Prep and Pack

First Timer’s Guide to Boondocking in a Walmart Parking Lot

What's Boondocking. First Timers Guide to Boondocking.
Looking for a place to crash for a few hours on a road trip for FREE? Courtesy Photo

What’s Boondocking? Once a secret among the caravaners and hippy kids, camping on the cheap has gone mainstream. Now Grandma and Grandpa are doing it. Originally boondocking offered free, leave-no-trace camping, out in the boondocks. But now it’s popping up in suburban parking lots across the U.S. I’ve done it for years and got all the tips and secrets for a first timer’s guide to boondocking in a Walmart parking lot.

Why Boondock

How does a 40-something Mom of three end up sleeping ina SUV in a Walmart parking lot? Funny you should ask.

Summer vacation offers Moms the opportunity to relax. It’s not fun being good 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.

Blame it on the Summer Long 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, the national parks. Places where kids can make smoke signals easier than find a Wi-Fi 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. So I got a little zealous with my Motherhood Vacay and temporarily lost my mind.

Who am I?

I’m a normal Mom. Well I’m a normal Family Travel Writer.

I have three kids, 10, 13 and 15, who attend school, play soccer, act in school plays and go to academic competitions. Normal kids who like to travel and always ready for an adventure.

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 Mom SUV in a Walmart parking lot at 5:15 a.m.

But I’m an adventurer at heart, especially when the kids aren’t looking. So I’m sharing my miserable night of pseudo-sleeping in the Walmart parking lot.


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 explorethe 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 day of peaceful Mom-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 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 in 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 Needed

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.

  • 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.

What's boondocking, First Timer's guide to 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.

  • 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.

Other Spots to Boondock

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 offers another 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.

Disclosure: My children wish to remain anonymous. Please protect their privacy. They don’t want their friends at school to know their Mom fell asleep in a Walmart parking lot. Middle schoolers don’t appreciate suburban camping adventures.

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. #FreeCamping #Boondocking #WalmartCamping Where to Camp for Free | Can you sleep in your car in the Walmart parking lot | Bookdocking

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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