November 12, 2012

Boondocking: Wal-Mart vs. National Forest

On our way between Shenandoah National Park and Asheville we planned to drive a portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway. We decided to stop just on the North Carolina border for the evening and then drive onto the Parkway in the morning from there. Our first thought had been to stay at an RV Park, but then we remembered that a long time ago (before the crazy days of New England) we had gotten away with free parking for the night by boondocking on backcountry forest roads and in Wal-Mart parking lots.

I looked up Wal-Marts in the area and found one with a perfect location, just miles from where we’d join the Parkway in the morning, in a tiny town called Galax. I called up and confirmed that they allowed overnight RV parking and then we made our way there. I was trying to remember why we’d gotten away from staying the night in Wal-Mart parking lots; after all it was low hassle and free! Well, later that evening we were quickly reminded exactly why we didn't favor this alternative, and that got me to thinking, which is better: staying for free in a Wal-Mart parking lot or overnighting on a forest road?

You would think that the answer would be simple. Of course the forest road, hands down. But I would argue that both options have their pluses and minuses, and in either case, you get what you paid for.

Boondocking in a Wal-Mart Parking Lot:
  •       Wal-Marts are scattered throughout most of the United States, and you are likely to come up on one where ever you are. They are usually located close to the major roadways, so finding them and getting to them when you’re on the road is a piece of cake. The downfall is that they are usually located close to the major roadways, meaning you’ll be listening to the symphony of car horns, loud engine breaking, and tires squealing for most of the night.
  •      Wal-Marts are usually located in towns and you are almost always guaranteed cell phone service, and sometimes even waifs of free WIFI. You are also in the parking lot of a store, so if you need any supplies you are just minutes away from the checkout line. The downfall is that you are in a store parking lot, meaning you’re parked under high intensity flood lights and no matter how tight you close your blinds, you will never get the complete dark you are looking for. Also, you are parked in the constant stream of people wondering into the store at all odd hours of the night. The later the hour, the weirder the people. Have you seen the People of Wal-Mart?
  •     Staying in a Wal-Mart parking lot is super easy, all it requires is a call to the store to find out if they allow overnight parking (some stores don’t). You don’t have to make reservations and your trip planning can be super flexible. Feel like you’re tired and ready to stop for the night? No problem, there is probably a Wal-Mart nearby. The downfall is that parking in a Wal-Mart parking lot is so easy, anyone could do it, including truckers, who park nearby and idle their diesel engines all night long. And sometimes, if you’re really lucky, you’ll end up in one of those special towns where the best entertainment the local folks can think of for a Friday night is to gather at their local Wal-Mart and race their cars around, rev their engines, peel some tires and tailgate in the back of their trucks. Those nights are always exciting, in the “I’m just going to sit here quietly in my big white box on the side of the parking lot, you guys go ahead and have fun over there” kind of way.
Boondocking in a Wal-Mart parking lot
Boondocking in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Texas
Boondocking on a forest road in a National Forest:
  •     National Forests are generally located in gorgeous countryside and you are almost always guaranteed to be surrounded by nature for the duration of your stay. The forest roads are usually well marked and well surfaced, and generally have nicely developed and level individual camping sites. The downfall is that National Forests are generally located in gorgeous countryside, countryside that might take you hours of driving to get to. And instead of loud car noises, you might end up hearing creepy animal noises throughout the night, that leave you wondering about what exactly is wondering around out there.
  •      National Forests are usually located far away from towns and civilization, so if its seclusion you’re looking for, you've come to the right place. Sometimes you’ll drive down a forest road and find out that there is only one camping spot, and it’s all yours. You might even luck out and end up near a running stream, or by a great overlook. The downfall is that the parks are far away from towns, meaning you will almost always have zero cellphone reception. While this can be nice at times, it can also be a little worrisome. This is especially true when its pitch black outside and you remember that the forest road that you’re on by yourself was miles long, and you hear a something big rustling in the bushes nearby.
  •       Staying on National Forest roads is also super easy, no reservations required, you just show up and claim what yours. The downfall is that reserving that favorite spot of yours, right next to the running creek and the overlook is impossible, so John Smith and Bubba Gump all have rights to the same spot. If you drag your trailer down that long forest road and get to the end only to discover that the camping spot is already taken, you have no choice but to turn around and continue your search. Sometimes this can turn into a long and frustrating journey.
Boondocking off of a forest road in Arizona
Boondocking off of a forest road in Arizona
So there you go. Like I said, in each case you get what you've paid for. The chances of you having a negative experience in either place are pretty low, given the fact that you haven’t paid for anything, and you could leave anytime. The dozen experiences we've had in both parking lots and down forest roads have all been mostly positive. Except for last Friday…when most of Galax showed up to gather around us and party in the Wal-Mart parking lot. :o)

Happy Free Camping!


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1 comment:

  1. If you enjoy RVs you already know that a major part of the fun with RVing is getting away from everything. You can just pack up the RV and head out to get some well deserved rest and relaxation without having to deal with the hassles of day-to-day living.

    Zion RV Park