Shelter and Campsite Etiquette

Empty shelter= no rules

Empty shelter= no rules

After my first day of hiking in Georgia, I arrived at Hawk Mountain shelter to find the whole area packed. I claimed my tent spot among the thirty-some other tents, then I headed toward the stream. On my way through camp, I witnessed two guys who were starting a fire in the fire pit. There was a tent set up close by. Upon spotting the fire-builders, the tent owner came running over saying, “You can’t build a fire. The embers might put a hole in my tarp!” The fire-builders politely stopped trying to set their twigs aflame, and they moved to a different fire pit (most shelters only have one fire pit).

Now, it was polite of the fire-builders to move to a different location, but it leads me to wonder, why would you set up your tent right beside a fire pit and get upset when other people want to build a fire? There was plenty of space for tents, but only a few locations to build a fire. Clearly, the tent owner was in the wrong.

One of the great things about the Appalachian Trail is that there are no real rules. You can pretty much do whatever you want. That said, it’s only polite to be mindful of others.

What should you know about shelter and campsite etiquette?

  • Don’t do a pack explosion (that’s when you take all of you gear out of your pack) in a shelter when there are other people around. If it’s just you, do whatever you want. But it’s an inconvenience to everyone else if your stuff is taking up half of the shelter.
  • If there’s a family with children around, you probably shouldn’t swear or smoke weed in front of the kids.
  • Don’t smoke weed in front of other hikers if you’re not going to offer to share.
  • Don’t pee by the water source.
  • Gentlemen, don’t stand at the edge of the shelter and pee outside. Just because you’re too lazy to put your camp shoes on, doesn’t mean everyone wants to avoid stepping in your pee.
  • Don’t leave your toilet paper on the ground. It’s gross. At least have the courtesy to bury it.
  • Leave No Trace principles say you should pack out toilet paper, but the Appalachian Trail Conservancy says it’s OK to bury toilet paper in a cathole that is 6 inches deep. So the choice is yours.
  • Don’t leave crumbs from food on the shelter floor. While mice are an inevitable part of shelter life, you don’t want to openly coerce them out of their hiding places.
  • Don’t be a shelter log (it’s a notebook that hikers sign when they pass through) hog. If there are other people around who want to sign the book, pass it on. It’s really annoying when a campsite is crowded and hikers clearly want to sign the book, and there’s one person who wants to read every entry. If you are the person who likes to read every entry, make sure you let everyone who wants the book have a turn first.
  • Smoking in the shelter is a controversy. Some people are really bothered by it and some people could care less. Only smoke in the shelter if you’re around hikers who don’t mind or it’s just you. That said, if it’s pouring rain, don’t be rude to the guy that’s standing at the corner of the awning, trying to blow his smoke away from everyone. He needs that cigarette.
  • Nobody likes a shelter police. If the behavior of other hikers in the shelter bothers you, and you think that you are entitled to tell them that they shouldn’t do things, then maybe you should just sleep in your tent.
  • Don’t cook in the shelter right next to someone else’s gear. No one wants your Ramen water spilling on their sleeping bag.
  • If you’re an extremely loud snorer, it would be kind to others if you sleep in your tent. It’s understandable if you want to sleep in the shelter when it’s raining or you’re really tired, but if you know that you keep people awake at night because your snores sound like two grizzly bears fighting over a trout, then maybe it would be polite to make a habit of setting up your tent.
  • Most people just hang their food bags off of the hooks that are in the shelter. Don’t expect everyone to hang a bear bag outside.
  • Don’t tell people off for burning their own trash. Yes, it is against Leave No Trace principles to burn trash. However, you are not the Leave No Trace enforcer of the world. You should keep your opinions to yourself.
  • Don’t go overboard with burning trash. I admit it, I’ve been guilty of throwing paper trash or cigarette butts into the fire (arrest me). It’s a little too much when you’re burning all of your plastic trash and even trying to melt beer cans in the fire though.
  • Don’t leave trash or ditch gear in the shelter. Volunteers have to pack it out. See my Pack It In, Pack It Out article.
  • Don’t be the jerk who won’t move over to let someone else in. If you’re still awake and someone wants a spot, you should move over.
  • If you come in late and everyone is already asleep, don’t wake people up to move over. If there’s an open spot then quietly squeeze in, but otherwise, just go set up your tent.
  • If you need to get up in the middle of the night, use the red light setting on your headlamp. Don’t blind everyone with your spotlight.
  • Expect old men to wake up at 5 am, and cook breakfast loudly while talking to each other. It would be nice if they could venture away from the shelter to do this, but they never will. This is more of a rant than a bullet point.
  • Don’t get really drunk and be really loud with your buddies all night. Find a camp spot away from the shelter to do this.
  • Don’t set your tent up in the shelter unless there’s plenty of space. If the shelter is going to be full, set up your tent outside.
  • Please, don’t have sex in the shelter if there are other people sleeping. If it’s just you and your significant other, do whatever you want. Otherwise, no one wants to wake up to creaking floor boards and rustling sleeping bags.

All of this said, these aren’t really rules. They’re more like guidelines. Just know that anything can happen at a shelter.

Also, it’s likely that you’ll break shelter etiquette more than once during your hike (hence why it’s more of guidelines). Just make an honest effort to be courteous to others, and everyone will get along better.

Do you have a guideline for shelter and campsite etiquette that you feel particularly strong about? If so, shout it out in the comments.

I was inspired to write this post by a recent discussion on the Facebook group of Appalachian Trail: Class of 2014. Be sure join the group to get involved in the discussion of all things Appalachian Trail

14 thoughts on “Shelter and Campsite Etiquette

  1. I would add that it is also against Leave No Trace ethics to bury toilet paper. Pack out what you pack in. That includes paper grossness of every variety. Foil lined zip locks or empty coffee bags (because they are foil lined) make great toilet garbage and tampon dispensers until you can get to a garbage can.

    • Yes, it is against LNT. I noticed early on in the trail, especially in the Smokies, there was just tons of toilet paper on the ground near the shelters. I was just assuming that if people were careless enough to not even hide the toilet paper that they probably would not pack it out.
      Also, on the AT, most people bury their toilet paper, not pack it out. Not sure why, it just seems like an accepted practice, even though it’s against LNT. I just try to stick to using the privies so I don’t have to worry about it.

  2. I would agree with pretty much all of these after my experience hiking the AT. Although, I personally think its fine to GENTLY correct people who burn trash, especially plastic. That is bad for everyone around and the environment, and how is anyone supposed to learn LNT if no one corrects them?

  3. It’s good to be aware of those around you, but a list like this is kind of like the list of things not to stick in a public toilet: it wouldn’t be on there if someone hadn’t tried it or it doesn’t consistently happen. That being said, In a situation where I can choose, I’ll probably do the right thing and just stick to the shelter I brought. 🙂

  4. You missed the privy etiquette- like aim your butt for the big hole and as unlikely as it may seem, (I’ve seen it more than once) if you miss, clean it up. Also, don’t steal toilet paper that is left in privy for all to use. And for the love of all that is holy, your time on the privy is not the proper time to contemplate all of life while I’m hopping from on foot to the other waiting. Rant over.

  5. Awesome blog you have here but I was curious about if you knew of any forums that cover the same topics talked about in this article?

    I’d really like to be a part of online community where I
    can get suggestions from other knowledgeable people that share the same interest.
    If you have any recommendations, please let me know. Kudos!

  6. Sounds like a lot of backpackers need to learn some LNT. I am grossed out and saddened by some of your bullet points. As the LNT state advocate for MD, I am doing all I can to help raise the next generation of conscientious outdoor enthusiasts.

    • I’m assuming your referring to the bullet points about burying toilet paper and burning trash? I agree that it’s important to preach LNT, but while hiking I saw lots of people burn trash and I don’t really know anyone that packed out all their toilet paper. My main priority is to be honest about what the Appalachian Trail is like. I’m not saying it’s right, but I’m saying that it happens.

  7. Pingback: Advice I Can't Yet Give | Appalachian Trials

  8. This old man would like to respond to your rant about old men who wake early and talk loudly over breakfast. I recall an evening in August 2012, at the Bromley (VT) shelter. A young female hiker named Hashbrown returned from a trip to town for supplies, including the latest issue of Cosmopolitan. While the others in the shelter tried to sleep, she and her friends read the Cosmo Quiz out loud, giggling loudly at each others’ answers. (did you catch the repeated use of the word “loud”?) The next morning, this old man and his hiking partner woke early, quietly ate a cold breakfast, and left without disturbing anyone.

    Perhaps a better bullet would be: “Realize that not everyone lives on the same wake/sleep schedule as you, and be considerate of those who need to go to sleep earlier, or sleep in later, than you do.”

    • Thank you, Mike. I’m sure the young men I was camping with that evening would love to be referred to as “giggly.” However, I also recall going to bed at nightfall that evening (about 8:30 for that time of year), which is not late at all. As I stated in the article, other people’s behavior is a hazard of the shelters. Being the quiet, courteous morning person you are, clearly my bullet point did not apply to you, therefor I’m not sure why you found it offensive. Thanks for the tip though.

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