Finding a decent RV park for one night can be a hassle after driving all day. Sometimes the safest and easiest thing to do is overnight in a shopping center parking lot.
Unfortunately there’s a certain level of risk drivers take when doing so. Eventually all RVers learn there are certain times when it’s best to avoid free overnight RV parking and choose a RV park instead.
Are you driving into trouble?
You’ll need to balance your own risk tolerance for parking lot stays. The best time to think about it is before you’re exhausted while behind the wheel. Now is the time to consider when it’s worthwhile to completely avoid free overnight parking on the road.
“I just have a tough time paying $30 and upward for an RV slot with little usage of utilities,” shares RV Life reader Steve in a recent Walmart camping article on RVlife.com. Fellow RVer Mary Jo agrees and says that “We are so tired of all the ‘fancy’ things that we wouldn’t ever use with a ridiculous price, just a good simple place to spend a peaceful night then move on.”
Most RVers can relate to these sentiments. But if you choose parking lot “camping,” there may be a time when you unknowingly drive into a hotbed of crime.
“As a retired law enforcement officer, we have a local Walmart inundated with problems of a criminal nature,” shares reader John Funk. “I’ve seen several Walmart’s with similar type of criminal activity, drugs, vehicle burglaries, vandalism, etc. A Walmart parking lot would be the last place I’d prodigies my family me or mine just for an overnight stay.”
When to avoid free overnight RV parking
Don’t even think about dry camping at a retail store parking lot until you consider these two common sense guidelines:
Skip it when you don’t know the area
If you want to overnight in an unfamiliar retail setting, stop and chat with people already parked there. “Talking to truck drivers is a great way to find out information, such as good or bad areas and rest stops to avoid,” suggests RV Life reader Dawn.
Leave if security cameras and “No Parking” signs are posted
Retail stores invest in security cameras and post “No Parking” signs for a reason. “Walmart parking lots at least in my area aren’t really safe even for non RVers. They’re a place where most people would not want to stay very long,” says an anonymous RV Life reader. If you spot security devices, turn around and find a good RV park.
How to make overnight RV parking cheaper
It’s not hard to save money on one night stands. You’ll always have cost-effective options if you utilize RV trip planning resources like RV LIFE Trip Wizard in advance.
“At our age we like to keep daily journeys relative short…so being a member of various travel clubs, it’s usually not too difficult to find something close by our route in the $15-20 range for the night, complete with full hookups and other amenities.” says Michael Grandy.
Join some of the popular camping clubs for RVers that make the most sense for you.
Sure, not all of the member RV parks will be winners. Check what other RVers say about parks along your itinerary and you won’t run out of options when you hit the wall after a long driving day.
Rene Agredano and her husband, Jim Nelson, became full-time RVers in 2007 and have been touring the country ever since. In her blog, Rene chronicles the ins and outs of the full-timing life and brings readers along to meet the fascinating people and amazing places they visit on the road. Her road trip adventures are chronicled in her blog at LiveWorkDream.com.
17 Oaks says
Try to have more than one discount avenue: Good Sam, AAA and do not forget Senior and Military. My BEST discounts have been military, one place I stay at is run and owned by former military and they give right at half off. Bear in mind that the closer you get to a ‘feature’ (town, city, beach, state/natl park etc the cost can really climb and the discount can get small. TIP: Many state/natl parks are very large and have several off the beaten path places to stay. These are generally on the back side and not on any main hwy. They may also have some drawbacks such as no TV and no FONE service. Their rates can be VERY low compared to the other side of the park. Yes you may need to drive 50 or more miles out of your way and it may be on some unimproved roads. But the stay can well be worth it if you like less noise, traffic and kids screaming…Check the map for these and often the views can be breathtaking, just a challenge and time to get there…
Norman G says
We have discovered that many small towns have municipal campgrounds. Almost always neat, tidy and quiet. Some have hook-ups, and others do not, but we have always felt safe in them. Maybe I shouldn’t give out this little secret and make it harder to get into in the future!
Merry Christmas to all!!
Ray Brown says
This article seems like an advertisement for the RV campgrounds industry. We have been victimized by theft infinitely more in “safe” RV parks than any boondocking we’ve ever done, either in remote or urban areas. We ONLY use RV parks (and only if they participate in Passport America) to dump and refill tanks, and recharge batteries. Our favorite “urban” boondocking are not Walmarts but RV-friendly truck stops like Flying J’s. The sounds of the truck stop becomes like white noise and you can run your generator anytime you want.
We’re new to rv’ing and truck stops sound great. However I would be worried about taking up a space that someone working could use to get some rest. What’s the etiquette for truck stops and rvs?
Most, but not all truck stops now refer to themselves as travel centers and welcome RVers. Pilot and Flying J often have toilet dumps RV fuel pumps and separate RV spaces. We prefer the travel centers over the Walmart parking, but will stay at which ever is the closest to our route. Common sense dictates to never stay overnight in a seedy looking area.
Phil A says
I have stayed at some flying J and feel safe. and the restaurant is open 24/7.
Robert Wilkinson says
Truck stops are a lot safer than mall parking lots. But have respect for the truckers. Don’t pick the best spot when pulling in. Park properly . If you are running a generator, park off the main area , to allow truckers to sleep without bothering them. If you have a problem, truckers will help. Talk to the staff and let them know that you would like to park overnight. If they have security , they will let them know to keep an eye on you. Make sure you fill-up at the truck stop, eat or have coffee in the restaurant . Give back a little bit. Plus enjoy your stay
Linda Hart says
We just took our motorcoach from NC to California and back. Every other night we would park with the truckers at a rest area. We felt safe and secure. Most states have great parking areas and the truckers were nice.
You are very safe around the truckers both at fueling truck stops and highway rest stops. We do the same thing by alternating the nights one at a truck stop an at an RV park the next. Have had no problems going from coast to coast
It never fails to amaze me when RV’ers driving $50,000, $100,000 or $200,000 RV’s choose to stay in free rest and truck stops to save $20 or $30, and then wonder why there are no suitable RV parks conveniently located when they want one. Similarly many shop based on price, and then wonder why businesses don’t survive. We get what we deserve.
Ken Jensen says
Sounds like the rv parks are getting what they might have expected when they began raising the rates for a night stop to the point where many of us choose shopping malls, Walmarts, etc ., rather than paying their rates.
Maybe saving for that $200k coach was all they had the funds for. When you are on a fixed income it’s not so easy to just camp where ever you want. A nice camper that has everything you need is good enough, you don’t always need a campsite utilities.
Jack Hansis says
Thanks for sharing the wisdom and experiences of parking lot stays. The additional truck stop comments were helpful. We’ve been forced to Wal-Mart three times due to lack of available camp locations. New England campgrounds mostly close down October 1st. Two of the three WM lots were quiet. None were known as high crime cities. Sometimes a call ahead to local law enforcement agencies can steer you towards a safer location. Even firefighters generally know the good and crappy sections of cities. Some of us are on fixed incomes and have to stretch our dollars. Many sold their homes to RV full-time. Remember that RV’s and MH’s in particular are poor investments because of the massive depreciation. So I don’t criticize those that are just overnighting in a parking lot as opposed to popping $30-50 without utilities, just to park it at a RV park along the way.
Bob Love says
About 7 years ago, we had a flat on our truck in the Mojave desert and pulled over at a lot by a RR track. Checked in at a lone kiosk, and changed the tire. Saw a guy walking aimlessly around (WARNING!). As I was putting tools away, he appeared out of nowhere (BE VIGILANT!) and pinned me against the truck; he reached in my pocket and stole my wallet. (DON’T KEEP VALUABLES EASILY AVAILABLE!) He ran across the large lot. I pushed away from the truck, grabbed the 4-arm lug wrench, and got slightly closer to him, let it fly. It bounced a few feet from him, and he looked back at this bearded, loudly growling running man in a bulky jacket, and dropped the wallet! (LUCKY! HE MAY HAVE HAD A GUN OR KNIFE–I WAS STUPID AND LUCKY!). Reported to the kiosk, and told police, but left on our way before they came–didn’t have any more to provide the law, just let them know.
We got our $12K 5th wheel in 2003 as a demo at a show. Still working great today as we prepare to full-time it. So I ask the question, ‘Why pay premium prices for a 1-niter when you don’t want the hookups?’ No matter what you paid for your rig! It’s not all penny-pinching; these days it leaves room for others at now-crowded RV parks, and why go thru the hassle of check-in if not needed? The story above happened because of an emergency, not a nite stop. We have never had another problem for the ensuing 17 years of mostly long yearly trips, stopping occasionally at truck stops and Walmarts, etc. between ‘official’ RV stops.
ben justice says
I would have gone straight to the 9mm I always have on me and taught him his lesson. I would not have killed him, but put one in his leg so he couldn’t run away and the called 911. While I stood on his throat.
You would go to jail because if he is running away from you he is no longer a threat to your life. The ONLY time you can use deadly force is when you are in fear of losing your life.
Roll ’em over and cap his ass!!
“…the last place I’d prodigies my family me or mine just for an overnight stay.””
Um…what? Time for a copy editor?
We have found a few ( usually small towns ) no frills rv parks. Gravel lot, pull through, just electric plug. Usually traffic or train close buy so not real quiet but very cheap. Ear plugs and eye cover necessary. Most rvs have 50 gal. fresh water and a combination of 80+ black and gray storage so good for 3-4 days.
Casinos are better and well patrolled, Some have elec. hook-ups cheap.
All Walmarts have security cameras.
We have stayed a few times at the diner or restaurant simple by asking. Be sure to buy an extra drink if they say yes.
ben justice says
Rule of thumbs is that if you see bog rig drivers parked there, you are okay. And always take advantage of your 2nd Amendment rights to defend yourself.
Everett Downey says
bozos like you are why ‘Muricans can’t be trusted with firearms…be aware of local/state firearm/carry laws before you shoot your way out of the Walmart parking lot,Cletus-
Old Prospector says
Everett Downey – What is your problem? Other than from the uneducated comments by uneducated people in the sections of Yahoo news articles, and from the slang vocabulary words used in TV shows and in the movies where did you get your vocabulary? The words of “Muricans” when it should be the word “Americans”, The word “Bozos” referring to an old 1950’s TV clown pertaining to children, The word “Cletus” referring to possibly the TV series “Dukes of Hazzard” , not to mention your own “Anti-Gun” / “Anti-Second Amendment” attitude, referring to your remark about “Americans (Muricans), can’t be trusted with firearms”, considering there are millions of Americans that are gun owners who are actually good “Law-Abiding” citizens as well as “Law-Abiding” gun owners who never have any intention upon violating the laws for any reason with any firearm, and I would trust them with a firearm any day of the week where I would never trust you yourself with a firearm for even ten seconds. – Really? – With your remarks, it leads me to believe that you are either from anther country, or else you have very little education yourself. – Not meant to offend, just pointing out the obvious of what immediately comes to the mind when reading your posted comment. Please, educate yourself, especially when it comes to vocabulary, as well as firearms before posting negative sarcastic comments. Most RVer’s who carry firearms generally are already aware of the different local and state laws pertaining to firearms before carrying them with them in an RV across state lines. Namely because, as “Law-Abiding Gun Owners”, they don’t have any desire to get into trouble with Law Enforcement agencies or personnel of any state in the first place. Plus I’m quite sure they would be highly offended by you referring to them as “Bozo’s” and of being Clowns, or demeaning them and their sense of self pride as Americans by calling them a derogatory meaning slang term of “Muricans”.
Stephen Hawn says
We stay at Wal-Mart’s every so often when on a long trip, but we survey the people’s that use the facility (to determine if we would stay) and if truckers and other campers are present. All Wal-Mart’s use security cameras, why would you leave, that makes me feel more secure. Normally there is more than one in the area.
Want free stays?? Join a group called Harvest Hosts. You can find them online. You can stay free at wineries, museums, farms, etc. where you can meet interesting people and visit their operation. Membership is $40 per year and the stays are always free but you should patronize the host’s business if you stay there. There are a few rules but they are mostly common sense and courtesy and you must be self-contained. Some have hookups and some don’t. There aren’t places everywhere and some are seasonal but REALLY fun when you find one. Check it out if you like camping on the cheap.
Free camping at Harvest Hosts
Over the years we’ve found that staying in a light industrial area just for the night has been a good option. Be sure to leave before the day workers arrive to park on the street. Usually there are several businesses that are still operation (with little if any external noise) and there’s enough employees coming and going to ensure that someone is close by if needed. However, we’ve never have had any problems over the 40 or so years that’s we’ve been RVing. Upon arrival at a potential spot, park and just sit still for a few minutes to get the a good sense of what type of environment you’ll be in.
Frequently, especially out here in the west, you’ll find large, unpaved parking areas used by 18-wheelers near freeway exits. More often then not there’ll be plenty of space for several RVs.
I once stopped by a WalMart in Las Cruces, NM and there were so many RVers that there was hardly any room for the customers to park. I moved on elsewhere.