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See the country, stay at Wal-Mart

As more RVs fill campsites, some RVers pick Wal-Mart lots, where their money is welcome.

Stars flicker high above the Sonoran Desert on a wild winter night. The tangy whiff of a mesquite campfire hangs in the frigid air. In the distance, a lone coyote calls and from the foothills comes an answering yip.

Huddled together, Clif and Betty Santa prepare for another night camping out. After wiping out the microwave, turning off the TV and shifting the clothes from the washer to the dryer, Betty steps out of the 39-foot Newmar Diesel RV and into an eerie, fluorescent light. Before her is a vast grid of white-painted stripes stretching into the void. Behold their campground: the Wal-Mart parking lot.

Theirs was not the only recreational vehicle moored under the moonlight, amid the acres of asphalt, at the Super Center north of Tucson. Massive motor homes and pickups with pudgy cab-over campers were bivouacked all along the edge of the blacktop. All of them camping. At the Wal-Mart.

They arrive uninvited, undaunted by local ordinances that prohibit overnight parking and evidently unfazed by the lack of amenities. But with recreational vehicle enthusiasts in the United States now numbering more than 30-million _ and with national park campgrounds ever more crowded _ the notion of bedding down in the parking lot of a busy 24-hour store is increasingly attractive.

It's called "boondocking," and it's big business. A 1999 survey found that one-third of campers had spent at least one night in a Wal-Mart parking lot. The well-heeled RVers stream into the stores for one-stop shopping: groceries, photo processing, eye exams, tires and, increasingly, RV-specific merchandise. Wal-Mart even has produced a road atlas that notes the locations of its stores in all 50 states and Canada, complete with information about local camping ordinances.

In the Tampa Bay area, some Wal-Mart stores allow RVs to park in their lots, but other managers say they forbid it.

At the Wal-Mart supercenter that opened last month in New Port Richey, RV owners can get oil and lube service, and the store carries a selection of RV supplies _ everything from toilet tank cleaners to awning cleaners and leveling jacks.

Co-manager Charles Moore said that because the parking lot has only 800 spaces, his store doesn't advertise it as a place to park for the night. But at the store where Moore used to work in La Grange, Ga., there were plenty of RV drivers looking for a place to park overnight.

"Occasionally, it would look like a campground," he said.

The RVers represent such a windfall that greeters at some stores make early morning treks to the lot to knock on doors and let sleepy customers know that the coffee's on inside at the Wal-Mart Cafe.

In Alaska, where RVs flock in the summer, the competition for business has grown fierce. One Wal-Mart in Anchorage welcomes campers with a note placed under the vehicles' windshield wipers. The manager of the Kmart across the street noticed the massing of motor homes and ordered a banner _ "We welcome RVers" _ to lure some over to his side.

But some residents of communities most familiar with the urban camping phenomenon have had enough. They object to the sight of hulking recreational vehicles camped in town, complete with unfurled awnings and lawn chairs arranged around a swatch of AstroTurf. And some city officials across the country have started to crack down, invoking seldom-used bans on overnight camping within city limits.

The craze is well-known at Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., where the official policy is that the urban campers are welcome to park and shop, however long it takes.

"We view them as customers who take their time deciding what they want to buy," spokesman Tom Williams said.

Those slow shoppers _ people like the Gefke family _ have been good to Wal-Mart. The Gefkes sold their home and are traveling around the country in an RV, chronicling the journey on their Web site. Among the entries is a Wal-Mart review, where the Gefkes rate the stores they have camped at and note such details as RV access, noise levels and how much they spent: $97.50 at the Crestview store; $120 in Beavercreek, Ohio.

Not wanting to miss out on a merchandising windfall, Wal-Marts are stocking more RV-related items and placing them closer to the front of the stores. Wayne Boone, assistant manager of the Wal-Mart in Marana, acknowledged that the tactic has produced steady sales.

"They're good customers," he said of the campers.

"I look out for their well-being," store security guard Fred Hovater said. "Some nights, I might escort them out to their RVs, if they are parked way out and they've got their hands full."

Not many RVers say that the parking lots are their first choice for an overnight stay. They end up there when national park campgrounds are full or if they are tired and need to get off the road in a town where no campground exists. Church and hospital parking lots are also good options, they say.

Herb Neilson and his mother, Jaye, are avid RVers who say that, for weary travelers, Wal-Mart lots offer more safety than simply pulling off by the side of the road.

"Rest areas are a no-no," Jaye Neilson said. "They're dangerous. I wouldn't hesitate to stay at a Wal-Mart. RV people are good people. We never leave so much as a scrap of paper behind."

Camping and RVing newsletters and Web sites are full of parking lot camping advice. And chat rooms are bursting with tips. Most RVers seem to adhere to a strict etiquette: Park on the edge of the lot, don't hog spaces, herd together, check in with the store manager, keep your area clean and don't overstay your welcome.

A good guest is quiet and clean, according to Robert Anderson, who pulled into the lot near the Santas.

"I park out of the way as a courtesy," he said. "I'm not going to take up five spaces. I let the manager know I'm here, and if the parking lot has signs telling you that you can't camp, I move on."

While some cite convenience as a factor in their Wal-Mart stays, other RVers simply are looking to save a buck. Many but not all full-time RVers are senior citizens whose fixed incomes often are sorely stretched to bankroll months on the road. The cost to stay in a commercial campground that provides hot showers and power, water and sewer hookups averages about $24 to $28 a night, according to David Gorin, president of the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds.

Gorin said Wal-Mart campers are not threatening his industry but estimates that the parking lots are siphoning away about 10 percent of the business.

"For those who enjoy the Wal-Mart experience, we say they are welcome to it," Gorin said. "We think what commercial campgrounds have to offer the traveling public is far superior to what a Wal-Mart parking lot offers."

To some, parking lot camping is all part of the adventure. And if you can pinch a penny here and there, where's the harm?

"You've heard the joke about RVers?" asked Fred Edwards, a Tucson RV salesman working at a recent show taking place _ where else _ in a Wal-Mart parking lot.

"They pay $400,000 for an RV, then drive all over creation trying to find a free place to spend the night."

_ Times staff writers Jennifer Goldblatt and Mike Brassfield contributed to this report.