Sunday, August 29, 2010
Wal-Mart Motel: $20/night
In an earlier posting I discussed the Supercenter Camping Method. If you’re driving across America, finding a discreet place to camp is difficult, not because America lacks open spaces but because it is difficult to hide your car. My solution is to hide the car in the open, in a place where cars would normally be parked at night—like the parking lot of a 24-hour Wal-Mart Supercenter! At least in rural areas, open land or woods are common around Supercenters, since these monstrosities are usually located in newly appropriated land on the outskirts of town.
Last night, I successful practiced The Method yet again, this time in Pennsylvania. I was driving Interstate 80, couldn't find a cheap motel and didn't have any camping equipment with me. What to do? The trouble with Pennsylvania and other Northeastern states is the lack of cheap motels. Motel 6 is relatively rare and often high-priced when available, and other chains aren’t cheap. (Hostels, of course, exist only in a few major cities.) I was prepared to spend $35 for a night’s lodging but not $65, which was the lowest rate I could expect in these parts. The alternative? Check into the nearest Wally World.
A Supercenter is distinguished from a traditional Wal-Mart in that it has a full-size grocery section and is open 24 hours. Supercenters are located along the interstate highway system throughout America, usually adjacent to an exit with some undeveloped land beside it. In America, Wal-Marts are far more frequent than official highway rest areas, and they are a lot easier to find on mapping programs like Google Maps. When I am driving (which I do for a living), I typically check in at Wal-Marts a couple of times a day—to use the reliably clean restrooms, stock up on basic supplies and just soak in the ambiance. Every Wal-Mart is the same, and, yes, it gives me a feeling of home in being there.
So my challenge is to spend a comfortable, safe night within a short walk of my car while spending as little money as possible. If I was going to spend $35 on a motel, then I can comfortably spend $20 on camping supplies that I may throw away the next day.
The weather last night was clear with no rain in the forecast. This is the tail end of summer and it gets a little chilly at night—which is good! Coolness is going to suppress my most significant adversary: the mosquito. For one thing, I can hide deep in my sleeping bag and expose less of my skin, but mosquitoes are also less active when it’s cool. They aren’t much of a problem below 65 degrees F and they are no issue at all below 55.
At dusk, I checked my BlackBerry for the next Wal-Mart along the highway. It was in Clarion, Pennsylvania, and it turned out to be perfect! There was a field of tall grass and brush on one side of the parking lot, so 50 feet from the car I could be completely invisible.
…Invisible at night, that is! Thanks to the power of darkness, you can camp in some amazingly obvious places. The only catch is that you have to be sure to wake up and break camp before dawn, because the landscape completely changes during the day. It's like the Invisible Man losing his superpowers.
(For sunrise times, see TimeAndDate.com.)
Here's my exact camping spot...
View Larger Map
After selecting my camping spot in the last light of the day, I made first pass through Wal-Mart, picking up two essential items: A sleeping bag for $10, and a plastic tarp for $5. The sleeping bag is a summer model stocked year-round at all Wal-Marts. It is rated at 40-60 degrees (more realistic for 60 than 40) and currently sells for $9.88 (photo). In winter, I might buy TWO of these bags and stick them one inside the other, but for tonight one would do.
The tarp (6 x 8 feet) is found in the automotive section for $4.50, and I use it as a ground cloth. It is also big enough that I can fold it around me. In the lush East, the grass under the tarp serves as a mattress, providing (at least to me) enough padding for comfortable sleep. In the barren West, however, I would buy a camping air mattress instead (for about $13) or a swimming pool air mattress (about $6), since the desert ground is too hard to sleep on without it. (You need a pump to blow up the camping mattress: $10-15.)
In the humid East, you must be wary of rain, but there’s also another form of falling water that happens more often: dew. Dew is condensation that covers everything after dark—like having light rain every night. (photo) Dew rarely happen in the desert, but in the East (or near the ocean) where the relative humidity is close to 100%, it can be drenching. (In the winter, it manifests as frost.) When your sleeping bag is wet, it doesn’t keep you as warm, and once dew forms, it won’t evaporate until morning.
I address this problem by wrapping the tarp around me like a burrito. The tarp has grommet holes along the edges and I fasten these together with plastic cable ties ($1 from the hardware section). This "tortilla" can’t be too tight, however, because your body and breath are also generating moisture of their own, which forms dew on the INSIDE of the tarp. (That’s why sleeping bags have to be made of fabric, not plastic.) The aim of the tarp tortilla is to cut down most of the dew but not all of it. There have to be gaps to let your own moisture out.
The tarp can also protect you from light rain, but significant rain would preclude this kind of tentless camping, as would high temperatures that bring out the mosquitoes and force me to leave my sleeping bag. Low temperatures, however, are not a problem. In temperatures well below freezing, I can do just fine with two summer bags (one inside the other) wrapped in a tarp burrito--even in snow. (For added warmth, I might sleep in my winter clothes and jacket.)
Of course, I could also use a tent. I sometimes travel with one, but tents at Wal-Mart are expensive ($45+). (I buy tents on sale at sporting goods mega-stores for about $25.) For one or two nights in good weather, a tent is usually not worth the expense or even the bother to put up. I like the freedom of not having to carry anything with me, and I don't like how a tent cuts me off from my environment. With the burrito method, you check into Wal-Mart with $20 and walk out with everything you need.
What about a pillow? It’s free! The $10 sleeping bag comes in a zippered fabric pouch. Fill it full of clothing and—viola!—a pillow.
Safety? Not an issue. There aren’t people wandering around in places like this, on the outskirts of rural towns far from any residences. Your car is safe, because Wal-Mart usually has a night-time security patrol in the parking lot, but they aren’t concerned with the surrounding woods and grass. Their vehicle has a big flashing light on top, so you an easily evade them when coming and going.
Wild animals and insects? Apart from mosquitoes, there aren’t any to worry about. Civilization has killed off all the lions and tigers and bears. Snakes and rodents regard you as a danger and will give you a wide berth when they can (except maybe to steal you food). I have never had a creepy-crawly climb into my sleeping bag with me, and I wouldn’t regard it as a danger if they did. Your only potential threat is human, and these animals rarely leave their cars except to waddle into the Wal-Mart.
Weather? It happens, but at least you can look up the forecast and have a good idea of what is possible. Unlike living in a “home” or staying in motels, weather is the camper’s constant companion and you have to listen to it and understand it. If the forecast calls for a low of 40 degrees, experience should tell you what you need. Rain, of course, my require you to use a tent, and heavy rain may make even tenting impossible. You have to seek other accommodations, like a motel or sleeping in the car. (I can sleep sitting up in the driver’s seat. It’s easier than sleeping on a red-eye flight but rarely offers a sound night’s sleep.)
Is is legal? Of course not! Vacant land around a new Supercenter is probably owned by Wal-Mart itself, since they have a habit of buying up all the land where they know they are going to build one. (Clever, eh? They lease out the land to other stores and take advantage of their own halo effect.) Most rural Wal-Marts allows RVs to camp in their parking lots, but open-air camping is another thing and would probably attract an unsavory crowd if it were explicitly allowed. I camp there, however, under the principle that what Wal-Mart doesn't know won't hurt it. As in most things, discretion is the key. If I arrive after dark and leave before dawn, and no one ever knows I was there, I don't feel that I'm trampling on Wal-Mart's property rights. Besides, I'm a good customer!
Can’t sleep? Just pop into your neighborhood Wal-Mart for a snack. Remember, though, that your coach turns into a pumpkin in the morning. You must have some kind of alarm clock to wake you up before dawn, because as soon as the sun comes up, your cover may be blown.
Last night, however, I had no trouble sleeping, and because the location seemed secure, I chose to sleep until after dawn. I got a solid 7 hours of sleep, as good as any motel. There was no opportunity for a shower, but if I felt the need, I could pick that up at a truck stop. I kept the tarp and sleeping bag, but I could have thrown them away (or left them in the parking lot for other thrifty Wal-Mart patrons to snatch up). Either way, I was a winner, getting a good night's sleep while saving about $50.
Thanks again , Wal-Mart!