The Essential Guide to Camping Etiquette

6 Min. Read
Friends toast at a tent illuminated by solar lights.

There are nearly 88 million camping households in the U.S., and if you’ve camped in recent years it may seem like not everyone is playing by the same camping guidelines or even following basic camping etiquette. Are you guilty of breaking some of the golden rules of camping?

If you’re unsure about the camping regulations where you’re recreating, always be sure to review the guidelines online before you go. You can also check the posted signage at the campground or chat with a ranger or camp host so you’re up-to-date about anything that might have changed, such as a recent fire ban. But when it comes to camping etiquette and being a respectful camper, some of the “rules” aren’t always as straightforward.

The Golden Rules of Camping

Whether you’re getting ready to go car camping or heading out in the wilderness to a remote backcountry campsite, take a minute to brush up on some of the dos and don’ts of camping. After all, you don’t want to be “that camper” who impacts your neighbor’s experience or the wild space you’re visiting. 

A woman uses multiple buckets to do camp dishes at a campsite
A multi-bucket system helps make doing your camp dishes at your campsite
easier. | Photo: Josh Miller

1) Follow Leave No Trace

Nobody likes to arrive at their campsite to see the previous tenants’ trash scattered about or half-burned in the firepit. Make sure to dispose of all trash and recyclables in the provided bins and practice the “pack it in, pack it out” mentality. If it’s something that you wouldn’t find naturally in the space you’re in, make sure it gets picked up, packed out, and properly discarded.

When it comes to cleaning camp dishes in an eco-friendly way, it’s best to do your dishes in your camp and dispose of the strained dishwater in the provided drains or by scattering it. Don’t do the dishes from your giant, one-pot-feeds-everyone spaghetti dinner in the bathroom sink or nearest water spigot.

Practicing sustainable camping and Leave No Trace principles is one of the most important things you can do to guarantee preserving the natural places you’re adventuring in.

A camper sets up their tent in a flat, well-established campsite in Canyonlands National Park
A camper sets up their tent in a flat, well-established campsite in the backcountry of Canyonlands. | Photo: Mike Walton

2) Camp in Established Areas

Campsites at established campgrounds typically have a site number and tag identifying if the site is occupied, and for how long it’s occupied. Even if a site looks free, be sure to look to see if there are any tags in place indicating that someone is expected to arrive. Don’t be a site stealer.

Once you find an available site, or arrive at a site you reserved in advance, you’ll want to find an established tent spot. These areas will look well-worn, free of debris, and small plants or trees. 

Keep in mind that most campsites only have room for two tents and a maximum of 6-8 people per site, depending on the campground. If you have a large group, be sure you secure an adequate amount of sites for the number of people in your group, instead of trying to max out the site and put tents where they don’t belong and harming the surrounding natural environment. 

In the backcountry, the best campsite is one that’s already there. Being mindful of not stepping on plants and small trees while you’re setting up your site in undeveloped areas means the local flora will thrive and can be enjoyed by many more to come.

A group of people gathered around a camp fire at dusk in a scenic river canyon.
A group gathers around a campfire along California’s Tuolumne River. | Photo: Justin Bailie

3) Be Fire Smart

It’s no secret that some of the best camping memories are those made around the campfire. But we’ve all seen the increasingly devastating effects of wildfires across the country, so you should know before you go whether there are any campfire bans or restrictions where you’ll be camping and follow the regulations accordingly.

If campfires are allowed, make sure you’re building your fire in designated or established fire rings to keep the impact on the land to a minimum. When you’re done with your campfire, make sure everything is burned to ash and that it is thoroughly extinguished. Once cooled, scatter the ashes or pack them out so the next camper to come along doesn’t have to clean up your fire remnants.

If you are camping in an area where a fire ban is in effect, consider bringing solar-powered string lights or lanterns to bring ambiance and light to your camp.

A boy watches wildlife through binoculars
A boy watches wildlife from a safe distance through binoculars. | Photo: Justin Bailie

4) Leave Wildlife Alone

One of the great things about camping is getting the opportunity to witness the local residents in their native habitat. Always enjoy wildlife from a distance. Getting too close poses the threat of an attack, the spread of disease, and could put the animal at risk of harming itself if it tries to get away from you. Take pictures and consider bringing a pair of binoculars so you can view these majestic creatures without getting too close and interrupting their natural routine.

Under no circumstances should you ever feed the wildlife. Be sure you’re picking up any food scraps that drop and dispose of them properly, and make sure all food, wrappers, and trash are cleaned up and stored appropriately so as not to entice animals into your campsite. If you’re camping in bear country, make sure to be bear aware and use the bear box at your site, or bring bear canisters if you’re heading into the backcountry.

The Golden Rules of Camping
Evening guitar session around the campfire | Photo: Justin Bailie

5) Be a Respectful Camper

Being a respectful camper means being mindful of the fact that you’re sharing the outdoors with others. One of the things folks love most about being out in nature is getting away from electronics, so don’t blast your portable speaker if you want to listen to music at your campsite. Keep it at a reasonable volume so your neighbors can enjoy their peace and quiet, and always adhere to quiet hours. Noise control, in general, is something you should always be aware of; if you let your kids run around screaming or your dog bark non-stop, you’re going to ruin someone’s experience.

If you’re camping with pets it’s important to keep them on a leash for their own safety and for the safety of fellow campers and wildlife. Be sure to bring plenty of poop bags so you can keep the campsite free from pet waste for those who will use the space after you.

It’s also common courtesy to avoid walking through other people’s campsites. Being respectful of others’ space and gear means you might make friends with your new neighbors, rather than getting angry glances as you walk through someone’s outdoor home.

Looking for more camping tips and advice? Check out our Ultimate Guide to Camping, including car camping essentials, how to pack a cooler, menu planning, and more. 

The Ultimate Guide to Camping

*An earlier version of this post by Brigitte Lewis first appeared on the blog in 2015 and has since been updated

Kate Rhoswen

Kate Rhoswen is the Marketing Assistant for OARS. A storyteller through many mediums, she loves writing about the river and sharing her experiences with the world.

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