For over a year now we have been hearing people talking about Wallydocking, which is staying overnight in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Now that we have our solar in place, I was very interested in trying it since it seems like a way to keep campground costs low. Plus sometimes there may not be anywhere else available to stay so it is really good that that is an option. This is our experience and please keep in mind yours may vary. Weather, location, type of camper, and personal preference all play a huge roll here and I can guarantee on this particular issue Your Mileage Will Vary. YMWV!!
Let me back up a bit first. The trip started out well enough. We said goodbye to DeDe and Denny and were sad that we were leaving. They have been so wonderful to us through this whole experience, but we were also excited about getting to Minneapolis to be with Katy…our middle daughter who is getting married in July. This lifestyle is enabling us to physically be with her for a month around the wedding and what a gift that is. I helped plan my oldest daughter’s wedding from another state and at times that distance was a challenge. We are hoping that being local will be a huge advantage. Plus we love our kid and just want to hang out with her…bonus!! Because in the past we have come close to running out of gas on a couple of occasions, Lee always plans our gas breaks in advance. We love Flying J’s with RV lanes and we use the Flying J App to find the ones along our route. Because they are not that common, Lee will often have us stop at 1/2 a tank or more to take advantage of the easy access in and out. I highly recommend this by the way, it may seem counter intuitive to stop for gas early, but it really takes some stress out of driving longer distances. Plus, although I generally use the bathroom in the rig at stops, they have the nicest public restrooms overall that I have seen and I’ll go inside and get a drink and stretch my legs a bit. So at one of our stops I wandered inside and when I went to the bathroom I stood up and flushed the toilet. To my horror the loose key that was inside my pocket fell out and was flushed down the toilet. I immediately panicked and stuck my hand in there (I know, gross right? But it was very clean for a public toilet!) and when I couldn’t find it ran out and asked for help. Then I went back to the stall and guarded it to make sure no one else used it. Unfortunately an employee came in and said she was very sorry but this had happened before and there was nothing they could do because it was in the pipes. So now I am truly shaken, thinking how I would get another key cut, was there a Ford dealership nearby etc. Thankfully when I walked out to Lee he stayed calm. He went into our rig and pretty quickly found the spare key. Oh that’s right, we carry our home with us and Lee has never thrown away a key in his life, so of course he had it. Yes it’s true, I married the right guy, and I can’t tell you how relieved I was. Seriously the thought of being stranded in the parking lot had me in a panic, but luckily it was going to be ok. I took a moment and said a prayer thanking God for looking out after idiots (that being me), and after Lee was sure my heart rate was back to normal we continued on down the road.
After that experience I was actually looking forward to stopping for the night and because we lost an hour due to changing to Central time we rolled into the Walmart around 3:30pm CST. I had picked this particular Walmart because there were no inexpensive campgrounds nearby ($44 for the KOA and no state or city parks) and it had a separate parking lot that according to Google Maps was lined for trucks and RV’s. Also I had read a couple reviews online of people who had stayed there and it seemed OK. What I wasn’t planning on was how hot a parking lot would be at 3:30pm. When we got there, we lined up near the edge facing some trees and I turned the generator on for some AC to cool the inside of the rig. Fifth Wheels are a metal box and can get pretty hot when you’re traveling so a little cool air is the way to go to quickly resolve that problem. Our solar will run everything except the microwave and AC so it was time to use the propane generator a bit. It was good actually as we have had it for 1-1/2 years now and rarely used it. (That is not good by the way, as you are supposed to run them for an hour once a month, and we had not been very good on following that rule.) The generator started up with no problem and the inside quickly cooled down. Lee went inside to get some bread and talk to the manager to get permission. When he came back he said it was fine and the manager said we were welcome to stay and was very nice about it. The general etiquette here is you ask permission and buy something in the store. Some folks call ahead, a good practice, others wing it, but unless there is a city ordinance against it most Walmarts are very cool about it. As a side note I have heard that many cities in Florida have banned it because too many people are doing it, but in most places it is allowed. I use the Allstays App to target where the available Walmarts are, but then call to confirm.
So we are there with permission to setup but it’s actually getting hotter (84 degrees and climbing) and since it’s a parking lot the heat is magnified. We decided (and YMWV here) to leave the AC on until the day cooled off a little bit. We had filled up our propane at the last stop, could exercise the generator a bit, and stay comfortable. Why not? Lee turned on both AC’s (which wasn’t strictly necessary) and we settled in. 3-1/2 hours later the generator sputtered and stopped as we had depleted an entire tank of propane…and at 7pm it was still on the warmish side. So here is where I got mad. Once again a “free” place to camp had cost us something. A tank of propane is not cheap, costing us around $20 with our Good Sam lifetime membership (which gives us a 10 cent per gallon discount at Pilot and Flying J) and more importantly, once again conventional wisdom had left something out. I know many people might shop or eat out during the hottest part of the day, but that also includes incremental cost and in my mind sort of defeats the purpose of an economical overnight stay. Because we have not always been campers, we do a lot of research before trying new things. This research includes reading forums, blogs, and most importantly, talking to people. Once we see a pattern of consensus we make decisions based on common sense and that information. It’s not that people are deliberately being misleading, but many folks tend to sugarcoat the negative aspects of this lifestyle. That makes me crazy. I can’t make good decisions or manage risk without solid information. The negative parts of an experience are equally, if not more important, in my mind to helping others. That’s why I try to talk about all of my experience; warts and all. I don’t enjoy letting people know when I was an idiot, but if it helps someone else avoid that mistake then its worth it. OK, sorry, rant done.
So, we had bumped into two pieces of conventional wisdom being in seemingly total contradiction. The first is: Drive short days and try to stop early in the day to miss the worst traffic. The second: Walmart is an economical alternative to a campground stay for overnight travel. Now, if we traveled later in the day, or the weather was nicer, that would have been the case (that’s where location and weather come in), but it does get hotter in a parking lot than in a campground so you should definitely take that into consideration. Finally, I will say for us safety was a concern. Some folks could not care less about this and I think if I was in a Class A it would be less of an issue, but we have to open up to some extent to make sleeping work and our windows are close to ground level. Since we had established it was too expensive to run the air all night that meant windows open and fans for air flow. This worked fine from a temperature perspective but left us feeling more exposed. Plus you want to lower the blinds to stop the parking lot light which means less air flow. There was some walk by traffic as well from random people walking along the sidewalk and the later it got the more nervous Lee was about being outside. It actually got better from this perspective when the trucks starting showing up late in the evening because we were surrounded (behind and beside) by large semi trucks. They tend to leave their engines running non stop, and very soon the noise and smell started to get to me a bit. From a safety perspective truck stops (in Lee’s opinion) are much safer, but I had vetoed this idea due to noise and fumes. Imagine my surprise when the Walmart parking lot started filling up with semi’s. Don’t get me wrong, I like truckers. Generally they are good road companions and are nice people, but I was suprised by the quantity of them at this stop as no one had ever said this would happen. I was picturing all RV’s (and there were certainly some of those..mainly Class A’s) but not the trucks. So we closed up the windows that were a safety concern and tried to get some sleep. Neither one of us slept well and I woke up around 5am to the smell of diesel fumes wafting through my bedroom window…aaaah.
So why am I so annoyed? Well if someone had said, “Tracy you can stay overnight in a Walmart parking lot but it will cost you $19 in propane, trucks will be there, and you won’t feel safe.” I would have looked harder for an alternative solution. Am I glad we did this? Absolutely. It was an important piece of information that we needed to understand our options going forward, but will I do it frequently in the future? God, I hope not.
The good news though, is our second night stay was in completely different from our Wally Docking experience. I had done some research and found Pleasant Creek State Park in Iowa. (As a side note, I really enjoyed driving through Iowa. Some folks talk about farmland as if it is boring, but I say look a little closer. The fields and houses are beautiful and serve the function of feeding us all. Plus it does my mid-western heart good to see so much industry happening.) It’s a shame we couldn’t spend more time there and I definitely want to come back, because it really seems like my kind of place. So it was at the end of a pleasant drive when we pulled up. For the first time I had not booked a particular site. They had a reservation system which showed lots of openings and since we wanted to try looking at the sites and picking one we decided to roll the dice. It turned out fine, with several openings (although many of the best spots were reserved) and we ended up in Site 19. We were a little taken aback though when we saw there was no camp office just a small booth with envelopes for cash and a slip you put into your site number. I had read about this in Howard’s blog but to be honest didn’t really get it, and thankfully Lee had a $20. The campsites were only $16 for the night (50 amp electric only), but with the view below we didn’t mind paying $20 at all. Next time I will have change though!
Just to be sure we were doing it right, we walked over to the camp hosts to verify and Jeff after a minute said, “Wait a minute. I recognize you…I’ve seen your blog.” That was so nice, and very unexpected. They were incredibly friendly, helping us select the best site that was available and offering to come down and chat later in the evening. They have been full timing for three years and this is their second year camp hosting in Iowa so they can be near their grand kids in Cedar Rapids. Jeff is a retired firefighter and he and his wife have spent quite a bit of time in Florida. They like camp hosting so we picked their brain about how that experience was. They are big fans of work kamping, in particular volunteering in State Parks where the work requirements are minimal. Their blog is called Crazy Marlins if you want to check it out. Very nice people and to be honest it’s a bit of an ego boost to be recognized like that so this experience was starting out waaay better than the Walmart night. Then it got really great. I took a walk to take some pictures and saw what an amazing park it is. We would definitely come back here. There is no WiFi or full hookups but the views are great and the park is large and very friendly. They have a full beach, are very fisherman friendly, and boat docks with lots of paddling opportunities. It’s a very nice recreation area and you absolutely can’t beat the price!! But don’t take my word for it, see for yourself.
- Know where your spare car key is, and have it in an easily accessible place
- Do NOT carry a loose key in your pocket if you are going into a restroom.
- Running the AC with a propane generator takes a lot of propane.
- Carry exact change for campsites that requires an envelope with cash payment
- For us, a reasonably priced campground would always be preferable to a Walmart.
Pleasant Creek State Park 4530 McClintock Rd, Palo, IA 4 out of 5 pine cones
The views are great and the recreation park is large and very friendly. They have a full beach, are very fisherman friendly, and boat docks with lots of paddling opportunities. The campsites were only $16 for the night (50 amp electric only) and they have an envelope system where you pay cash and select your spot. You can also reserve online. The camp hosts were very friendly and the people who stayed there around us were considerate. There is no WiFi but the AT&T cell coverage was ok. We stayed in site #19 which was a very large pull through site with a nice view of the lake, but Site #69 has the best views in the park. Would have liked to stay here longer and definitely will come back.