Spring is in the air. Migrating birds are sweeping back through town, daylight hours are stretching long and a lot of hikers are obsessing over gear. Packs are being loaded, weighed, and unpacked again to remove a few items in an effort to save weight. Spreadsheets are being created, gear forums bookmarked, and food carefully packed into Priority Mail boxes. All good stuff, but I want to talk about an underrated aspect of preparing for a long hike. Trail town etiquette.
On an adventure long enough to require a resupply, you’re bound to (at least occasionally) find yourself “in town”, among the still-domesticated members of our species. Stepping back into civilization after a week on trail, you may feel like a bit of an outsider. There, all these people have been living their conventional lives, but YOU, dear adventurer, have been out in the wilderness! Sleeping in the dirt, getting gnarly tan lines and developing an odor reminiscent of the wildlife that sniffs around your foodbag at night. Social norms in the context of backpacking are much different than the ones that most people grew up with, and once you start to let go of them, they’re hard to reassume. It’s easy to let yourself bring some of that stinky, devil-may-care “hiker flair” in places where it’s frowned upon to blow snot rockets or curse like a sailor (ex: restaurants, post office waiting areas, cars that you hitch rides to town in). While you may be proud of the lax hygiene standards that hikers embrace, people in town still appreciate common courtesy like shirts that don’t smell like the dumpster behind the pet store. Context is everything. Much like taking a shit, intense B.O. is magically way less noxious when experienced in the open air of intact wilderness, rather than the sterile, crowded confines of town.
So here’s a list of things I make a point to consider in an effort to lessen my impact on towns. Leave No Trace doesn’t apply only to the backcountry; as an ambassador to all hikers in front of and behind you, it’s your responsibility to lessen your impact in all areas of trail life. You only get treated nicely in town because hikers before you have worked to build bridges with the locals. Don’t be the jerk who ruins it for either end of the town/trail spectrum.
Wash yerself. Seriously, if you have the opportunity to clean up a bit before hitting the AYCE buffet, please do so. Sometimes that’s not an option, and I’ve definitely been guilty of not wanting to get a hotel room shower before stuffing myself full of deep-fried mayonnaise and corndog casserole, but if you can clean up before subjecting others to your rank odor, take advantage of it. At the VERY LEAST, wash your hands and face before sitting down. If paper towels are available in the restroom, I’ll sometimes wet a couple of them with sink water and give myself a quick scrub down. Obviously, don’t make a mess. Leave that restroom cleaner than you found it. Also, your mom called and said to remind you to scrub behind your ears.
Tip your server. I don’t care if you’ve watched a certain badass Quentin Tarantino movie featuring an iconic exchange on the ethos of obligatory tipping. Hikers may rack up a hefty bill at a restaurant, but money isn’t everything (translation: it doesn’t entitle you to act without consideration). Servers and cashiers have to interact with you, and any complaints from other customers or management will be filtered directly through them. If hikers routinely tip well (think at least 20%), employees are way less likely to be offended by our general dishevelment. Customers can complain about us looking like bums, but if those bums are making it rain on the server (and the rest of the restaurant staff by proxy, if they pool tips) we’ll continue to be welcomed with open arms at restaurants. Waitstaff are the front lines of the restaurant world, and we must bribe them to keep the peace. Consider it tithing to the gods of nourishment. If you have the money to spend on restaurant food, you have the money to tip generously.
Stack your plates/bus your own table when possible. If you’re like me, the aftermath of a restaurant visit will leave behind enough plates to make your table look like a war zone. Stacking your plates makes it easier for them to be bussed away, and is a nice gesture. Yeah, it’s their job to clean up, but it’s not your job to make anyone else’s job harder…and that type of behavior leaves a good impression. I’ve been in restaurants where servers complained about messy hikers before me, and that negative experience they had shows in the service I received. Don’t be a burden on waitstaff, be a considerate guest. Going above and beyond leaves an impression that keeps hikers welcomed in places we all need to visit.
Remember your inside voice? After all that time outside, you may not. If you’ve been hiking with other people and forced to shout over the wind to communicate, the volume of your voice may be cranked up a bit. Yodeling from mountaintops will do it too. When your group is suddenly inside a restaurant and the promise of food is looming on the horizon, bubbling excitement only makes our voices louder. But you’re inside a building now, so be mindful of the volume and content of your conversations. Also, while it’s perfectly acceptable to flex your curse word vocabulary or discuss bowel movement mishaps (BMMs) in the woods, mind your Ps and Qs when in the public sphere. The family sitting at the table behind you shouldn’t have to hear your F bombs.
Please, for the love of all things unholy, ask before filling a room with hikers (aka “stacking”). Some hotels don’t care about this practice, but many prohibit it. If a hotel requires all guests to be registered, don’t think you’re an exception to the rule just because your trail-name is Gypsy Freedom Spirit and “like, rules don’t apply to me, man” (same goes for you, Gandalf the Odiferous). I’ve had hotels on each of the Big 3 (AT, PCT, CDT) flat out refuse me service due to being an obvious backpacker. They assume that I’ll pay for just myself and then pack the room with freeloaders, splitting the cost of a two-bed unit with 7 other filthy derelicts. I’ve definitely done that, but only with the permission of the manager. Please don’t flout the rules of these establishments and sour them for all hikers behind you. Remember, you’re not a special exception, and as a representative of the hiking community you can cause irreversible damage to the relationships we’ve built with businesses along the trail.
When you check in, ask for an additional trash bag. As you purchase resupply foods and transfer them into your pack, you’ll quickly accumulate a mountain of packaging that will not fit into the tiny trashcans all hotel rooms seem to have. (What is this, a trashcan for ants?) Just get an extra trash bag right away and use it for all those cardboard boxes of Mac-n-cheese you’ll need to dispose of. Of course, you’ll also need extra garbage capacity for all that garbage food you’ll undoubtedly stuff down your gullet. The empty pizza boxes and pints of Ben and Jerry’s should go directly into that trash bag, not on the floor. Do you want ants? Because that is how you get ants.
When someone opens their home to you, it’s important to give back. Ask if there is a donation jar, and think about how this system works. If you were in a hotel, you’d be dropping some serious coin, so putting a $20 bill in that jar is a heck of a deal. If you can’t afford to donate, you don’t need to burden them with your presence in the first place. You can remain in the woods for free if your budget won’t allow a donation.
If they refuse money, offer your time. More than once. Insist. Most places have chores that need to be done, so roll up your sleeves and pitch in. I’ve mowed grass, vacuumed carpets and even fixed a leaky roof. Ask how you can help, and show your gratitude by pitching in. I always try to double down in showing my appreciation by giving money AND doing chores.
More and more places are banning alcohol on the premises, for very good reason. This doesn’t mean you need to become a teetotaler, but ASK before showing up with a six-pack. Don’t assume a trail angels house is like a hotel, where you’re free to get drunk and watch Dancing With The Stars all night. Respect the house rules, ask permission before assuming you can imbibe, and please don’t get wasted. Same goes for other intoxicants. Just because cannabis is legal doesn’t mean your hosts are comfortable with you smoking on their property. Get the green light before lighting up the devil’s lettuce.
I KNOW THIS WAS SUPPOSED TO BE ALL ABOUT TOWN ETIQUETTE ON TRAIL, BUT…
As the popularity of the long trails increases, you’re bound to run into people you wouldn’t necessarily associate with back at home. The trails are a microcosm of the regular world, but being that we’re all headed in the same direction on a narrow strip of dirt, you’ll have to engage with folks you might not usually associate with. Welcome to being an adult, kids. The trail (like the rest of world) sometimes isn’t so much a melting pot as it is a mosaic. If you find a certain individual’s personality traits abrasive or off-putting, either hike fast to put distance between you or take a day off and let them get ahead. The trail doesn’t revolve around you (what does, really?), so be responsible for yourself and use your feet and your brain to avoid conflict. Or take this opportunity to get out of your bubble and learn to relate to people that you normally wouldn’t, even if their life experiences differ from yours. Everyone you meet can be a learning opportunity, even if it’s “that’s not how I ever want to live”.
Every year I meet hikers whose sole mission seems to be getting laid. Both sexes do this, but it’s mainly men who get obnoxious about it. I know your hormones are raging and the main evolutionary driver of our species is to reproduce, but hitting on people constantly is sleazy, obnoxious, and generally unwelcome. The majority of people are out there to have a spiritual and emotional growth period, so be conscious of how your desire to mate will be received. Personally, I avoid looking for sexual encounters on trail, and in 15 years of thru hiking have only had a couple…and I didn’t instigate them. The trail is long, but extremely narrow, and getting a reputation for “pink blazing” will only build a barrier between you and others. Even though by nature we are all sexual animals (that’s how we ended up with over 7 billion people on this planet) be mindful of your impact on others.
Electronic devices are a part of most people’s lives, but not everyone wants to hear your phone conversations or music choices. If you need to use the phone, step away from earshot. Use headphones if you enjoy hiking with music and leave the external speakers at home. If I run into one more person blasting Justin Bieber from speakers mounted to their pack I’m gonna hike 10 feet in front of them and scream Weird Al songs until they cry. Don’t tempt me–I know all the lyrics.
Since headphones are so common these days, they get a second mention on this list. It’s a good idea to only use one earbud while hiking for a couple reasons. One, you want to be able to hear a rattlesnake shaking his tiny maracas before you get too close for comfort. Having both earbuds in isolates you from warning sounds nature so generously gives us. Two, you want to be able to hear others who are coming up behind you. Not only faster hikers but also trail runners, cyclists, ATVs, etc. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to shout when coming up upon a slower hiker, and sometimes they don’t even hear that. I generally end up tapping them on the shoulder and scaring the bejesus out of them. Unless you like cleaning crap out of your shorts, try to avoid putting yourself in situations where it might get scared into them.
Go buy the book “Soft Paths” and read it. Then read it again. We all need to take Leave No Trace ethics seriously, and that subject is too deep to get a quick rundown in this post. Familiarize yourself with LNT ethics and be proud that you’re respecting the common treasury of the trail.