Squatters Are Ruining National Forest Camping

Last Updated on November 3, 2023 by Jess

We’ve spent many nights on public lands in national forests. It breaks our hearts when we hear stories of squatters ruining the lives of others.

They ignore the stay restrictions and leave litter behind as they turn the areas into human wastelands. So the authorities have little choice but to step in and act quickly.

Today we examine how squatters are ruining national forests for those who play by the rules when camping.

Let’s dive in!

National Forest camping suffers from squatter activity

We recently came across a report of a massive problem occurring near Greybull, Wyoming.

Public land here is turning into an RV graveyard as the landscape of the Bighorn National Forest is littered with abandoned RVs. As if that weren’t bad enough, squatters are ignoring the rules and regulations and destroying the land.

Authorities are finding that some of these lawbreakers have practically made themselves at home. They have even had makeshift toilets delivered to ensure that restrooms are available to them. Unfortunately, the Bighorn National Forest is not the only public area affected by this problem.

Some campers report that the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area in Utah suffers a similar fate. Campers arrive early, hoping to snag one of the best waterfront sites. But then the adventurers discover that the best spots are occupied by wrecked caravans.

What are squatters?

A squatter is an individual or group who occupies a property or piece of land without permission or ownership.

Most commonly this occurs in abandoned, vacant and unoccupied buildings. However, it is also increasingly common on public land.

Unfortunately, the rights of squatters are not always clear, which makes them difficult to deal with. Some people see squatters as intruders who are breaking the law. Others see them as an expression of inequalities that exist due to problems with affordable housing.

Why do people squat on national forests?

Those who squat in national forests usually do so out of necessity because of economic hardship. Whether they have lost their jobs or are down on their luck, they are looking for remote areas where they can go unnoticed for as long as possible.

Unfortunately, some take better care of the land and surroundings than others.

In addition, occupying forests can also be a form of protest. Groups of people are trying to draw attention to a cause that is important to them and for which they are committed. We are all for standing up for an important cause and being passionate about your beliefs. However, there is a right way and a wrong way to do this.

When considering this type of protest, remember that exceeding limits and destroying national forests are highly illegal behaviors. If the authorities take action, it will probably end badly for you.

What are the authorities doing about squatters in the National Forests?

As mentioned above, squatters leave the authorities with no choice but to take action. However, with hundreds of millions of acres of public land, the authorities have a big job on their hands.

They have to police all these areas while coping with staff shortages. They may not discover or notice a situation until it is too late.

When officers take action, it usually results in a temporary closure of an area. During the closure, officers take the opportunity to clean up the spills and revitalize the site as much as possible. They also consider procedures and strategies to prevent such a situation from happening again.

Unfortunately, this often leads to a ban on various activities, including camping. The ban can be temporary or permanent. Unfortunately, some of our most popular public campsites are no longer available due to misuse of the land.

How to avoid ruining camping in the National Forest

You don’t have to squat to ruin camping in the National Forest. Here are some things you can do to avoid destroying public lands.

Follow Leave No Trace Principles

Regardless of how you use national forests and other public lands, you should always follow the Leave No Trace principles. Following these seven basic guidelines can protect nature for future generations.

These basic principles include disposing of waste properly, leaving found objects behind and being considerate of others. As a rule, squatters violate all seven principles and do tremendous damage to the land, resources and wildlife that call it home.

Remember: Anti-camping laws could affect you more than you think. See How new anti-camping laws will affect campers.

A sign in a national forest reminding visitors to leave no trace.

Obtaining permits

Not all national forests require a permit for camping, but some do. This allows the authorities to effectively track who is using the land. Most of these permits are free or cost very little. However, despite the minimal fee, they are still required.

In many areas, the authorities take these permits seriously, and you should too. Ignorance of the requirements is probably no excuse for officials. Do yourself a favor and take a few minutes to find out what permits you need for camping.

Follow the fire regulations

If you’ve ever walked through a forest after a fire and seen the aftermath, you know why the authorities take fire regulations seriously. In areas where there is severe drought, fire bans are relatively common.

Depending on the conditions, these bans may or may not allow propane or other portable fires.

As with permits, it is your responsibility to find out what the fire regulations are for a particular area.

However, we camped in areas where a fire ban was in effect, and the authorities went above and beyond to inform campers when a fire ban was in effect. We saw signs at the entrance to the forest and warning signs at each campsite.

Accepting quiet hours

National forests are not organized campgrounds, but you should still respect quiet hours. Many campers forget that they are not the only ones enjoying the area. Some groups can get louder as the night goes on.

One of the principles of Leave No Trace is to be considerate of others. Make sure you respect others by keeping quiet when appropriate. If you can, turn off the generator and enjoy the sounds of nature and the silence.

Close-up of an RV generator in a national forest.Close-up of an RV generator in a wooded area.

Use biodegradable soap

If you spend a few days in nature, you will probably need to shower or wash dishes.

Unfortunately, conventional soap can harm the environment. It’s best to use biodegradable soap, which is less harmful to aquatic life, plants and other animals in the area.

Conventional soap often contains fragrances and other ingredients that can attract wildlife. Depending on where you are camping, the last thing you want to do is attract certain wildlife to your campsite.

Store food properly

It’s not just conventional soap that attracts wildlife, but also your food. If you are traveling in the wilderness, you need to store your food properly. If you’re traveling in a camper van with a permanent structure, chances are you won’t have any problems. However, if you’re camping, you’ll need to take extra precautions.

In some areas with increased bear populations, there are bear boxes that campers must use. In other areas where there are no bear boxes, you may need to hang your food from a tree trunk.

In any case, make sure you know how to store your food properly. It can be dangerous for both parties if wild animals start to see humans as a food source.

Pro Tip: If you don’t watch out for bears, you could find yourself in a dangerous situation. Read these tips to protect yourself on your adventures!

A roadside sign in a national forest warning visitors about bears.A roadside sign in a national forest warning visitors about bears.

Don’t overstay your welcome

Stay restrictions vary by location. In the popular areas near Grand Teton National Park, a strict five-day limit applies during the busiest time of the year. In other places, however, 14- or even 21-day limits apply. Make sure you know and adhere to the restrictions that apply to your campsite.

As we mentioned earlier, the officials have a very tough job. In some areas, these limits require a certain amount of self-discipline. Don’t abuse the rules because you think no one is watching. Remember: character is who you are when no one is watching.

Take a stand against squatters in national forests

We all have some responsibility when it comes to standing up to squatters and violators of the rules and regulations of national forests. We do not want to encourage you to put yourself in a dangerous situation.

However, we do want to remind you that it is important to report behavior that harms the land and the environment. By doing our part, we can protect the forests so that we can all enjoy them.

Have you lost your favorite campsite due to squatters?

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