Boondocking 101

August 2001

Last month my brother from St. George, Utah summoned me to assist him in relocating his household to Salmon, Idaho. This meant, I would have to drive from Powell, Wyoming to St. George, follow him to Salmon from St. George and than make the return from Salmon to Powell. As some may know, driving from Powell to St. George is a long, long one-day drive. The punishment of such a drive seemed inconceivable so, I decided to stretch it into two days and find out for myself what all the recent hoopla was regarding boondocking (overnight camping in a Walmart parking lot). I reckoned that the Walmarts in Rock Springs or Evanston would be the most likely “camps” depending on what time I left Powell.

While passing over the great expanses of Wyoming’s high desert, I wondered about my boondocking status—i.e., if I was good enough. There’s no silver bullet Airstream trailer parked in my backyard nor the big rig required to pull it. I don’t even have one of those pop-up tent/trailers. Nope, just a Mazda 626 equipped with a padded cot that folds up to fit in the boot and an old quilt for bedding. If rain came, the back seat of the Mazda and the little comfort offered there would have to do. And what if the Walmart authorities kicked me out of their lot for not having enough recreational mass according to their definition of a boondocker? What would they think of me—actually sleeping outside of my “rig” on my fold-out cot in the open air? Would that be taking the boondocking concept a wee bit too far?

Before reaching Evanston, I’d been contemplating my arrival under the cover of darkness. Would there be any signs of “camp” camaraderie and if so, would it be present at this late hour? I feared any social activity from the evening would have ceased in preparation for the various early departures in the morning. After all, who would really want to prolong the camping experience in a Walmart car park—as if the store’s staff would come by in the morning knocking on RVs and offering them a continental breakfast?

Some four hundred miles from Powell, I arrived at the Evanston, Wyoming Walmart—around 10:30 p.m. I stumbled into the Arby’s next door and treated myself to a meal of fine fast food; it seemed like the right thing to do after a day of nothing but bagels in my diet. This late arrival was not determined by fate alone. I had purposely chosen the later hour of arrival in Evanston over the earlier one in Rock Springs. If I had been so determined to check out the pre-camp atmosphere during the early evening, I could have opted for the Walmart at Rock Springs. But my fears of becoming a boondocker outcast outweighed all the other factors in my decision.

Simply put, I didn’t want to make my formal and obvious entrance into the fraternal order of boondockers with such a modest display of camping gear; I felt better about arriving at a later time and thus drawing less attention to my deprived recreational state. Perhaps on another day I would make a second entrance that included all the recreational stuff worthy of boondocker status.

Before I go any further, I just want to make sure that anyone who reads this drivel knows that I’m by no means partial to Walmart. Yeah, I shop there sometimes but I’d hardly consider myself a dedicated fan. Be assured, they haven’t made their mint from people like me.

So, there I was in the Evanston Walmart car park—plenty of campers to report, but there was no activity. To say that the parking lot was well lit would have been an understatement. I was wondering if anyone could sleep in this environment as it reminded me of the lighting that is used for interrogating a suspect in a crime. At this time, I started to rethink my idea of setting up the cot on the surface of the car park next to my Mazda. For one, it was noisy, thanks to the refrigerators and engines idling from the various semis parked there. I hadn’t counted on this strain of boondocker. Secondly, I decided it might be interpreted as disrespectful if a boondocker slept out on the deck of the car park. If someone else had set up a tent, or constructed a hammock between the lighting structures than surely I would have set up my old cot. Later that night, I pondered the rebel status directed at me from others as I considered my cowardliness in sleeping out on the asphalt. I felt unworthy of such character.

Nevertheless, I set up my bed by folding down the back seats in the 626, allowing my legs to expand into the boot. By midnight there were nine RV parties that I could identify and nine semi trucks. There may have been a few scant cars like myself but short of actually going up and looking in the windows to determine if they are camping or just local teenagers making out, I couldn’t be sure. For all I know, the scattering of sedans may only be those that have been left behind after a day of business. I’m sure Walmart  always has a car or two remaining everyday from those customers who return to their car following a shopping spree only to find it won’t start.

The Morning After
Well, it wasn’t exactly like a one-night stand where the involved parties feel guilty and slip out before the day’s light. For one, I couldn’t get myself out of the car before 7:00 a.m.; long after the sun had been trying to shine on me through my car windows. In a quick survey of the anticipated vacant lot, I discovered more RVs and semi trucks had arrived following my retire. From this perspective, it also appeared that no one had departed early as all the RVs that were present the night before when I made my survey were still present at this hour. So much for my theory of not wanting to hang around in a Walmart car park.

After restoring my “rig” back to it’s usual travel mode, I moseyed on over to McDonald’s for a light breakfast and most important, a strong cup of coffee. Walking across the “campgrounds,” I expected to see more rubbish and other discarded material left behind by the boondockers but, for the most part, it was minimal. I suppose the oil and radiator fluid leaking from the cars of Walmart shoppers on any given day is no better than the night’s refuse associated with a band of boondockers.

From a quiet booth in the McDonald’s next door, it came to me like an epiphany; that the string of fast-food establishments near the Evanston Walmart and other stores like it must profit from the boondocker fallout in the same way Walmart profits—and they don’t even have to worry about cleaning up the car park. And what of the gas station/convenience store just down the road? Is their business deprived or blessed as a result of the boondocker factor? Further, what is the “break-even distance” from a Walmart for any given business? Does it matter what kind of business it is? Now I know what to write about for my dissertation if I ever seek out that illustrious Ph.D.

Butte, Montana
In my return trip from Salmon, Idaho, I decided to drum up a discussion or two with fellow boondockers about their views on the Cody Walmart boondocking controversy. I reckoned the more-seasoned boondocker might shed some light on the issue in ways I hadn’t thought about.

The new Butte, Montana Walmart Super Center turned out to be where I would make my second attempt at boondocking. My early arrival assured me that I would have plenty of daylight to seek out fellow boondockers for their viewpoints on why overnighting at a Walmart isn’t such a bad idea.

Admittedly, I was a bit uncomfortable when I walked up to the back of a pick-up with a full-size camper hailing plates from Ontario. I’m sure they found me a bit out of place at first and were likely a bit cautious as to why I was asking them questions about their camping choices—probably thought I might be from the IRS. Another couple were corralled in the car park as they were making their way toward their thirty-five footer with a trundle full of Walmart goods. They turned out to be from Rhode Island by way of Texas. From these two parties alone, I learned quite a bit about the everyday concerns of RVers as well as clearing up some theories in my mind. So, to those kind folks, I’m thankful for their time and consideration.

Here are a few things I learned about RVers and why they choose to overnight (boondock) in a Walmart parking lot.

• Walmarts aren’t the only businesses that offer free overnight parking to RVers. Several other stores around the U.S. and Canada encourage free camping as well including Fred Myers and Flying Js. Some even offer free dumping of an RV’s on-board waste.

• For the same reason that so many of us go to McDonald’s when travelling across country, RVers stay at a Walmart and others like it. There won’t be any surprises. Think about it, how bad can one mess up a parking lot? Though their needs are minimal when they choose to overnight at in a store’s parking lot, they can be sure of a consistent experience (or lack thereof). Sometimes when they are pressed to find a place to stay, Walmart can be their safety net. One RVer told me about pulling into a Walmart, “Sometimes it’s like coming home.” (Yup I know, so sweet it hurts your teeth.)

• There are many variables to overnighting in a campground from the perspective of RVers. Besides paying for something that they may not really use much of—water, electricity and sewer (if they are just pulling in to get a night’s sleep), they are also paying for something that they are uncertain of until they claim their space.

Variables include: on-going conditions of toilets and showers from the time they pull in until they leave; space surrounding their RV to other RVs; noise from unruly neighbors such as their animals, children or partying; maneuverability (especially a concern for the bigger outfits); and access to other businesses such as supply stores and restaurants. One RVer told me, “This one campground we stayed at, the RVs were so tightly packed that my neighbor had to step over my sewer pipe when he walked out his door.”

• Some campgrounds may have nice settings but minimum provisions in their little on-site stores. Then you have Walmart with it’s base provisions as far as a space goes but you have this on-site store that has everything you would ever need and in the case of the Super Center stores, they’re open twenty-four hours. Keep in mind, all boondockers want is a safe place to camp. Ambiance isn’t a consideration, so any old parking space will do—especially if there is plenty of room.

At some point, even the biggest and most contained RVs have to pull up for the night in a campground and recharge their batteries, dump their sewage and take on more water. But as in the case of Bob and Carolyn and their 35-footer from Texas, they can go almost a whole week on their own provisions—that includes a washer and dryer on board! So what’s their incentive in staying in a campground every night if they really don’t need to? Are they really cheating the taxpayers in Cody and other communities in North America out of their rightful duty? If we ban boondocking in a car park, than why should RVers be permitted to park anywhere for free?

Here’s my opinion, for whatever it’s worth: If the various businesses that profit from the RV crowd object to boondocking, then perhaps they should offer more pricing choices based on the needs of the perspective RV customer. For example; offer a free or minimum rate for just a parking space—no electric, water or sewer. Even in this scenario, I suspect Walmart would still win out—having that big store with everything they need so close is simply too tempting to pass up.

No doubt it must be tough to be a campground owner these days. Not only do you have to fight the usual capitalistic fight with other campgrounds but you also have to contend with this growing trend in RV development that keeps on making them more self-reliant. And have you had a look inside the newest RV’s lately? Man, you’re gonna have to have a hell of a nice campground to make them want to stay with you when they have so much luxury on board. Perhaps today’s campgrounds and RV parks should concentrate on attracting “real” campers—those that still sleep out in tents and (God forbid) cots. Wouldn’t it be cool to be travelling up a road and come across a campground sign (in neon no less) that declared, “No RVs.” I’d go out of my way to stay there. Let’s face it, it’s hard to feel good about “living close to the earth” when your RVing neighbor in the next space is watching satellite TV in the comfort of his leather recliner with a bag of microwave popcorn making all that noise.

Nevertheless, I reckon Walmart and other stores have set a pretty good example for us to follow. What a better world it would be if all of us who had the extra space in our lives made it known to the RV folks that they were welcome to park at our place overnight—free. Reminds me of that song Louis Armstrong sang, “And I say to myself, what a wonderful world.” Face it, it’s just a good neighbor policy. Surely there are a handful of you out there right now saying to yourself, “All you’re doing Morgan is inviting trouble to show up at your front door.” But really, have you seen the people who typically drive around in RVs? It’s not like they’re going to show up, transform their RV into a meth lab and never leave your property. One RVer was telling me that it is almost an unwritten policy amongst the RV crowd that boondocking is only a one night stay in any given location.

So in Butte, Montana I did it—at the newly opened Walmart Super Center. I parked the Mazda on the perimeter and set up my cot between the curb and the car so I was hidden from the Walmart store. Like all the other Walmarts, it was extremely well lit, even on the outskirts of their parking area. I positioned the head of the cot in the shadow of my “rig” so no big, bright lights were raining down on me. It was cold that night. I still felt a bit “trashy” or cheap as I crawled out of my cot the following morning. Anyone who would have seen me, must of thought I was homeless—and a ten-year-old Mazda isn’t a far stretch for someone who is homeless. Regardless, I could really get this boondocking thing down over time. I started thinking about the other equipment I might have along in the future and how I’d outfit my 626 to make the most of space without becoming too cluttered. Than my mind took it a step further: I thought of a mini-van I could travel and camp in and then the next thing I knew, I projected myself in a full-blown 35-foot RV touring the country and writing about life on the road.

Quickly and quietly I gathered up my things early that morning and made my way to McDonald’s for a badly-needed cup of coffee; besides, I just love those little plastic coffee stirrers they provide for mixing the milk into your coffee.