We have become connoisseurs of the many free overnight parking opportunities on the road. Here are the basics of free overnight parking. But first, a fire-breathing rant.
The ability to camp for free overnight on BLM and National Forest lands, as well as the parking lots of Walmart, Cabela’s, Cracker Barrel, and select casinos is fundamental to our truck camping lifestyle. Without these opportunities, truck camping would change in ways that would begin to challenge my passion for this wonderful lifestyle.
This is why it’s so infuriating when RVers abuse the privilege of free overnight parking. For example, we routinely see huge 40-plus foot Class A motorhomes, fifth wheels and travel trailers in busy Walmart parking lots with their slides out and parked longways across a dozen standard parking spaces.
Above: What are these people thinking?
RVers also abuse BLM and National Forest lands in equally appalling ways. It’s not unusual to find trash and graffiti in what should be pristine public lands. The risk is that the bad apples eventually ruin free parking and camping for all of us.
It wouldn’t take much for Cracker Barrel to decide to ban overnight parking nationwide. It wouldn’t take much for public lands to be shut to RVers. One bad experience or news story and that ball could start rolling.
And you wonder why Angela calls me grumpy. Rant over.
Free Overnight RV Parking 101
When we started truck camping in 2005, we were scared to death about free overnight parking. It was such a foreign idea to drive into a retail parking lot, turn off the truck, crawl into our camper and sleep for the night. How could that possibly be a sane thing to do?
Above: Cabela’s often has nice big RV spots and openly welcomes RVers
And yet, 15 years later, we love it! By rough estimates we have parked and stayed overnight at over 200 Walmarts, Cabela’s, Cracker Barrels and Casinos coast-to-coast. There are a good number of these retail and restaurant establishments that we have returned to for a second helping of free overnight parking.
Above: Cabela’s even has dump stations, water and dog kennels
Honestly, these establishments do well in return for their hospitality. We always shop or eat at their businesses. That’s the deal, and it is why this arrangement works.
Above: We are also careful to park as far out of the way of their employees and customers as possible. That’s a courtesy.
No Gas Stations. No Truck Stops. No Rest Stops.
We do not park overnight at gas stations, truck stops or rest stops. We have heard too many stories about break-ins, vagrants and other trouble makers in these locations.
In our early days, we did park overnight at a few rest stops and truck stops. At one rest stop we saw a guy crawl completely in and out of a dumpster near to our rig. That wasn’t so much dangerous as it was freaky, but you get the point.
Above: At Flying J for a fill up. Some Flying J’s have dump stations and fresh water
On a cold winter night in 2009, we almost got side swiped by a semi in a truck stop. They are so used to seeing semi trucks that they might not see your rig – especially after dark.
Plus, when there are other good choices for truck camper rigs, we feel it is important to leave truck stop spaces for the truckers. If we have the option, we avoid these locations.
All-Stays App: An Absolute Must
Before we pull into a free overnight parking opportunity, we always check it out on the All-Stays app. If a location doesn’t check out on All-Stays, we don’t stay. It’s that simple.
According to their website, the All-Stays Camp and RV has 60,000 points of interest including National and State Parks, National and State Forests, County and City RV Parks, private campgrounds, BLM sites, and more.
And by more I mean Walmart, Cabela’s, Cracker Barrel, and casinos. Most importantly, the entries have information about whether the establishment really does offer free overnight parking, where it’s best to park there and any other pertinent information.
Above: Cracker Barrels have RV spots that are clearly marked. They are also usually right off interstate highways for easy access after a long day of driving.
As a side note, not all Walmarts (for example) allow free overnight parking. Some areas have local ordinances that ban overnight parking in commercial parking lots. This is common in high-population or high-tourist areas like southern California and the southern Florida coastline.
In our experience, almost every Walmart, Cabela’s, Cracker Barrel, and casino has been fine. The ones that have been an issue have been clearly marked in All-Stays – with few exceptions.
If you have an iOS device (iPhone or iPad), we highly recommend downloading the All-Stays Camp and RV app ($9.99 and worth every penny). On Androids, it is called Camp and RV-Campgrounds Plus AllStays. You can also still access the All-Stays’ website for free.
Our Cautionary Story
A few years ago we pulled into a nearly empty parking lot with a Panera Bread and a Target. The lot was huge and there was a perfect out-of-the-way spot to park the rig. It looked ideal.
We went to dinner at Panera Bread, soaked up some of their WIFI and returned to the camper just as it was getting dark. Then, after what had been a long day of work and travel, we made the decision to stay put overnight. The parking lot was empty and breakfast at Panera sounded wonderful.
About three hours later, we were woken up by a heavy pounding at the door and a bright flashlight piercing through our camper’s blinds. It was probably an overly aggressive security guard, but the person never verbally identified themselves.
The individual eventually left and we immediately got out of there. Five-miles down the road we pulled into a Walmart that we had previously checked out on All-Stays.
When we arrived at the Walmart, there were about a half-dozen other RVs all parked quietly. The Walmart security guard drove past, and kept going.
Looking back, we had grown too complacent about parking overnight in places not designated for that purpose. We are much more careful now and only stay in one of the aforementioned establishments – and then only if it checks out on All-Stays.
The Lesson Learned
If you’re going to park somewhere overnight, make absolutely sure it’s designated for that use, and that it checks out on All-Stays (or another reputable source).
You can add another layer of prudence by calling the establishment ahead (ask for the manager) and asking permission to park overnight. It’s a minor inconvenience for what you get in return; a free place to park overnight. Nobody needs a knock on the door at midnight.