Illinois. So, I walked across the street and asked the owner of an auto repair shop if I could park on his lot overnight. I would have been happy to pay him $10, but he let me stay for free. Nice guy. Again, the power of the “ask.”

If you’ve been to Florida, you know how hard it is to find anything but expensive RV parks. But a friend found Babcock Webb Wildlife Management Area near Punta Gorda. It’s only open a few months a year to campers (and you need a state fishing license), but 12 of us stayed for free two years ago and it was a blast! (You have to get over the constant baying of hunting dogs though.) Great biking trails, a lake to kayak in, and lots to do nearby.

Two years ago (in June!) I drove into Lassen Volcanic National Park in northern California at about 4 p.m. and asked at the front desk if there were any available camping spots. Of course, there were not. But here’s a surprise: The ranger let me park in the main visitors’ center parking lot for $10. Wow! I had no idea someone could do that! There were about five other RVs there and as many folks camping out of their cars. It was a pretty cool experience!

A few years ago, I stayed at the Illinois State Fairgrounds campground. I was there to meet two friends and didn’t see many other RVs, so it was a little spooky. All this magnificent space in the heart of my state’s capital and it was deserted. I would not have gone there on my own, but it was perfectly located.

I admit I would never have thought of these places by myself, but the lesson I have learned is when you think outside the box (i.e., conventional campsites), a whole new world awaits.

So: Where is the strangest place you have ever camped? Post it in the comments and I may be able to share your experiences!



Jan Steele
Jan Steele
Former newspaper editor Jan Steele started her career in third grade as a school correspondent for her local newspaper and has been writing for publication ever since, including a 30-year-stint at the Herald-News in Joliet, IL. She decided in fourth grade she wanted to hit the road as soon as she could—and retired eight years ago to RV full-time.


  1. The strangest places we camped were unused farm field entrance’s just off of the highways. Those grass covered culverts for tractors and trucks to enter a field.
    I grew up car camping. My folks bought station wagons, mom made a surround curtain. The front seat was my bed until I out grew it 1962. The folks slept in the middle( backseat folded down for a double bed. Tailgate was the kitchen counter. Travel days were a cold cereal breakfast (individual box with perforated opening on the side). Open add milk and enjoy. On mornings in roadside parks the Coleman stove came out we would have eggs, bacon and toast. It was so much free’er than now. Now there are too many people-to much crime-so expensive. I suppose the way we camped back in the 50’s and early 60’s was what is now called stealth camping or mooch docking. But it was so real and for a young boy it was an adventure that I have tried to recapture all of my life. I became a backpacker in later life but age and a damaged back have shuttered that freedom. I think now that is the only true adventure camping still available.
    Just some ramblings from an old man 😎.

    • I remember those cereal boxes!!! And I look at those farm entrances and wonder hmmm…can I fit?? What I loved about camping in the ‘60s was the adventure, seeing so many sights and spending so little money!!!

  2. Thank you, Jan! The strangest place we have “camped” is at the running track facility of my undergraduate college. My wife and I are donors to the track and field program and traveled there to see a two-day track meet. When planning the trip, we found no desirable campgrounds nearby. The head coach told us that we could park inside the fenced facility, essentially alongside the track. The meet was late-March in Kentucky and we watched the meet from either outside or inside our RV, depending on the weather outside. The nominal charge was zero, AND we got sandwiches, chip, soft drinks, and doughnuts while we were there. No utilities, but we were prepared for that before we arrived.

    • That is so cool!! I have also parked in at least three Marriott hotel lots (with permission) while my family rents a room. I would rather be in my RV then scrunched in with two other adults, two rambunctious kids and a big dog!!

  3. It has been said, “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than to get permission.” Something that seems to be catching on when it relates to RV occupants.

  4. My family wasn’t into camping when I was growing up. My neighbor and I, during the summer months, would round up our pup tent and head out to our backyard. Of course, our backyard was the local cemetery. We were never bothered by anyone; dead or alive.

  5. A number of years ago when we were still pretty new to RVing, we were traveling through Texas and wasn’t aware of all the “oil workers” living in the RV Parks. In those days, I never made reservations ahead, just called en route or pulled in. Well, it was around 4pm and we were in Odessa TX and pulled into the Mesquite Oasis RV Park and asked them if they had a spot for the night. That’s when I learned about “that part of Texas being full-up of oil workers”. When I asked if there was ANY place we could just park for the night, she said if we didn’t need to hook up, why, we could park out back by their pond! It turned out to be the best place! Quiet, all to ourselves, a fountain and a pond to look out on, and she said we could have the use of the office with their big TV, etc if we needed! All without a charge! Gotta love Texas!

  6. My wife was scheduled for a hip replacement early in the morning about an hour drive from home, without the morning weekday commute, so we found that the County Fair grounds had parking with minimal hookups just 5 miles away from the hospital. I called in advance and found that they had many spots available and the fee was reasonable. We went the day before the scheduled surgery, got all set up and spent the night and made the early appointment on time. We ended up having to stay an extra night, we stopped at the office to square up for the extra night and the gal in the office said that there was no extra charge. Being that close to the hospital and having to stay a couple of days was very convenient for me, I had my bed to sleep in at night with all the comforts of home, yet was able to spend most of the days at the hospital with my wife.

    • I, too, had a hospital experience, While in Arizona one year, my wife was taken to the emergency room with heart pains. The hospital staff allowed me to park overnight in their lot and even helped me throw an extension cord over a fence for 20-amp power, It turned out to be a false alarm and we were on our way again in a couple of days.

  7. Travelling in my van many, many years ago, I was stealth camping on the campus of Maryville College in Tennessee when the cops arrived in the middle of the night and sent me looking for another spot. Down the road a bit, I asked the gas station attendant if I could use a parking space until morning, and he agreed. When I awoke the next morning, I witnessed a beautiful sunrise out the front windshield. Then, without warning, an airplane zoomed right past my van and landed on the airstrip I didn’t realize was there in the dark. YIKES!!


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