A recent lawsuit against Walmart after a parking lot fire brings camping at the national shopping chain into question.
For decades, RVers and long-distance drivers relied on Walmart parking lots for safe overnight parking. However, secure parking spots have dwindled in the last few years, with laws passed in several states against public camping.
With Walmart reconsidering its practices after the deadly fire, we may lose this option too.
Hang out with us as we explore the lawsuit and free camping alternatives.
About the Walmart Camping Lawsuit
Essie McKenzie and her young daughters stopped in a Fridley, Minnesota, Walmart parking lot in August 2019. Essie had just dropped her mother off at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport and needed some essentials on the way home.
It seemed like just an early morning shopping trip. However, it was anything but that. McKenzie left her daughters, ages 6 and 9, sleeping in her minivan while she went shopping.
Meanwhile, Roberto Hipolito and his wife moved their vehicle next to McKenzie’s after spending the night in the parking lot. Hipolito cooked breakfast on a charcoal stove in the lot and packed up the cooker before it had time to cool. The two went in to shop at the store, leaving the hot cooker in the back of their minivan.
By the time McKenzie finished shopping, her vehicle and several nearby vehicles had caught fire. McKenzie reported her daughters were asleep in the burning minivan to the on-site fire crews. Rescue attempts saved her then nine-year-old daughter. Sadly, the six-year-old died of her injuries.
After the initial trial, McKenzie filed a new lawsuit in July 2022. The suit seeks at least $75,000 in damages from Walmart for failing to monitor and protect overnight guests.
Walmart’s defense noted that company policy allows individual stores to decide about overnight parking of RVs and other vehicles. And while they allow parking, they don’t provide any amenities or hookups for the rigs on their lots.
Who is Roberto Hipolito?
Roberto Hipolito and his wife camped in the Fridley Walmart parking lot the night before the incident. The two drove their 2005 Dodge Caravan from California and made a habit of camping at Walmart stores on the way.
On the day of the incident, Hipolito cooked breakfast and then put the hot stove back in his vehicle. Before heading into the store with his wife, he piled pillows and blankets near the cooker. Hipolito faced arrest after the fire and served 32 days in jail before sentencing at his trial. He plead guilty and faced 120 days in prison and three years probation.
Does Walmart Allow Overnight Camping?
In spite of the lawsuit, Walmart’s corporate policy does allow overnight camping if the local store is on board. That means if the store’s manager permits RVs and vans, you’ve got a safe place for the night.
However, you’re responsible for ensuring the store you plan on allows overnight camping. Walmart doesn’t provide security or services for folks parking at the store. And if incidents occur, managers are less likely to continue this practice.
With the rise in RVers using Walmart as an overnight stop and resupply, you’d think managers want to encourage this. You’d be wrong. In 2020, CNN polled Walmart locations and found some startling figures.
What used to be 78% of stores allowing overnight camping dropped to 58%. A one-time stalwart supporter of the RV lifestyle seems to be getting cold feet.
Where Else Can You Legally Camp Overnight?
Without Walmart to count on, you may be wondering how to travel on a budget in your rig. It’s not all doom and gloom. There are plenty of locations you can park overnight for free. We’ve listed some options below, and check out our boondocking articles for an in-depth look.
All along the Interstate system, you’ll find 18-wheelers parked at rest stops, and you can join them. They’re conveniently located between cities and are often well-lit at night. You won’t find amenities beyond vending machines and bathrooms at most of them. And not all rest stops allow overnight parking.
You can certainly pull in and catch a few winks in a pinch if you need it. Check out the USA Rest Stops or Allstays apps for an exhaustive list along your route.
Although there’s some controversy here, most truck stops allow RVs to park overnight. Unlike parking at Walmart, you’ll usually find showers and laundry facilities in these locations, and restaurant fare is a likely option.
Controversy arises when it comes to parking, though. Some folks take the large parking spots reserved for truckers without a second thought. We recommend avoiding the big rig parking spots and finding another place to settle down.
Some cities allow overnight stays in parks for free or for a small fee. However, this option may be more off the beaten path than others. Because most parks aren’t well-lit and put you closer to nature, you may run a higher risk of a break-in.
And recent laws aimed at curbing homeless camping can impact your ability to use this option. Boondocking in public parks is pretty risky. If you don’t have other options, at least do your research.
Most casinos welcome overnight RV guests, especially if you plan on dropping some cash inside. They have large parking lots and plenty of food options. It may not be the quietest location, and they may require you to register inside. Many will allow multiple nights of parking if you play by their rules.
If your RV can handle boondocking, there are plenty of free camping options on BLM and other public lands. You can often find a spot by simply pulling off to the side of a secondary road. However, it’s best to check the city ordinance or BLM website. Don’t expect much in terms of amenities. These spots are often just flat pull-outs.
Why it Matters
As fewer Walmart locations allow overnight camping because of issues such as this lawsuit, RVers must seek out other options. Adding extra shopping stops and less convenient overnights to the planning process is certainly inconvenient.
RVers enjoy stopping in Walmart parking lots because of the convenience factor. Stores are usually close to major highways and offer shopping on top of a place to sleep. Plus, a whole subculture of RV owners plan trips around the big blue box. But this isn’t the end of Walmart camping.
Bad Eggs Are Ruining Walmart Camping For Others
Essie McKenzie just stopped to shop at her local Walmart on the day she lost her youngest daughter. A six-year-old died because Roberto Hipolito didn’t follow best practices with his camp stove. As tragic as the story is, bad actors like this cast all RV campers in a bad light.
Is the American tradition of overnighting in the Walmart parking lot going away? The corporate policy hasn’t changed. But the number of stores that allow it’s much smaller than in the past. So if you plan to camp at a Walmart, call ahead first. And make sure to reach out to your local managers to advocate for the RV way of life.
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