Staying overnight in a commercial or government-provided parking area for free is a great way to save money as you travel across the country. The ability to stay in these locations is a privilege governed solely by the property owners and they can revoke it at any time.
To help ensure they don’t do that there are some well-established etiquette rules for RVers taking advantage of the generosity of these sites. As a general rule, parking lot etiquette is not that different from general campground etiquette. Let’s take a look at some of the specific dos and don’ts of overnight parking lot stays.
Make Sure You Have Permission
The biggest rule of etiquette for parking lot stays is to always ask for permission. Don’t just assume because there are other RVs or tractor-trailer trucks parked there that it’s ok. If it’s not, they’ll get that embarrassing knock on the door in the wee hours of the morning too when they ask you all to leave.
If you use apps like AllStays RV, Campendium, or Freecampsites.net to find locations, the comments associated with them will often state whether it’s allowed there or not. Don’t blindly follow those comments. You may be unfortunate enough to arrive on the day they changed the rules.
So, always ask permission before staying. Also ask If they have a preferred area where to park, not all sites will have an obvious area and it’s just easier to ask when you get permission than to wander around looking. It’s always best to call ahead to gain the necessary permission. It’s always a bummer to drive to a location only to find you can’t stay.
Observe And Honor Signs
If you choose not to call ahead to get permission from a site then make sure you look for signs when you arrive. Most places that don’t allow overnight stays in their parking lots will clearly post signs stating that’s the policy. Even if signs are present, it may not hurt to call and ask anyways but don’t get your hopes up.
It’s pretty rare for a signed property to allow stays. Regardless, if there is signage stating you can’t stay and you don’t want to double-check with them then don’t stay. Choosing otherwise is an almost sure-fire way to have someone banging on your door to ask you to leave at 2 am.
Frequent The Establishment
Many places that will allow you to stay overnight for free do so in the hopes that you’ll patronize their business. This is not always the case, but if it’s a major retailer you can assume this is the case. If you have anything you need that the store offers, then it’s a good idea to run in and pick it up.
In addition to retail establishments, this can be true for free camping at county parks or on city streets. There are a number of free overnight sites across the county provided by small towns and rural communities. These areas provide the spaces in hopes of attracting patrons to the local businesses. Make sure you partake if you can, part of the joy of RVing is experiencing the local scene and there is no better way to do that than to get out and explore the local businesses.
No Setting Up Your Lawn Furniture & BBQ
You’re staying the night as a guest at someone’s place of business, it’s not the time to set up lawn furniture and break out the BBQ. The goal is to be as discrete as possible. If nobody notices you’re there then you’ve done a good job.
The one exception to this is in campsites provided by cities or communities. These tend to be more like actual campsites where your lawn furniture and BBQ will fit right in. They are not all that way, but you’ll know if it’s ok just by looking around. If it’s a tiny parking spot on the side of Main Street then leave the stuff in the RV. If it’s a nice grassy spot back in a county park then you’re probably good to lounge and grill at will.
No Generators After Hours Or At All
Generators are noisy and they should be left off during your stay. This is the case regardless of the proximity of other people staying the night. Even if you have the lot all to yourself you should still refrain from using a generator unless it’s absolutely necessary. If it is necessary then limit it to intermittent use during daylight hours only.
No Garbage Left Behind
This goes without saying. When you leave, the location should be identical to the way it was when you arrived. You should leave no trace. The only exception to this is free designated Municipal or park campground spaces.
Even here you won’t want to leave trash lying around but many of these will provide trash cans, dump stations, or even full hookups. Make sure if you leave trash behind in this type of site that it is left in the designated receptacles. For commercial parking lots, take it all with you and dispose of it at your next true campsite.
Don’t Make A Bunch Of Noise, Be Discrete
This goes along with the generator rule. You’re really there to sleep and patronize the supporting business(es). This is not the time to host a parking lot party. Even if your behavior is not enough to ban all future visitors it’s likely you will be asked to leave by the host business. Don’t draw attention to yourself and your stay will be much more enjoyable.
Slideouts can be a contentious issue among parking lot boondockers. Many say you should never put them out. Unfortunately, there are many RVs that are inaccessible or unusable with the slides in. In general, if you can avoid putting a slide-out then don’t. They take up a lot of space and will easily block traffic paths in most parking lots.
If you do need to deploy your slideouts try and park your rig where the slideout will overhang outside space. For example, park on the edge of the lot with the rig facing so your open slideout hangs over the curb or the adjacent grassy areas rather than into the parking lot itself. If your RV has slides on both sides try to back it into a corner where the slides can’t protrude into any traffic pathways.
Landing Gear And Leveling
It is generally considered poor etiquette to put down your stabilizing jacks or attempt to level your RV when boondocking in a free overnight parking space. Most parking lots are blacktop and you may encounter some that are gravel or dirt. Putting down your leveling jacks (particularly on a hot summer day) can leave impressions on hot blacktop.
Our goal here is to stay in a way that nobody knows we were there. Leaving divots in the parking lot is not a good way to achieve that. Also, putting the stabilizing jacks down or hauling out the leveling blocks makes it look like you’re planning to stay awhile and that’s not the look you want to communicate.
Granted, your RV is supposed to be level for many of the systems to work at their peak efficiency but being slightly off-kilter for a night or two generally won’t cause any huge problems. If you park and determine it’s too out of level then just try moving to another spot.
Disconnecting Your Trailer From The Tow Vehicle Or Toad From Your Motorhome
These are noisy processes and as such are frowned upon. Since we’re only planning on sleeping in the spot for a night, leave the tow vehicle and toad hooked up unless there is some reason you can’t. And if there is such a reason then you may want to look for another place to stay.
There will be instances where you’ll want to leave a place quickly and you simply can’t do that if you have to hook everything back up. So for courtesy, etiquette, and safety sake, leave everything hooked up and ready to go.
Clean Up After Your Pet
Like not leaving trash behind you should never leave pet waste behind. Standard etiquette no matter where you stay outside your own private property dictates that you clean up after your pet. Nobody wants to step in with what your pet left behind.
No matter how sure you are that it’s in a location where that won’t happen, I can assure you it will. There is probably no single reason greater than this that businesses will deny access to overnight parking. Clean it up and take it with you.
Be Courteous To Others Around You And The Business
Everyone staying at a free overnight location like this is undergoing some level of stress. Most people pulling in have had a long day on the road and the employees in the business have jobs to do outside dealing with your desires to stay the night. Give other people ample space and work with others so everyone can get a good night’s sleep and move on the next day.
If you pull in late, try not to shine your headlights into other campers and stay as far away as you can so as to not disturb people as you set up. Also, follow the rules of etiquette outlined here. Doing so shows respect and courtesy to both the host business and your fellow travelers.
Park Far Away From The Crowd And The General Parking
When you ask permission to stay, always ask where they recommend you park. Generally, this will be along the outside perimeter of the parking lot well away from the commonly used parking spaces for customers. If there is nobody to ask, or if you forget to ask then those are the areas you’ll be looking for.
You basically want to be out of the way of customer and truck traffic which may be supplying the location you are staying at. If someone has to go around you to get to the host store or make delivery then you’re not in a good spot. If you realize this after you’ve parked, it’s generally best to move if you can.
Stay Only A Night Or Two No More
Permission to stay in these areas is provided as a courtesy for the weary traveler and to bring in some business for the host business. It’s not intended to be a campground or a place to stay longer than it takes to get some rest and buy a few things.
Many places which don’t allow overnight stays do so at the behest of local government ordinances which were put in place because people abused the generosity of the businesses and became a nuisance. There have been many instances of people living out of their RVs by simply moving from one parking lot to the next every couple of days – or staying even longer. Overstaying your welcome is highly frowned upon in the RV community.