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How to be a Happy Camper

By Stan Taft

During more than 20 years as a Texas state park superintendent and ranger, I learned that not all of our visitors observe the fine points of outdoor etiquette. Knowing your rights and responsibilities is essential to having a memorable outdoor experience. The following 10 tips can help you and those around you to be happy campers.

1. Camp by the numbers.

After you check in and obtain your camping permit, be sure to set up in the campsite that was assigned to you. Double-check your number post, and don't change campsites without consulting with park management. That other site you want - which appears to be empty - may already be paid for. You can imagine how inconvenient it is to have to move your camping gear to another site, especially if you have already set up. Most parks will allow you to drive around the camping area when you first enter the park and make a list of campsites you like, then assign you to one that is available.

2. Don't bark up the wrong tree.

Axes and hatchets are essential elements of a camping experience, but they don't belong in a live tree, wooden lantern post or bollard. Chopping on a live tree is the ultimate insult. If you see someone doing that, call the park ranger immediately.

When visiting an older park, you may notice burn scars caused by hot lanterns hung on a nail that was driven into the tree. Be sure to use lantern poles if they are provided at your campsite. Otherwise, improvise a temporary means of hanging your lantern without driving nails into the trees. Think about it. A tree has skin, too. It's called bark. Putting a hot lantern against the tree's skin will kill the tissue and cause an ugly scar. A damaged tree also attracts insects, which can eventually kill the tree.

3. Avoid trespassing.

Respect the camping space of your neighbor. Remind members of your group to use park roads and trails and refrain from walking through neighbors' campsites unless they're invited. At parks with campsites next to the water, camping etiquette prescribes observing an imaginary line that runs to the shoreline. That space belongs to the people who rented that site - they probably paid a premium for it, and they are entitled to enjoy it in private. More than one problem has been caused by park visitors who violated that space and went fishing or wading in someone else's fishing hole.

4. Now hear this!

Keep campsite noise to a minimum, especially after 10 p.m. If you are with a group, plan to finish all noise-generating activities before park quiet time.

One morning around 1:30 a.m., I received a call at home that a disturbance was in progress. When I arrived at the problem campsite, I found two couples dancing on their picnic table to heavy-metal music with their boom box turned up full blast. Visitors go to a park to enjoy the sounds of nature, not somebody else's boom box. If you've got to bring a sound system, bring your headphones.

5. Keep pets under control.

If you bring your family pet, be sure it is secured while in the park. Pets must be kept on a six-foot-long leash at all times when outdoors. Pets are not allowed inside park buildings, and may not be left unattended while you are away from your campsite.

Some dog breeds are better campers than others. If your pooch is high-strung and doesn't enjoy being confined, or if it barks at neighbors all the time, perhaps it's best to leave it with a friend or at your local kennel.

On one occasion, an irate park visitor reported that two pit bulldogs had been running loose on the eight-mile trail at Huntsville State Park. He said that they had attacked his black Lab, and he wanted me to write the owner a citation. He further informed me that they could be found at the interpretive center. Indeed, I found the couple resting there with their two docile animals, secured with heavy-duty collars and a 11/2-inch-thick line about 15 feet long. They had allowed the dogs to drag the rope but never permitted them to roam free. I explained why I was there, and they complained that a man on the trail let his black Lab roam without a leash, and it had attacked their dogs. Both sides were wrong. I reminded our guests that in the future, they all needed to abide by the six-foot-leash law.

6. Light a campfire, not a bonfire.

Do not expect to cut firewood within the park. Inquire if firewood is available. Some parks have seasonal firewood-gathering areas. At others, firewood is for sale at the headquarters or nearby businesses. Be sure that the park you're visiting allows ground fires before building a campfire, and always use the fire ring provided.

When you build a campfire, remember to keep it small. Don't pretend you are at a homecoming rally. Fires that large can be dangerous.

Drown the campfire before you leave your site. Put it out completely, especially in areas with dried leaves or pine straw on the ground.

If you are using a charcoal grill, remember that hot coals will kill grass and burn people's feet. Almost every year, for the 15 years I worked at Huntsville State Park, I had to rush a child to the emergency room with severe burns on the feet because of a thoughtless visitor who dumped live coals on the ground around the picnic area.

7. Pick up after yourself.

Litter is a major problem in all parks. An outing is an excellent time to teach children to be environmentally conscious, and setting a good example is the best method. It's common to watch children come out of the park store, unwrap their gum or candy and leave a trail of plastic and paper. Unfortunately, some adults are guilty of the same thing. Leave your site cleaner than you found it. Many parks are short-handed, and it's impossible to check all campsites before a new user moves in. Lend a hand. Help the park staff keep the place looking good.

Please don't use your fire pit as a trash receptacle. It's OK to burn paper goods in your campfire, but bag all your solid waste and put it in the dumpster or garbage can.

8. Leave no sign you were here.

Pocket knives are important implements on a camping trip, but they are often used to carve names and initials on table tops, trees, fishing-pier rails and even park buildings. Please don't allow your children to misuse them.

Also, do not allow children to bring BB guns, slingshots, bows and arrows or fireworks into the park. That only invites problems and is against park rules.

9. Talk to the animals, but don't feed them.

Park rules prohibit visitors from feeding most animals. There are valid reasons for that. Feeding bears and alligators is inherently dangerous. Feeding squirrels or raccoons carries risks as well. These animals are not dainty: they tend to grab food with their paws and teeth. On more than one occasion an angry visitor has demanded that I find the squirrel that scratched or bit a child so it could be checked for rabies.

Squirrels normally do not carry rabies, but nocturnal animals such as raccoons, opossums and skunks are not normally seen during the day unless they are sick. Stay away from them and call a ranger.

Parks with alligators provide a pamphlet called "Alligator Etiquette." Read it and abide by those rules.

Not all snakes are bad. In a park setting, don't be caught playing the hero by killing a snake before you call the park ranger. It may be a diamond-backed watersnake, a hognosed snake or any of a number of other beneficial, non-venomous snakes. Venomous snakes cannot be tolerated in campsites, but let the ranger take care of the problem.

10. Drinking and drowning

Public consumption of alcoholic beverages is prohibited in state parks.

If you plan to swim or go boating, don't drink. It's that simple. When people under the influence of alcohol get in trouble in the water, they panic and become disoriented. The blood from their extremities rushes to their torso, and they lose control of their arms and legs. If someone isn't there to assist them, they have no way to come up for air, and they will drown. It's tragic, but we lose visitors every year when they drink too much alcohol and then go swimming or boating.

Stan Taft is a 23-year veteran of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, having served as a wildlife biologist in the Texas Panhandle, as a park superintendent/peace officer at Sea Rim State Park, Sabine Pass Battleground State Historical Park and Huntsville State Park, and as a conservation officer at Sheldon Lake State Park. He retired from state service in 1994 and lives in Conroe.

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