[NOTE: I’ve blogged all these “how-to” posts before, but am gonna re-run them on occasion, since folks may have missed them, and many of them have been updated or expanded since they were first posted.]
For many van-travellers, finding a place to temporarily live is not a problem: they stay out in the countryside (known as “boondocking”) where they can be completely self-contained and isolated. Most federal and state lands allow campers to stay as long as two weeks before moving, and many van-campers make their way around the country by going from one such spot to another. It’s a great way to see lots of national and state parks.
While I do travel to these kinds of places, however, my primary interests are things like museums, zoos, and historical sites, and since these are in the cities, my van camping tends more to be of the “urban” variety. Generally, I move from city to city to see the sights.
When it comes to finding a place to park for the night when you are traveling in a camper van, the first place most people think of are highway rest stops. These are found along most interstate highways: they have parking spots, vending machines for snack foods and drinks, restrooms, and places to walk the dog.
But, as odd as it may sound, in many states it is illegal to sleep in a vehicle at a highway rest stop, and overnight parking is prohibited. Many states that do not flat-out ban overnight parking will instead limit the length of time you can park at a rest stop—six hours seems to be a popular number.
The enforcement of these rules seems to vary a lot from state to state and even from place to place. I have often spent the night at a highway rest stop in states where it is prohibited or limited, and never had any problems. But it remains true that parking at a rest stop is only a short-term option, useful for spending a single night while traveling between cities but not good for long-term stays. And there’s a fair chance you will get rousted out by the cops.
There are a few other places that are often found along highways which allow RVs and campers to park overnight. These include Flying J and Love’s truck stops, and Cracker Barrel restaurants. Many 24-hour Home Depots, Lowes or Targets are also suitable for overnight parking. But when it comes to options for long-term urban camping, the place of choice for most van-dwellers is the local Walmart.
As a matter of corporate policy, Walmart allows overnight travel parking in its lots, and welcomes campers, truckers, and RVers. (Obviously you need a Walmart that is open 24 hours a day; you won’t be able to park in a Walmart that isn’t open all night.) The company knows that we will be running into the store all the time to spend money on things like water, food, paper towels, or whatever. It’s like having the world’s biggest kitchen pantry right next door.
When you are living in a van in a Walmart parking lot, there are two basic situations that you will face: places where overnight parking in the lot is legal, or places where it is not. Each situation must be dealt with a bit differently.
Where overnight parking is legal, things are pretty straightforward. I overnight at the outer edge of the lot, close enough to the “pack” that I’m not all alone by myself, but far enough away that nobody will bother me and probably nobody will notice me. Even where it is entirely legal and okay for me to park overnight, I try to be as inconspicuous and un-noticed as possible. (I don’t, for instance, park sideways in three parking spaces, with my side door open and my TV on, sitting outside on a lawn chair drinking beers. Don’t laugh—I’ve seen it done.) Partly this is for security reasons—I do not want thieves or ruffians to notice the van, and in particular I do not want them to notice that it is sitting unattended for long periods of time. Also, I try to remain un-noticed in order to keep Walmart happy—while the manager may not mind me overnight parking for a couple days, he may start to get a bit antsy if he notices that I have been living in his parking lot for the past month or so (although, to be fair, I have also been spending money in his store for the past month or so.)
So my normal routine is to park at the outer edge of the lot (I always try to park near a fast-food or hardware store or some other place that I can get a wifi signal), usually about 8 or 8:30pm. Once I’m in the van for the night, I don’t get out again until morning, and I try to control the noise and light so nobody notices that I am in there.
When I wake up the next day, I put a pot of water on the alcohol stove and do my morning shave while it heats up, then do my morning washing up, and dump the wastewater from the sink outside in the grass. If I need to do laundry, I do that as well.
Once my morning routine is finished, I move the van to a different part of the parking lot. As a security precaution, I try to use a different section of the lot each day, and I park inside the “pack” so I look like just another shopper. Then I lock up, walk to the bus stop, and catch the local bus to wherever it is I am going for the day. At night, when I get back, I move the van once more to the outer edge of the lot for the evening (again I always try to use a different spot each night).
In some cities, however, despite Walmart policy, you will not be able to park overnight, due to city “no camping” or “no sleeping in vehicles” or “no overnight parking” ordinances that forbid it. This is usually an anti-homeless provision, which gives the cops an excuse to roust out homeless people who they don’t want around. The “no camping” ordinance also usually applies to sleeping inside a vehicle parked on the street as well. The policy seems to be concentrated in places where there are lots of homeless people and a popular attitude against them, such as California, Arizona, Colorado, and Florida.
It is possible in some of the cities with ordinances that, if you remain un-noticed, you may be able to slide by if you park overnight at a Walmart anyway. I have done this many times. Most managers don’t mind having overnight vans and won’t enforce the ordinance, as long as you are not a nuisance. But it is also possible that the store management or the local cops there will view anyone sleeping in a van with suspicion (especially if they notice that you’ve been there a few days, or if you have out-of-state license tags), and will roust you out. If they really want to be pricks, they’ll impound your van and make you pay to get it back.
How do you know if a particular Walmart is in a city with a “no parking” ordinance? There are a couple of websites that list all the Walmarts with known issues. But the best way to be sure is to simply ask. Call the Walmart directly, ask to speak to the manager, tell him you are on a cross-country camper trip, and ask if overnight parking is permitted in the Walmart lot while you are passing through. If there is an ordinance against it, he’ll tell you. (Do not do this in person at the store—the store manager will certainly remember you, and you don’t want him to notice you if you are still living in his parking lot a month later.)
So, what do you do if you’ll be staying in a city with a “no camping” ordinance? First, understand fully that no matter what you do, you will be breaking the local ordinance, and are taking a legal risk. But the best option is called “stealth camping”. You will park in the Walmart lot each morning as usual (you’re just another ordinary shopper) and take the bus to wherever you are going. Make sure there are no time limits for daytime parking—some store lots that forbid overnight parking will also limit you to a certain number of hours during the day.
But at the end of the evening, instead of moving to the edge of the lot, you will have to park on the street for the night. That means you will have to drive a short distance away from the Walmart and find some legal place to park, on a side street, and spend the night there. To do this successfully, you must be as inconspicuous and un-noticed as possible. (That means you will not be able to do this with many Class B campervans—in addition, some cities have ordinances against parking RVs or campers on the street.)
You will want to park in front of a business that is closed for the night, rather than parking in front of a house (though apartment buildings are good to park at, since they always have visitors coming and going). You will want to simply park, sleep, and leave early in the morning—that means you will not be using a computer or cooking or anything else that makes light/noise and tells everyone outside that you are in there. As long as you are legally parked and you give no reason for anyone to suspect that you are inside, or that the van is anything other than an ordinary empty vehicle parked for the night, you will be OK. You will want to be up early in the morning before everyone else, and promptly move the van back to the Walmart lot, where you can then do all your morning routines.
The purpose of “stealth” isn’t to hide from the cops. The cops have better things to do with their time and probably won’t bother with you. And in any case they already know all the tricks, and will always be able to tell that you are living and sleeping in the van—they know what the solar panel on the roof and the condensation on the windows means. You simply can’t hide from them. The primary purpose of “stealth” is to avoid attracting attention from the ordinary public. If someone in the neighborhood happens to think you are suspicious and reports you to the coppers, then the police are obligated to respond and roust you out, even if they would not have done so on their own.
If the cops do show up at two in the morning tapping on your window, you are at their mercy. Kiss their ass, offer to leave, and hope for the best.
To be completely safe and legal in areas where overnight parking at Walmart is not allowed, you will have to pay to spend the night in campgrounds, RV parks, or motels. Many van campers simply avoid the whole problem by not staying in cities where overnight parking is illegal.
I usually stay in a local Walmart lot for about four weeks, long enough to see all the local sites, before moving on to another city.