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Planning an outdoor getaway? Keep in mind the rules before hitting the trail
Always use established fire rings when camping and make sure the fire is completely out when you leave camp. According to Elisabeth Pinion, resource manager at Amicalola Falls State Park, this is best done by smothering it with loose dirt and slowly adding water.

As days cool off and leaves begin to change, North Georgia’s campgrounds begin to fill.

And with the crowds come some problems.

You’ve packed up your family for an outdoor getaway, but at 11 p.m. the neighbors still are blasting music from their radio. You take your kids on a hike planning to enjoy the beautiful wilderness only to find empty water bottles and bags of chips littering the trail. You wake up one morning ready to start a campfire to cook breakfast, but you find that breakfast has been strewn all over your campsite because you left your cooler out and a wild animal tore it apart.

Enjoying the outdoors is best done with a few guidelines in mind. And the type of camping you’re doing — be it "front country" at a popular state campground with well-established campsites or "back country" where it’s just you and the woods — is important to take some basic rules into consideration.

Campground crowds

For front-country camping, the sheer number of people causes challenges.

"I think one of the more important (rules) would be noise," Ellen Graham, resource manager at Unicoi State Park said. "Paying attention to quiet hours because when you’re in a community setting that’s very important ... the quiet hours are to make everyone happy."

Other guidelines can vary from site to site, such as pet leash rules and the maximum number of campers and vehicles allowed per site. Elisabeth Pinion, resource manager at Amicalola Falls State Park, advised campers should contact individual parks about what the specific rules may be.

One well-known but often disregarded guideline relates to litter.

"Our biggest problem is litter, believe it or not," Pinion said. "Whether its an inadvertent dropping of a water bottle or a camper that left a cooler out on a picnic table and a raccoon got into it and ended up getting candy wrappers all over a camp site, the biggest problem that we have is litter. And that’s parkwide."

Litter not only compromises the beauty of a park, but it also can draw wildlife, which can be a bigger problem. This especially happens with coolers left unattended.

"We’ve definitely had situations where people don’t necessarily understand how important it is to store their food properly," Pinion said. Wild animals will try to pry their way into coolers that are left unattended."

She advised campers to keep food in cars if nearby.

Other activities that may draw unwanted wildlife include rinsing out dishes in a nearby stream or throwing garbage in a fire ring.

Protecting wildlife is often a motivation for camp rules, but protecting the environment in general is also important. Novice campers may want to collect firewood from the area, pick a wildflower or take home a few rocks, but Pinion warned against this behavior.

"If every single person were to come and pick a flower or take a rock then there would be very little left for the public to enjoy," she said. "All of those organisms and all of those things are there for a purpose, and so the less that we impact them the better off they are. It’s just better for the park and the ecosystem altogether to leave it as it’s found."

Pinion said at Amicalola, campers are encouraged to follow the Leave No Trace principles. These guidelines were developed by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics "to help others to learn how to minimize their impact when they’re in the outdoors," according to Sara Close, membership and development manager at Leave No Trace. The guidelines provide information about how to lessen any negative effect on the environment.

Other rules to keep in mind include making certain your campfire is out before you leave. This is best done by smothering it with dirt and slowly adding water.

"Don’t just leave it and think it will burn out, or don’t just throw some dirt on top of it and then just walk away from it and assume it will eventually go out," Pinion said. "Make sure before you leave the site that the fire is completely out."

Also, make sure children younger than 16 use a helmet when riding bikes around a campground, and be sure you pick up after your pets. Another way to ensure you have a stress-free outdoor getaway is to make a reservation ahead of time by contacting the park.

"It’s helpful if people always ask for a copy of the rules or regulations when they check in," Graham added.

Wilderness challenges

Camping in the back country may provide a more authentic wilderness experience, and back-country campers often are more educated about how to behave in the wilderness. But the back country also is best enjoyed with some guidelines in mind.

Established camp sites may not be available, but if they are, use them. If not, pick a durable place for a campsite, somewhere you won’t trample fragile vegetation. Sarah Folzenlogen, education programs coordinator at Leave No Trace, said to keep in mind the number of people in your party and how many nights you plan to stay. One night may not impact the area too much, but the longer you stay, the more damage you’re likely to do and the longer it will take for the site to recover.

A campsite in the wilderness, of course, means your car isn’t close. So storing food away from your camp and out of reach of wild animals is important. Hang it at least 10 feet up in a tree and about 6 feet out from the trunk to protect it. Many areas along the Appalachian Trail have pulley systems set up just for this purpose, Pinion said.

Folzenlogen also emphasized reducing impact on the hiking trails themselves. No matter how tempting, it’s best not to make shortcuts across a winding trail or step around barriers in the trail such as puddles. This can widen the trails and create erosion, increasing the negative effect on the environment.

A more authentic wilderness experience also likely means there are no nearby restrooms.

Pinion advised that in most areas in North Georgia, digging a "cat hole" is appropriate. However, make sure it is 6 to 8 inches deep and it is 200 feet from camp, trails and any water source. Also, packing out used toilet paper can be a good idea, especially in popular areas, to keep the woods free of toilet paper litter that resurfaces with erosion or is dug up by animals. Seal it in a simple plastic bag and throw it away later.

Guidelines may be different in other parts of the country with different ecosystems. For example, Close noted that cat holes should be more shallow for desert areas since organic material is concentrated in the top of the soil, closer to the sun. Be sure to check with park officials on the best way to dispose of any trash. Other ecosystems also may be more fragile such as in alpine areas, and more caution must be taken when camping or hiking.

"See what the rules and regulations are that are already in place in that area," Close said.

No matter how you like to enjoy the outdoors, keeping others in mind is important.

"Sometimes you might be out on a trail or out camping somewhere with some friends and the site gets really crowded or the trail gets really crowded," Folzenlogen said. "And you may be thinking ‘I came out here to get away from people,’ but at the same time everyone’s using the same area. People come out there for different reasons."

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