Surprisingly, the answer is “yes” in most cities. Most cities have ordinances that prohibit camping within city limits, even on private property. However, even though it is illegal, many cities have instructed police officers not to make arrests.
Is it Illegal to Live in a Tent in Your Backyard?
Cities have enacted laws in recent years to prevent homeless people from living in their towns. To give law enforcement officers support towards this goal, cities have made it illegal for people to camp within city limits or live in their cars on city streets.
However, most large cities have instructed their police departments not to cite violators for political reasons. But this is generally the policy in downtown metropolitan areas. When it comes to living in a tent in suburban neighborhoods, it’s a different matter.
This is because of so many new “Airbnb” style websites that have started up recently allowing homeowners to rent space on their property.
Local officials don’t seem to mind tent cities popping up along downtown sidewalks, as long as you or your neighbor is not making money from it. But when it comes to charging someone money to live or camp in your backyard, they have a problem.
Police are Not Likely to Arrest You However
If you’re just putting up a tent in your backyard so that your kids can camp in the backyard, you’re not going to get busted. However, if you routinely accept money from campers needing a safe place to pitch a tent for the night, then you’ll probably get a knock on your door from the authorities.
Homeowners Associations Don’t Allow Camping Withing Their Jurisdiction
Most HOAs prohibit home owners from pitching tents on their property as permanent domiciles. While it’s generally not a problem if you’re doing it for one night, it will be a problem if you’re letting someone camp in your backyard for weeks or months at a time.
It will be a bigger problem if you are running a business doing it. Neighbors don’t want to see routine traffic of tent campers moving in and out of their community. They don’t want to hear noise at night, and are constantly worried about their property value dropping.
What Types of Laws Make it Illegal to Live in a Tent in your Backyard?
Cities generally enact a few types of laws that make it illegal to live in a tent in your backyard…
- Anti-Camping Laws – Most all cities have laws against camping within city limits, with the exception of RV parks and campgrounds. Enforcement of this law is selective based on the political climate of the city, and in what part of the city.
- Zoning Laws – RV Parks and campgrounds can only exist in specific areas of town where city officials have permitted. If you’re making money by letting people to camp in your backyard, you could be classified as an RV park or campground operating in area not zoned as such.
- Sleeping in Vehicles – Many cities are also enacting laws against sleeping in vehicles, which effectively shuts down overnighting in Wal-Marts and Cracker Barrels.
- No Overnight Parking – Cities are also changing permitted parking hours along city streets, usually specifying the hours of 2:00 AM to 5:00 AM as being illegal.
- Housing Laws – There are also laws that define what a domicile is, requiring certain building codes including access to toilets, running water, windows, doors, heating and cooling, etc. Hence, if someone is using a tent as a permanent domicile, you can expect a visit from a building code inspector.
- Laws Against Off-Grid Living – Many cities, counties, even some states, now require that permanent domiciles be connected to utilities, including electricity, water, gas, and sewer. Again, if you’re claiming your tent as a permanent domicile, you may be violating these laws.
What About Those Tent Cities in Downtown?
The recent trend of tent cities popping up in urban areas has more to do with drug addiction than a lack of affordable housing. Because these people are drug addicted, it becomes difficult for local officials to solve the problem.
Moreover, most large cities have created “homeless task forces” that raise money on the hope of solving tent cities. However, most of these task forces do little else than to pad the pockets of politicians.
For this reason, local officials welcome the influx of tent cities so as to keep money flowing into these task forces.
But if they catch a single homeowner making money renting space in their backyard, you can be sure they will put a stop to any amount of competition.
Some BLM Land Exists within City Limits
There are small pockets of land owned by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that exist inside city limits. These are usually patches of hill tops, mountain tops, ravines, or excessively boulder-laden pastures, that are impossible for residential or commercial development.
It’s even illegal to tent camp on these patches of BLM land. This is because the BLM is treated like any other land owner. Even though BLM land is owned by the federal government, and technically belongs to the people, it’s still subject to local laws.
See our other article, “BLM Camping for Free” for more specifics on BLM camping.
Nobody needs this level of regulation and laws in American, a change needs to be made or people are going to rise up in the during the coming corvid recession.April 26, 2020 at 8:36 pm
Jeff, right? There are way too many laws in place. I doubt anyone will bust you for sleeping in a tent in your backyard. However, if you’ve ever lived in a neighborhood with an HOA or POA, you know how militant neighbors can be. If they see you making a habit of living in tent in your backyard, or renting space in your backyard to tent campers, that’s when city or county code enforcement will come in to cite you.April 27, 2020 at 2:52 am
My question is, is there any actual timeframe that it is legal for you to camp on a piece of land that you own. Months ago I saw that you could technically camp out for up to 28 days, vacate for 48 hours and comeback. Now all I can find is that you’re usually good for 2 weeks, but I can’t find any other info.May 15, 2020 at 8:01 pm
The answer depends on your local community. Each city and/or county has its own laws on camping within city limits. It doesn’t matter if its private property or public property. If your property is located within the jurisdiction of a Homeowners Association, then you would also have to check with your HOA. Most large cities have these laws. Small cities and rural counties generally do not.May 16, 2020 at 4:23 am
I need a place to camp I’m a 64 year old relatively new to Arizona my wife’s sick we got eveicted I get SSD and I have a tent I need a place to go I’m tired thank you Danny a kinneyJune 5, 2020 at 5:01 pm
If you’re in Arizona, head up into higher elevation during the summer. There is national forest up by Payson, Show Low, all of which is free to pitch your tent. You typically only have 14-16 days to camp, but rarely do forest rangers enforce those rules. There is an app called, “Free Roam” you can find for Apple or Android, and will show you where national forest boundaries are. During the winter, head south into the deserts. Lots of BLM land down along I-8, all of which is free to camp on.June 5, 2020 at 10:16 pm
Danny, did you figure anything out? I’d like to help you in any way I can. 🙏💙Sara in TennesseeJune 15, 2020 at 3:05 pm
I slept in my tent in my backyard on my quarter acre lot for a few nights this spring before it warmed up more. I live right in the middle of town close to a hospital, an airport, and golf course, etc. I couldn’t imagine anyone telling me to stop. I think it’s ridiculous to have a law against that. I lock my house up at night, and in the morning let myself in go to the restroom, and start my day.June 17, 2020 at 11:21 pm
What about if I’m outside of city limits and I start a hippie community of people who live off the land we buy/finance? I’m in TNJuly 30, 2020 at 7:53 pm
Kevin, if your property is not within an incorporated city, and the county does not have ordinances on camping within residential areas, you’ll be fine. However, if you plan to charge camping fees or rent, then you are now subject to commercial zoning laws of that county. Your property will have to be re-zoned for “recreation” or “hospitality, which will require you filing for a zoning change with the county’s planning department. If you think your property is located in an area where county code enforcement officers will never notice, then all the more power to you.July 31, 2020 at 2:22 am
I own property in Nort Port FL. It is a rual area with the closest home thats on grid 2 1/2 miles away. I bought this land in hopes to one day build an off grid home. In the interim I have allowed a respectable homeless couple take up residency there. Everything is neat and tidy yet the code inspector wants to fine me. For ridiculos things. “They say” camping is illegal so if that’s the case; is it illegal to have personel on your property who insure the property security on a full-time basis? They would still need means of shelter and quite frankly whats inside the “OFFICE” isn’t anyone’s business as long as the structure is to code. There has to be a way around all this im sure of it.August 11, 2020 at 7:37 pm
I hope they bring back upDecember 30, 2020 at 9:01 am
Lol it’s illegal to be homeless now.January 25, 2021 at 5:25 pm
My city has permanently taken my electricity because my house was built my my dad in 1940 and I’m alone and draw ssi I just can’t live with other people what can I do I have cats and dogs Holy Moses i guess I could live in the street this city is against the fair housing act I can’t have amo ile home or camper it sucks!March 16, 2021 at 1:22 pm
I am out in Tacoma, WA and was curious if you know about living in a tent while a house is being built on your own property. I thought I heard at one point you could live in it for 6 months, but don’t know about anything concrete. Thanks!April 9, 2021 at 2:20 pm
Jake, I just did some quick research of Tacoma’s building codes, and found something called, “Temporary Certificate of Occupancy”. It effectively says that if you are building a structure, and the structure is not yet completely up to code, you can get this temporary certificate, which is good for 180 days. In your case, it could be issued to an RV, while you are building a permanent structure. You can find this code here, at page 2-93… https://cms.cityoftacoma.org/cityclerk/Files/MunicipalCode/Title02-Buildings.PDFApril 9, 2021 at 3:25 pm
You are very practical and helpful thanks.September 15, 2021 at 8:45 am
My neighbor has listed her vacant lot as a tent campsite. 4 sites up to 6ppl per site. We are on a private road in the Santa Monica Mountains, habitat sensitive and high fire zone. Not only did she dump a old bus on up there that ruins the view, I’ve had wayward guests show up lost at my door. We are not zoned for commercial use, my first step is coastal commission.October 10, 2021 at 2:46 pm
We live in Denver and our neighbor across the alley has a makeshift tent in his backyard that someone is living in for months. They are loud and have fires all the time. It looks like a shanty. Is this legal?May 1, 2022 at 8:26 pm
“The recent trend of tent cities popping up in urban areas has more to do with drug addiction than a lack of affordable housing” – really? that is the main culprit?July 2, 2022 at 6:03 am
I live in phx AZ and my in laws just got a house in the historic district and they want my husband and I to move into the place but it is so run down and needs to be renovated. My mother in law is convinced that my husband and I need to live in a tent on the property until the renovations are done . I have a feeling this isn’t a thing and want the proof to show her that it isn’t. Do you know where I could find such proof . She is in the business of making my husband and I suffer to be able to get this blessing and whatever she is a freak. Can you please direct me to a page that states this isn’t possible?September 11, 2022 at 12:26 am
How do I know if my city has laws about overnight camping and sleeping in your car?May 15, 2023 at 10:15 pm