The first two RVs roll into the parking lot about 3:30 on a fall afternoon. The occupants get out, chat with each other and take a bloodhound for a walk. A few minutes later, another RV shows up, a 37-footer with a slideout kitchen.
According to a report in the Free Lance Star, Fredericksburg, Va., the scene typifies the usual evening traffic at the local Wal-Mart store, which allows free camping in its parking lot.
They’re contented partakers of what RVer Jim Pollard calls “the Wal-Mart RV culture,” an informal community of travelers who take advantage of the chain store’s ample, lighted parking lots instead of paying to park overnight in commercial RV campgrounds.
Wal-Marts across the country generally allow overnight RV stays except where local ordinances prohibit it, company spokeswoman Jami Arms said via e-mail.
The parking lots offer no water or electrical hookups, of course, but the Pollards and other RVers say pretty much everything else they might want is close at hand when they’re parked at a Wal-Mart.
In turn, the RVers make Wal-Mart’s cash registers beep.
Not every Wal-Mart allows RV parking overnight, the Pollards say. When they pull into a lot and see a “no overnight parking” sign, they pull right back out.
“We don’t want to be seen as an intruder that drives away business,” Jim Pollard says. “We don’t want to ruin a good thing by staying somewhere we’re not welcome.”
Wal-Mart doesn’t want its parking lot to be anybody’s vacation destination, but through-travelers are welcome to a patch of asphalt for the night.
And at dawn pretty much every day, an RV or two can be found on the edge of the lot. The spot is especially popular when there’s a NASCAR race going on in Richmond, said the local store spokesman.
Jim Pollard is a retired Toronto, Canada, police officer; his wife Cathy Pollard is a real estate broker in Georgetown, Ontario.
In many ways, the Pollards mirror their U.S. counterparts who have contributed to a boom in RVing over the past five years.
Since 2001, U.S. ownership of RVs has increased 15%, according to a study released by the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA).
The Pollards got their first RV after renting one a few years ago to take their children and grandchildren to Myrtle Beach, the couple’s favorite destination for the past 40 years or so.
That trip in the rental was such a success they bought a 23-foot RV. It was too small. They traded for a 34-footer, and finally traded that for the 37-foot house on wheels.
They lived full time in that RV while they were having a home built, they said, and they enjoy having homelike comforts while traveling.
While both Pollards said they feel comfortable behind the wheel, the expense of such a trip “is not for the faint-hearted,” Jim Pollard said. A recent trip to Florida cost $1,325 in gas alone.
Once the Pollards reach their vacation destinations, they stay at campgrounds specifically designed for RVs, offering water, electricity, environmentally safe waste dump stations and space outdoors to barbecue and picnic. But those sites can cost $30 or more a night, further adding to the cost of a trip.
“People have the misapprehension that RV is cheaper” than other kinds of travel, Jim Pollard says. “It isn’t.”
And that’s a big reason why, when they can, the Pollards spend nights on the road in Wal-Mart parking lots.
Nobody bothers them. They feel safe. And it’s free.