Legally speaking, no it is not legal to camp overnight at an abandoned building, whether inside or outside. But that hasn’t deterred many full time RVers and vehicle dwellers to park overnight at an abandoned gas station along the highway. As long as its for one night, it’s rarely an issue with property owners.
Note: because this is an important legal issue, we should advise you that we are not legal experts. We can only offer our experiences with boondocking, camping, and overnighting. You are advised to seek more authoritative sources to ensure you are not getting yourself into trouble.
Is it Legal to Camp Overnight at an Abandoned Building?
Most abandoned buildings we see are still sitting on private property. The property owner is still within their rights to remove you from their land. But because abandoned buildings are “abandoned”, there is usually no one there to kick you out.
Trespassing onto private property and remaining outside of buildings is one matter. However, entering a building will set you up for more serious crimes, which we’ve discussed below.
Small buildings that you can easily see into (such as the one in the photo above) don’t pose many safety risks. However, larger buildings may still house valuable property, or worse, other squatters.
But interestingly, staying overnight at an abandoned gas station along the highway is a common occurrence. The same with staying overnight on an empty dirt lot. Nearly everyone who does so gets away with it without ever being bothered.
Implied Consent is the Key Factor Here
Implied consent in the context of real property is a legal term used to determine if someone has illegally trespassed. For example, it’s usually “implied” that you have consent to enter someone’s private property for purposes of knocking on their door and asking them to vote for you. Technically, this is still trespassing, but it’s legal trespassing.
However, if the property owner puts up a sign that says, “No Trespassing” then that consent has been taken away. The same would be true if they put up a fence and gate. Most courts that hear cases of trespassing check to see if the property owner posted signs or erected fences to determine if there was consent.
But even if there was consent, it still does not give you the right to enter someone’s property. All it does is change illegal trespassing into legal trespassing.
How Stuff Works has a good article discussing legal and illegal trespassing in abandoned buildings.
Why Abandoned Gas Stations Are Different Than Other Buildings
It’s always implied that the general public is allowed to enter a gas station. People can safely assume they are welcome to enter for purposes of refueling and buying a snack. When you see a gas station up ahead, you usually assume it’s open for business. It’s not until you drive right up to the building itself that you might find it’s closed up and abandoned. By that time, you’ve already entered the property.
Rarely does an abandoned gas station have signs posted telling you to keep out, or a fence blocking your entry. That being said, the property owner has no claim that you illegally trespassed. Your argument should always be that gas stations are places the public is expected to enter, and that you didn’t realize the gas station was closed down until you entered the property. By that time, you felt it would do no harm to just stay awhile and rest.
In addition, gas stations are typically open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, unlike other businesses. For example, if you tried to park overnight at an abandoned dentist’s building, you might have difficulty arguing you had implied consent to enter the property at night or on a weekend.
Have Other People Camped Here Before?
The most popular argument campers have on their side is that they’ve seen other people camp here before, and there is lot of evidence that camping has occurred here. You can claim implied consent to enter on the basis that others have entered too. It still does not mean you have a right to be there, it only means your trespass is no longer illegal.
It would be wise to take photos of the property to demonstrate prior camping activity.
A Property Owner Might Accuse You of Attempted Burglary
Attempted burglary is the primary argument property owners will make when calling law enforcement for help. If the owner can make a reasonable accusation that your intent was to steal something, an officer can quickly put you in handcuffs and whisk you away.
However, if you take great care not to disturb surrounding artifacts, don’t put anything in your pockets or bags, and demonstrate that you are simply there to stay overnight, a law enforcement officer will just tell you to leave.
For that matter, you can make a more convincing argument that it was not your intent to burglarize if you remained outside the building.
You Might Get Shot If You Enter a Building
If the doors to an abandoned building are closed, you are not allowed to open them. A closed door is another way a property owner can tell you that your entry is not allowed. If you choose to open the door, anyone who happens to be inside can kill you in self-defense. Even if the person was another squatter, they can still argue they felt threatened.
If the door is already swung wide open, you may be able to argue you had implied consent. However, that still does not prevent someone inside the building to feel threatened and kill you in self-defense.
So, Can I Set Up Camp in an Abandoned Building?
Well, legally no. It’s still trespassing. But, if you can prove there was implied consent to enter, then it’s no longer illegal trespassing. If you can demonstrate there was nothing warning you to keep out, nothing blocking your entrance, and it was a type of building that the public is expected to enter, then you can make a reasonable argument you are not illegally trespassing.
But this still does not give you the right to be there. All it gives you is the ability to enter legally and remain until the property owner requires you to leave.
But If I Trespassed Legally, Why Must I Leave?
Because the law does not give someone the right to remain on property owned by someone else. The only thing that legal trespass gives you is protection from being charged with illegal trespass. The law will still force you to leave if the owner tells you to leave. If the owner never tells you to leave, it still does not give you the right to be there. Instead, you’re just in limbo until the owner finally does come forth with an eviction order, or until you decide to leave on your own.
Your Best Bet is to Just Park Overnight and Stay Out of the Building
Rather than getting into criminal matters of burglary, vandalism, or risk getting shot, just sleeping in your vehicle outside is much more safe, and a lot less headache for all parties involved.
As long as the parking lot is not fenced off and has no signs warning you to keep out, you can you argue there was implied consent to enter.
Most owners of abandoned buildings and empty dirt lots really don’t care if you stay for one night. As long as you leave the next morning, they’re usually fine with it. It’s when you decide to stay there for several days that they get concerned about your intent.