By Chuck Woodbury, editor RVtravel.com
For some reason, I have become a national authority on “camping at Wal-Mart.” If you look around you’ll find me quoted on National Public Radio and in Business Week, among others. The odd thing is, I have never done it myself. But I have heard a thousand stories from other RVers who routinely stay a night in a Wal-Mart parking lot.
But first things first. Camping at Wal-Mart is not “camping.” It’s not about pulling out the BBQ or even extending the slideouts. And it shouldn’t be about using automatic levelers, which can damage the surface of the parking lot. What it IS ABOUT is pulling into a quiet area of a Wal-Mart parking lot, turning off your engine and blending into the environment. Keep lawn chairs inside and don’t extend an awning. The idea is to sleep the night and then move on. Wal-Mart is not a campground. It’s a retail store that happens to be okay with RVers staying in its parking lots. It says so on its corporate website.
The website notes that some stores do not permit such stays. In that case, signs will be posted. Some RVers ignore the signs and get a night’s sleep, then move on. Others get kicked out 2 a.m, most times by a Wal-Mart security guard but sometimes by police. So, a good rule: Don’t stay if signs are posted.
Generally, stores post “No Overnight Stays” signs for three reasons:
•They are fed up with abuses by some RVers, who have stayed weeks on end, left trash, dropped oil on pavement, or even worse, leaked or even dumped sewage.
•The stores are located in popular snowbird or tourist areas, where hundreds of RVers might flock in for a night, with many abusing the privilege and staying a week or more.
•Local ordinances do not permit “pavement parking.” These laws are often promoted by local RV park owners who would rather RVers spend $40 a night to stay with them, which many RVers find a waste of money.
But what it boils down to is that perhaps 90 percent of Wal-Mart stores allow RVers to stay. But it’s implied it will be for a night (or maybe two in an emergency, perhaps due to sickness). It’s also implied that staying overnight means doing so in a self-contained RV. It does not mean pitching a tent.
Before settling in, many RVers ask inside the store if it’s okay. But some don’t ask. Generally, if you see a bunch of other RVers already there, it will be okay to stay. Most RVers who stay visit the store to stock up on supplies or just wander around. “I spend more in the store than I would at a campground,” is a common comment by overnighters.
Is it safe to stay? Yes, say most RVers. In all my years monitoring the news about the RV lifestyle, I have only seen a handful of reports of crimes committed against RVers in Wal-Mart parking lots, and most were among people who knew each other, not acts towards strangers.