Friday, November 13, 2009

Walmart Supercenter Camping Method

If you are driving across the country intending to tent along the side of the road, it's pretty easy to find gypsy camping spots in the Western states, at least away from the coastline and the main tourist drags. In states with lots of public land, like Nevada and Arizona, you can legally camp in almost any patch of empty desert. Finding a campsite can be a little more challenging in Western states dominated by private land, like Texas, but you can almost always find a workable solution somewhere.

Once you go east of the Mississippi, though, finding a discreet tenting site becomes much more difficult. It's not that there isn't enough campable land. The Eastern states are rich with woods and fields where a tent could easily be hidden. In even the most densely populated state, you pass endless forests along the highway; the only problem is getting to them. Your Achilles Heal is the vehicle you're driving. While it's easy to find secret tenting spots, it's not easy hiding your car. When your vehicle is parked on a remote road near some woods, it instantly attracts attention, be it from police, neighbors or the criminal element.

Of course, you could try finding a legitimate campground, but they cost money and are rarely available when you need them. Commercial campgrounds may be plentiful in tourist areas, but if you don't arrive in a massive RV, you'll pretty much be laughed off the property. This is America, where "camping" has evolved into a grotesque parody of roughing it, where people carry their whole house with them. State parks are usually the only places in the East to find "real" campsites--without full utility hookups--but locating one takes a lot of planning. A park campsite is probably going to set you back $15-20/night, with rarely even a hot shower to show for it.

If you're driving at sunset and you suddenly decide it's time to sleep (and for some reason you can't sleep in your vehicle), where are you going to go? Where can you easily pitch a tent in the dark without being noticed while also safely parking your car nearby? Personally, I struggled with this problem for years, until I turned to the same organization than solves so many other problems for me: the Acme Corporation!

Picture in your mind the average Acme Supercenter. (One is shown in the photo above.) Where are they located? Typically, these massive structures are found on the outskirts of town, on virgin land near the freeway. Usually their site has been etched out of the woods, and there is often large swathes of unoccupied land adjoining it. Viola, there's your tenting spot!

Most Supercenters are open 24 hours. The parking lot is usually patrolled by security and--at least in most rural areas--overnight parking is explicitly permitted. You know when it is allowed, because in one corner of the lot, a cluster of RVs is usually spending the night. If you are sleeping in your vehicle, an Acme parking lot is often a safe and convenient place to do it, but if you're tenting, this might also be the place to quietly pull it off.

Your first step is to case the area. You walk or drive the perimeter of the parking lot looking for woods, fields or bushes where you can hide a tent at night. Security would no doubt object to tenting if they knew, so your aim is pitch your tent where no one will detect your presence. Remember that many sites that seem exposed during the day are secure and invisible at night. (That's the magic of darkness!) You want to find a place where you can both comfortably camp and enter the campsite unnoticed. Often, this is in the back of the store. For example, the big overgrown field shown below (behind a Supercenter in Virginia) would make a perfect campsite at night, even if it is vulnerable at during the day...
You would avoid being exposed by daylight by setting your alarm to just before dawn and breaking camp before anyone knows you're there.

Once you have found the right spot along the periphery of the Acme parking lot, you can discreetly offload your camping gear from your car into the bushes. ("Camping gear" only needs to consist of a tent, sleeping bag and maybe a mattress, since your only goal is to sleep for seven hours then skedaddle. I find that I don't need a mattress if I am sleeping on grass.) Then you drive your car to a central part of the Acme lot where it will be safe for the night. You return to your campsite on foot, retrieve your camping gear from the bushes, then disappear into the darkness. If you do it gracefully, no one knows you are there, and your car won't give you away.

You can try similar techniques in non-Acme parking lots, but the Acme Supercenter offers a unique confluence of benefits: (1) Conveniently located on the outskirts nearly every major community. (2) Overnight parking is usually permitted. (3) The parking lot is usually patrolled by security, which protects your car from thieves or vandals. (4) Frequently surrounded by woods, fields or dense landscaping where a tent can be hidden. (5) Has clean restrooms open 24 hours. (6) Always Low Prices on whatever food or goods you happen need, including camping gear.

You may not even need a vehicle to use the Acme campground. On one occasion, I found myself in South Florida with little more than the clothes on my back. I hadn't planned to spend the night, but transportation glitches forced me to. As often is the case, an Acme in Florida City happened to be the transfer port for the local bus system. When I arrived there by chance, I checked out the parking lot on foot and noticed a big mowed field on one side. The field would have been totally exposed during the day, but it worked fine under cover of darkness. I went into the Acme, bought myself a $9 sleeping bags, put it down in the field, and slept comfortably. (I might have also bought a tent or tarp, but Acme's are a little pricey.)

In the humid East, you usually need a tent. In the summer you need it to protect you from insects and rain. In the winter, you need the wind protection and extra warmth. I was lucky in Florida City because I encountered no mosquitoes, but apart from the desert I would use a tent if I had one. One advantage of the Supercenter, though, is that you can afford to take chances. You can try sleeping without a tent and see how it goes. If you find you need more equipment, like a tent, tarp or insert repellent, you just go into the store and buy it. Even if you spend $30 to make yourself comfortable, that's still less than the cost of a motel.

There are no end to the uses you can find for your Acme Supercenter! When faced with any travel problem at all, that's the first place to go!

Also see: Walmart Motel for $20/Night

1 comment:

  1. Great post! Thanks for sharing your info... although I don't live in the states but is always good to read about other "hobos" experiences and advice.