Prep and Pack

Top Tips to Boondocking and Free Camping

RV at night
RV at night. credit: Pixabay

It’s a drive day on your road trip and you don’t want to hassle (and expense) of setting up camp for a quick overnight. Try Boondocking. Once a secret among the caravaners and hippy kids, camping on the cheap has gone mainstream. Originally boondocking offered leave-no-trace, free camping out in the boondocks. Now suburban parking lots across the U.S. are convenient stops. After boondocking for years, I am sharing all the top tips for boondocking.

Why Boondock?

You’re tired and you need to stop and rest.

It’s a drive day and you need to be on the road at first light.

It’s a holiday and you forgot that RV spots would sell out.

You have no itinerary.

For me personally, I always have an itinerary though I am guity of the rest. From a handful of Walmart parking lots to road side pullouts, I have boondocked hear and there.

Blame it on a Summer Road Trip

With all the talk about reconnecting as a family and decompressing while unplugging, I head to the most remote areas of the continent, like the national parks. for summer vacations. Places where kids can make smoke signals easier than find a Wifi 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. Then I got a week to work in peace at the location of my choice, Lake Tahoe. I needed to get there fast so I pulled into a Walmart parking lot for a few hours.

Then there was the time that I lost hours in LA traffic. I usually try to avoid the area though I was ferrying an RV from LAX to Reno and forgot it was the Sunday of Labor Day weekend.

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Who am I?

I’m a normal Mom who has driven across the lower 48 with her three kids. Summer road trips offer me the opportunity to relax. It’s not fun being the good mom all the time. It’s exhausting and I’m over selling good behavior when June rolls around.

The first to go are the nightly baths. I just 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 splashed around in the pool instead?

Next, the nutritious snacks loose the snack war and the kids grab all the sweet and salty snacks. The it’s just for vacation excuse wins again.

As a gingham-shirt wearing, PBS binge-watching and PTA-volunteering Mom, I look like the last person you would expect to roll out of the back seat of a SUV in a Walmart parking lot at 5:15 a.m.

Though I’m an adventurer at heart, especially when the kids aren’t looking. So I’m sharing my miserable nights of pseudo-sleeping in the Walmart parking lots and pull-outs.

Why Walmart?

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 explore 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. No lasting side effects from this experience.

Here’s the backstory. I dropped my kids off at the Seattle-Tacoma airport to attend a weeklong 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 peaceful day 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 yet, but the map looked a little lean on towns.

After driving for a few more hours, I saw a mountain lion. Then took a glance at the map. Still looked like I was in the loneliest corner of the Pacific Northwest.

What's Boondocking. First timer's guide to boondocking.
Find a quiet corner of the Walmart parking lot for a few hours of sleep. Courtesy Photo

My First Experience Boondocking in a Walmart Parking Lot

At some point, I realize it’s late and I’m tired. I need a break but if I get a room, I will stay through late check-out. Lazily, luxuriating in a nameless roadside room instead of spending a glorious day at the prettiest lake in the U.S. I need to sleep for a few hours and continue on to my destination.

The big blue Walmart sign looks like a lighthouse shining the way to safety in the tiny town along the Oregon and California border. I pull in and scope out the scene. In a dark corner of the parking lot, I see several RVs and a pick-up truck.

Looking around, it seems safe. I pull my SUV up quietly and park close to the others. Security in numbers right? Those RVs definitely look expensive so I’m thinking retirees. If the Grands feel safe so do I.

I park my Mom SUV and climb over the driver’s seat to hop into the back seat. That’s when I realize I’m not prepared. Namely, a sleeping bag or a real pillow.

Exhausted, I grab a wadded up fleece blanket and a beach towel. I try and wallow a comfy spot into the bench seat, ignoring the crunch of pretzels and cheese crackers left by my kids. I close my eyes and fall asleep, for a while at least.

What I Learned 

So I learned some stuff. Sleeping in the backseat of a smallish SUV could top the list of miserable nights. Better than the slowly deflating air mattress nights–I collect those like keychains.

Think no air-conditioning is a tough night? Then don’t do this! Really, you’ll die.

Top Tips for Boondocking at Walmart

  • 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 my legs out.
  • 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.

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 in your pocket. But hey, since I don’t even know the name of this town, I probably don’t know anyone either.

After the restroom break, I take a few minutes and restock. Back in my SUV and see a drive-thru coffee sign blinking to life across the street. Breakfast is served.

Top Tips for Boondocking.
Across the country, find RVs in Walmart parking lots every night. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Do’s 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. Here are more Top Tips for Boondocking at Walmart.

  • Do Look for No Camping signs or check with Store Management to see if camping is prohibited.
  • Don’t park the 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.

The next time that I boondocked in a Walmart, I had a minivan converted into a camper van. The experience was much improved. I had a realish bed along with privacy curtains.

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Boondocking in Pull Outs

When I left LA hours late, I had hoped to make up time on the open road. Though at my dinner break in the parking lot on the edge of the SoCal desert, I realized I needed a place for the night. After a quick research, I realized all the campgrounds were full for the night.

That’s when I found  

After a quick search, I found a recommended spot in a gravel parking lot in front of a casino. When I pulled in with my 34-foot rental RV, I saw a few big rigs parked for the night. Again, relying on safety in numbers, I looked around then parked. With a quick lock of the doors, I settled into the bed in the back.

The rumble of the engines prompted me to do the same. It was a night of so-so sleep. And I didn’t tell my cautious mother of my adventure.

Top Tips for Boondocking 

Here are my Top Tips for Boondocking for a night.

  • Pack bedding, like a pillow and a warm blanket.
  • Coffee in a can and granola bars make for a basic breakfast so pack snacks.
  • Watch gas and fill up before its too late.
  • Carry a paper map.
  • Check out a free camping webstire for top tips for boondocking sites.
  • Boondock in numbers.
  • Don’t camp where no camping signs are posted.

Other Spots to Boondock

Another one of the top tips for boondocking is knowing where to look. 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 offer more spot to sleep for a few hours.

Know Before You Go

  • A RV offers the most boondocking comfort. Don’t even think about doing this with a family without an RV.
  • Driving while sleepy is dangerous. Take a frequent breaks and get out of the vehicle to walk around. Or better take a nap.

What's Boondocking? Where can you do it? Is it legal? Does it hurt? Got all the answers to your questions from a Mom of three and Boondocking veteran Where to Camp for Free | Can you sleep in your car in the Walmart parking lot | Top Tips for Bookdocking . #FreeCamping #Boondocking


Catherine Parker has a passion for travel and seen all 50 U.S. States. As a former flight attendant with one of the largest airlines, there isn't a North American airport that she hasn't landed in at least once. Since clipping her professional wings after 9/11, she combines her love of the open road with visiting architectural and cultural icons. She is based out of Central Texas dividing her time between writing and restoring a pair of 100-year-old houses. She shares her life with her three kids and her husband.

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