Is Stealth Camping Illegal?
Being able to camp for a night for free during a camping trip is great, but you must know the law before attempting to camp in undesignated areas. As boondocking is rising in popularity, many questions are arising as to where you can safely and legally camp overnight for free. If you do not follow the law, your one night of free camping could come at a high price. In this article, we will go over the basics of stealth camping, when it is allowed and when you should avoid it.
What is Stealth Camping?
Stealth camping is camping overnight in an unmarked van or trailer in areas outside of a designated camping area, usually without permission. Many people choose to do this to avoid paying camping fees or because they only plan to stay at the location for a few hours. Most stealth campers arrive after dark and leave before the sun comes up to avoid getting caught.
In recent years the number of people stealth camping has risen, as more people are RVing and living in their RVs or vans.
If you have a camper van, stealth camping can be pretty straightforward and simple. Just park your van for the night and stay inside. However, there are laws in most cities that apply to sleeping in your vehicle overnight, and you want to be sure you know your rights and limitations before attempting to stealth camp.
Is Stealth Camping Legal?
The legality of stealth camping can vary significantly based on where you are trying to stay. Most states and even cities have laws and ordinances that apply to stealth camping. Unless you are on federal lands, state and city regulations regarding sleeping overnight in a vehicle apply.
Most cities do not allow overnight camping or sleeping in vehicles. Other cities have taken this a step further and do not allow parking on city streets between certain overnight hours.
While many folks in camper vans are able to stealth camp in cities without an issue, it will be obvious to everyone, especially law enforcement, if you try to stealth camp in a traditional RV or travel trailer. Expect a visit from law enforcement if you decide to stay overnight in an urban area in an area that does not allow overnight camping and parking.
Outside of cities, laws can vary widely from state to state. To play it safe, you should do some online research to see if the state you are visiting allows overnight camping in undesignated areas.
In general, most states do seem to allow overnight camping if you are in undeveloped, unimproved areas. You need to make sure that you do not see any signs, such as “no trespassing” signs or other indications that you should not park or camp in the area. Of course, if a landowner has asked you to leave the area, you are not welcome to camp there.
What is the Difference Between Stealth Camping and Boondocking?
You may wonder how boondocking differs from stealth camping. Boondocking, which usually refers to dry camping in a dispersed camping area or other location outside of a developed campground, is gaining in popularity in the United States.
Like stealth camping, boondocking is camping or sleeping overnight outside of a campground.
The major difference between boondocking and stealth camping is that most boondocking is done on public lands that allow overnight camping. Other popular boondocking locations are found through membership clubs or groups such as Boondockers Welcome and Harvest Hosts. In other words, the term boondocking implies that the camper has permission to be where they are while stealth campers do not.
How Can I Find Legal Places to Park Overnight for Free?
In spite of the many laws and restrictions around stealth camping, you can find free, legal places to camp for free for a night or two. If you are in a city or populated area, your best bet is to find a business that allows overnight parking and camping.
There are plenty of business parking lots that are welcoming to campers if you know where to look. Our top choices for a one-night stay are Cracker Barrel, Camping World, and Walmart parking lots.
Many Cracker Barrel, Camping World, and Walmart locations offer one night camping their parking lots for folks who are traveling. However, it is essential to remember that not all locations are camping friendly.
City laws and restrictions on overnight parking apply to private property as well. However, many cities are more flexible than others and will not bother you if you are camping overnight at a business with permission.
Before parking overnight at a business such as Cracker Barrel or Walmart, it is best to check with the management. Ask them in advance if it is okay for you to camp for the night. We recommend calling ahead if you know where you plan to stop, or you can go inside and ask when you arrive.
Keep in mind that when you are camping in these locations, you are not in a campground. You will need to be self-contained in your rig. That means no sleeping, cooking, or relaxing outside of your rig during your stay. You will also need to ask if it is okay to put down your stabilizers and your slide if you have one. We have found most Cracker Barrel locations to be okay with slides and stabilizers, while most WalMarts prefer that you stay within your parking space.
Since these businesses are essentially giving you a free campsite, it is important to show your gratitude, if at all possible. Have a meal at Cracker Barrel or stock up on your supplies at Walmart. Showing your appreciation for the service will ensure that these companies continue to allow camping, which benefits all of us.
How Can I Find Legal Places to Camp for Free?
If you are looking for a place to camp overnight in a more remote location, try searching for nearby public lands, such as land managed by the Bureau of Land Management or Forest Service.
Bureau of Land Management land is mostly found in the Western United States. While much of the land is more remote, there are many areas available for camping that are close to population centers, national parks, and other areas that are perfect for camping and exploring.
An example of excellent BLM camping land can be found in and around Moab, Utah. This area is extremely popular and often feels more like a campground with lots of other campers close by on the weekends. However, the vast majority of this camping is totally free, and it is within a twenty-minute drive of Arches National Park and also convenient to Canyonlands National Park and Capitol Reef National Monument. Also, the views are spectacular!
When camping on BLM land, you will not find the picnic tables and restroom facilities that you would expect in state and national parks. Instead, you will find dispersed camping with wide, open spaces.
Dispersed camping means that you will need to bring your own water, trash bags, and other necessities. You will need to be prepared to go without electric hookups and restrooms as well. Before setting out for BLM land, make sure you have everything that you need for your stay. While you are there, you will need to follow the “leave no trace” principles. Pack out your trash, bury any human waste, and leave your camping area as you found it.
Dispersed camping is allowed on most BLM land for up to 14 days. While most BLM land is free, some more popular areas do charge a small fee, typically $7 per night. While a nightly fee is rare, if you do camp in areas where the payment is required, be sure to do the right thing and pay upon arrival or risk a fine or ticket.
Finding the Bureau of Land Management lands can be a challenge. The BLM website does not offer a comprehensive map of the United States, but they do have regional maps available online. You can also reach out to the BLM office to get more information on the land available for camping. Some states have guidebooks for BLM camping, which you can find either online or at local offices. We use the app Campendium to find great BLM camping areas.
Another great option for public land camping is managed by the United States Forest Service (USFS). Forest Service land is undeveloped, but camping along turnouts and in dispersed areas is permitted. There are over 175 forest and grassland areas where campers are welcome to camp for free.
The maximum amount of time you can camp on Forest Service land is 14 days. Be sure to follow these guidelines as rangers do keep an eye on campers and will ask you to move along after the two week period has elapsed. Again, like with BLM land, you will need to bring all of your necessities and be sure to leave no trace.
Similar to the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service does not have a comprehensive guide for locating these lands. There are several good options for finding these areas on your own. First, check with each ranger district directly. If you know where you plan to visit, you can check for forest lands in that area.
Another great option is to utilize the United States Forest Service website. The website allows you to search by state for forest land in that area. Then, you can check the web page for the specific forest or grassland for camping information. The easiest way to find forest service land open for camping is to use an app, such as Campendium. With Campendium, you can search for free campsites, which will bring up a list of all public lands in your area.
If you plan to stealth camp in your unmarked van or trailer just be sure you are in a safe location where it id legal to stay overnight.
Most people stealth camp for safety and security but if you choose to stealth camp in areas that are against the law then you should be prepared to suffer the consequences.
Be smart and be careful out there!