The fact is that we Americans don’t want to put our lives on pause. We don’t want to give up summer vacations. Some of us are reluctantly doing so.
Others are trying to find ways to vacation that are safer. RV rentals are up, with people seeing them as a way to maintain social distancing while going somewhere else.
And this is causing problems for America’s National Parks.
These problems boil down to one thing: People who normally go to, say, Disney World, are going to Yosemite or Yellowstone instead.
And sadly, a proportion of these people do not know Park etiquette, let alone wilderness etiquette.
If you’re heading to a park and it’s not your normal type of vacation (let’s say what you really wanted was to go to Rome), then please, please learn the etiquette and appropriate behavior.
How to Behave in a National Park
Here are some basic rules for “popular” areas of parks (I’ll talk about the backcountry in a bit).
- Don’t litter. National Parks are being, well. Trashed. Literally. All of your rubbish needs to either go into the provided bins or, if they’re full, take it away with you. Please. There’s reduced ranger services and reduced facilities, and this is resulting in less trash pickup. And litter found at parks includes discarded masks. Just eww.
- Stay on marked trails. This includes not cutting through switchbacks. Trail erosion is a common problem in parks, and “off roading” makes it worse.
- Don’t use ATVs unless the trail is specifically marked for them. Just don’t. Horses also should stay on marked trails. Mountain bikes are more flexible, but be aware that if a trail is not marked as suitable for biking, it probably isn’t.
- Horses and mules get right of way. If you bump into riders, please step to the side of the trail, avoiding any plants, and stay quiet while they pass. This goes double if somebody is riding one horse and leading another which is not carrying a pack. They’re training a green horse and need their space.
- Keep your dog on a leash at all times. No matter what. No matter how well trained they are. Dogs are only allowed in develop areas, and not on hiking trails or in the back country. The same goes for trained cats (because, yes, people have asked). Pets are generally allowed on fully paved roads and marked trails. Do not leave your pet in the car on a hot day, or you may come back to find the rangers rescued it. Carry proof of vaccination. Keep pets out of buildings if they’re open; only service dogs are permitted in visitor centers and other buildings.
- Don’t approach, disturb or, above all, feed wildlife. Any kind of wildlife. Wildlife has right of way. Feeding wildlife habituates it to humans and can result in the rangers having to kill a “nuisance” animal. Or you could give them something toxic. This goes for small things too; the Grand Canyon has perennial problems with people getting bitten trying to hand feed squirrels. Check the NPS guidelines, which will tell you how close is too close for a variety of species.
- If you sit down on a rock or log, check it first, especially in hot and dry areas; the rock or log may already have a bitey occupant.
- Don’t squeeze into already-crowded parking lots. If it’s full, go somewhere else. Don’t park on the grass.
- Drive within the speed limit. If you are driving very slowly to enjoy the view, let other people pass. Slow down if passing pedestrians.
- Don’t talk on your cellphone on hiking trails. (why would you be doing that anyway?)
- Don’t take anything from the park. Don’t pick flowers. Don’t “collect” stones or rocks. No souvenirs, no matter how trivial they might seem.
Oh and one last tip that isn’t etiquette. If you buy new hiking boots for your adventure, don’t forget to break them in.
How to Behave in the Backcountry
So, you really want to get away from the crowds, and go into the backcountry. Bear in mind that backcountry hiking can be dangerous, and keep your first ventures short and in areas where there are likely to be others (people get injured and nobody finds them for hours or days).
When you are in the backcountry, you need to add some more rules:
- Don’t litter. Yes, I’m repeating this, because it is even more important. There are no trash cans in the backcountry. Anything you pack in must be packed out. Yes, this includes used feminine products, toilet paper and, if the area allows dogs, dog poop. Plan accordingly. Some things can also be burned if you have a campfire.
- Tell somebody where you are going and for how long. In most parks, camping in the backcountry requires a permit. If you are day hiking, swing by the ranger station and tell them which trail you are taking (Note that I have been in parks where that is mandatory even for fairly developed trails; in this case they had forms, pens and a drop box. During COVID, please bring your own pen. You probably want one anyway). That way if you don’t come back, they know where to look for you. Check the weather, too.
- Don’t camp close to others. Don’t camp on the trail. In fact, you should camp 100 feet from the trail and 200 feet from water sources. If there is a designated campsite, use it.
- Check fire rules. If you are going to certain parks, you may not be able to have a fire, especially at certain times of year. The rangers will let you know. Don’t build a fire ring. However, if your campfire has a fire ring, use it.
- Follow wilderness bathroom etiquette. If you need to pee, go off the trail. Go well off the trail. Go downhill if possible. Also make sure you are not within 200 feet of a campsite, water source, or trail. Avoid peeing directly on plants. Ladies, avoid peeing on your boots or pants. It might…uh…attract the wildlife. Consider getting a female urination device that allows you to pee standing up. When it comes to number two, things get complicated. There are two choices (and some parks mandate one or the other). The first is to pack it out. There are special bags for this. Some parks mandate this. If the park doesn’t, then a cathole is the better idea. Carry a garden trowel. Go well off the trail (same 200 foot rule), and dig a hole six to eight inches deep and four to six inches in diameter. Ideally put your cathole somewhere nobody else is going to step in it, such as right next to a rotting log. Poop in the hole, then fill it in. Yeah, it’s a pain, but human feces are, well. An issue.
- People going uphill have right of way over people going downhill. And yes, horses and mules still have right of way. Smaller groups have right of way over larger groups. Don’t take a break right on the trail.
- Don’t bathe in streams or ponds. Even with biodegradable soap. Don’t wash dishes in streams or ponds. Use a bucket and take it well away from the water source. Strain dishwater and pack out the residue.
The most important thing, though, is to pack out whatever you pack in. You don’t want anyone to know you were even there.
That includes the creatures that live there.