I’ll start with the good news. There are a lot more people heading into the woods these days; free-spirited, multicultural, adventurous individuals who want to experience true wilderness.
Now, the bad news. Most of the newbies don’t seem to have any knowledge of camp etiquette. They’re rude, self-centred and oblivious to the unwritten rules many of us grew up respecting—and cherishing. The usual excuse for ignoring protocol? “No one told me.” It reminds me of the old Steve Martin routine, where he says to the judge: “I didn’t know armed robbery was illegal. If you told me it was, I wouldn’t have done it.” Armed robbery is illegal, by the way—and here are a few rules of conduct campers should know about as well.
Must Love Dogs?
Many dog owners have this strange notion that everyone is comfortable with their dog off-leash. Make sure to put your dog on a leash when strangers approach. I’m not saying you should keep your dog on a leash all the time. Even though most parks have strict leash rules, my dog runs free on portages and trails when there is no one around. When I see someone approach, however, my dog comes back on command and I place her on a leash.
Portage Right of Way
If you’re carrying a pack along a portage and you come across a canoeist coming from the other direction and balancing a hefty boat on his or her shoulders, he gets the right of way. This one seems obvious, but it’s one of the most common offences. My worst experience was on a busy portage in Algonquin Provincial Park. I was carrying an over-weighted 17-foot canoe along a narrow trail and met up with a woman holding only a PFD and two paddles. She shoved me out of her way with the paddles—hitting me in the crotch—and forced me into the bush.
Step Aside (v2.0)
When hiking, the person moving downslope always gives right of way to the hiker scrambling uphill. Why? The person drudging uphill, carrying a full pack and cursing every painstaking step, deserves to be given this courtesy. It’s as simple as that.
Proper group dynamics dictate we travel as fast as our slowest member. That’s not the case, however, when you come upon another group. If you’re holding up other hikers, bikers or paddlers, move off the trail and let them pass.
Cairn vs. Inukshuk
I’ve never understood why some hikers find joy in knocking over rock cairns that are used to mark the trail or notable summits. Some justify their actions by believing there should be no manmade structures in the wilderness. Some just do it because they’re bored. I’d say these hooligans might have a point when it comes to countless replica Inuksuit; I’ve toppled a few of those myself. But navigational rock cairns should be left untouched.
Be Smart with Smartphones
You may be excited about getting cell coverage during your trip—but that doesn’t mean your campmates feel the same way. Keep the phone conversations and photo sharing to a minimum, and be discreet. Conserve your batteries for a possible emergency and unplug for once in your life.
The second-worse offence of portage etiquette is loitering at the put-in or take-out. When you reach the end of the trail, make sure to place your canoe and gear well off to the side. It’s also the worst place to stop and spread out for a lunch break. Last year, I met up with a youth group in one of these places. I tried manoeuvring through the crowd to place my canoe in the water but ended up tripping on their gear. I reminded them of the “no loitering” rule. The leader responded with, “I don’t see any sign saying we can’t loiter.”
Don’t Pee on the Blueberries
If you need to pee, do it well off the trail, at least 100 metres from any water source—and away from any berry patches. (Not everyone knows this rule, which is why you should never gather water, or snack on a patch of blueberries, where a trail or portage meets the water.)
Lost & Found
If you happen to find a piece of gear along the trail, place it at the closest access point. If it’s important to them, they’ll come back looking for it. I’ve helped recover waterbottles, fishing poles, paddles, PFDs, packs, pocketknifes, rain tarps, tents, party members and pet dogs.
Kindling & Karma
My 10-year-old daughter believes in karma. That’s why her and I always leave a pile of kindling (with pieces of birch bark tucked underneath) by the fire pit before we leave each campsite. Imagine arriving at a campsite—cold and miserable from a long day of trekking in the rain—to find a stack of dry kindling placed there just for you. It is a magical moment. Just make sure you do the same before you leave.
Pack In, Pack Out
This is a simple rule. But it’s also one that campers break far too often. The moment they realize they’ve brought too much food or when their cheap lawn chair breaks on the second day out, the dark woods quickly become a temptation. This is when campsites become eyesores and bears become nuisances. The answer to this issue is simple. Pack out what you pack in. No questions, no compromises.
Some view a campground as an open-concept hotel; a mini-city in the wilderness complete with yapping dogs and bratty kids. That is why so many of us prefer to escape to the interior to pitch our tents. Don’t be a noisy neighbour out there. Your site may be across the lake or down the trail, but voices can carry great distances in the backcountry. Be considerate to others who may prefer to listen to the echoing call of the loon at dusk, rather than your campfire sing-along of “Sweet Home Alabama.” (Or at least throw in a rendition of “Take Me Home Country Roads.”)
If there’s an outhouse, treasure chest, thunder box or pit-privy, use it. If there isn’t, dig up a few centimetres of forest duff, poop, and bury it. Make sure, however, you do your business at least 100 metres from a trail, campsite or water source. I was horrified when my brother-in-law, on his first canoe trip, pooped right on a portage! I asked why he would do such a thing. “I had to poop,” was his answer. I haven’t gone on a canoe trip with him since.
Say “Hello” to Strangers
Fewer people are saying “hello” to one another out there. I find this absurd. The problem with ignoring others—besides being characterized as brash and unmannerly—is that you never know if you’ll later need their help. During one late-October canoe trip, I had three yahoos paddle past and not bother to return my gesture of hello. Not long afterwards, they capsized in the middle of the lake. The air temperature hovered just above freezing and none of them were wearing lifejackets. I rescued the misguided youth and brought them ashore to dry off at my campfire. There, they finally said hello.
This article originally appeared in our Summer 2015 issue.