We Need a Guidebook for Camping Etiquette

Why does camping courtesy seem so hard to get right?


On a camping trip in southern Utah, my brother, a friend, and I pulled up late one night to a flat, open sandy area just off a road through BLM land that had, over years of use, taken the general shape of a campground. A few “sites” had rugged fire pits built into them, and we could tell, even in the dark, that there were silent camps set up all around us. Exhausted, worried about finding another adequate spot down the road, and ready to turn in, we debated: Do we owe it to the folks already settled in to move on and not disturb their slumber? Is it okay to post up as long as we keep our voices down and the car lights off?

When we woke late the next morning, my brother turned on the car stereo as we packed up. Everyone around us seemed to be awake, and it was 9:30 by the time we were making much noise, but it presented a whole different problem of etiquette. Is it ever okay to subject other campers to your music? Is it okay if we’re about to get out of here, and everyone seems to be awake? Should I just not worry about it because it’s vacation, and the desert, and everyone is having a good time and dammit, I want to get down to old-school reggae while we pack up camp?

When we went to set up camp the next night, 12 miles into the backcountry, the best spot we found was in a narrow section of canyon. There wasn’t really a proper trail, so if late hikers wanted to avoid us they could pass us without getting terribly close. That said, the clearest, driest path through the canyon came within feet of our tents. Was this okay?

The three of us have dozens of  years of experience behind us, and yet these questions cropped up almost every time we went to set up camp. Most breaches of camp etiquette don’t come with consequences—maybe a talking-to from a grumpy neighbor—which means it’s hard to pinpoint what’s truly inconsiderate and what’s just a part of sleeping outdoors. And while developed campgrounds usually come with a list of rules delineating quiet hours, gray water disposal, and leash rules for pets, in the backcountry we’re left with just Leave No Trace guidelines, most of which aren’t well-known and which often don’t apply to the situations at hand (you try to camp 200 feet from water in a 50-foot wide canyon with a creek running through the middle of it.)

We didn’t see a soul after we set up camp the first night, and with no neighbors for miles, got down by the light of the stars. We drank canned wine, chased tequila with hot sauce, broke out glow sticks we decided we needed during a pre-trip Walmart run. We yelled dirty words and listened to them echo back to us from the canyon walls. I snuck downstream and took a bath, fully aware that any unsuspecting hiker to round the bend would get a full view of my desert-dirtied body but fairly certain I was in the clear. We fell, exhausted and buzzing with the energy of the day and the place and cheap booze, into our tents, and left our camp chairs and soggy socks out all night.

Wilderness solitude is awesome for its serenity and silence and sense of departure from the rest of our loud, synthetics-loving, trash-producing species. It’s also awesome because it allows space and time to let loose and howl and feel free, whatever that might look like for you. So maybe the whole idea of camp etiquette is antithetical to the act of getting out there in and of itself. Isn’t camping and wilderness exploration all about escaping the rigid confines of proper civility?

Well, sort of. When I’m eager to strip down and hop into a gorgeous alpine lake in my birthday suit, yell at rock walls until they yell back to me, and generally go wild, I’d like to think the answer to the above question is a resounding yes. That one of the freedoms of camping is the freedom to stop worrying about people around you. But the thing is, when I hike past a camp in the backcountry right next to a trail with beer cans strewn about, when I hear music from a portable speaker approaching me on a trail or at a secluded hike-to beach, when someone pulls up next to my tent at 11:30 and starts banging car doors and talking at full-volume, I’m livid. They’re infringing on my experience of the wilderness, which can only be loud and goofy and dancey and maybe a little inconsiderate when I want it to be!

Here’s what I’m getting at: We’ve all done something in the backcountry that a family wouldn’t be excited to stumble upon. We’ve all broken the peace of our surroundings with a wild yell or a dance party or even fireworks. Relative lawlessness is part of the relentless joy of wilderness but, as with anything, there are lines that shouldn’t be crossed. But what are those lines? If I were tasked with writing a backcountry camping etiquette book, here’s what it would look like:

1. Follow Leave No Trace guidelines as if your life depended on it. The most important part of enjoying our wild spaces is being sure they’re left intact for the flora and fauna and those who follow. Pack out your TP and your baby wipes, your quartered limes, your orange peels, your dental floss. Brush up on the rules on the Leave No Trace website, and follow them faithfully. Respect your environment, with special care not to greatly disturb wildlife.

2. Respect your neighbors, if you have them. This is easy: imagine you’re looking forward to a long day of brutally hard hiking/biking/climbing with an early start. Then imagine what you’d want to hear or see as you try and get some shuteye. Beyond that, don’t set up camp right next to someone else without asking, keep your behavior age-appropriate if there are children around, and keep your camp tidy. And if you’re sure you don’t have any neighbors? Run wild, as long as your behavior jives with rule #1.

3. Instead of getting angry whenever you witness what you consider breaches of rules #1 and #2, consider that you’ve probably done something similarly obnoxious in the backcountry before. Remember that there isn’t, at the moment, a widely-understood backcountry code of conduct. And then do your best to rectify the misconduct. Pick up the trash you’re shaking your head at, maybe gently remind your noisy neighbor that they’ve got company, and be the person you’d want encounter to be in the wilderness.

But the thing is, I’m not making the rules. We all are. So what does good—or bad—camping etiquette look like to you? Have you ever had to confront a rowdy or inconsiderate neighbor? How does a perfect backcountry gentleman or lady behave?

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Showing 37 comments
  • Rob M
    Reply

    Excellent essay!

    Etiquette is a tricky thing especially these days when the rule of thumb seems to be look out for yourself and f**k the rest of ’em. I’m from an older generation and the three rules you’ve posted are good ones to camp by and are the ones I’ve always stood by, especially Leave no Trace. My version went a little further and and became Leave it Better than You Found It, which meant picking up the bottle caps, cigarette butts and other human debris left behind by a previous party.

    And let’s not forget the granddaddy of them all, the Golden Rule. Treat others as you yourself would like to be treated. That ones goes a long way towards civility, a commodity we could all use a bit more of these days.

  • Human Nature
    Reply

    “Why does camping courtesy seem so hard to get right?”

    Because humans are inherently assholes, full stop. End of article!

  • Craig Rowe
    Reply

    I just wish everyone would stop shitting all over the place. Like, actually shitting.

  • Art Smith
    Reply

    Please do the birthday suit thing all you want, but leave the yelling at the walls and the glow sticks back in the city at your local disco. Noise and light at night travels far at night when it’s so dark and quiet. Publishing articles like this is irresponsible.

    • Tree
      Reply

      I agree with Art. You may not know that your shouting of obscenities is disturbing the person/people who are sleeping a couple hundred yards from you and who are here to escape such asinine behavior. Also, purposeless use of lightsticks just panders to the petroleum-fueled plastics industry and creates more non-biodegradable waste. (Which is a much more serious issue than orange peels.)

      • Abbie Barronian
        Reply

        Thanks for your comment! I think you bringing up the neighbors is so crucial—that’s the crux of the situation for me. We were miles away from other campers in a canyon with just one entrance. The nearest suitable place to set up a tent was miles away, towards the entrance. Any neighbors would have had to pass us before setting up camp nearby. Which is what brings me to rule #2—with no neighbors, a holler or two doesn’t seem, to me, to be a big deal. Were I posted up on the shores of a wooded lake ringed with possible sites hidden from view, a holler or two would be out of the question. I do want to point out I bring up orange peels as an issue of LNT—they’re not a problem on a broader waste disposal scale, but they are a problem when they’re peppering a backcountry trail. Our irresponsibly purchased glo sticks were diligently packed out (though I don’t disagree with you that they, like many of my possessions and I’m sure many of yours, could be done without).

        • Jedd
          Reply

          Are you certain you had no neighbors? Did you hike up the trail to check? Maybe you had them, but they were so successful at LNT practices you couldn’t detect them.

    • Aaron
      Reply

      This poor soul likely hasn’t experienced a good yell in the mountains. Every once and awhile It’s cathartic, and super fun! Don’t scream for days, but also don’t start throwing around words like irresponsible because you’re a prude in the backcountry.

      • Gene
        Reply

        There is a time and a place for everything, and there are plenty of places to let off steam during the day. I am 71 and have been camping in some form since I was 10. In that long period of time I realized two things… There are many times the number of campers today compared with the first 20 years or so I camped. I have gone thru all the fazes of camping, canoes, speed boat, pontoon boat, and no boat in all states except NY and points north.
        However one thing seems to remain constant. Two things determine one’s perception of camping etiquette, age and volume of alcohol consumed. Youth mixed with alcohol is difficult to be around due to the yelling and music, unless of course you are part of that group at any age. In the past 10 years or so, I have stayed at KOA, Good Sam, and National Parks where a nose code is enforced after 10 PM. You can still get someone next door who makes a lot of noise, however I bought a white noise generator some years ago, and one can usually find a setting that will block the noise even if it takes a thunder storm.

    • Abbie Barronian
      Reply

      Art, thanks for your comment! I’m curious about your thoughts on light pollution—do you think glo sticks are any bigger a nuisance than headlamps, which would have been our alternative light source?

      • Mike Pro
        Reply

        The sun, moon, and stars are excellent ‘alternative’ light sources. Perhaps even a small fire, if the area you are/were in allows.

  • Robert
    Reply

    It’s all about respect for others, especially when it comes to visual or noise pollution. Understand that yelling or cranking music when you don’t have nearby neighbors doesn’t mean there aren’t people within earshot. Sound travels in remote quiet areas . Use earphones if it’s more important to listen to music rather than the beauty of silence. Sometimes it’s the “respect” concept people have trouble with. Trying to understand that the things that you’re okay with may not be the same for other campers and backpackers takes a real effort. It also takes some acceptance by others. If you have a problem with skinny dipping then don’t look or simply extend your tolerance to accept it. It shouldn’t be an intrusion into your experience.Camping and backpacking should be a pleasurable experience for EVERYONE !

  • Chester
    Reply

    By all means check in to your Bryce cyn campground after 10 pm, play your stereo, pound stakes, open and close car doors every couple minutes, giggle incessantly, and after your 2 ten foot tents are set up, please play guitar because all of us trying to sleep in the campground went to Bryce to hear you play.

  • Chester
    Reply

    Also teach your children to throw rocks from the top of a series of switchbacks because the hikers below think that is cool.

  • Chester
    Reply

    Check into your Bryce campground after 10, open and close car doors every couple minutes, play your stereo while setting up your two 10 foot tents, giggle in a high pitched manner,and after you set up play your guitar because all of us who are trying to sleep went to Bryce to hear you play

  • Dan Murphy
    Reply

    You asked: Is it ever okay to subject other campers to your music?

    A: No

  • Drew
    Reply

    Is it even “camping” if you have neighbors close by? Bag that – its parking
    Campgrounds pretty much suck with neighbors 15 feet away – how awkward and desperate
    Might as well just get a motel room

  • Mike
    Reply

    Peace and quiet are increasingly scarce – blame roads, drilling, and the ever-growing number of people who are out and about on our public lands. We all need to be considerate of other folks and aim to “do no harm” to others. Me being quiet doesn’t affect you; you playing music on the trail forces your will upon me. Fuck that. But I do agree with your final three points; if people feel clearly that backcountry (or even frontcountry) norms are being violated they should engage the other visitor to educate and seek greater consideration.

  • Olivia Miller
    Reply

    It’s never ok to subject others to your music in the wilderness. Leave the boombox at home and invest in headphones.

  • Sandra
    Reply

    I was backpacking in Yosemite during the Rim Fire, while it was going on. We were camped at above 10,000 ft, where no fires are ever allowed. This group 100 yards away decided they were going to have a big campfire and had one going. My husband and I walked over in complete darkness and I confronted them, saying I was a volunteer ranger/ firefighter and that they needed to put it out. They put the fire out without a fight, thank goodness. In hindsight, I should’ve called out their trip leader that signed for the permit, because if they had a permit the rangers would’ve made them aware of the no fires rule.

  • Dave
    Reply

    No music, no yelling, no glo sticks.Could do without campfires as well. Many people for some reason are compelled to build one the moment they arrive for no reason and build them huge! Then the person in their party with the booming voice laughs every 10 seconds in between the barking dog and door slams. If the road is dirt they like to make sure everyone gets a good dusting as they search for a site.

    Our wild places are sacred. A place for quiet conversation and reflection. Not saying we can’t have fun but it really ruins the experience when loud obnoxious voices, music etc take place in places most go for peace and quiet.

  • doug moore
    Reply

    The more people around, the more strict employment of etiquette. Except LNT, which should be adhered to no mater what. If you can’t respect your neighbors, then you need to go deep, away from everyone and get your LNT on.

    And just to chime in on these:
    Campfires: Not any more
    Music: earbuds only, but that is sad in itself
    Lightshow: ok, but not all night
    Yelling: Not in the campground, unless there’s a bear/mt lion/rattler/murderer

    Man, I am getting old.

    • Rocky
      Reply

      Love your list for appropriate yelling 🙂

  • Rocky
    Reply

    Complete agreement with the commenters thus far. If one wants all of the music and campfires and loud convos, go and check in to a KOA. Please leave the quiet outdoor experience to the ones who have pursued it.

  • Matt
    Reply

    It’s hard to tell when you are truly “alone” out there, as mentioned above sound and light travel a long way. I’ve experienced cases where I could hear late night music from a group over a mile away. Not to mention the time someone on the other side of a ridge blew up a 20 gallon propane tank at 11am at night. Nothing like a late-night explosion to make it clear that you can’t escape other people.

  • Peter
    Reply

    I just experienced bad camp behavior this weekend. It’s not the first time, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. While I don’t mind young kids making noise during non-quiet hours, I very much mind supposed adults pulling into a camp site in their drag racing pickup truck and then proceeding to setup camp. This was at 9:30PM. Not quiet time, so OK. It’s when the 2 men in the group noticed a fat raccoon that was wandering around and both of them decided it was way too scary to camp there that the problems started. This was 11:00PM or so. They left all their stuff in the WalMart tent, un-staked it and then proceeded to drag the whole mess down a gravel lane to another site. If that wasn’t bad enough, then they fired up the drag racing pickup again and took a victory lap around the campground to show everyone that they had vanquished the killer raccoon. If I thought confronting them would have made any difference, I would have. My wife and I just left instead..

  • P
    Reply

    Cry me a river…. Quit bitching and get further from the road. You owe me nothing and I owe you nothing except common courtesy…. and minimizing impact to the land. There is no such thing as leave no trace. Its leave as little trace as possible.

    There are times when I camp to get away and hear silence. Other times I camp to have a good time and party. I don’t look for silence in a campground or near a road.

    Simple conversations can solve 99% of these issues.

  • LG
    Reply

    How do you address a nuisance without creating an issue for yourself? I have no problem with music, discourse or a cantankerous group. But quiet time is quite time. After this one group finished their BBQ over an open fire during “no open fire” dry season, they proceeded to project “The fate of the furious” onto a white sheet hung from a tree. It was almost midnight. Speakers at full tilt, lit fire and enough cold beer for the entire campground. When the movie ended, the arguing began. “Get in the tent”, “I want to watch another movie”‘ the couples argued. Not wanting to create a situation or get my ass kicked by the now completely intoxicated campers, I threw my headphones on and attempted to sleep.

  • Dean
    Reply

    Having passed a few snowdrifts in New Army Pass, and with assurance of a backcountry USFS employee, our Cadette Girl Scout patrol and adults turned off the trail into a side canyon camping area suggested by “the ranger” who said we would probably be alone but it was big enough for several groups camped well apart. Upon arrival, we were greeted by a pair of foul-mouth men who had camped in the middle of the area in such a way that they declared all of it “private”–just theirs. Being late in the day, we set up against the canyon wall as tight as we could, and after dinner the girls gathered around the Primus to sing campfire songs, no bad language, an not loud, but I’d guess the canyon wall allowed our “neighbors” to enjoy the music. The next morning, the Scouts even filled in tentstake holes and placed rocks over them…Leave No Trace.

  • Joanne
    Reply

    Music at the campsite or on the beach is a no

  • HankC
    Reply

    consider whether what you bring is necessary for survival.

    earbuds – not.

    boombox – not.

    glo sticks – not.

    not just ‘leave no trace’ but ‘bring no trace’.

  • Mike
    Reply

    Car camping. I’d never done it until I had kids. Always backcountry camping. For the most part I’ve had some great experiences, but definitely lots of challenges too. My top 5:

    5) The generators getting fired-up at 0700 – numerous places.

    4) Drunk people partying all-night-long – numerous places.

    3) A .50 caliber (sniper rifle) being fired at close range 5 times over the course of 2 hours (My wife and 2 kids in the tent with me) – Oregon.

    2) The time a drunk guy stumbled onto (i.e. fell onto) the family tent – Yosemite.

    1) The time a guy sat atop the sandstone formations of Devil’s Garden (at 0100) and sang song after song with guitar in hand. The natural echo chambers created by the sandstone amplified the sound. Normally this would piss me off, but he was an amazing musician – Utah.

    Bonus: While technically backcountry camping, this was a high-use area (Artist Pt. WA). On a cold, January night, camped on a high ridge near Artist Pt., I hear hymns being sung at 0330. I look outside my sleeping bag and there’s a woman belting out hymn after hymn. In the middle of nowhere. Weird.

  • Tom Gorton
    Reply

    One thing that needs mentioning is this: every wilderness place, every campground I’ve ever been in, every beach, dune or hiking trail has one thing ever present and that is cigarette butts. I saw them at the Grand Canyon and in Yellowstone last year; the Cape Cod National Seashore this year. After seeing this inconsiderate litter throughout America for over six decades I’m fed the heck up with lazy smokers. You want to wreck your lungs in the Great Outdoors? Fine. I’m OK with that. But pick up your f-ing butts. When did our world, our National Parks and our hiking trails become the smoker’s ashtray? When? Stuffed into a rock on the rim of the spectacular Grand Canyon? What ignorance! Let’s have some etiquette from smokers, puh…lease.

  • Mike Pro
    Reply

    “(you try to camp 200 feet from water in a 50-foot wide canyon with a creek running through the middle of it.)”

    answer: don’t try, in the first place. there’s no such thing as “LNT guidelines doesn’t apply” here.

    just because the physical / geographical limitations of the tight canyon don’t allow for proper distance from water to be maintained, doesn’t mean that it’s okay to camp there. you might as well argue: “if other people don’t see us, that makes it okay!”. or, better yet, you could admit: “we camped too close to water, it wasn’t kosher with proper etiquette, or in-line with moral compass, and we weren’t willing to make the tough choice to camp elsewhere and blamed it on the confines of the micro-geography and topography.”

    also, I disagree that LNT, outdoor ethics, backcountry code (survival and otherwise), camping etiquette, etc, are unknown or not widely known. they are widely known, and just as widely ignored or ‘rationalized away’ in the moment as you have admittedly done. too your point, in my outdoor experience and history; I have, too.

    • Abbie Barronian
      Reply

      Hi Mike! While I agree that many backcountry travelers have bent the rules of LNT before—intentionally or unintentionally—camping in river corridors, even narrow ones, is absolutely not off-the-table for diligent LNT followers. You can read about the unique problems presented by camping in river corridors and how best to handle them on their website here: https://lnt.org/blog/leave-no-trace-rivers and here: https://lnt.org/learn/principle-2. I think the misunderstanding here is a great example of even experienced outdoorspeople not being perfectly versed in LNT tactics.

  • Nate Walker
    Reply

    You know what is worse than noise or light pollution? Actual pollution- Dog crap! When you think of the thing that is the most dirty, disgusting and revolting thing out there, it’s excrement. Yet you think it’s OK to leave around?

    Seriously- all of you people that don’t pick up after your dog are the worst hypocrites out there!! LNT but leave your dog S@&! Everywhere! Nothing like walking around in pristine nature and stepping in a pile of crap that was left by your Shetland pony sized mutt. I am a dog owner. Love dogs. Hate irresponsible dog owners. Please- pick up after your dogs. Everyone who hates poo (which is everyone) would appreciate it.

  • brandon
    Reply

    If it’s quiet you’re looking for, hike further. It’s impractical to expect the hordes of people just now getting their feet wet with hiking to follow LNT rules and trail etiquette. There’s no shortage of ignorance out there. Many simply want to get that instagram shot from the top and do zero research into what being in the wild means.

    In my experience, putting a solid ten miles between myself and the trailhead more or less eliminates the probability of encountering bad actors. Most people (not all) who go to the effort to really escape seem to understand the rules and practices just fine.

    I think some of these noise/light/intoxication/pollution concerns are all but unavoidable at the rate of people picking up outdoor recreation – at least close to trailheads. I’d pay higher taxes to station some sort LNT enforcement on busier trails, but I’m getting tired of confronting people myself. I’m often met with belligerence or some other holier-than-thou attitude when I try to correct bad behavior on the trail. I’m not out there to get into arguments with people over stewardship, but to get *away* from the confrontational air that fills our society these days. Beyond picking up after others, I’ve honestly resigned to sighing and shaking my head and pushing on further down trail to find my solace.

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