One of my favorite overnight spots on road trips has quickly become Cracker Barrel. I talked to a lot of people who do it, but when I started looking online for information, I found very little. So I decided to do a post about my experiences and tips in case you decide to add them to your road trip overnight spots.
The biggest question I had was how you know if it’s allowed. The only real answer is to ask at each location. While all of them have designated RV and bus parking, I found no signs explicitly stating you could stay overnight. At every one I stopped at, I was told it wasn’t a problem, that it’s a corporate policy, however, I always asked to at least let someone know I would be there. There seems to be a lot of opinions on this though. I know others who always ask but others just show up after they close and leave early in the morning. I had campers show up in lots I was in after the store was closed, so they could not ask. In those cases though, they could be using the logic I use when staying at a Wal-Mart, if there’s another camper there, they probably already asked and it’s ok.
Let me explain that when I say boondocking, that I’m not using it in the strictest sense of the word. Boondocking implies being away from civilization and not being connected to the grid in any way. I use it for overnight stays at Cracker Barrel because if you decide to stay there, there is no power or water and after they close, no bathroom facilities. So you need to be prepared to be off grid and self sufficient. Because of this, if you are in a tiny camper, it may be a little harder to do. I already have the port a potty so I’m set on bathrooms but my first couple nights on this trip were in North Alabama in September and it was still quite warm at night. Luckily the battery runs the Fantastic Vent, which also gives a unique view of the “campsite.”
Since there is no power and I am running the fan, I also have to open the windows, which brings me to the other point you need to consider, location of the store and where you park. One of the good points for Cracker Barrel over a Wal-Mart or Lowe’s is that you can find locations that are less secluded. For people in motorhomes or larger campers with generators, secluded and quiet may be what you want. However, if you have to have your windows open at night, you might not want to stay somewhere where there is no around to hear you scream. There are usually Cracker Barrel Restaurants every 50-70 miles on a major highway and usually one on either side of a major city, so you can be a little picky. I suggest finding ones located close to hotels and convenient stores. Yes, they may be a little more noisy but there are plenty of lights and other people around all hours. Some exits with a lot of hotels also have regular police patrols at night. These are normally not the things you look for in a campsite, but for these purposes, I believe you will be safer.
Now for picking a place to park. I suggest making sure you are close to a light first of all and if possible try to figure out where the employees are parked and park away from them. This is pretty easy to distinguish because they are usually parked in the back and that is usually where the RV parking is. I say park as far away as possible because the people closing will probably be coming out and leaving really late and the opening people will get there early in the morning. There is a good chance the closing people will hang out talking for a while after their shift, which is fine, it’s their workplace and I’m not going to ask them to stop. It just may keep you up later than you would like. Then in the morning they will be getting in early and parking in the same places. It’s a problem for me because when we are in the camper, Bella feels the need to sound the “stranger danger” alarm when anyone gets too close to the camper. Barking in my face is not how I like to get woke up.
Another thing you want to watch out for is the dumpsters. This is a lesson I learned the hard way. They actually usually disguise their dumpsters for the parking lot to have a more appealing ascetic. They do a really good job because I stayed at one in Ohio where I thought I had the perfect spot. I was right by a grassy median for Bella to use the bathroom, there was a trash can and a brick wall separating me from where the employees were parked. What I didn’t realize, or think to look at, was that the brick wall was hiding six dumpsters. At this particular location all six of them got emptied at 4:00 am. That was not the best way to get woke up.
Now for the big part of this option for overnight stays, etiquette. I already mentioned not asking employees to be quiet in the parking lot, but there are some other things to keep in mind if you do this. I am very adamant about this part because if you are regular reader of this blog you know I was an avid Wal-Mart parking lot camper, but that was not an option on this trip. While most Wal-Marts used to have signs designating the “Overnight Parking” area, most now have “No Overnight Parking” signs. I was able to stay one night in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Pennsylvania but it was an ordeal to get permission. They had to see my driver’s license and took my phone number and license plates numbers before agreeing to let me stay one night. When I took Bella to use the bathroom I got a good indicator of why they have stopped allowing people to stay. The pictures don’t show the extent of the trash in this area because most was hidden in the taller grass, but trust me it was bad.
Along the trip I talked to many campers and truck drivers about this change in policy for Wal-Mart and they all had stories of seeing people abuse the privilege and cause the change. I talked to a retired couple in New York who make a trip back and forth between New York and Florida every spring and fall. Their plans this year had changed due to Covid and they made the trip twice within a month. Both times they stayed at a Wal-Mart, where they normally spend a night and saw a camper completely setup with their awning out and lawn chairs and grill set up and it was still there with the same setup when they went through a month later. Most truckers admit that truckers are the worst about just throwing trash out before they leave somewhere and one even said he had seen some dump port-a-potties in Wal-Mart parking lots. So I am understanding why they reversed the policy.
So please do not abuse this option from Cracker Barrel and make sure it stays an option for everyone. First of all, clean up after yourself. I feel like that is the number one rule everywhere but the abundance of trash I see on road sides, in parking lots and campgrounds is depressing. Second this is not a campground, do not set up like one. You can use a generator, but don’t put your awning out, set up lawn chairs and hang out in the parking lot. I don’t even put my stabilizers down in a overnight parking lot stay. Third, support the business whose lot you are staying in. I get that when you don’t have money you may not be able to buy dinner and breakfast from them, I didn’t at every one I stayed at, but buy at least one meal. If you have an outdoor kitchen like I do, do not cook a meal in their parking lot, it’s just rude. There are also tons of things you can plan to buy in their store to support them if you know you will be staying there, like hand lotion and chap stick. They also have an audiobook program where you can buy from one location and exchange it at any other location in the US.
Lastly, don’t stay all day. I have seen people say don’t stay more than 12 hours, which is a good guideline, but there are some instances where I think a little longer is OK. On my way back it was getting dark earlier and I didn’t want to drive after dark so I was stopping by around 7:30 pm. At that point I was focused on getting back and doing very little cooking, so I always planned to eat dinner and breakfast there. Since they don’t open till 7:00 a.m. or 8:00 a.m. staying no more than 12 hours wasn’t possible by the time I got my food and ate. I think in those cases, when you are eating two meals with them, it’s ok to be there a little longer. Just don’t be cooking bacon and eggs and making coffee in your outdoor kitchen at 9:00 am. This does not encompass every situation of etiquette, but the main point is be courteous and a good steward of their generosity so we can all continue to enjoy it.