Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Adirondack Lean-to Etiquette

Lean-tos are three-walled shelters scattered throughout the backcountry of the Adirondack Park. Typically, they are conveniently located near picturesque lakes, ponds or streams. They are often convenient substitutes for tents (except during bug season) and especially popular with backpackers on a rainy day. Unfortunately this popularity often leads to overuse and sometimes downright abuse.

For example, this past summer I visited and revisited the Sand Lake lean-to within the Five Ponds Wilderness during a bushwhacking trip. Over the eight-day period the lean-to went from clean and well-kept to having garbage strewn within the fireplace and abandoned equipment scattered all about.

Obviously there is a need for some rules of lean-to etiquette. These rules need to be adopted and promoted by all backcountry adventurers. They should be posted on an attractive sign in a prominent place on each lean-to to remind those users that seem to forget their obligations when visiting the backcountry.

Below are my suggestions for some basic standards of conduct around lean-tos. These guidelines can act as a basis for lean-to etiquette while camping at these shelters in the backcountry of the Adirondacks via its extensive trail system.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC) guidelines specific to the use of lean-tos on state land is a good place to start developing rules of lean-to etiquette. These guidelines pertain to the use of the structures relative to other backpackers and hikers.

The first DEC guideline states lean-tos are available on a first-come, first-served basis. There is no system available to reserve a specific lean-to. This also precludes “calling” one at the trailhead.

The second DEC guideline is that no exclusive use of lean-tos is allowed; they must be shared with others. This rule should be referred to as the kindergarten rule, since that is where most of us should have learned it. Typically, lean-tos can accommodate up to six individuals, although some can easily fit more. Courteous campers should always offer to share the lean-to with others. From my experience few ever accept this offer regardless of how heartfelt it is delivered.

Many of the other DEC rules governing the use of state land can be applied specifically to lean-to use for the purpose of establishing proper etiquette. These rules include packing out everything packed in, not vandalizing state property, the burning garbage and cutting only down and dead wood.

“Pack it in, pack it out” has long been the motto of the leave no trace movement. The implications of this are clear with regards to lean-tos: under no circumstances should anything be left in a lean-to when vacated. This includes any leftover food, candles, matches, aluminum foil or any other equipment regardless of its possible utility to future occupants. Although these considerate individuals probably convinced themselves the goodies being left behind are for the benefit of others, the true motivation is to lighten their own load instead.

Proper lean-to etiquette requires leaving a clean and orderly shelter upon your departure. If anything is present in the lean-to upon arrival then consider packing it out. If a broom is present, consider sweeping out any natural debris or dirt that may have accumulated.

Many lean-tos have a register in the form of a bound notebook. These notebooks are available for writing one’s thoughts or registering one’s progress on a trip. They tend to be maintained by volunteers from the Adirondack Mountain Club; the same individuals who maintain and clean the lean-tos.

Although the registers are present for share one’s thoughts or impressions, proper etiquette would dictate keeping the musing appropriate for a general audience. Vulgar and other inappropriate language (or thoughts) should be avoided since it is impossible to anticipate who may read it at a future date.

Under no circumstances should any pages be ripped out of these registers. These bound notebooks tend to lose pages when even a single one is removed. A courteous hiker brings an ample supply of toilet paper on even the shortest hikes, or uses a natural substitute if necessary. Save the paper for writing and come prepared.

Carvings on walls appears to be a favored activity at lean-tos. These carvings can provide some amusement to anyone bored on a rainy day. Unfortunately, this activity is nothing more than a romanticized form of vandalism. Although some have artistic merit, the carvings are often idiotic and often unsightly (or down right vulgar). Instead of defacing public property these individuals should be out enjoying the outdoors, presumably the reason for visiting the lean-to in the first place.

Avoid burning garbage in the fireplace, if at all possible. Although paper can be burned; plastic, aluminum foil, glass and tin cans are not completely combustible, except in the most intensely hot fires. It is best to just pack out what is packed in. Do not leave half-burned garbage in the fireplace for someone else to deal with at a future date.

Lean-tos are public property and therefore any activity not typically performed in public should be avoided. If any activity requiring privacy or potentially embarrassing to oneself or others is anticipated, including any romantic trysts, please find a remote campsite off the trail. Almost everyone will be happy you did.

Do not build any permanent extensions or enhancements to the lean-to. Tables, chairs or shelves have no place in a lean-to. Leave the construction to the professionals. If you find yourself with extra time on your hands then go for a hike, watch birds or go fishing.

Good lean-to etiquette extends beyond the structure itself. Since the area around the lean-to is a high-use area, extra care is needed to prevent it from becoming any more degraded than is absolutely necessary.

When getting up in the evening due to nature’s call, please be considerate of present and future occupants by journeying a significant distance away before urinating. Of course, this applies mainly to the male half of the human race, since the other half probably uses the more convenient privy or outhouse. Seeking a safe distance from the lean-to is especially important in the winter time. No one wishes to see a mine field of yellow snow surrounding the lean-to when looking for some snow to melt for water.

A different residue is more of an issue in the summer months. Although I commend anyone practicing proper backcountry hygiene by brushing their teeth twice a day, it is especially important to spit out the toothpaste a great distance away from the lean-to. After spitting out the toothpaste be sure to dilute the resulting mess with some extra water, if possible. If there is no water to spare, pee on it instead.

Only dead and downed wood should be used for burning. Many lean-tos are often surrounded by numerous stumps where individuals decided to burn standing trees. This activity is illegal everywhere on public land but it is especially unsightly when frequently practiced around lean-tos.

The above are some suggestions for those desiring to show the proper backcountry etiquette around the many lean-tos in the Adirondack Park. Practicing these basic guidelines should result in a better experience for all yet minimizing the impact on the surrounding area.

Photos: Wolf Pond, Sand Lake and Big Shallow Pond Lean-tos by Dan Crane.

Related Stories


Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.




One Response

  1. Tom says:

    I agree fully with these guidelines. One item often left behind is a portable grate for cooking on a fire. No one appears to want to pack these out once they are used. I suppose if we find them we should pack them out ourselves; the more clean lean-tos people encounter, the more often they might leave them that way.