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.
Words by Abbie Barronian Photo by Tommy Lisbin/Unsplash