A Guide to Car-Camping – in Walmart Parking Lots

As any experienced road tripper, climber, or long-term traveler can attest, one of the biggest issues with life on the road is finding a place to rest every night. Between tight budgets, uncertain routes, and evenings spent driving at ungodly hours, there is often a need to find a makeshift place to catch a few hours of sleep.

One of the tried and true traditions of my climbing trips and cross-country excursions is the practice of spending a night (or two) in a Walmart parking lot. I was extremely reluctant and nervous my first time, during which I hardly achieved a few moments of rest. However, after nothing but positive experiences, the sight of a glowing Walmart sign on the side of a highway has become a welcoming landmark.

While Walmart founder Sam Walton has allegedly been quoted in feeling strongly that all travelers should reverie his stores as a destination for safe rest and refuge, there has been a lot of debate surrounding the practice of overnight camping in the parking lots. While I have never been approached during my brief stays, I have heard plenty of stories of people being asked to leave, or told they couldn’t stay.

So, should you spend the night in a Walmart parking lot? I’d say sure, but first, educate yourself on the do’s and don’ts of overnighting at one of these fine American institutions (ha).

What You Should Do:

Depending on your attitude, calling ahead to inquire about a specific location’s overnight policies is the safest course of action. However, if you’ve pulled into a random store in the middle of the night, desperate for sleep – you will likely be fine. Always be discrete. While large campers and RVs are sitting ducks in the parking lot pond, sedans and smaller vehicles have the advantage of blending in fairly well.

A few crucial elements of discretion include parking away from store entrances where shoppers should have priority, keeping your ‘space’ clean, and leaving as early as possible in the morning. Additionally, you should make an effort to give patronage to the place that is giving you a safe place to sleep – buy something. If you just grab a protein shake and cheese stick in the morning, fine. Need to stock up on some camping supplies? Even better – you’ll make the entire car-camping community look good.

Just because Walmarts are generally a secure place to stop for the night doesn’t mean that every location stands equal when it comes to safety. Always be aware of the surrounding neighborhood – a sketchy area equates to a sketchy Walmart parking lot. Be smart. Always keep your keys within reach. I prefer to keep the driver’s seat open and easy accessible, in case there is a need to make a quick getaway.

What You Shouldn’t Do:

*Note: Niko wasn’t actually in a Walmart parking lot in this photo, no worries.

Basically, don’t be that guy. If you roll up to a Walmart at 11 PM, pop open the hatchback, and set up a few chairs around your parking spot while throwing back a few beers – don’t be surprised when you get the boot. Anyone traveling in a non-car rig is should never set-up camp in any conspicuous manner. If security or management approaches you, don’t be disrespectful. It is a privilege to have access to staying overnight, and travelers must remain understanding that some locations have had bad experiences with long-term or disruptive ‘campers.’

Don’t leave a mess. You should be practicing this in all aspects of your adventures, but littering free accommodations is especially offensive. Nothing leaves a bad taste in a manager’s mouth than rude overnighters.

Despite the usually relaxed overnight regulations at most locations, there are some stores that are actively against travelers shacking up in their parking lots. Check out this listing of Walmarts that do not allow overnight stays.

Niko says: “I’ve been crashing in Walmart parking lots ever since I was able to drive — it’s a “simple comfort” for dirtbags. On long nights, you know that just down the road there’s a parking lot where you can grab some munchies, clean up in the 24-hour bathrooms, and shut your eyes for a couple hours. I always crack a window in my car to get some fresh air, and like to stop in the store to grab breakfast before heading out – think of the cost of your milk and cereal as a camping fee.”

If you aren’t bothered by the unavoidable florescent lighting and likelihood of waking up in a sea of cars from Walmart’s morning floods of blue collar customers, pulling into one of their many parking lots provides a great venue for catching some rest before embarking on your next day of adventuring.

Have you ever spent the night in a Walmart parking lot?
Got good any experiences to share? Any bad experiences?
Sound off in the comments and contribute to the conversation!


How to pack light and smart – lessons learned from a chronic over-packer

As a seasoned road tripper, my packing skills rely on the presence of multiple nooks and car crannies where I can squirrel away all the non-essential, but I don’t want to be without, items like head lamps, biodegradable wipies, spare pairs of gloves, etc. While preparing to embark on my first airborne adventure in over two years, I came upon the startling realization that I am a chronic over-packer.

But I’m always prepared! On climbing trips, I am the go-to gal for all the random camping ware, spare socks, and mismatched supplies that everyone else leaves at home. My purse is always loaded with everything one could possibly need, and my backpack is the heaviest damn thing to tote on hikes – but I’m always prepared.

The thought of cramming everything that I’m going to need for the next four weeks of traveling into one small suitcase and one carry-on backpack is overwhelming. Thus, as I learn from my own attempts at becoming a smarter packer, I’ll share my pre-trip preparations in hopes of providing the packing tips necessary to help some other over-packing schmuck overcome their compulsion to carry everything.

Let’s Begin: Prepare the packings! Do all your laundry, wash your smelly shoes, sort through your camera equipment, and lay everything you think you’re going to take out on a flat surface, like your bed. Hm, all that junk is never going to fit in your modestly-sized luggage, eh? Here comes the tricky part:

Now get rid of HALF of what you planned on packing.

Don’t worry, this sent me into a panic too. You mean I can’t bring four pairs of leggings, three different pairs of boots, my tri-pod, and fourteen pairs of socks? It’s time to prioritize – and remember that washing machines are available at your destination, so you don’t actually need enough clothes to last through the duration of your travels. It’s time to prioritize, and honestly, when it comes to clothes, this is simply going to help you weed through the ruckus to find your favorite wardrobe items – so take solace in knowing that you may have to do a load or two of laundry along your journey, but you’ll look damn good throughout the trip.

I’m encountering the issue of packing for varying climates. I’ll begin my journey in freezing cold Denver, Colorado, then I’ll fly down to sweltering South Florida, and finally, I’ll be heading out on a climbing trip to a chilly southeastern mountain destination. So how do I prioritize and find room for both bikinis and wool socks, plus all my climbing gear? Here’s what my bed looks like with my to-be-packed mess spread out on it:

For jackets and bulky clothes, consider investing in those sweet vacuum-sealed bags that suck all the air out of your fluffy jackets, making them much more manageable. I was lucky enough to inherit a bundle from my doting mother, but budget-minded vagabonds can also use gallon-sized plastic bags. Just fill ’em up, seal the zip most of the way, sit on the back to squish out all the air, zip that sucker up, and voila! I recently read a blog article about a woman who uses plastic bags to create an outfit a day when she packs – but my adventures are too spontaneous for that kind of planning.

Other great tips include:

Roll your shirts/tank tops up as tight as possible.

(My suitcase has two metal bars going through the bottom of it,
so rolled up clothes and tights fit perfectly into the small spaces that would otherwise be wasted.)

Fold wisely – think Tetris.

Save the small stuff for last.

(Small, especially rolled up, items can be crammed into the
various little pockets of space created by your larger items.)

Put liquid items in a plastic bag.

(Seriously, there is nothing worse than an exploded bottle of moisturizer all over
your favorite flannel. Quickly popping your liquids/oils in a little zip-lock bag will contain any mid-flight eruptions).

Pack chronically.

(For instance: I’ll be in Miami before I head to colder climates,so my bulky zip-locked
sweaters are positioned at the bottom of my suitcase, since I won’t be needing them for a few weeks.)

With a little bit of planning, execution, and burly arm strength, any over-packing schmuck can transform into a zipped-up, ready-to-roll travel expert. Honestly, if I can fit all that junk on my bed into two small bags, anyone can. I ended up taking just one big jacket, a lighter jacket, one sweatshirt, two pairs of jeans, two pairs of leggings, two flannels, my thermals, a few tank tops, a pair of shorts (okay, maybe three pairs of shorts – but I’m excited about this warm weather, okay?), one dress, one pair of sandals, one pair of boots, one pair of Toms, and the usual under garments. And I will confess, I had to take four pairs of my favorite wool socks – I’ve become a sock fanatic.

Here’s my end result:

There you have it, advice on packing lightly, or at least light enough to fit it all in a reasonably-sized space – and proof that is can actually be accomplished. The biggest obstacle standing between me and my 6:00 AM flight has been conquered.

Follow my escapades through Denver, Atlanta, Florida, and beyond in real time on Twitter @themorningfresh
and check out The Morning Fresh on Facebook for additional updates – join in on the conversation!

Top 5 (mostly free) iPhone apps for on-the-go adventurers and climbers

As much as I enjoy disconnecting from reality while I’m out exploring the world, I must admit that my iPhone is the one travel accessory I wouldn’t dare leave home without – and my favorite apps help make my technological tool the ultimate source for information and connectivity while I’m out on the road.

Whether you’re an adventurer out on a road trip through the midwest, or a climber looking to explore a new crag in the southeast, these five (mostly free) apps will offer essential assistance during your escapades.

1. Weather Channel

From weekly forecasts and current conditions to weather advisories and interactive radar maps, the Weather Channel app is an absolute must, for everyone. Weekend warriors and perpetual nomads alike will benefit from keeping tabs on weather conditions, and I personally adore this app as a way to plan which days of the week will be best for outdoor adventures. The app allows you to store bookmark locations, and a glance at mine lists every climbing spot from Steele, Alabama to Yosemite National Park. It offers temptation forecasts of sunshine beckon you to camp a few extra days, and provides foresight when a storm is on the way.

During one particular climbing trip to Rocktown, I checked the next day’s forecast and saw that a torrential downpour and lightning storm was on the way. Since my small hatchback was hardly able to reach the mountain summit with good weather, I decided to head down the mountain before the storm, and slept in a nearby Walmart parking lot that night. I awoke to some truly wicked weather, and was grateful I had spared myself the agony of sliding down rain-slicked switchbacks.

This app is free!

2. Mountain Project

Here’s where the ‘mostly free’ part of this list comes into play. Mountain Project is the ultimate source for climbing information and community access, and after struggling with my disdain for purchasing iPhone apps, I finally caved and made the investment. A mere $4.99 annual subscription fee gives you access to an enormous database of climbing information. You download ‘crags’ (I have Boulder and Evergreen/Morrison currently installed on my device), which allows you to access route directions, beta tips, photos, and more – without needing wi-fi or any signal.

I tried to survive by just opening the MountainProject.com site on my phone’s internet browser, which quickly revealed itself as a waste when I trekked deep into the woods, lost reception, and lost my ability to access the site. Climbers, I highly recommend making the small investment – plus, the money goes to help a great organization.

Click here for more information about the Mountain Project app, which will soon be available on Android devices!

This app costs $4.99 per year.

3. Yelp

I used to be an Urbanspoon kind of gal, but after wasting too much road trip time scouring for places to eat, fumbling to update the maps to my current location, and driving miles out of the way to a restaurants that were no longer in business, I’ve switched my loyalty and now rely on Yelp for all my edible needs. This app makes finding new eateries extra fun with a ‘check-in’ feature, and you can instantly provide feedback for other users. Plus, this app doesn’t cater exclusively to the restaurant industry; you can find cheap hotels, gear shops, great local parks, and more.

I really enjoy the little map feature on Yelp profile pages that shows all my reviews across the nation. It’s a fun way to keep track of all the tasty places I’ve sampled during my cross-country trips. Check out my Yelp page at http://boue.yelp.com for a better taste of all the foodie fun to be had.

This app is free!

4. Cheap Gas

This is a recent discovery, that I wish I had made sooner. Dishing out the cheapest nearby gas stations, this budget-friendly app is key for any road trip. I remember hitting California and seeing $5.00+ per gallon at some stations, then traveling a bit further and hitting places that lingered around the high $3.00 range. Cheap Gas links up with GasBuddy.com to provide station information, and will help you save a buck by directing you to the most affordable places to refuel. A 30 cent price difference may not seem major on a gallon-to-gallon basis, but when you’re spending hundreds of dollars on long road trips, the change really adds up.

This app is free!

5. Free Wi-Fi

During my month-long solo trip in September, I decided not to take any time off from my job as a copywriter for LivingSocial – despite my camping, climbing, middle-of-no-where plans. I ultimately didn’t miss a single deadline, largely thanks to the Free Wi-Fi app. I sampled a few other internet-finding apps before settling on this one, which solely directs you to nearby establishments that provide wireless access for free. Dishing out extra funds to log online simply wasn’t in my budget, so this app made it easy for me to find free ways to get my deadlines tackled.

Word to the wise: not even the most sophisticated app can help you find Wi-Fi in the middle of Kansas. Address your internet needs before hitting those long stretches of nothingness – there is nothing more stressful than racing to a McDonald’s 90 miles away when you’ve only got 45 minutes to meet a deadline.

This app is free!

(Bonus) 6. Compass

Okay, so maybe this is really a Top 6, but the Compass app had to be included. Handy in a myriad of situations, this app was downloaded to my phone during my recent climbing excursions at Three Sisters Park in Evergreen, CO. The aforementioned Mountain Project app provided me with excellent directions to find boulders, but my internal compass is rubbish. This simple little app provides you with a sundial-type interface, which asks you to place your finger in the center, then rotate your phone until your finger lines up with the compass shadow – then voila, you know which way is north. Admittedly, this app doesn’t get used too often, but having it on my phone is imperative when I really need it.

This app is free!

So there you have it, a little peek into the iPhone apps that keep my adventures on track. Since most of them are free, there is really no excuse to find yourself caught without them. These apps will help steer you clear of lurking storms, keep your belly full of tasty eats, guide you towards your next great climb, provide you with access to the interwebs, and keep the directionally-challenged on track.