Camping Etiquette Bring your manners, but leave the soap behind

Several years ago I was asked to present a session on summer “fun,” in particular camping etiquette. I was temporarily shocked that someone would consider asking me to talk about fun and camping in the same sentence.

They obviously didn’t know that my idea of “roughing it” is drinking root beer from a can rather than served in a cup with ice. After gaining my composure, I respectfully suggested that we consider a broader topic on summer fun, one that may include a spectrum of outdoor play. I was kindly but firmly informed that this group was mainly and adamantly interested in camping.

What could these people be thinking? I couldn’t help wondering what they would think if they only knew that I swell up like a puffer fish at the very thought of being bit by a mosquito. Well, no matter, I was selected camp etiquette director, and I was going to do my job with dignity and grace.

With absolutely no experience of my own, I set out to interview seasoned camp enthusiasts. To my surprise I found that campers are all around me: tent campers, RV campers, day campers and wannabe campers. I compiled my etiquette list based on their feedback, as well as with the assistance of several campground hosts. (I never knew there was such a thing as a campground “host”— a person who is in charge of keeping the campground clean and safe.) With their vast knowledge and my personal thoughts, I compiled a list of commonsense camping etiquette rules. I apologize in advance if I offend any campfire aficionados.

1. Observe the “No Pets” policy. Everyone thinks their little poochie is special, and many seem to think the rule does not apply to them. Don’t try to sneak your little furry friend in, even if it is “only for a day or so.” If pets are allowed, please follow closely behind with a plastic bag and scooper and keep them on a leash. (By the way, just a reminder that this rule applies in your neighborhood as well.)

2. Use biodegradable soap or skip the soap when dishwashing, bathing and washing clothes. (camping. Are they kidding? Not using soap after a long, hot, sweaty day? If this is your option, please invest heavily in disposable hand wipes and use them all over your body.

3. Don’t cut down live trees for your nightly firewood. Even though the thought of roasting marshmallows around a campfire sounds like fun, chopping down a 200-year-old tree to make your s’mores may be sending the wrong message to the kids.

4. Burn only wood in your campfire. Empty suntan lotion bottles and disposable hand-wipe containers go into the industrial trashcans provided. So do hair spray cans and laminated copies of alternate vacation spots you decided against.

5. Respect the campsite’s quiet hours, typically from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. After a full day of swatting flies, hiking, gutting fish, wrestling bears and trying to stay clean doing it, who wouldn’t welcome an early bedtime? If you do, however, have the energy to stay up late and gather around the campfire, respect your neighbors by keeping your noise level down.

6. Don’t bother with sweetsmelling perfumes. I am told it attracts bugs, and why waste a good bottle of Chanel No. 5 on the insects?

7. Dress in layers. If you are camping someplace cool in the morning, like heaven, you can start off with several layers of clothing and peel them off as the day warms up. When the sun goes down and it gets chilly, you can put them all back on and be ready to start all over again tomorrow.

8. Be respectful of your and other people’s tent dwellings. Just as if you were entering someone’s home, check your shoes (or better yet, take them off) for debris (deer droppings — ugh) before entering someone’s tent.

9. Speaking of shoes, invest in a pair or 10 of cheap flipflops. Don’t be caught taking a soapless shower without them.

10. Refrain from removing tables from other campsites. Just because a campsite is vacant doesn’t mean you can help yourself to the empty table on another site. Remember what your mother taught you: “Always ask before taking something that doesn’t belong to you.”

11. Don’t forget bug repellent. I would also invest in netting — a lot of it!

12. Emphasize the accoutrements. The campsite meals should be pleasurable, so I suggest a good quality camp stove, colorful plastic utensils that can be easily rinsed off without soap (I’m really hung up on this soapless thing!), about 400 Swiss Army knives just to be sure to have one in the event of an emergency or to cut the Swiss Colony sausage, a hand-held can opener and lots of paper plates and napkins. Please note I mention nothing about toothpicks. Toothpicks are ghastly. If you get a squirrel bone or a boar hoof lodged in your tooth, simply excuse yourself and retreat to your tent. You may then proceed to floss like a wild animal. Toothpicks are used for checking cake or cleaning between narrow grooves on a kitchen table.

13. On the day of your arrival, check in early so you can set up your tent before it gets dark. You can also familiarize yourself with the area, trails and the lake. You will get all of the “must do’s” off your checklist early in the day so you can sit around in the evening and wait for the hungry wolves to come visit.

14. Relax. Don’t try to do everything. Enlist your campmates in dividing duties amongst themselves. Take a morning off to read, listen to tapes or do a little yoga. I can’t help but chuckle as I write this, imagining my own family trying to survive the outdoors without air conditioning, a microwave and soap while I am peacefully drinking a plastic cup of Earl Grey tea, listening to classical music on my iPod nano.

15. Before you leave, clean your campsite. We teach our children, when going to a “sleepover,” to respect other’s property and leave their friend’s room as clean or cleaner than when they arrived. This rule applies to the campsite as well.

Well, unbelievably to my surprise, while talking to camping enthusiasts about their experiences, I found that there are actually lots of sane, well-adjusted and intelligent people who love to be one with nature. They find solace in the fresh air and peaceful surroundings.

There was a microsecond when I actually considered a summer camping trip for the Gottsmans. I was so serious, in fact, that I was just about to make plans to rent an RV and hit the road with the family when I suddenly and sadly remembered that our trusted and loyal family pet, Slippery the Turtle, gets carsick. He unfortunately would never make it in an RV, so our family vacation got rerouted to a warm climate with a beach, hotel room and airline transportation. Slippery will stay behind with the neighbors.

I was only one turtle away from camping and the call of the wild. But I would absolutely have found a campsite where I could bring my own soap.

Diane Gottsman is director of the Protocol School of Texas and appears regularly on San Antonio Living on WOAI-TV.

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