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!