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12 National Park Etiquette Rules You’re Probably Breaking

12 National Park Etiquette Rules You’re Probably Breaking

We really love and appreciate national parks, so we try to be on our best behavior when we visit them. Unfortunately, not everyone feels that way, or maybe they just don’t know any better. There are some definite do’s and don’ts for visiting national parks, and some of them are unwritten. 

Let’s examine some of these rules of etiquette and see if you need to clean up your act at these outdoor treasures.

National Parks Have Rules to Protect Plants, Wildlife, and You

These parks are public, so it’s true that your tax dollars help make them possible. However, we still consider ourselves guests rather than acting like we own the place.

Ultimately, these special lands belong to the plants and animals that live there full-time. The national parks have rules to keep their natural residents and visitors safe.

What Visitors Should Never Do at National Parks

Some Rules Aren’t Obvious. Others Are Common Sense.

For most park visitors, it’s a no-brainer to not litter, feed animals, or set up camp just anywhere you like. Certain regulations are obvious and are no surprise when you see them listed on a sign or website. 

Other rules and general guidelines may be something you hadn’t thought of before, but they make sense, too. They’re not mandatory but are good practices to follow–we consider them park etiquette.

Woman sitting in national park
Respect nature and other people enjoying it by following national park rules.

What Happens When You Break a National Park Rule

A national park’s written regulations are enforceable like any other federal law. Some are felonies while others are misdemeanors, which carry less severe penalties.

Depending on the seriousness of the offense, several things can happen. Rangers can kick you out of the park and maybe even ban you for a time. You could pay a fine or if the action is serious enough, you could even go to prison.

There can be other consequences, as well. You might cause serious damage to a sensitive natural resource, for instance. You can also ruin or diminish the experience for other visitors or maybe even hurt yourself or lose your life.

This might sound extreme, but easily preventable deaths do happen at national parks. Besides incidents like bear or bison attacks, these include fatal falls from cliffs or wading illegally into dangerously hot geothermal pools. 

Tom sitting on ledge in a national park.
Be careful to not disturb ecosystems while exploring national parks.

What Happens When You Break Etiquette Rules

There may also be repercussions for not following some of the unwritten rules of visiting national parks. You won’t have to pay a fine or go to jail, but you might ruin the experience for others. If you’re not careful, you can unwittingly disturb areas that are delicate ecosystems for plant and animal life.

12 National Park Etiquette Rules You’re Probably Breaking

Proper etiquette is generally defined as using good manners. Another way of looking at it is using common courtesy when spending time at a national park. Here’s a list of 11 bad behaviors we see way too often at parks. How many of them are you guilty of?

1. Stepping Off the Trail for that Perfect Picture

Photos are important because they can help you relive your memories. You might think you can better frame that shot if you take a few steps off the path or other designated area. But getting that better angle can harm plants, animals, or their habitat. 

You might also step onto unstable ground and lose your footing. It can be downright dangerous to leave the path. 

2. Shouting or Yelling from Overlooks to Hear Your Echo

Overlooking a canyon or peering into a cavern, you might be tempted to holler, scream, or whistle so you can hear the echo. Yeah, it’s fun for a moment, but it’s better to resist that impulse. It may seem harmless, but such a sudden, loud noise can alarm animals and even cause rocks to fall.

3. Throwing Rocks Off Ledges

Sometimes, you might have the urge to throw a rock into a ravine or gorge. Don’t do that either because you don’t know what’s below. Imagine yourself on a backcountry hike or scaling a bluff when a rock comes whizzing down from seemingly nowhere. This indiscretion could seriously injure a person or animal. 

Pro Tip: If you’re a stickler for the rules, make sure to follow these 20 Golden Camping Rules Every Camper Should Know.

4. Approaching or Feeding Wildlife

Don’t feed the animals – even if they’re really cute and look very hungry. When wild animals get used to humans feeding them, they lose the ability to provide for themselves. Besides disrupting a natural balance, you’re probably giving them food that’s not good for them. 

Another good reason for keeping a safe distance is that they may attack you. Even seemingly harmless animals like deer can become very aggressive if they’re used to humans feeding them, and you don’t bring any food with you. 

woman standing too close to wild big horn sheep
Keep your distance from wildlife; you never know when they may feel threatened.

5. Playing Music on Portable Speaker for All to Hear

It might be your jam, but we don’t want to hear it. Believe it or not, lots of people enjoy nature’s own soundtrack. They’d rather do some deep listening of birds and insects, a coyote’s howl, or breezes rustling through the forest. If you have to hear your tunes, keep the volume low or put in earbuds.

Absolutely grab that photo, but move along quickly so the next person can do the same. Treat this experience like you’re waiting in line to meet a celebrity author at a book signing. Don’t butt in line, and don’t waste time. In other words, don’t spoil everyone else’s special moment.

7. Taking Up More Than One Parking Spot/Bad Parking Job

With more people visiting national parks than ever, finding a parking spot is already difficult. Don’t add to the problem by selfishly (or carelessly) taking more space than you need. Stay within the lines and don’t overlap. 

Also, don’t take one of the larger spaces reserved for RVs unless you’re in an RV or other oversized vehicle. These spots are limited to start with and have virtually no other parking options.

Tom and Cait posing in national park.
Leave the wilderness behind in the wilderness! Don’t take souvenirs, other than photos, from national parks!

8. Don’t Pick Plants, Feathers, or Rocks

Don’t take any natural souvenirs. Even small actions like removing plants, twigs, bird feathers, or rocks can have a detrimental effect on habitat. Leave them where they lie. A healthy ecosystem for plants and animals depends on things being left alone. 

Pro Tip: Looking for a unique national park experience? Explore one of these 6 Out of the Way National Parks That Are Worth the Extra Effort.

9. Don’t Build Rock Cairns

Those stacks of flat rocks, called cairns, look cool and are probably fun to create. However, they serve a valuable purpose because they mark established trails or significant places along a trail.

Making new piles of rocks causes confusion among hikers, and someone could get lost. Displacing rocks alters the natural scenery, too, and can even lead to erosion.

Rock cairns help guide hikers, so don’t build your own!

10. Having Video Calls or Speakerphone Conversations on Trail or at Viewpoints

Please don’t assume anyone else wants to eavesdrop on your phone call or video session. We hate to hear other people’s phone conversations anywhere, but especially in outdoor settings.

This one’s so rude it might even lead to trail rage. There’s a good chance your loud conversation will drive away wildlife, too.

Cait hiking in national park
Enjoy the quiet, peaceful sounds of nature while exploring national parks.

11. Not Moving Over to Let Others Pass on Trail

On crowded trails, it’s good hiking etiquette to give fellow hikers a quick hello or a friendly nod. More importantly, step aside to let faster walkers pass.

Traditionally, you’ll step to the right and let them pass on your left. Also, give the right of way to hikers going uphill. In other words, if there’s two-way traffic on a slope, let them go up first.

Let faster hikers behind you pass – don’t block them in.

12. Taking Rocks from National Parks

This may sound strange and harmless, but you’d be surprised how many people take rocks from national parks as souvenirs of their journeys. Rockhounding and collecting rocks is generally prohibited in national parks, especially in sites of historical or geological significance. Just think, if half of Mt. St. Helens’ 750,000 annual visitors took home a souvenir volcanic rock, there would be a significant dent in the mountain!

Don’t take rocks home with you from the national parks. If you find a cool specimen or fossil, leave it be, snap a picture, and leave it for the next explorer to discover.

Don’t Be That Person; Help Keep Everyone’s Experience Enjoyable

This may seem like a lot of rules to follow for going to a park, but it makes it more fun for everybody. Hopefully, you’ve been following most of them already, if not all of them.

The number-one rule for visiting national parks is to have fun, of course–just try not to do it at the expense of others trying to enjoy the same public space.

What rules do you see being broken the most often in national parks? Tell us about it in the comments below!

8 Favorite National Parks in 2 years of Travel | Mondays with the Mortons S3E8

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About Mortons on the Move

Tom & Caitlin Morton of Mortons on the Move gave up the stationary life for one where they are constantly on the move. They are full-time travelers, television hosts, and digital media producers.
They left their jobs, sold their house and possessions, and hit the road in September 2015 in their full-time “home on wheels”. Since then they have traveled the US, Canada, and even internationally by RV.
Now, they are Discovery Channel & PBS TV Co-stars of The RVers, producers of “Go North” on Amazon Prime, co-founders and instructors of RV Masterclass, and contributing authors for Hwy.co and an Arizona travel guide.

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Skip Clements

Wednesday 30th of November 2022

Yes playing music very loudly or at all. I can hear that at home or in my truck IF I CHOSE!! I've been so tempted to grab the boom box and throw it in the water. Why don't the rangers do something about it?

Tim

Tuesday 29th of November 2022

Good article ! What I find disturbing is those who visit our national parks, like the ones we have here in Utah, and deface the rock formations with graffiti . Like who even brings a can of spray paint in their backpack to do this? What kink of people will leave a dirty diaper on the side of a trail? Baffles me. Our parks like Arches and Zion get this all the time.

Suvane

Tuesday 29th of November 2022

Whether you’re at a park or a parking lot, if u see a piece of trash pick it up leaving "the place" better then u found it

Ginette Desrosiers

Tuesday 11th of January 2022

Using metal tips on trekking poles. Though not technically illegal, it's frowned upon for the damage they do.

Caitie

Wednesday 22nd of December 2021

Number 8 is not just bad etiquette. It is a federal crime to remove plants, feathers, rocks, or anything else from a national park! I see the happen all too often. We need to spread the word it is a serious crime, not just bad etiquette!

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