Monday, April 16, 2012

Learning to share in the backcountry

I've been sitting on this story for a while now - mostly out of fear of offending people.  The topic is fresh on my mind though after a successful backcountry experience this weekend at one of the Alpine Club of Canada Huts.  The full story of our adventures at the Elk Lakes Cabin will be coming later this week when I get my plethora of photos organized. 

Have you ever stayed in a cabin with a group of strangers and had a less than desirable experience where you wanted to send the whole lot of them back to kindergarten for a lesson on sharing and playing nicely?  I have!  I've had experiences I'd like to forget in cabins, huts, and wilderness hostels all over the Canadian Rockies.  And I know I'm not alone.  Just today I was asked about our weekend from a leery mom who's had bad experiences in the past that have left her scared to bring her children to another hut.  That's really sad considering that both the Alpine Club of Canada and Hostelling International pride themselves on being family friendly.  Check out the photo below as proof - you've seen it before on my blog.  The Alpine Club is currently using it in their campaign to attract more families to their huts.  The caption in one publication says, "This could be your family."  And that is my family in the photo below - at least the little boy in red pajamas.

Lake O'Hara, Yoho National Park

 In the hopes that this story goes far and wide, I present to you:    

Group Etiquette 101.

 One - Cook together as a group

We stayed at the Kananaskis Wilderness Hostel this winter with another family.  Friday night we also shared the hostel with a group of Girl Guides and Saturday night we got to share our cabin with a group of Boy Scouts.  The Girl Guide group was highly organized and the leaders took the lead on all of the cooking.   They'd prepared a huge breakfast casserole for the group before coming and Saturday morning had nothing to do but put it in the oven - simple, fast and easy.  The Boy Scout group on the other hand had no concept of organization.  The leaders sat back while 30+ teens all cooked individual meals for breakfast and dinner.  Have you ever seen 10+ people in a kitchen at one time?  I'm sure there was a bit of collaboration going on and maybe the leaders thought they were organized in appointing one teen to cook for two or three others, but how much simpler would it have been if they had prepared a huge batch of pasta for the whole group Saturday night?  Pancakes and sausage for everybody Sunday morning.

The bottom line - if you are sharing a cabin or hut with a group of 4+ people, cook together and free up the kitchen for other hut users.

A photo from the archives of our trip into the Tonquin Valley, Jasper National Park

Two -  Respect the sacred act of sleeping

I'll start with saying that if  you are sharing a cabin with a group of friends or strangers and you expect to get a good sleep - you are delusional.  If you want a zen-like sleep or want to sleep in until 10am, go to a spa for the weekend.  However, there are things each of us can do to make sleep easier for others.
  • If you snore (and don't give me the crap that you didn't know) admit it to the group before going to bed with an apology, pass out ear plugs to those who forgot to bring a pair, and perhaps think of some other way to redeem yourself.  (bringing extra alcohol, cookies, or brownies to share would be a good start.  Making fresh coffee for your hut-mates in the morning would be awesome!)
  • If your snoring is loud enough that it is driving people outside to sleep (I've seen it happen once at the Athabasca Falls Wilderness Hostel), you have no business sharing hostels or cabins with other people.  I'm sorry, but seriously, consult a doctor if your snoring is that bad.  As mentioned, I've only seen it once, but once was enough!  I live in fear forever going forward.  
  • If you have children that wake up early, plan some kind of quiet activity to occupy them in the morning.  We always bring a portable DVD player for our son and my husband has gone as far as to take my son into the kitchen of the Elizabeth Parker Hut at 5am, wrapped in a blanket, where the two of them sat on the cold hard floor and watched cartoons until the majority of the hut users were awake.  
  • Don't pack your stuff up while others are sleeping unless you have an early start and need to be out the door before 8am.  Otherwise, go have breakfast first, grab a cup of coffee, and go back to the sleeping area once others are mostly awake.  There will always be that one person who is trying to have a marathon sleep, but go with the majority. 
  • Be respectful of children trying to sleep.  If you want to play a loud card game or get drunk with your buddies, wait until all children are fast asleep.  Yes, I know, the parents chose to come to the hut and they knew they'd be sharing it with those who might not have kids.  Still - compassion people?  Live it,  study it, practice it!  (this goes for Boy Scout groups too playing Spoons outside the door where toddlers and babies are sleeping.  You are so lucky my friend didn't hurt you when you woke up her kids.  I assure you - she wanted to.)
The bottom line - Respect goes a LONG way in the backcountry.  The person you piss off at night might be the person who goes down to the creek and gets your morning water, lends you a tea bag, or picks up your child's dropped hat and carries it out to the parking lot for you. 

A photo from our trip to the Peyto Hut, Banff National Park

Three - If you are going to represent the majority - rent the whole facility!

Would you want to share a cabin with 35 children or teens if you weren't their parent, leader, or guide?  Or how about sharing a very small back country shelter with a private church group who takes over the whole cabin?  Neither scenario is fun but both have happened to us.  If you know that you are going to be booking more than half of the spaces in a cabin, hut or hostel, and especially if you have a group that will be less than desirable for others to share the facility with - just rent the whole space!  You can either absorb the cost of the extra spots you don't need or invite more people to come with you.  And don't even suggest that you are then being rude by hogging a place to yourselves and preventing others from coming and using the extra beds or rooms.  Trust me - nobody wants those extra spots!!  We had an amazing family weekend at the Elizabeth Parker Hut when a member of our local Alpine Club rented the whole cabin for our group. 
 It was a great trip because everybody staying in the hut had children and knew what to expect - little sleep, everybody going to bed early, and lots of noise.  We wouldn't have dreamed of making a single couple share the cabin with us.  This past weekend we stayed at the Elk Lakes Cabin and we also rented the full cabin.  It made us feel less uncomfortable when our children woke up in the middle of the night, chased each other around the loft screaming, or cried themselves to sleep.

The bottom line - Book as a group and enjoy your private cabin!  Play crazy card games until 2am, drink with your friends, stay up all night - whatever you want.  It's your cabin.  The Alpine Club of Canada actually offers group discounts for those making a private booking FYI.

Staying at the Hilda Creek Wilderness Hostel, Banff National Park (we booked the whole cabin)

Staying at the Mosquito Creek Hostel - We booked their private cabin for two families

What would you add to my list of group etiquette rules? 
Continue on to read part two which covers the issues of poaching, free-loading, mountain princesses, and family haters in the backcountry.


  1. I love this post! Good for you in writing it.
    I have never been to any of the cabins you speak of, but I have spend many a night camping and having someone stay up until 4am making tons of noise.
    Funny how some people just do not think about how their actions impact other people - hopefully it comes back to them in Karma at some point in time.

    1. Thanks Jenny. I could write another story on camping etiquette. Likely will closer to summer.

  2. 1st... When melting snow for water use, 1 bucket of snow DOES NOT equal 1 bucket of water, it's more like 8 firmly packed buckets of snow equals 1 bucket of water.
    2nd... Do not assume that someone else will burn your flammable garbage for you, if the fire's already out, then pack it out.
    3rd..Do not leave left over food assuming someone else will eat it, no one wants food of questionable orign.
    4th... Do more than you have to. Don't just wash your table, wash all the empty tables, take your turn with grey water, chop a little extra wood, leave the hut/cabin/hostel a little cleaner than you found it.
    Most off remember to have fun.

    Tanya, you should forward a copy of your post to the girl guides and the boy scouts if you know which troops they were.

    1. Thanks. I used number four in the sequel to this post. Watch for it tomorrow.
      I already contacted the Girl Guide group after our trip to tell them how awesome they were and how much we appreciated staying with them. Don't know which troop the Boy Scouts were with.

    2. As a user of backcountry huts/camps etc. I couldn't agree with you more. My son and I have made many trips and used ACC huts and have generally had great experiences. As a scout parent/leader for more that 15 years, we have campouts like you described the chaos that goes with scouting is by design. I have never taken scouts to such a facility unless they are older and have proven skills. When you comment that the adult leaders just sat back and watched - I was glad to hear they were doing exactly what they are supposed to do. I would guess the next trip the boys organized would be different. Scouting always has the boys leading themselves and the disorganization and chaos that ensues teaches them organization as a self taught lesson. The adults are there to help the boy leader with advice. However - Rule number one - use a group facility far away from everyone else. The scouts had no business being in a facility with others unless they have preven they can function well as a group elsewhere first.

    3. Thanks for writing Bruce. It's good to get some background information on Scouting. I'm glad to hear the boys are being taught leadership skills. I think standing back to watch as they are building a fort or a fire, trying to set up a tent, getting water from the river, etc. would be excellent. Just not sure standing back to watch while they make enough noise to wake the dead - and saying nothing - is the same thing. We also stayed with a group of girl guides the night before at the hut where meals were organized in advance and it was much more efficient. I think the kids should be involved in the cooking but it needs to be planned out so that total chaos doesn't follow - especially when sharing a facility - which as you mentioned, maybe they shouldn't have been doing.

      I think it's great that you are taking the time to mentor and teach young people to have an appreciation for the outdoors and that you are involved with such a great organization.

  3. You have beaten me to writing this post! :) I have also been sitting on this idea after having an equal amount of extremely pleasurable experiences and completely awful. When other hut users understand the etiquette, everyone enjoys themselves. My worst experiences have been with guided mountaineering groups (who shall remain nameless), mainly out of Bow Hut. I was always so shocked that the guides wouldn't be teaching the etiquette to their group (2 bunks per person leaving the rest of us sleeping in the common room?). I have always kicked myself for not speaking up, so I am equally at fault.

    The one item that I struggled with on your list here is about 'sleeping' and 'packing.' I always feel guilty packing up in the early morning hours for an alpine start and try to do as much as possible the night before. But, for me the huts are created to be a base for mountaineering, so if people are there to simply relax, they'll have to deal with my noise in the middle of the night. :)

    I think next time I'm disturbed by another person's actions, or see it affecting other hut users, I'll make sure to be the one that speaks up and kindly request that they consider the enjoyment of others. What else do you recommend me do in these situations?

    1. Meghan, I'm so sorry for any misunderstanding about the packing up in the morning part. I should have mentioned that alpine starts are a completely and totally different thing! I've done many mountaineering trips out of huts and I know how it works. You wake up early, sneak around trying to be quiet, you pack up the necessary gear (and as you mentioned, it helps if you're a bit organized the night before), have a small breakfast (if you eat at all - I often grabbed granola bars as I ran out the door popping chocolate covered coffee beans in my mouth as I went), and then set off on your climb.

      I've been in huts though on occasion when people weren't planning on being out of the hut till 9:00 (or later) and yet still had to pack up all their sleep stuff before others had woken up. It's my opinion that unless you are trying to get an early start, you begin your day with breakfast and leave the sleep area as soon as you wake up so that you don't disturb those still sleeping. Once it's 8am, I'm not terribly worried about waking people up because this isn't the Hilton after all. When our son wakes up at 6am, we get him out of the sleeping area asap and go somewhere else, even if it's into the kitchen so that we can be respectful of others.

    2. It's all good! I didn't intend to suggest that you weren't making that exception. Thanks again for a great post and I'm glad it's generating some discussion!

  4. Always split some dry kindling and leave it by the fire with enough dry split wood to get the fire fully going. To me that's not just respect it's recognition of the fact that a quickly lit fire can sometimes be important. It only takes 5 minutes.

    Please don't eat at 2am - especially crisps or other noisy snack food !

    If you have to take a pee during the night put your boots on and go to the can or walk a respectable distance from the hut. Peeing out the door or off the front steps is very unhygienic to say the least.

    I agree with Meghan - early starts are part of the back-country. 8am is sleeping in and wasting the daylight. Ditto also with anonymous - people go to the backcountry to get away from modern electronics. Try reading a book.

    Leave your boots at the door. Sweep the floor. Leave the facility in better condition than you found it. Do your share plus a bit extra. It doesn't take much.

    Lastly, if you prefer some peace and quiet - it may be worth planning your hut-based expeditions for the spring fall and winter.

    1. Thanks for responding. Good points. Forgot all about peeing outside the door - gross.
      Entirely agree that early starts are a part of being in the backcountry. I support mountaineering and alpine starts 100%. I won't be encouraging my three year old to be out the door by 6am quite yet though. Though since he wakes at that time, maybe we should boot him out the door and then I guess our DVD player wouldn't offend anybody. :)

  5. a backcountry hut is just a microcosm of the wider world.... we all need to try and get along, and recognize that we're all going to do things that annoy someone else in a confined space, and we never know what's going on beneath the surface of those we encounter..... someone who gets up early to cook a big (and noisy) breakfast may be a diabetic who can't go climbing on a handful of gorp, etc. i like chris's comment to "do your share and a bit extra." nice and simple!

    1. Thanks Karen. Took the words right out of my mouth.

  6. Yes, that is very simple advice and well said.

  7. This is a great post. I like that you find ways that work for your family to try and keep your early riser occupied and quiet. I bet if you let him play things would get rambunctious and noisy FAST!I know my guy would. A movie is a great idea, why not use the technology available to us? You don't see hikers with maps anymore, every has a GPS. A dvd player is easier to pack and provides more function than a lot of toys.