Boondocking is also known as dry camping (or primitive camping when folks are out on public land). My friend Coyote Sue calls it blacktop boondocking when she’s dry camping in a parking lot. Blacktop boondocking is what folks do in a city or town so they don’t have to pay to stay over and see the sights. People who’ve been on the road for a while may have already heard of all the options I’m going to give, but for folks who are new to this life and aren’t sure where to stay for free in or near urban locations, here are ten places you might want to consider for blacktop boondocking.
#1 Wal-Mart By now surely everyone on the road knows that Wal-Mart is often an option for overnight parking for van dwellers and other nomads. Be aware that not every Wal-Mart allows overnight parking. Each store sets its own policies, and some city ordinances prohibit blacktop boondocking anywhere in town. Call ahead and ask permission before you set your heart on overnighting at Wal-Mart.
#2 Truck stops/Travel Centers Truck stops (sometimes known as “travel centers” in an attempt to avoid an image of shadiness) are by far my favorite places for blacktop boondocking. Truck stops have everything a nomad needs: gasoline or diesel, restrooms, coffee, snacks, showers, soda, sometimes even WiFi. People come and go all day and night and even hang out for hours at a time to get some rest or wait for their appointed pickup or delivery time. A van or RV parked at most truck stops overnight is not going to look weird at all. If you’re nervous about blacktop boondocking at a travel center, call ahead and get permission. I’ve stayed at truck stops across the country and only a handful have said no when I asked to stay. I’ve never once been asked to leave a truck stop.
#3 Casinos I don’t stay in casino parking lots very often, but Coyote Sue does frequently. Not only does she have an actual Class C, while I only have a van, she goes in and does a little gambling and maybe eats at the buffet. I don’t enjoy gambling, so I don’t go to casinos for fun. I could probably blacktop boondock in at least some casino parking lots, but I usually find another place to stay. However, if you enjoy what casinos have to offer, why not spend the night?
Some casinos offer actual RV parks and do charge for overnight parking with all the amenities. If you want to stay in a casino’s parking lot and not pay for hookups, call ahead to make sure you will be allowed to do so.
#4 Rest areas Interstates offer rest areas, as do some major highways. You can look at a map of interstate rest areas online or look for the symbol for them on your paper atlas. Different states have different laws concerning overnight parking and length of stay at rest areas, so do your research before you plan to blacktop boondock at a rest stop.
#5 Cracker Barrel Restaurants I’ve never stayed overnight at a Cracker Barrel restaurant, but it’s mentioned as an option often enough to make me think the corporate office is ok with travelers blacktop boondocking in their parking lots. Again, individual restaurants may make up their own rules, and local ordinances may vary. Call ahead for permission when you’re planning your route. If you need dinner anyway, and it’s in your budget, go in and eat.
#6 Bass Pro Shop and Cabela’s Both of these chains of huge sporting goods stores are mentioned as places were RVers can stop for the night. I’ve never stayed at either. The same caveats I gave for Cracker Barrel apply here: rules at individual stores may vary, possibly because of local ordinances. Call ahead.
#7 Motel Parking Lots I don’t frequently blacktop boondock in motel parking lots, but I have done it in a pinch when I was too tired to drive farther and had no other options. If you’re going to sleep in your rig in a motel parking lot, I recommend you pick a chain, but not a fancy one. You want to find a parking lot that’s big enough so your rig doesn’t stand out. Don’t park right in front of a room and consider staying out of sight of the office. Don’t get in anyone’s way, and the sleepy desk clerk is less likely to bother you. You could also try asking permission and/or slipping the desk clerk a few bucks.
#8 Denny’s Restaurants Again, this is a place I have parked overnight before but only in a pinch. I wouldn’t count on every Denny’s in every town being an option. Once I had luck parking between a Denny’s and a 24-hour supermarket with the thought that if anyone was paying attention, they would think I was either in one place or the other. Another time, I caught a few winks at a Denny’s that had a parking lot big enough that I was able to park on the outer edges and not call attention to myself. In both cases, in the morning I went inside and had breakfast, or at least a cup of coffee.
#9 24-Hour Grocery Stores I don’t know of any supermarket chains that have a corporate policy of allowing travelers to park overnight, but stealthy boondockers might be able to get away with spending the night in a grocery store parking lot depending on the climate of the town. I’d suggest parking on the outskirts of the parking lot so anybody paying attention will think the vehicle belongs to an employee on the graveyard shift.
#10 Residential Areas While you probably won’t be in a parking lot if you’re spending the night in a residential area, you’ll still be on the asphalt, so I think it counts as blacktop boondocking. The trick to overnighting in a residential area is to find a spot where other vehicles are parked on the street. If you are the only vehicle parked on the street, nearby homeowners may get suspicious and call the cops. Also, don’t block any driveways. I know from experience that it’s not a good idea, even if someone else who lives on the street says it’s not a problem.
If you’re in a college town, try parking on an off-campus street where parking is legal. You may have to park early in the evening or afternoon to get such a spot, and it may be easier to blend in if you’re in a car, minivan, or passenger van.
Try parking on the street near a large apartment complex. Often large apartment complexes don’t have room in the official parking area for all residents and visitors, and people end up parking on the public streets close to the complex. If you can’t find a large apartment complex, look for duplexes or four-plexes where even some of the residents can’t fit in the driveway. In a perfect scenario, you’ll find a street with enough vehicles parked so yours doesn’t stand out but not so crowded that you’re taking a coveted spot from someone who actually lives there.
The Rubber Tramp Artist is making suggestions here, but is not responsible for your well-being and safety. Only you are responsible for your well-being and safety. When in doubt about where you can blacktop boondock safely and legally, call ahead and ask permission.