- I spent two weeks traveling in a campervan and discovered the less glamorous parts of van life.
- That included a night spent in a Cracker Barrel parking lot.
- But sleeping in parking lots made the stunning campgrounds I visited even more special.
It was golden hour in Williams, Arizona, and I had no place to sleep for the night.
I was just a few days into my two-week road trip traveling around America’s West in a 75-square-foot campervan.
So far, the trip was a success. I spent a night camping for free in a scenic national forest in Taos, New Mexico, discovered delicious road-trip eats, and met welcoming people along the way.
But as I stared down at Google Maps, I was unsure how this night was going to go.
I didn’t want to shell out a lot of money to stay in an RV resort, which typically costs around $60 per night, since I just needed a place to rest for a few hours. But I also didn’t spot any affordable or free campgrounds nearby.
Then, I remembered some businesses like Cracker Barrel welcome overnight campers to park for free in their lots.
I headed toward a nearby Cracker Barrel
From interviews with other nomads, I knew some businesses like Cracker Barrel and Walmart allow RVs, campervans, and cars to park overnight in their lots.
I also knew this rule varied from location to location and van lifers advised me to research each location and always get permission from a manager first.
So before I spent 50 minutes driving to a nearby Cracker Barrel in Flagstaff, Arizona, I wanted to make sure I’d be able to sleep in the parking lot. I pulled up iOverlander, an app that other nomads use to share reviews on everything from gas stations to water pumps to free parking.
Here, I spotted reviews outlining that a handful of businesses had started banning RVs and vans from staying overnight in Flagstaff. I read dozens of reviews that a nearby Walmart had “no parking” signs posted all over its lot. If I hadn’t hopped on the app, I might have mistakenly assumed I could’ve slept there, too.
Thankfully, reviewers said that the Cracker Barrel still welcomed overnight visitors. I planned to confirm with the restaurant when I arrived.
When I pulled up to the Cracker Barrel at 6:45 p.m., there was no doubt in my mind that the business allowed overnight visitors. The majority of parking spots were filled with vans, cars, RVs, and travel trailers of all sizes.
I popped into the Cracker Barrel to use their restroom and confirm that it was fine to spend the night in their lot. I was greeted kindly, and no one even asked that I dine at the restaurant in order to park.
After getting a green light, I settled in. I put covers on each window to block any nosey eyes and bright lights. Then, I turned on my van’s heater, hopped in bed, and enjoyed a takeout dinner I picked up on the drive over.
Outside, I could hear cars zooming down a nearby road, and every half hour, a train passed by. I could also hear other cars and RVs pulling into the last few spots of the lot.
I gained comfort knowing that I wasn’t alone. If the parking lot had been deserted, I doubt I would’ve gotten any sleep.
Thankfully, I did, and by 9:30 p.m. I was snoozing.
Every few hours, a car alarm or honking would jolt me awake. While it was far from the best sleep of my life, it was free.
And at 6 a.m. the next day, I was awake and ready to hit the road to my next destination.
The night wasn’t glamorous, but it was convenient
No adventure is without its challenges.
While I pictured my van trip consisting of parking in stunning campgrounds and isolated destinations, Cracker Barrel and Walmart parking lots were the reality at two points throughout the trip.
Sleeping in parking lots saved me money, and ultimately, it allowed me to get to those striking places I envisioned by keeping my budget in check.
The next night, I stumbled upon a campground on a lake after driving through the desert all day. The little oasis felt even more special after my night at Cracker Barrel.