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Since Clarissa and I are planning to camp along the Mississippi River this weekend, I’ve been thinking about the variety of people I’ve run into during my adventures. So many of these people were Boy Scouts in my youth. As I’ve gotten older, this isn’t the case anymore, but I’m often reminded of my scouting experience. Regardless of what we may think about current events involving the organization, I learned a lot through my affiliation with the Boy Scouts. Some of what I learned was outdoor skills, such as fire-building, shelter construction, etc. Other lessons were more abstract, like teamwork, loyalty, and self-reliance.
But I’ve realized while camping in popular rental campsites that I also learned camp etiquette. Many people never have, so sometimes I witness some camp behavior that turns my head. Most of it isn’t done out of malice, or intentional rudeness. Instead, many people simply aren’t aware that there are some courtesies that they should extend to fellow campers. I’ll admit, it can occasionally be inconvenient to observe these social rules, and even I’m guilty of breaking them from time to time. But if we all strive to observe some camp etiquette, camping is going to be more fun for all of us.
So here is a little Camp Etiquette 101. If you’re new to camping, this may be a useful introduction. If you’re long attuned to life in the wilderness this may be a nice review. So next time you’re going camping keep these in mind.
Don’t shine lights in people’s faces
This is actually one of my biggest pet peeves, probably because I’ve been dealing with it the longest. Even as an adult leader in Boy Scouts, I perpetually had to remind youths that when someone is approaching you, your flashlight should be pointed to the ground. The point of the light is to illuminate where you’re walking, not to blind other people. By shining the light on the ground three to ten feet in front of you, you’ll be able to see where you’re going and you won’t be shining the light in anyone’s face. It’s easy to forget this when you hear people approach; we instantly want to see who they are, and thus we may want to shine our light at them. RESIST THIS URGE! You really won’t be able to see them that well anyway, and they won’t see anything for at least ten minutes because they’ve been blinded.
Small children are often guilty of this, but it’s an error innocently made, so try not to lose your temper if you find yourself blinded. Hold a hand over your eyes and ask the offender to please lower their light. Once they have, if you have an opportunity, explain to them why it’s better to keep your light aimed at the ground.
If you have a headlamp, be sure to angle it downward. It will actually be more useful this way anyway, and you won’t blind people every time you turn and face them.
While we’re on the subject of lights, remember that you have camp neighbors. If you have to pull your vehicle in or out after dark, turn your headlights off and drive using your parking lights if at all possible. If not possible, try to move your vehicle so that you spend as little time as possible shining your headlights into other people’s sites.
Even though there are giant spotlights claiming to be flashlights, you probably won’t need one at the state park down the road for a weekend of car-camping. Instead, try to minimize the man-made light to which you expose yourself (and others). Instead, enjoy the firelight, the stars, and the moon. There will be plenty of light by which to see, but if you must have a light, be sure to aim it towards the ground.
Be responsible with fire
Since there are often fire rings with grills on them at campsites, it’s easy to forget that we still need to be good stewards of the land and practice responsible fire-craft. This means, first and foremost, that we don’t build the largest fire that we can. Everyone loves a good bonfire, that’s true, but a campsite with neighbors isn’t the best place for one. A large fire creates a great deal of light, can generate an awful lot of smoke, and it can send embers up into the air that can come down on other people’s tents, potentially burning holes in them. Keep your fire small and it will burn longer, and be much safer. For most camping trips, and especially while car-camping, there isn’t much need for a fire to be more than one to two feet tall.
Be cautious about what you put into the fire as well. It’s acceptable to burn your paper trash, but ONLY your paper trash. If it’s soiled with food, take it to the garbage when you take any other trash that isn’t paper. This includes cigarette butts. Remember, even though you may not be cooking in the fire, the next camper might be, so don’t leave trash in their kitchen.
Don’t leave your fire unattended. It’s one thing to run to the bathroom or privy for a moment when you’re down to embers and coals (although that still isn’t best practice), but an open flame should never be left alone. Whenever you have a fire burning in your site, someone should be there to keep an eye on it. You should always have water nearby (within six feet) to extinguish the fire if necessary. Put out the fire before you leave your site.
When it comes to extinguishing a fire, I was brought up the Boy Scout way, and their technique is still the one I use. My old Boy Scout Handbook (tenth edition, published in 1990, but trust me this technique isn’t outdated) has this to say about putting out a fire;
Extinguish every fire when it is no longer needed. Make sure it is COLD OUT, not just out. That means the ashes are so cool you can touch any part of the fire lay with your hands… Splash water on the embers. Stir the damp ashes with a stick and splash them again. Turn smoldering sticks and wet them on all sides. Use plenty of water. Repeat until you can touch every part of the fire lay… When water is scarce, work sand or dirt into the coals. Keep stirring soil through the fire until it is out. Rub burned sticks against the ground to extinguish embers. Give the fire the COLD-OUT test by touch the dirt and dead ashes with your hands.
It may seem like overkill, and in a public site with a steel fire ring, it might be. But it is the best practice, and knowing how to properly extinguish your fire in controlled circumstances will make you prepared for when you start heading into the backwoods, and will make you a better camp neighbor.
Don’t move firewood
There may not be much in the way of dead-fall or dead limbs to burn in public campsites, but if those can be acquired safely and without damaging the flora (and if the site has no restrictions on collecting it) then it should be fine to burn as long as you can safely cut it to a manageable size. What you should not do is bring firewood from outside the county, and certainly not from another state. A county line may seem rather arbitrary, and to be fair, it kind of is. But the goal is to prevent moving invasive species, such as the Emerald Ash Borer which is a serious threat in Iowa, to non-infected areas. It may seem silly, but if you enjoy the wilderness, you have a responsibility to preserve it as well. Many sites will have firewood for sale, as might grocery stores and gas stations near the campsite.
Don’t leave garbage or food out
Last year Clarissa and I took a weekend and camped at Maquoketa Caves State Park in Eastern Iowa. Our site was a little more secluded than the others, requiring us to carry our gear roughly one hundred yards into the woods. I was excited about that, honestly. When we got to the site, the previous occupants had left us a note on the table, stuck in place by stabbing a hot-dog roasting stick through it into the table. It was a warning, explaining that the raccoons had attacked their camp, forcing them to leave early. Looking around the site, it was easy to see why they had such trouble; there was food and trash everywhere. The first thing that we had to do was clean up someone else’s mess. Not exactly the most fun way to start a weekend.
Understand that at a public campsite, the animals see a lot of people. They’re not afraid to sneak up and try and take your food or your trash. If you’re car-camping, keep your food in the car. If you’re a bit farther away from your vehicle, store it in a cooler or in a rubbermaid tote or something similar. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that closing the lid will keep them out of your food. You will need to wrap it with bungie cord, really securing it.
At the recent car-camping outing, we sat by the fire, leaving our trash and food out a little too long. When I looked up, there was a raccoon standing on the table, not six feet away from me! A few loud shouts and claps ran him and his friends off in search of less attentive and sloppier victims, but not before they opened an unsecured cooler and stole a pack of buns, which they carried off into the night. So be sure to secure your food and take proper care with your garbage. This means not throwing food scraps into the woods. Animals will take that as an invitation to come to your site and get more food. You don’t want that.
Even if you keep a clean camp you may still get a visit or two from the raccoons trying to sniff out some food, but if it’s all locked up tight, and you give them a little clap or shout, they’ll move on. Don’t throw things at them, try to hit them, or otherwise harass them. You’re visiting in their neighborhood, so be a good guest. That doesn’t mean you should get too friendly though; they may look cute and cuddly, but they are wild animals. They’re not dangerous if you leave them be or run them off from your camp, but if you try to grab, pet, or corner them, they will bite you, and it will be incredibly unpleasant!
Note: I live in an area where raccoons will be the most common visitors to your site. There are absolutely no bears in my area. You’ll want to find out about your area for yourself! If there are bears in places where you want to camp, that’s another story altogether. You will want to use specialized equipment (such as bear canisters) or special practices (like hanging bear bags) to protect your food, and yourself. I’m not an expert when it comes to bears, but there is a lot of information out there, and I am happy to help you find it should you need some assistance.
Observe quiet time
Most campsites have posted quiet times. This doesn’t mean you have to douse your fire, climb into your sleeping bag, and call it a night. It just means that some of your neighbors are turning in so try to keep it down. If you’ve had music playing via your phone or a radio, lower the volume or turn it off. If you’re in a group, you don’t have to whisper, but try to keep the conversations quiet. We’ve had the experience of trying to fall asleep at two in the morning while our site neighbors were still having uproarious inebriated fits of laughter. It wasn’t easy.
If you’re the neighbor who is being kept awake by loud sites, there isn’t much you can do except politely ask if they can keep it down. They may not realize how loud they’ve been, apologize, and try to reduce the noise. Or they may tell you to get lost, it’s a mixed bag. Either way, if you find yourself wishing for more seclusion in your camping, it may be time to think about doing some more primitive camping at National Forests and other such places. This is a little more challenging, but is very rewarding. If you’re not ready for that just yet, there are still things you can do to reduce the amount of human interaction you have. If you have the option of camping during the week, there will be a lot less people than on the weekends. That isn’t an option for us, but Clarissa and I look at the campsite maps online and then try to reserve the most isolated site possible, and that has yielded pretty decent results. Sometimes you’re going to have camp neighbors though, and the best thing you can do is to say hello and be friendly; it’s a gentle reminder to them that they are not alone and hopefully will help them remember to be good neighbors.
Don’t enter or cross through other people’s sites
Part of being a good neighbor is respecting the boundaries of the various sites. You wouldn’t like to see someone wandering through your yard, and nor do most people enjoy a stranger just walking around their campsite. So don’t walk through an occupied site on your way to the bathrooms, showers, garbage, waterfront, etc. This may mean taking the long way round, but that’s what a good camper does.
It’s a different story if you are making friends with your camp neighbors. Maybe you see a cool piece of gear at their site and want to chat them up about it. Maybe you have some extra food that you’d like to share. Or maybe you’re just looking for a conversation. In that case, it isn’t unthinkable to enter someone else’s site, but you shouldn’t just come and go as you please. In Boy Scouts, we used to say, “permission to enter?” before stepping into another troops site, even if they knew we were coming. This is a little formal and other campers may not understand quite what you’re getting at, but you can still be polite. “Excuse me, could I step over by your fire for a minute?” is a perfectly acceptable way to ask for permission to visit. As is, “Hey, that’s a really cool tent, mind if I take a closer look?” Of course, if they prefer some private time, respect that, and be sure to not overstay your welcome. They may be spending time with their significant other, catching up with old friends, or bonding with their kids, so don’t encroach on that. If in doubt, tell them that you’d love to talk more but you don’t want to intrude. You can always exchange contact information if you hit it off.
Don’t pee near the site
This may seem weird and obvious to some, or inconvenient to others (especially to the men reading this), but you shouldn’t relieve yourself near your campsite. Back when I was a young scout, I thought it was inconvenient too. Who wants to get up in the dead of night and walk all the way to the bathroom, especially since you can’t cut through other sites? But in the summer heat, it doesn’t take long for that urine smell to start haunting the site. It’s probably not a big deal for one or two days, but if you do it, and then the next people to rent the site do it, then the next group may be forced to endure a pee-scented campsite during their stay. I discovered as a young scout that this was an unpleasant experience. I don’t want you to have to deal with a stinky site, so just take my word for it, and hit up the bathrooms when you’ve got to go!
This is assuming that you’re staying at a state Park or commercial site with bathrooms or pit toilets available. If you’re primitive camping in a national forest or on private land, there are health concerns that dictate where you should relieve yourself in relation to your campsite and your water source. Keep that in mind when you decide to camp farther out in the wild.
Leave your site better than you found it.
Remember that filthy site I mentioned above? Despite a flooded tent and a wet and dreary morning, when we left that site, it was immaculate (well, as immaculate as a muddy site can be). No matter how much trash littered your site when you arrived, take it upon yourself to make sure the site is clean before you leave, even if that means picking up someone else’s trash. Just think about how much better it is to walk into a clean site and realize that you have the opportunity to make the next persons experience a bit more pleasant.
If you had a fire burning, make sure it is completely extinguished before you leave. You know how to do that now! If you have unused firewood, feel free to offer it to camp neighbors. Alternatively, some sites may have a spot where you can donate it for future campers to use.It is acceptable to leave a little wood stacked in the site for the next camper’s use, but it’s better to ensure it gets used before it can get wet.
Don’t feel bad if you’ve not always used good camping etiquette. We’re all guilty sometimes, I know I am. And if you’ve never learned it before, or are new to camping, then you may have never even considered some of these things. Don’t beat yourself up over what’s already done. Instead, focus on the future; if we all strive to be better camp neighbors every trip will be a little better than the last!
Enjoy whatever adventure you find yourself on this week, and stay intrepid!