I remember my first time: I was nervous, self conscious, awkward, and thought everyone was looking and judging me. They were. But what did I expect? I was living in a parking lot inside my homemade RV. Of course people were looking, judging and wondering.
We had stopped in Lakewood, CO to visit Jay and Ashley, friends of ours from back home. They were living in a condo at the time and didn’t have space for us to moochdock (staying on someone private property for free). Jay is the store manager of a large outdoor retail store so I asked him if we could stay in his parking lot while we were in town. It turned out that the company actually owned their building and parking lot (unlike a lot of cases for retail stores) so he was able to give us permission. We ended up staying in the parking lot for 10 days.
It was uncomfortably awkward. This wasn't at a Walmart where people are used to seeing RVs of all shapes and sizes parked overnight. This was a parking lot backed up to a residential neighborhood and a lot of people used it as a cut-through to get to the main road throughout the day. This meant those cars drove right past our front steps. They would slow down and stare. If I happened to make eye contact with them, I would quickly look away and feel my cheeks get flushed. So I avoided catching anyone’s eye.
Honestly, I was embarrassed. I didn’t grow up thinking one day I’d live in a parking lot. I associated people who live in parking lots to be down and out. I wasn’t comfortable living in a parking lot. I knew I wasn’t homeless and I had chosen to live in this RV. But they didn’t. Unfortunately a part of me felt judged and cared what other people thought. I wanted to shout, “I’m not homeless. This crazy looking silver thing is my home. That we rebuilt ourselves. I don’t need your pity or disapproving glances.”
It was also strange to think that the world outside was driving to work or going into a store to make a return while I was inside the Toaster peeing, making breakfast or brushing my teeth. I was doing these regular everyday activities mere feet away from strangers. The buffer zone was a lot narrower than living in a house.
THEN AND NOW
But that was close to a year and a half ago. Since then we’ve spent 146 nights in parking lots: retail stores, grocery stores, business complexes, museums, casinos, schools, truck stops, and rest stops. One hundred and twenty nights were in 2015. And 58 of them were in the same parking lot while we searched for a replacement truck. In 2015 (our first year on the road), we had a lot of unexpected issues and ended up staying in parking lots. The majority of the time we spent only one night.
Either way, it was more nights in a parking lot than we wanted to spend. But it’s saved us a bunch of money; we mostly stay in parking lots when the only other option is an RV park. That's also enough nights to make me totally comfortable. I’m now happy to catch anyone’s eye, smile and say hello.
Parking lots are really fascinating places. For those who are like me and really enjoy people and rig watching, it’s the place to do it. We’ve met all kinds of people – some with really interesting stories and others that just won’t stop talking. We’ve had friends over for dinner and neighbors we just met give us fresh peonies. Passersby will stop and ask us questions about the Toaster, others will take pictures when they think we’re not looking, and some will take a slow 360 degree stroll around the Toaster as if we’re not sitting right there at the window watching them. At the same time we’ve had the police knock on our door and personal belongings stolen. We have met people who actually are down and out and are living out of their RV in a parking lot because that’s all they’ve got. For those people, we don’t feel embarrassed, just bad that they don’t have any other choice.
The parking lot that we were in for 58 days was outside Seattle, WA. The only reason why we were able to stay there for that long was because the retail store was permanently closed. We were parked at the back of the lot that butted up against a church. One day while we were outside showing someone the Toaster, one of the church trustees walked over to chat with us. Larry said that we had been the hot topic over at the church for weeks. People couldn’t decide what to make of us. He said he was happy to report back that we were “nice people”. After he found out that my bike and Tybee’s dog trailer had been stolen from there, he offered to look at the church’s security tape with us. There was a camera pointed in our direction and we were hopeful that something useful was caught on tape. It wasn’t. But his kindness continued and at the next service (which he invited us to), he made an announcement inquiring the congregation about a replacement truck for us and the stolen bike and trailer. Kindness comes from all kinds of places.
I write this post from the Walmart parking lot in Whitehorse, Yukon. The view isn’t great (actually it’s terrible because there’s a guy fixing his car next to us with a large portion of his ass crack on display), but it sure is convenient to everything we want access to while we’re in town. No, they aren’t as nice as RV parks but we’ve seen some RV parks that are worse than parking lots. Every night we’ve spent in one could have been at an RV park instead. Most times we stay at parking lots because we’re in a city where boondocking in the woods isn’t an option. We don’t like RV parks, especially since we don’t need the amenities like water, electricity, and a dump station. (Water and a dump station are easy to find for free or at a cost lower than a night at an RV park.) So parking lots are preferable. By not spending the 146 nights mentioned above at an RV park, we’ve saved $2,920 (estimating $20/night at an RV park – which is assuming the parks are very affordable).
WHAT WE LIKE ABOUT PARKING LOT CAMPING
When we’re in urban areas, we choose a parking lot based on its proximity to part of town we want to be in (of course it doesn’t always work out). So accessibility ends up being great: it’s either a short drive to places we want to go or even better - a walk or bike ride away. Other pluses to parking lots are: they typically have fairly level ground, making it easy to park and set up the Toaster; good solar exposure because of the lack of trees; and sometimes there’s free WiFi (fast too if it’s still on after store hours). It’s hard to remember sometimes, but not all parking lot camping has to happen at a Walmart. You can get crafty and find all kinds of great places to park for a night or three.
DOWNSIDES OF IT
But there are also downsides to parking lots: there’s a lot of traffic; overhead parking lot lights are bright; there’s usually nowhere fun to walk the dogs and we can’t just let them roam outside; there’s a lot of activity and noise, and sometimes semi-trucks idle their engines all night.
Spending more than a night or two in a parking lot is definitely not everyone’s thing. That’s totally understandable and it’s ok, because it means there’s a higher chance that we can stay in a parking lot. Oh, and we always ask for permission from the managers (including how long we can stay for). We don’t want to be the assholes who ruin it for everyone else.