Campsite squatting has become a way of stealth camping in campgrounds all across the U.S, including even National Parks and State Parks. However, this form of camping is illegal and immoral! It takes away from campers who actually pay for their campsites, as well, the campgrounds themselves. As of recent, campground owners are now catching on. The freeloading squatters are getting caught camping illegally and facing serious consequences!
This blog article contains affiliate links. We may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you so we can continue to create more FREE RV, Camping, Outdoor and Travel information, advice and tips. Full disclosure here.
What is Campsite Squatting
Freeloading Thieves are Stealing YOUR Campsite!
Have you ever checked into a campground with reservations only to find there’s another camper occupying your campsite?
How does this happen? Are campgrounds double-booking their campsites? NOPE!
Also referred to as campsite poaching, these trespassing freeloaders roll into campgrounds after hours at night. Then, like ninja bandits, they swipe a vacant campsite while no one is looking or even suspecting. They, quite literally, are squatting illegally.
Unfortunately, this dishonest practice is occurring more often from some car campers and in vans. It’s because their vehicles are small. They don’t require setup and don’t make a lot of noise just to come in to catch a few Zzzz’s. They assume that any vacant campsite is free for the taking (literally!).
The freeloaders have learned to circumvent the campground reservation process because they’re cheap. They literally help themselves to an empty campsite without asking and paying for it just like a sneaky kid in a candy store.
Even the National Park campgrounds are experiencing this unlawful act. It’s gotten so bad that the National Park Service now posts warnings.
Here’s the thing though. They’re not only just camping or even boondocking illegally, but they’re also stealing water, electricity and sewer; either at the site or elsewhere in the campground. And whether they know it or not (or just don’t care), this nefarious act is, plain and simple, a crime of trespassing and theft.
So, the two looming questions are: How is this type of theft happening right under the campground owners and managers noses?
And who really is paying the price? Well, take a wild guess!
What can honest, paying campers and campground owners do about these camp squatters who are quite literally, “stealing our campsites”?
Honest campers are taking note of people who are stealing campsites
These freeloading campsite thieves are becoming such a hot topic on online forums and social media that we’ve found several discussions on RV and camping Facebook groups.
Here’s also a post we found on a Facebook camping group page. It seems that even the federal government-owned campgrounds are getting serious about people coming in and taking even reserved campsites without paying for them or regard to the person who paid for it.
“We just had a situation at our COE campground. Some folks reserved a site for three days arriving on Thursday afternoon. They got tied up, couldn’t get there till Friday morning only to find someone in their sight.
The “squatters” drove through the campground, saw it empty even though the website showed it rented. They just figured the rightfull campers just didn’t show without canceling so they just helped themselves.
Of course when the Rangers tried to find the squatters they were off on the lake somewhere. The Rangers tried to find another site for the rightful campers but the campground was booked solid, nothing else available. They got tired of waiting and went home.
Later that day, the squatters returned with a Ranger waiting for them with ticket book in hand. They got a “healthy” federal citation for their troubles. If the site shows to be rented, but it’s not occupied. That does not mean it’s just waiting for you to grab.” – Name Withheld
So, as you see, this type of camping theft is getting noticed. And, those like us honest campers are actually elated the freeloaders are getting caught. Because for the honest, paying campers, it makes for a very frustrating and awkward position to be put in to kick them out of the campsite they paid for.
Talking to several who say that there’s no excuse for people to steal campsites.
And in fact, there are signs at the entrance booth or gate (for those who care to read) that very explicitly state that you must have your online reservation completed before you even begin to set up on a campsite.
Campgrounds are also now plainly putting into print if that particular site is available or not on their website and on the entrance booth of what sites are available.
Here’s a conversation post I found on Reddit 3 years ago:
So now, the paying campers that are honest are made to feel guilty?
These illegal campers purposely seek out campsites to steal. Then, when caught, they play the innocent game of “Oh! I didn’t know” or “Sorry, I didn’t see the sign”.
Seriously, these campsite squatters DO KNOW! But they blatantly don’t care until they get caught. They are just too cheap to pay for a campsite.
Here’s another Facebook group comment from a former Camp Host airing her observation of campsite squatters in the campground she was working at:
“I see people purposefully go out looking to steal a site, thinking they won’t get caught, happen about once a week on the average.
I had to ask someone to leave today that just wanted to go kayaking. We told them the only place to do that at this particular campground was near the boat ramp.
Made my rounds through the campground later and found them set up in an empty site. Had a fire going, roasting wieners the whole 9 yards.
They drove right by a sign that said, “campers only beyond this point”. We were nice when they first pulled up, and tried to help find a way to go kayaking, but instead the ignored everything and did what they wanted to.” – Camp Host Name Withheld
This one doesn’t set well with a particular state park campground. I’m surprised that the Rangers who are supposed to not allow this from happening, are perpetuating the practice by doing nothing about the illegal activity.
“That happened to us in a state park. They refused to move when we arrived.
The Ranger came, but as soon as he left they moved into the site next to us! They did this 2 more times while we were there. These were FHU sites.
The Ranger however, said he couldn’t do anything about it! That’s just lazy, in my opinion!. They can call the State Police and write citations. Rangers are supposed to prevent this from happening to begin with” – Name Withheld
How are campsite thieves entering campgrounds?
Quite typically, campsite squatters cheat the system by slinking into campgrounds late at night and/or after the entrance booth closes for the day.
Most private campgrounds along with even some state and even federal campgrounds lack entrance enforcement at the gates.
We were talking with one fellow RVer who camped in an Arkansas state park. She said that due to economic cutbacks, they don’t man the gates after 5:00 or 6:00 pm.
So, it’s wide open for squatters to come in and occupy a vacant site until very early morning before the gate opens again.
Then, they leave just as quietly as they entered without anyone noticing or even paying attention to their sly, cheating practice.
However, due to reports of campground thefts, reputable campgrounds with stricter policies along with even state and federal parks are installing gates with push button codes.
However, that’s still not preventing some campsite squatters from entering campgrounds.
Some cheaters will patiently wait in their van or car and wait until someone stops to push the buttons to get into the gate. Once the gate opens, they scoot in quickly before the gate closes behind them.
As we’ve even experienced, some campsite poachers will flag down other campers at the gate and lie, “oh darn, I left my hangtag with the gate code at my campsite. Do you mind sharing it?”
Unfortunately for them, we don’t fall for it. But, other’s have or still do.
But then there’s the Captain Obvious of campgrounds not having any gate at all. Or, not all campgrounds or RV parks have coded or locking gates, or the gates are open for the day.
The only enforcement is the on-duty camp host or staff who may make a round to check site tags matching the camper’s description or identification. And even that is only during typical working hours of the day.
This presents the problem in itself. The thing is, some are not only of stealing campsites, but stealing gear from campsites themselves.
✰ READ MORE ✰ Campsite Theft Prevention Tips for RVs & Tent Campers
Aren’t there supposed to be campsite tags on the site posts?
Unfortunately, many campgrounds don’t place reserved tags on the individual campsite posts. Thus, really, no one will really know which campsite is actually supposed to be occupied.
Some say it may be due to ineptness on behalf of the camp host or staff. Or, they just don’t have time to manage the campground correctly. It could also just be the campground’s policy not to even have site tags.
And lastly, because certain campgrounds are first come first serve, some campers may be a late arrival. Thus, the tagging won’t take place until they can check in the next morning. At least, that’s what honest campers would do.
However, by not providing reserved tags on a campsite that’s already reserved, it makes it awkward for those who camp in a tiny motorhome, van or truck camper who may leave for the day to go explore which makes it look like they’ve departed.
Once they return from their day’s adventure, there may be someone else in their site; perhaps, thinking it was vacant. This is precisely why mobile campers and vans leave obvious signs indicating they are returning to their paid campsite.
Campsite squatting isn’ just stealing campsites!
All while campsite squatting is occurring in campgrounds and RV parks, there’s another type of illegal theft going on.
Dishonest campers or RVers are slipping in with their vans or RVs when the campground entrance is not manned.
But it’s not campsites that they’re stealing!
Nonpaying campers are also stealing campground “services”. They drive their RV or campervan in unsuspectingly to dump their tanks at the dump station, fill their water tanks, dispose of trash and even take long hot showers. Then, they leave quickly without paying one red cent. These temporary squatters typically do this on high-traffic days where they won’t be noticed.
This not only takes money away from the campground but also makes it inconvenient to paying campers as they may have to wait in line longer for that hot shower or to dump their own tanks.
✰ PRO TIP ✰ RV Trip Wizard helps you plan the perfect trip and their RV GPS app turns your phone into an RV Safe GPS to get you there safely. Have a question about ANYTHING related to RVing, join the conversation at any of their awesome RV forum communities.
Learn more & sign up for the FREE trial.
What is the penalty is for campsite squatting or trespassing?
Campground owners are now beating campsite squatters at their own game. They are implementing a zero tolerance by taking action because they’re losing revenue due these kinds of thieves. But also, they care about the reputation of their business.
Some campgrounds equipped with security gates with codes are now issuing campsite-specific codes. This helps track how many people are coming in and out of said campgrounds for each site.
Also, campground owners and management are implementing a roving security watch. Campground staff will usually keep a clipboard with current reservations with RV and vehicle information.
If someone is occupying a campsite that’s not on the list, staff or camp host will confront the occupant. So, basically, the site squatters are getting caught. We’re now seeing this even into the night to combat campsite thieves.
And lastly, those caught are being fined and/or even being banned.
We’re also hearing when squatters are caught illegally occupying campsites in National Parks, they are subject to criminal prosecution and get be banned from even entering National Parks all together. (Dependent upon severity or repeated violations)
✰ READ MORE ✰ RV Security: Protect Your RV from Theft and Break-Ins
How to stop campsite squatting
There’s a few things we all can do to help alleviate campsite squatting at campgrounds:
1. NEVER give out your gate code. You may be held responsible for violating campground policy by doing so.
2. Second, remove your campsite hangtag from your vehicle’s rear view mirror anytime you leave the campground. Campground staff will sometimes write the gate code on the back of the hangtag with a sharpie marker.
Should you leave the campground with it hanging on your mirror, you’re basically allowing everyone to see the gate code. So, please at the expense of the campground, your fellow campers and even you, protect that gate code.
3. After entering a campground security gate, pull up only enough to allow the gate to close completely. Don’t just drive off leaving space for another vehicle to piggyback or follow close behind.
4. If you see something, say something! If you see someone come in that looks suspicious or hear them bragging about their campsite squatting rewards, quietly report them to the camp host or campground manager.
5. Should you be running late or know you’ll miss check-in time, let the campground know. This way they can put a reserved tag on your site. This lets potential squatters know that your site is already spoken for.
Final thoughts on campsite squatting
Campsite squatting is nothing short of theft. The practice is incredibly rude, unethical and illegal in most cases. While squatters may think they are getting away with stealing campsites, through awareness (like this article), we can all help to stop this type of freeloading.
These campsite squatters hurt not only the campgrounds, but also all of us who are honest, paying guests. Because when a campground loses money due to theft, they pass those loss expenses onto you, the honest camper.
Remember, you paid for your campsite! Campsite squatters should pay for theirs’ too!
Have you witnessed illegal camping? Tell us about it in the comments!
Other articles worth the read
AMAZON DISCLOSURE: This website is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.