New York (CNN Business) - Walmart is known for its mammoth superstores that sell everything from groceries to treadmills. For thousands of RV travelers, though, its stores are appealing for a different reason: Spacious parking lots where people can relax and stay overnight for free.
The company has allowed overnight parking for RVers in many of its 4,700 US lots going back to the days of founder Sam Walton in the mid-twentieth century. Even RV enthusiasts Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his wife, conservative activist Ginni Thomas, have been known to stay at Walmart.
But parking at Walmart is getting harder to find. In 2010, about 78% of Walmart stores allowed overnight RV parking. Now, it's close to 58%, according to Jim O'Briant, who runs OvernightRVParking.com, a website that tracks more than 14,000 free RV parking locations in the United States and Canada.
This presents a problem for scores of self-proclaimed nomads just looking for a place to settle after dark. "RVers looking for a place to park overnight for one night will need to find other places," O'Briant said.
A Walmart representative said the company does not track how many stores allow overnight RV parking or whether the number has gone down in the past few years. RV parking policies are subject to store manager discretion.
RV sales and rentals are surging as people look for ways to travel around the country and enjoy the outdoors during the pandemic. Forty-six million Americans plan to take an RV trip in the next 12 months, according to the RV Industry Association. Many dealers have reported record-breaking sales in May and June, according to the trade group.
Typically, RV parking at Walmart lots is allowed for 24 hours. Walmart says on its website that it "values RV travelers and considers them among our best customers."
Most RV parks and campgrounds charge an overnight rate, and Walmart lots appeal to travelers looking to save money. Cracker Barrel, Lowe's and Cabela's are also popular stores for overnight parking, but Walmart's store count dwarfs all three chains.
Walmart lots attract an eclectic mix of travelers. Some are going cross-country and looking to get a good night's rest before visiting a national park, RV enthusiasts say. Others can't afford a home and are living out of their RVs. People often wind up at the Walmart lots if they are not able to find a reservation at a local campground.
While no one knows exactly why O'Briant's data shows a drop in the percentage of Walmart stores allowing RV parking, RVers have theories. Some of them boil down to etiquette.
People who track the industry say part of the reason more Walmarts are restricting overnight stays is because local ordinances have cropped up in recent years banning overnight RV parking in business parking lots in places such as Branson, Missouri, Sherwood, Oregon and Mountain View City, California.
Some of these restrictions are due to RV travelers leaving litter in parking lots and dumping out wastewater from their toilets on the pavement.
Travelers and overnight parking trackers like O'Briant also believe that more Walmart stores are restricting the practice because people are increasingly using parking lots to camp out for an extended period of time.
"People that treat it like a campground are ruining it for everyone else," said Mat Axelrod, 32, a member of a Facebook group called "Wal-Mart Boondocking and Camping." He stayed at Walmart parking lots around the country weekly after he quit his job in the music industry in 2018 and traveled around the country.
Axelrod said rural stores "were always the most peaceful stays and tend to have more respectful overnighters" than Walmart lots in cities. "I've seen people break out lawn chairs, an outdoor mat, string lights, and a grill," he said of the parking lots in urban locations.
RVer Joe Russo, 40, said that he and his wife Kait, who have published books about their RV travels and run a blog, have "seen camps set up and even RVs that no longer looked road worthy" in Walmart lots he's visited.
Five years ago, he quit his job in product development along with Kait, who was in marketing, to travel around the country in their RV and started parking in Walmart lots overnight for convenience. His favorite one was in Hurricane, Utah.
"The store manager was very nice when we went in to ask if we could park for the night," he said, adding that they celebrated by buying a bunch of snacks.
But being able to park at a Walmart isn't a given anymore.
"We've seen a change over the past few years where more and more Walmarts are no longer allowing overnight parking for RVers," said Russo.
That's left him feeling grateful for his options.
"We're very thankful to the Walmarts who still allow overnight parking...It's nice to pull up at the end of a long day of driving, walk in, grab some food, rent a DVD from Redbox or just pick up some random items we need," he said. (Redbox is a movie rental service, and many Walmart stores have kiosks where customers can pick up movies.)
The decision on whether parking is allowed overnight is up to the manager at each store, so if a specific store is seeing a sustained problem with trash or waste "it's plausible that they would assess the decision at their location," a Walmart spokesperson said. "But this isn't a problem that has risen to the point of restricting overnight parking across the chain for RV travelers."
The spokesperson added: "Generally this is a convenient option for many of our customers to take advantage of while traveling."
'More crafty' about parking
Some RV travelers also believe concerns that the lots attract homeless people living out of their RVs have prompted more parking restrictions. In Salem, Oregon, which has a growing homeless population, Walmart stores banned overnight RV parking, according to the local newspaper.
Sharon Shea, 76, who chronicled her RV journey around the country from 2013 to 2016 in her book "Three Years in a Walmart Parking Lot," said she is concerned about the impact of more Walmart stores restricting overnight parking on RVers, particularly for those who can't afford to stay at campgrounds.
The Walmart spokesperson said concerns about homelessness "could inform a decision at the store level, but it hasn't been the basis of a larger change in policy."
Shea told CNN Business in an email that she looks back fondly on her memories in the parking lots. "I liked the ability to be social if I stepped out of the RV and the privacy if I stayed secluded inside." She would use Walmart's WiFi to go on YouTube and watch documentaries about world history and politics.
Shea said she often made new friends who appreciated her quirks. "I enjoyed meeting people and had frequent conversations about my Schipperke dogs," she said. "They didn't hesitate to comment on the dogs or my hair color (anywhere from purple to blue) which signaled I was 'one of them' and approachable."
With fewer Walmarts to park at, thousands of RVers will have to find new spots, she said. Some will "leave that lifestyle behind," she said. "Others will become more crafty about where they park."
She expects more RVers to stay at casino parking lots and at Airbnbs or apps that offer driveway rentals. This can be cheaper than staying at an RV park overnight.