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I spent a night in camper van in a Cracker Barrel parking lot, and the experience revealed a surprising side of the van life movement

I spent a night in camper van in a Cracker Barrel parking lot, and the experience revealed a surprising side of the van life movement
  • During a weekend road trip in a camper van, I stayed overnight in a Cracker Barrel parking lot.
  • Staying in store parking lots overnight is a popular option for vanlifers, especially in the winter.
  • The experience introduced me to a side of van life that social media rarely shows.

When I rented a camper van for a weekend, I expected a road trip filled with stunning landscapes and unforgettable views, like those shared with the van life hashtag on social media. Instead, I spent the night in a Cracker Barrel parking lot.

The strange adventure started when I rented a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van in January from Outdoorsy and enlisted the help of my friend to drive to Philadelphia and spend the weekend in the van with me. Together, we endured a cold evening in the parking lot of the restaurant chain.

Here's how we ended up in a Cracker Barrel parking lot, what the experience was like, and how it shaped my view of van life.

When first planning my road trip, it took a surprising amount of time to find the right spot to park overnight.

When first planning my road trip, it took a surprising amount of time to find the right spot to park overnight.
Parking overnight at a Walmart is common. Jeff Greenberg / Getty

At first, I was looking for overnight parking in national parks and campgrounds. Quickly, I realized that most of these were closed because it was off-season.

After asking for advice from full-time vanlifers, I learned of the best-kept secrets about van life: Most vanlifers sleep in parking lots. In fact, I learned that Walmart is one of the most popular overnight parking spots for vanlifers and RVers — not beaches and national parks, like many might assume.

After researching overnight parking at Walmart, I learned that I needed permission from a manager to spend the night. I called a few Walmarts around Philadelphia and no one could grant me permission to park overnight.

Luckily, my research also showed that Cracker Barrel is another popular destination for vanlifers. The first Cracker Barrel I called immediately granted me permission to park overnight.

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Before arriving at the Cracker Barrel, I was nervous about sleeping in a parking lot.

Before arriving at the Cracker Barrel, I was nervous about sleeping in a parking lot.
On our way to Philadelphia. Frank Olito/ Insider

On our journey down to Philadelphia, we hit traffic, so the two-hour trip turned into a three-hour road trip. While sitting in traffic, I became increasingly worried about sleeping in the Cracker Barrel parking lot. I wondered if the phone call was enough and if I needed to go inside the restaurant and ask for permission again. I even imagined police knocking on the door of the van in the middle of the night, forcing us to leave.

I also worried about our safety. Sleeping overnight in a strange parking lot just outside a city didn't seem like the safest option for two people who have never experienced van life before.

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When we finally arrived at the restaurant in Ridley Park, Pennsylvania, I was surprised to find three designated parking spaces for RVs.

When we finally arrived at the restaurant in Ridley Park, Pennsylvania, I was surprised to find three designated parking spaces for RVs.
The camper van parked in an RV spot. Frank Olito/ Insider

When I saw the large parking spaces designated for RVs, I instantly knew all my worries were for nothing. The fact that the company created these spaces put my mind at ease, and I knew we wouldn't get in trouble for parking there overnight.

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After choosing one of the RV parking spaces, I started looking for dinner.

After choosing one of the RV parking spaces, I started looking for dinner.
Eating my Wendy's dinner. Frank Olito/Insider

When we arrived, the Cracker Barrel was already closed for the night, so I had to look elsewhere for food. Luckily, there was a Wendy's across the parking lot. Unfortunately, though, only the drive-thru was open and the camper van exceeded the height limit, so I had to awkwardly wait in line outside with the cars and walk through the drive-thru.

I decided to eat my Wendy's outside the camper van because the interior was already starting to feel too cramped for two people. Many vanlifers have told me that the best part of the lifestyle is how you can do most things outside, and I loved the idea of eating my dinner just outside my temporary home. But that night was cold, and I began to shiver as I ate my chicken nuggets.

Read more: 10 things I wish I knew about van life before spending a weekend in a camper van

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After dinner, I converted the seating area into a bed, which was more complicated than I expected.

After dinner, I converted the seating area into a bed, which was more complicated than I expected.
Struggling to make the bed. Frank Olito/ Insider

This was the first night of my road trip so I had never made the bed before. Although it may seem simple to just move the cushions and then unfold the platform, it was much more difficult in practice. It was near impossible to find a place to put the large cushions in the van when I was trying to build the bed.

Additionally, putting a fitted sheet on a bed that is up against three walls is something I never wish to do again. I was crawling around the bed for a full 10 minutes attempting to shove the sheet into each corner before it popped out of another.

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Once the bed was finally made, my friend and I settled into an episode of "The Bachelor."

Once the bed was finally made, my friend and I settled into an episode of "The Bachelor."
Watching "The Bachelor." Frank Olito/ Insider

We had to use our phone's hotspot for Wi-Fi because neither the van nor the Cracker Barrel had Wi-Fi that we could use. Since the reception wasn't great, the show did freeze a few times during our viewing.

At that moment, I struggled to imagine how people could work full-time in their camper vans with such spotty internet, although some vans have Wi-Fi setups.

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When the show ended, we slowly realized a horrifying truth: The van's heat was not working.

When the show ended, we slowly realized a horrifying truth: The van's heat was not working.
The thermostat kept giving an error message. Frank Olito/ Insider

The thermostat on the wall above the bed kept giving a strange error message, which made zero sense to me. Slowly, we came to accept that the heat was broken and that we had a cold night ahead of us. Almost simultaneously, we also learned that none of the outlets were working, so we couldn't charge our phones.

We decided that we were too tired to deal with these issues, so we bundled up and just went to sleep. We would worry about it in the morning (or so I thought).

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As I tried to fall asleep, I became acutely aware that I was in a Cracker Barrel parking lot.

As I tried to fall asleep, I became acutely aware that I was in a Cracker Barrel parking lot.
The van in the parking lot. Frank Olito/ Insider

Just before falling asleep, my worries from earlier crept back into my mind. We were the only vehicle parked in this parking lot, and the van stuck out like a sore thumb. Was it safe to be sleeping in this spot? Should we move the van to a spot that is more hidden?

Another thought kept bothering me: "I'm about to fall asleep in a parking lot." It felt like a strange thought. It felt even stranger that a whole group of people chooses to do this every night to make their van life dreams a reality. It upset me even more that there are some people out there who live in their cars in parking lots during the cold winters involuntarily.

Read more: 10 safe places to travel with your RV this spring

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I woke up several times throughout the night because I was so cold and because of sounds outside the van.

I woke up several times throughout the night because I was so cold and because of sounds outside the van.
We only had a few blankets. Frank Olito/ Insider

Unfortunately, the broken heater was a bigger issue than I expected, and just bundling up did nothing to protect me from the cold weather. All night long, I kept waking myself up because it was so cold. Since the van was barely insulated, my friend and I were basically sleeping outside in the middle of the winter.

At another point in the night, a garbage truck startled me awake. The RV parking spots were located directly across from the Cracker Barrel's dumpsters, so the banging of the truck sounded like an earthquake erupting inside the van. I stayed awake, shivering until sunrise.

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After a terrible night's sleep, I turned to the only remedy I could find: a great breakfast from Cracker Barrel.

After a terrible night's sleep, I turned to the only remedy I could find: a great breakfast from Cracker Barrel.
My Cracker Barrel breakfast. Frank Olito/ Insider

In the morning, my friend and I commiserated over the terrible night's sleep we'd had.

We also decided it was going to be too difficult to turn the bed back into a seating area (only to make it a bed again later that night), so we decided to keep the bed folded down. Unfortunately, that meant I had nowhere to sit and eat my breakfast, so I stood awkwardly in the middle of the kitchen.

As I ate my pancakes, eggs, and bacon, I realized the immediate proximity to delicious food was one of the only positives to sleeping in a Cracker Barrel parking lot.

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That morning, I gave the owner of the van a call to fix the heater and outlets.

That morning, I gave the owner of the van a call to fix the heater and outlets.
Underneath the bed. Frank Olito/ Insider

During my lengthy FaceTime call with the van's owner, I was told to open one of the benches beneath the bed and to press a bunch of buttons on one of the systems. Although I had no idea what I was doing or even what I was looking at, I came to the realization that if I had to live in this van full-time, I would have to learn and understand all of these systems inside and out, leaving me better prepared for a night in a parking lot.

In the end, we were able to fix the outlets, but the heater remained out of commission.

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Later that morning, we left the Cracker Barrel parking lot and headed toward a campground.

Later that morning, we left the Cracker Barrel parking lot and headed toward a campground.
Cleaning off the morning condensation before leaving. Frank Olito/ Insider

As we pulled out of the parking lot, I realized that my experience was something I'd never seen on social media. The vanlifers I follow always post pictures of themselves parked near a beach or in a beautiful landscape. They never post pictures of themselves parked in a Cracker Barrel or Walmart parking lot, they never talk about shivering through the night, and they never share images of them eating in the middle of the kitchen with nowhere to sit.

When I returned, I talked to Dan Lin, who has been living in a camper van with his family of five since 2008. He told me my experience is a more accurate representation of what van life is really like.

"This lifestyle has been so overly glorified on social media I'm surprised experiences like yours aren't more common," Lin said.

Obviously, social media shows only a small portion of one's life, but the realities of van life were so far from what I expected.

Read more: Social media makes living in a camper van look like the simple life. The reality is a lot more complicated.

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I learned van life is nothing like I expected, and the experience taught me that the lifestyle isn't for me.

I learned van life is nothing like I expected, and the experience taught me that the lifestyle isn't for me.
The camper van. Frank Olito/ Insider

Although I didn't enjoy my experience in the Cracker Barrel parking lot, I'm glad vanlifers have this as a safe option when campgrounds or parks are closed and zoning laws are working against them. That said, I wish vanlifers were more open about this legitimate form of parking.

My grid on social media is filled with camper vans parked next to beaches and picturesque landscapes. But I learned firsthand what van life is really like after staying overnight in the Cracker Barrel parking lot. I learned what happens in between each glamour shot vanlifers post on social media, and I didn't love what I saw.

Although many vanlifers don't have any issues with sleeping in a parking lot overnight or repairing their home consistently — and others have a comfortable night with far less — I quickly learned I am not one of those people who would choose this life voluntarily.

Read more: I tried living in a luxury camper van for a weekend during the winter, and I'll never do it again

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