Sometimes, life is like a Looney Tunes cartoon.
Imagine: It’s been a hard week in the city. The weekend finally arrives and you and your sweetie throw a tent, sleeping bags and some outdoor gear in the trunk and head to a campground in search of a little alone time amid quiet surroundings. You pull in after dark and use a flashlight to quietly set up camp.
The next morning at 5 a.m., you’re blissfully listening to the birds chirping as you plot your hike in the woods. Then — BAM! A noisy generator kicks on at the campsite next door. A radio begins blasting. Then the couple next door starts bickering.
As Yogi Bear might howl: Boo-Boo!
Summer camping season is about to kick into high gear and plenty of novice campers will be out there alongside experienced, grizzled old-timers. So I was pleased when Tim Shelfer from Arlington, Texas, wrote to say:
Dear Well-Mannered Traveler: “How about a column about campground etiquette ... Many camper protocols that were clearly understood when I was a kid seem to be long forgotten. Maybe it's time to reinstate them.”
Great idea. Just give me a moment to crank up my campfire espresso maker and settle in with my solar-powered laptop here at the picnic table.
OK, now to some of those protocols. Shelfer was kind enough to share some of his stories and advice. So was Colleen Hawley, a ranger at Washington state’s Lake Easton State Park.
During the day, there is no reason to tiptoe around and whisper in any campground, but “ ... people camp to get away from it all, so don't bring it with you,” says Shelfer. Keep in mind that your conversations, and the sound from boomboxes, car speakers and portable radios, carry easily. So try to keep the levels within reason at all times. Especially after 10 p.m. when most campgrounds impose “quiet time.”
Ranger Hawley says it’s not just the beer fests and evening hootenannies around the campfire that can get out of control. Some nights she’s had to shut down heated games of campground Yahtzee, poker, charades and Pictionary.
Bathrooms or outhouses
“This is really yucky to talk about,” says Shelfer. “But hey, the privy is the centerpiece of the campground. So guys — raise the seat. And everybody — lower the lid when you're done. Don’t throw trash down the hole. And leave the door closed when done. It helps keep flies out.”
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Everyone agrees: It's rude to take a shortcut through another camper’s campsite — even if it’s the shortest route to the bathroom or outhouse. So stick to the paths.
And, speaking of privacy, “ ... something about camping makes some couples really, well, lustful,” say Shelfer. “But your neighbors really don't want to share the experience.”
Ranger Hawley agrees. She points out that many campers forget how easily noise carries in campgrounds and that tents aren’t well insulated — or insulated at all. She also reminds campers that actions inside the tent sometimes show up as shadows outside the tent.
“It doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy yourself. Just remember that people can see into your campsite and, sometimes, into your tent.” So be careful about inadvertently giving the campground an erotic shadow puppet show.
Some campgrounds have a “pack it in, pack it out” trash policy; others provide garbage cans, dumpsters and recycling bins. Either way, don't leave trash — especially food scraps — lying around. Trash can not only look bad, it can get really smelly and attract all sorts of unwanted critters.
My family was once literally chased from a picnic site in the middle of the day by a gang of aggressive raccoons clearly accustomed to having their way with open containers, unlocked coolers and loosely closed trash cans. Ranger Hawley isn’t surprised: “Raccoons and bears are notorious dumpster divers, but even squirrels will chew a hole in a screen window to get to a muffin or a piece of bread left inside a tent or trailer.”
As Smokey Bear will tell you, cleaning up after yourself is even more important when it comes to campfires.
Ranger Hawley has seen campers put supposedly cool charcoal briquettes or campfire embers in garbage pails, which discarded improperly, “can catch the whole forest on fire,” she warns. “I’ve even seen people put their supposedly cooled embers in portable grills in the back of their car and drive off with the back seat on fire!”
So what’s the right way to put out your campfire? Smokey Bear says: “Drown it! Stir it! Feel it.” (For more details and specific instructions, go here.)
The bottom line
When it comes to getting along in campgrounds, says Ranger Hawley, the well-mannered camper needs to remember that, “you’re bound to encounter other people who have a very different definition of vacation.” If someone’s behavior seems really out of line and is really bothering you, Hawley suggests you “seek out a ranger or campground host and ask them to intervene. You don’t need to suffer in silence.”
Or, she says, you might consider experiencing the outdoors in a somewhat different manner. “Many people compromise by experiencing public parks in the day, but at night they stay inside their campers [or] recreational vehicles. Or they rent cabins, yurts or, in some public parks, a room in a historic lighthouse or other structure.”
And of course, you can also choose to spend your day in a park and your night in a hotel or motel. The walls will be thicker, you’ll have a direct path to the bathroom, and the only Looney Tunes will be on the TV.
Harriet Baskas, The Well-Mannered Traveler, also writes about airports and air travel for USATODAY.com and is the author of “Stuck at the Airport.”