Call it what you will — concrete camping or foolhardy — but camping outside stores to get the best Black Friday deals is a popular way for many people to spend their Thanksgiving. For some, it’s even a tradition that kicks off the holiday shopping season. Instead of making a big Thanksgiving dinner and gathering around the table, they’re making sandwiches, listening to the game, and waiting in line. Think of it like tailgating — but for retail.
While camping out on Black Friday is a big event for many people, it also offers a real advantage. Stores like Walmart, Best Buy, and Target often have lines wrapped around the store and down the street before the doors open. Those who camp out are the first to get in, which means they get the megadeals later arrivals might miss out on.
The first people waiting in line may even get something out of it. USA Today reports that some retailers, like Cabela’s, hand out gifts to people waiting in line on Black Friday. At Cabela’s, gifts have previously ranged from gift cards to more expensive retail items like guns, and the first 600 people in line got something.
Most doorbuster deals are available online or during Cyber Monday. However, many Black Friday campers admit they do it because it’s a fun way to save money on holiday gifts and spend time with family and friends. But there may be extra precautions you need to take this year.
Black Friday Camping & COVID-19
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Black Friday is going to look a lot different this year.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has classified shopping in crowded stores before, on, or after Thanksgiving as a high-risk activity to avoid, which means fewer people waiting in line for doorbusters this year.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Michael Brown, partner at global strategy and management consultant Kearny, believes Black Friday as we know it can’t exist in the current pandemic. And it’s hard to imagine how retailers can enforce social distancing requirements with Black Friday campers or keep people safe when lines stretch around the store.
In response to these challenges, some retailers began their Black Friday sales right after Halloween. Walmart is hosting three separate Black Friday sales events during November to give customers more opportunities to get great deals, and Target’s running deals throughout the entire month of November. To limit in-store shoppers, most retailers are offering contactless curbside store pickup.
If you decide to try camping out for Black Friday this year, call the store several days in advance to find out if they will allow camping. If so, ask what guidelines they have in place for camping and Black Friday shopping. It’s also important to follow CDC guidelines to stay safe:
- When camping or waiting in line, stay at least 6 feet away from anyone not in your immediate household.
- Wear a homemade face covering or store-bought face mask, as many retailers will require them for shopping, and bring extra in case yours gets lost or soiled.
- Carry a bottle of hand sanitizer.
- If you or someone in your household experiences symptoms of COVID-19, stay home and isolate.
- Bring disinfecting wipes with you to clean commonly touched surfaces.
So long as you’re in an area with low community spread (a positivity rate of below 5%) and follow the CDC’s guidelines, you can have just as much fun as others have in years past.
Tales of Black Friday Camping
According to the National Retail Federation, in 2019, over 189.6 million people shopped Black Friday weekend. Only a fraction of these people are die-hard Black Friday campers, but there are plenty of enthusiasts out there.
For example, in 2016, Best Buy interviewed Mike Franke of Wisconsin, who’s been camping out in front of the retail electronics giant with his family for over 10 years. Franke and his family have Black Friday camping down to an art form. They bring two large tents, a portable generator, zero-degree-rated sleeping bags and air mattresses, a 40-inch flat-screen, and even a satellite so they can watch the big game.
Franke has also made lifelong friendships with other Black Friday campers, who come to Best Buy yearly to score exceptional deals. And he says the experience is always a blast.
In 2014, The New York Times interviewed Derek De Armond, who has camped outside Best Buy in Fort Myers, Florida, for years. Like Franke, De Armond has learned through experience what works and what doesn’t. He sets up his campsite a full two weeks before Black Friday begins and takes turns with two other friends to hold their spot. They now go all out with a fully decorated Christmas tree, tiki bar, hammock, and flat-screen.
Essential Gear for Black Friday
Many Black Friday campers go through the school of hard knocks on their first night out. They end up cold, hungry, and sore, which is not the ideal way to start a hectic day of shopping. But you can avoid that haggard feeling by packing much of the same gear you’d use on a backpacking trip. You can find most of this gear at a sporting goods store or Amazon.
1. A Tent
A tent is arguably the most critical piece of Black Friday camping gear. It shelters you from rain, wind, or snow and gives you a cozy and private place to rest. The size you need depends on how many people are camping with you.
A tent like the Core nine-person instant cabin tent sets up in 60 seconds, as does the Alpha Camp camping tent, which sleeps six to eight people. If those are too big for your needs, check out our list of the best camping tents on the market. If you expect rain or snow, bring or buy a rain fly that fits your tent.
You also need a tarp or tent footprint to lay down on the concrete. It keeps sidewalk gunk off your tent and protects your tent floor from damage from rough pavement.
2. A Sleeping Bag
It’s downright frigid on Black Friday in most parts of the country, so a warm sleeping bag is a must.
Before you leave, check the weather to ensure your sleeping bag is rated for the nighttime temperatures expected in your area. If it isn’t, boost its warmth and insulating ability with a fleece sleeping bag liner.
3. Appropriate Outdoor Clothing
In some climates, it’s OK to head out in shorts and a T-shirt. In others, you need a down coat and winter boots.
Either way, always take more clothes than you think you need. Bring layers you can peel off if it gets warm, and store extras in your trunk in case you spill a drink or it rains unexpectedly. To ensure you stay warm, bring the following:
- A warm outdoor coat
- A rain jacket or poncho
- Hats, gloves, and scarves
- Hand warmers
- Lap blankets
- Extra socks
4. A Portable Chair
Sitting in the dark isn’t that fun when you don’t have a campfire. You need lights to play cards, eat dinner, and see your neighbors.
Bring some battery-powered flashlights or solar lanterns with you to add light and ambiance to your campout. Depending on how long you plan to be out, a rechargeable LED lantern is also a good investment.
6. A Cooler & Grill
Chances are you have a cooler or two gathering dust in your attic or garage. Bring one for keeping drinks and sandwich meat cold. Some people even cook Thanksgiving dinner early and store it in the cooler for their camping trip.
That’s where a portable gas grill or portable gas stove comes in handy. An outdoor grill lets you reheat leftovers, heat water for coffee or tea, or cook hot dogs and hamburgers at your campsite. Small camp stoves that rely solely on wood, such as the Ohuhu stove, are inexpensive and useful if you have access to firewood or twigs. But if you do plan to bring a stove, call ahead to make sure it’s OK. In some areas, there may be city ordinances that prohibit it.
Don’t forget to pack related necessities like trash bags, paper plates, paper towels, plastic cups, and plastic utensils. Washing up after a meal is practically impossible on the sidewalk. You also need water bottles so everyone in your group stays hydrated and some lightweight cookware to prepare food.
If you need some inspiration for meals, look up easy-to-make tailgating recipes or learn to tailgate without cooking. After all, Black Friday camping is much like tailgating in many ways, and some of the gear you need for game day fun also come in handy for Black Friday.
7. A Charging Station
Your iPhone probably can’t go days without a charge. That means you need a way to charge your electronic devices while you camp.
8. A Portable Toilet
When nature calls, you need somewhere to go. And if you’re holding your spot alone or it’s the middle of the night, you need a way to go to the bathroom at your campsite.
Portable toilets are small, unobtrusive urinals that allow you to relieve yourself discreetly in your tent. There are also disposable urinals that turn urine into an easy-to-dispose-of spill-proof gel.
9. A Portable Table
A small folding table or roll-up camp table is necessary if you’re camping out more than a night. A table lets you prepare and eat meals without having to put cups or plates on the ground. It’s also a good place to play games to pass the time.
Take along some games to play with family and fellow campers. There are a lot of games you can play at your campsite.
- Standard card deck games like Texas Hold’em or blackjack
- Card games like Sushi Go!, Taco vs. Burrito, or Uno
- Portable cornhole
- Board games like Scrabble or Monopoly
- Connect 4
If you’re camping with your family, try conversation cards to initiate some thought-provoking and eye-opening conversations and help you get to know your kids better. You can also pack your iPad or Android tablet. Most retailers offer free Wi-Fi, which you can use to watch movies, search for Black Friday shopping tips or good deals, or play games.
If you plan to be out for more than 12 to 18 hours, bring some personal care products to stay clean and feel like a human being. Some toiletries to bring include:
- Wet wipes or facial wipes
- Toothbrush and toothpaste
- First-aid kit and any necessary medications
- Hand sanitizer
Bonus: A Team
Almost no one camps out for Black Friday alone. You need people to hold your spot so you can head indoors to warm up, go to the bathroom, or take a shower.
If your family isn’t interested in Black Friday camping, ask friends or co-workers if they’re game to try it this year. You might be able to put together a team if you camp out at a popular location like Best Buy, which seems to be in demand.
Consider RV Camping
If you have an RV (or want to rent an RV through Outdoorsy), why not use that to camp out for Black Friday deals? It’s relatively warm and comfortable compared to roughing it on the concrete, especially if the weather turns nasty.
While RV camping is an attractive option, there are a few things to keep in mind before you set out.
Decide on a Store
First, think about where you’re going to park. Driving an RV in Black Friday traffic is not for the faint of heart. Save yourself some stress by camping out somewhere you’ll have access to many stores, such as an indoor mall or outlet mall.
Many stores and malls prohibit overnight camping, though some disregard this policy for Black Friday. But you should still ask permission to camp in the parking lot. Ask to speak to the store manager and explain that you’d like to take advantage of Black Friday sales.
While you’re there, be a considerate guest. Please don’t leave any waste behind, and try to leave the parking lot cleaner than you found it.
Think About Your Power Needs
Do you have solar panels or a generator to power your refrigerator or lights? If the weather is unusually cold, can you stay warm enough in your camper without a furnace or space heater, which often requires more power than solar panels or a generator provides for an extended period?
Stock Up on Provisions
Last, stock up your RV with plenty of food and water so you don’t have to leave to resupply. Look for food that’s simple and easy to cook. For example, Mountain House freeze-dried meals only require boiling water to reconstitute, so you can enjoy hot lasagna or beef stroganoff in minutes.
Camping out to take advantage of Black Friday deals isn’t for everyone. It can be cold, wet, and downright miserable if you’re not prepared. However, it can be a fun experience if you bring along the right gear. You might even inadvertently start a new Thanksgiving tradition.
Keep in mind that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many stores might prohibit Black Friday camping in 2020. Call ahead to find out if they will allow camping and what safety guidelines you need to follow.
If you’re on the fence about camping out, it helps to figure out what it costs you per hour. For example, imagine you want to score a flat-screen TV that will be discounted by $300, but you’ll have to camp out 24 hours to guarantee you’ll get one. That essentially means you’re earning $12.50 per hour. Are you willing to make $12.50 per hour to get the discount? If not, you might be happier staying home and shopping online.
But it’s not just about the money. For many people, the experience of camping out on Black Friday is far more valuable than its monetary worth — especially if you team up with family and friends and treat it like a getaway.
Have you ever camped out for Black Friday? Do you have any insider tips or tricks to share?