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I am planning a road trip through some rural locations in Tennessee and North Carolina, US. The intention is to visit some places of particular interest (e.g. filming locations of certain movies).

Some of the places are known to be private land/residencies which I am only planning to see/photograph from the public roads. Other places, such as nearby woods or unnamed roads like this one, are what I am less sure about whether they might be publicly accessible.

Unless there are fences, closed gates and/or other clear signs that a road is private, how do I tell if I can drive on a road like the one referred above? If I see woods without any fences or other indication of them being private property, is it generally acceptable to enter them?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – JonathanReez Feb 22 '18 at 20:02
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    This is kind of a scary question since Americans are very territorial and have legal access to firearms. In Ireland I wouldn’t really be at all worried about trespassing unless there was clear signs saying not to. – Andre Feb 23 '18 at 13:51

10 Answers 10

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When you're out driving around

If you're not on a road, you're probably on private property unless otherwise indicated. National or state parks would be the primary exception to that. Granted, there are many of those in Tennessee and North Carolina.

If there's a specific property you want to visit and you know it is private, you really should seek permission from the owner first, unless the owners have indicated that their property is open to the public.

The lack of a fence or "No Trespassing" sign does not mean that the property isn't private or that its owners welcome the public to wander around their property.

When you're on the road, public roads will usually have street signs. Roads with no signs at all are more likely driveways which are privately owned. A mailbox and/or sign indicating a street address beside the road is a good indicator that it's actually a private driveway and not a public road.

Regarding the particular Google Maps link in the question, unfortunately, there's no Street View there, so it's not easy to tell if there are any signs there.


Geographic Information Systems

When you're looking up properties online, fortunately, GIS is a thing. It turns out that some (all?) U.S. states have public GIS systems with data from the county property ownership records. North Carolina and Tennessee are not exceptions to this. Unfortunately, I don't immediately see a way to provide a link with a particular place focused in the North Carolina system's interactive map. However, I was able to find the particular property you linked and it is indeed a single private property.

The area outlined in teal below is the property on which the road you pinned lies, so it is indeed just a private driveway, as it appeared. The actual road you pinned is not shown on the map below, as it's not a public road, but you can see the intersection of the public roads by which it lies.

North Carolina Property Map Screenshot of pinned map location on NC's Parcel Map

Tennessee has a similar system.

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    It's also a good idea to find out how private roads are marked in your locality. When I moved to a different state in the US, I didn't realize that red street signs were the local "private" marker: they look exactly like other street signs, except that they are red, and homeowners get angry if you accidentally drive down a street or road marked with one. – 1006a Feb 19 '18 at 15:42
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    not enough characters for an edit but GIS Stands for Geographic Information Systems, not Grpahical IS. – Brad Feb 19 '18 at 18:10
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    One thing to keep in mind: people occasionally name their driveways. If a "street sign" is unusually small, a different color, uses a different typeface, or is attached to something other than a post, it's probably someone's personal name for their driveway. – Mark Feb 20 '18 at 8:40
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    @phoog It's not "regional" so much as "rural". It's almost unheard of in cities, very rare in suburbs, more common in smaller cities/towns, and most common in rural areas. I've seen examples in at least a half-dozen different states across the East Coast and Midwest. Rural areas are also the areas where people are most likely to have confusion between public and private roads/driveways, since in a more urban environment property lots are smaller and more clearly marked. – GalacticCowboy Feb 20 '18 at 16:14
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    In California (the part where I grew up at least), most private roads that intersect public roads are politely marked with "Private Way" indicators adjacent to the road sign. Would be nice if everyone did this... – Doktor J Feb 22 '18 at 15:57
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I trespass for a living (I'm a geologist) in Georgia mostly, but have in pretty much all of the Eastern U.S.
So, when planning field work the first thing I do is get on the internet and search for county tax assessor's maps. The online maps will show who owns the parcels; state, county, federal, or private. If they are private then I'll do a white pages search on the land owners name and contact them and ask for permission. And I'm forthcoming and state what my purpose is.

The success rate is enormously high. Over 99%. Often people will be happy to show me around, or can recommend the best access trails. On the other hand there can be absentee land owners, or the land is owned by a corporation (often a timber company). And often, the land has been leased to a hunting club.

The last solution is to show up and knock on the door and ask for permission.

All that being said, I've had guns pulled on me twice, also told to get out because they thought I was after their gold. And have been told "no" with no reason given. You don't want to encounter someone doing something illicit. So, asking for permission creates an opportunity for a criminal to say "no" for your own safety.

Utility easements also provide access paths. Have a look at topo quads or aerial photos and look for straight broad cuts through the woods that represent power line and gas line corridors. You should be able to park where they cross the road and walk in. And when you do encounter someone, be forthcoming why you are there. And don't park your car and block access to a gate or road, no matter how decrepit it looks. Murphy's law says that as soon as you are out of sight someone will need access.

The one other hazard would be dog packs. People have been killed by dog packs when approaching homes. So, if you need to knock on doors, use your eyes and ears before getting out of the car.

I hope haven't made it sound too daunting. It's about expectations. The same land owner can be welcoming or furious depending if their expectations are being met or not. So the goal is to not unexpectedly present yourself on their land.

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    As a (Europe-based, though) photographer, I cannot stress enough how useful asking permission is. – Belle-Sophie Feb 21 '18 at 9:01
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    How can I reach the front door without first trespassing on their driveway? – gerrit Feb 21 '18 at 11:08
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    So, were you after their gold? ;) – tardigrade Feb 21 '18 at 13:40
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    How can I reach the front door without first trespassing on their driveway? – Mick Feb 21 '18 at 14:35
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    "People have been killed by dog packs when approaching homes" This line seems a bit extreme, bordering on FUD. Yes, it's of course possible to encounter a wild pack of rabid dogs, just like it's possible to encounter a snake or a bear or some other animal that could and would attack you. Death by dog pack is less common in the US than being struck by lightning; I don't think the warning is at place in this answer. Especially considering the question is about avoiding trespassing on private property, not how to stay safe when traipsing around in the wilderness. – TylerH Feb 21 '18 at 16:14
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Unlike some European countries where one is expected to hike through what look like fenced private property, the U.S. is generally more like New Zealand: private property is usually marked, often quite clearly.

"No Trespassing" signs are quite common in U.S. rural areas, and often redundant. Fences almost always indicate to humans Do Not Pass because this is private property.

In the relatively few places where public land is fenced but is open to the public, there will either be clear signs (like at Cascade Head on Oregon's coast where the signs say the same thing as the the webpage) or local inquiries will reveal the status about the property.

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    This is true with respect to the OP's question about TN and NC, but is wildly false in the western US. BLM and Forest Service land is routinely fenced and grazed, but is generally publicly accessible (I think somewhere north of a million square km--and way more than "relatively few areas"). – Jacob Socolar Feb 19 '18 at 22:04
  • @JacobSocolar: But Forest Service and BLM lands are not private. I thought that was the critical feature of the OP's question. – wallyk Feb 20 '18 at 1:51
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    The No Trespassing is redundant, but it's probably there to avoid some kind of stupid litigation from someone who goes over it illegally and hurts themselves. – jpmc26 Feb 20 '18 at 6:50
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    @wallyk My point was just that it is false to say that there are relatively few places where public land is fenced but open to the public--this is exactly the situation in much (most?) of the interior west . Sorry if that wasn't clear. – Jacob Socolar Feb 20 '18 at 12:20
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    @KennethK.: If you see a building, it is de facto marked as private (implicitly). If you see a fence (without signs) it is marking territory, implicitly marking it private. If you travel a rural, you'll see fences and buildings. Do you think all that is publicly accessible? – wallyk Feb 21 '18 at 19:25
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Taking North Carolina as an example, since you did, if the property is not posted, you are not trespassing if you do not enter any buildings, and until someone tells you to leave:

First degree trespass (Section 14-159.12): Without permission entering or remaining:

On someone else's property that's enclosed/secured as to clearly demonstrate an intent to keep out intruders; or

In a building owned by someone else.

Second degree trespass (Section 14-159.13): Without permission entering or remaining on someone else's property:

After being notified not to enter or remain there by the owner, a lawful occupant, or other authorized person; or

Where there is a notice posted informing intruders not to enter the property.

http://statelaws.findlaw.com/north-carolina-law/north-carolina-criminal-trespass-laws.html

The answer to your question, therefore, is that you can avoid accidental trespassing by avoiding posted property, by not entering any buildings without permission, and by paying attention to anyone who asks you to leave unposted property.

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    This is all true but it feels like a bit of a technicality. I think the question is really using "trespass" as a shorthand for "entering private property without permission." I think (but I agree that this is just interpretation) that the asker wishes to avoid situations where they even have to be told to "git off mah land!" and not just to avoid trespass lawsuits. – David Richerby Feb 19 '18 at 17:31
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    @DavidRicherby that may be true, although it's certainly not explicit in the question, and a greater understanding of the law seems to be called for here. I for one would be far more inclined to rely on the presence or absence of signs than to spend time doing research in GIS systems. Land owners should also know the law concerning trespass and should post or fence their property if they are so inclined. Also, as a criminal offence, trespass would not subject the OP to a civil suit but to prosecution, a fate easily avoided as described above. – phoog Feb 19 '18 at 20:16
  • Certainly not explicit, agreed. – David Richerby Feb 19 '18 at 20:23
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    Just to be clear, in some states property can be signed in ways that might not be obvious - e.g. purple stripes on trees. – Random832 Feb 20 '18 at 16:37
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    I didn't know the meaning of purple paint on things until just last year, and I've lived in Arkansas for about 30 years. – Wayne Werner Feb 21 '18 at 14:40
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Generally most law in the US goes like this:

  • you must reasonably search some length of every fenceline for "No Trespassing" signs, e.g. Every 500 feet. You don't need to search a length of fenceline if you are at an obvious human-travel threshold, such as a gate, obvious roadlike path, etc. Beware also signs which have been vandalized or missing - you'd be technically in the right but you'll still be dealing with a rather angry homeowner who believes you ignored an obvious, intact sign.

  • if the property is not signed, and you are asked to leave, you must expediently do so in a manner the owner consents to (if not unreasonable).

  • It's always trespassing, signage or not, if the installation is one the government favors with such protection, e.g. Army basespower plants, and railroads (photographers, don't even think about it): including adjacent land that may be outside the secured area or obvious usage. And you may not find this in state law: it may be Federal.

  • it is always trespassing inside a building-like thing - urbexers!

Lastly note that rural folks tend to have guns (not least for wild animals like mountain lion), and encounters aren't clean and simple. As deolater says in comments, the mood is tense, they may not know the law or rules of engagement very well, they may not care, they may fear you even if you don't think of yourself as fearful. Notably, racism and xenophobia are poltically whipped to a frenzy in rural areas. All this adds to the "fog-of-war" which naturally exists in an encounter amongst even those with the purest intents. US law leans toward favoring a defending property owner due to reasonable doubt, mens rea and sometimes stand your ground. The upshot is you can't expect courtesies or demand rights - it's vital you put your host at ease from the outset.

Also, you are at risk of the plainest of accidents, because hunting is a big thing all year, not even for sport but control. (Take wild boar. Please.) Best to wear clothing that clearly distinguishes you from game.

When in Rome... I advise talking to a local Cabela's or Bass Pro Shops, as they are not only major outdoor outfitters but also gun retailers. They should have a well-informed perspective on local risks and conditions, with valuable nuggets like "it's bowhunting season for deer right now" and how local law treats hunters vs. regular "rural explorers". Some states have different (more permissive) rules for hunters.

Also see Jim Ganley's advice about talking with the sheriff. Meth labs are a big thing, as is growing pot - and while a very few states have legalized pot, old habits die hard: many growers have been growing illegally for years and haven't bothered miring through the extensive paperwork and certifications to get legal. And they're still illegal at the Federal level.

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If you have a hand-held GPS unit, you can get property boundaries on a card that slots into the GPS. They're marketed for hunters, but they're great for anyone who will be travelling through back country. This allows you to see property ownership near your current location.

These chips are sold by the state, or you can get the same info on a smart phone app. Very inexpensive GPS units don't have a card slot, so make sure yours is compatible before you buy.

enter image description here

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    Informative answer. My first readtion was "the 90s called and want their tech back" but then I realized cellphone service is often unavailable (and with it you lose assisted GPS the way phones do it) -- a proper nav device with a full GPS/Glonass implementation may be what is required. – Harper Feb 21 '18 at 15:49
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    There is - statistically, essentially - NO data service in the USA. The USA is not Switzerland, it's a second-world country. You can't get data when you're out in the backwoods. – Fattie Feb 21 '18 at 20:35
  • @fattie yeah, the same can be said of trains, for the same reason, cursed with too many acres for too few electoral votes. The ag industry basically pays Verizon to saturation-bomb the croplands, so farm implements can talk to their datacenters about the location of each seed. – Harper Feb 21 '18 at 21:11
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    @Fattie *muttermutter* That's not what first-, second- and third-world means. The US is in the first world by definition because the first world is the US and its allies. The second world is the USSR and its allies and... ohhhh, wait. I see. You're making a political point about Trump and Putin. ;-) – David Richerby Feb 22 '18 at 12:44
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    @DavidRicherby Your definition was correct until 1989, but heck, the USSR was dissoluted thirty years ago. Right now, First World is understood as fully industrialized with good infrastructure, Second World as industrializing with developing infrastructure, Third World as underdeveloped and agricultural, with lacking public infrastructure. Right now the discussion regarding the U.S. is where to put a de-industrializing country with crumbling infrastructure... – Alexander Feb 23 '18 at 11:02
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I lived in AR and my driveway was a township road and passed no more then 15' from the house then continued on up the mountain and if you were really observant you could see the road by the different types of vegetation and there were a lot of roads like that but your best bet was to check the county GIS also if in doubt ask local residents. Also I cannot stress this enough check with the sheriff to see if it is safe to go where you would like to go there is a lot of meth being made and them folk do not like strangers. I have friends who are on the Cedar Creek, MO Fire Dept and there have been fires that unless the Sheriff clears the area the fire dept. will not go in period. USE COMMON SENSE and BE SAFE

  • Excellent point on checking with the Sheriff. Of course just because the Sheriff doesn't tell you to avoid X doesn't mean it's OK - but if they tell you to stay out then you definitely should. – Wayne Werner Feb 21 '18 at 14:46
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    The sheriff's motivation is "Lordy, I do not want to be called out to Old Joe's to clean up a body today". So he will be all too happy to help you avoid Old Joe. – Harper Feb 21 '18 at 15:50
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onXmaps FTW! It shows public and private landowner information so you can avoid trespassing. The app can be used offline by downloading the maps onto your device. This means you DO NOT need cell service once the maps are downloaded to your phone. enter image description here

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There is a slight quirk in the law and I am not one to test it, all no trespassing signs must be signed with the owners name and address the picture of the posted sign does not have a signature or address also most states require signs to be posted at specific intervals. Folks just be safe ask before you enter.

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If you see a sign with the word "Posted"

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you are in serious danger of being shot.

Such a sign,

is one legal requirement to be able to use firearms against you,

if you go on the land in question.

Of course, obviously, the subtleties of the legal issues vary from county to county, state to state. (For example, there may have to be such signs every N yards, you actually don't have to have any sign whatsoever in some cases, in some counties it has to include a phone number, and so on and so forth.)

But just - overwhelmingly and in general - in the US you never walk on to land with a "Posted" sign.

If you're not from the US, and you think this is an exaggeration,

Note that the only post on this page from anyone with actual experience reads:

"All that being said, I've had guns pulled on me twice"

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    "You will be shot." I agree with that much. It's sound advice. "That's the minimum legal requirement" is not accurate. Hence the -1. – choster Feb 21 '18 at 19:56
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    @choster We have lots of justified shooting cases in America, and unless the shooter is a complete psychopath and screws up, it's rare to convict. You may be talking about a distinction without a difference, – Harper Feb 21 '18 at 21:17
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    @Fattie I've accidentally camped right behind a sign saying "Posted". Arrived after dark and didn't have a clue what it meant. Without the "no trespassing, keep out" bit it's not particularly clear. – gerrit Feb 21 '18 at 23:06
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    @Fattie Perhaps so. In Poland or Finland or Hungary I'd look up the text on the sign in a dictionary or phrasebook. Unfortunately, Waterstones does not sell any phrasebooks translating US English to UK English. Also, I didn't notice the sign until the next morning. I was still alive. – gerrit Feb 22 '18 at 17:54
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    @Fattie I was saying that you could do the community a favour if you added the definition of posted that you are describing to wiktionary, because it's currently not described there. And would you happen to have a picture of such a purple stripe of paint? – gerrit Feb 22 '18 at 18:18

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