Hostel Etiquette: An Appalachian Trail Hiker’s Guide
It is my sincere hope that anyone who stays in a hostel has a fantastic experience, gets a good night’s rest, treats the hostel owner and other guests with respect, and walks away with a smile on their face. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. I received personal accounts and countless anecdotal tales from other hikers of hostel experiences gone bad during my research for this article.
Hostels are a delicate balance between comfort, affordability, and accessibility. These expectations aren’t always met when you have a random assortment of vagabonds inhabiting the same enclosed (smelly/ too hot/ too cold/ too damp/ too crowded/ too noisy) space, especially when everyone isn’t on the same page regarding hostel etiquette.
If you’ve ever stayed in a hostel and had a bad experience, you have my sincere condolences. Nothing is worse than paying good money for a bed and not getting to rest because of inconsiderate guests being loud, messy, rude, or otherwise obnoxious. If you’ve never stayed in a hostel and so aren’t sure what I’m talking about, take the information in this article to heart (with a sense of humor, of course) and avoid being an obnoxious a**hole on the occasion you do ever sleep in a hostel. If you’re one of those rude, obnoxious, inconsiderate folks mentioned above, by all means PLEASE do us all a favor and learn to behave yourself. I’ve put together a simple set of guidelines to help you get off on (and stay on) the right foot with your hostel experiences.
What is a hostel?
- an establishment that provides inexpensive food and lodging for a specific group of people, such as students, workers, or travelers.
A hostel, by definition, is generally geared toward a specific group. You can expect with reasonable certainty, that most of the guests at a hiker hostel will be hikers (and sometimes bikers of the motor-powered and human-powered variety). As a hiker, you share a demographic with most of these people: you’re weary, smelly, dirty, and hungry. You are expecting a few basic needs to be met: a place to clean up (maybe even a warm shower), a hot and filling meal, and a good night’s rest. It’s easy to get caught up in your own needs and not be concerned with those of others. The unique thing about hostels, however, is that they are group living/shared space environments. Unlike when you pay for a hotel room, paying for a bed in a hostel usually gains you access to shared sleeping quarters, dining areas, and toilet areas.
How to ensure you’re the biggest a** at the hostel
Do you want to guarantee being trail-named Nasty McNevershowers behind your back? Check into a hostel and hop into your bunk or go to dinner pre-shower. Even better if it’s been over 7 days since your last shower.
We all understand the enjoyment of breaking societal norms by not showering daily. It’s a part of hiking culture. However, there has never been a more ideal time to clean yourself up than when you are crowded into a bunkroom. You know what all those warm bodies create (other than heat, obviously)? Humidity. And you know what heat + moisture + your unshowered body create? If you didn’t guess “nausea inducing hiker stench” subtract two points. The other part of this equation is dining. Whether the meal is served in-house or you choose to hit the local brew-pub, take into consideration the dining preferences of the people around you. Most humans won’t appreciate being bombarded with the sweet scent of sweat-eating bacteria while chowing down on their quarter-pounder. True hostel etiquette: Even if you can’t smell yourself, assume that you stink and take a bath.
Want to know how to make even the most bomb-proof socialite hiker drop their jaw, flush their cheeks, stutter their sentences, and quite possibly run in the other direction? Hang out on the communal hostel sofa butt-a$$ naked for a while. Hell, sleep there. Besides, what better way to make sure you have an all-day pass to lounge around undisturbed while catching up on the latest news or reading your favorite novel?
If you know anything about me (which you probably don’t), you would know that I am a huge fan of human bodies. Bodies are wonderful, beautiful things made to be admired. However, no one, and I repeat NO ONE, should be forced to admire your sexy attributes unless they ask to see them. Do I really have to say this? DON’T BE NAKED IN SHARED SPACES! True hostel etiquette: The only acceptable locations in a hostel to be naked are a) the bathroom/shower and b) your private room if you’ve paid for such a thing. Don’t be naked in the bunkroom, in the kitchen, on the sofa, or in the front yard.
Do you want to make sure no one crowds your space in that teensy bunkroom? This one is simple: explode your pack all over the floor around your bunk. Need more space? Take items of little value that belong to you and strategically place them in locations around the hostel that you wish to lay claim to. Think that sofa looks good for a nap later? Leave your guidebook there. Want to make sure you get a seat at the head of the dinner table? No one will mind if you call your spot by leaving your spork and cookpot out. Just leave your stuff all over the place and then maybe no one else will even want to stay here!
Ok, but really, we all know that ONE hiker. You know, the one who stops to eat a CLIFF bar and, in t-minus-17-seconds, their entire pack has exploded on the ground around them? Well, that’s all fine and dandy in a hundred-thousand acre national forest. Not so fine and dandy in an 18 by 25 foot communal bunkroom. Several hostel owners weighed in and voiced their frustrations with hikers leaving their “stuff” all over the place. True hostel etiquette: keep your pack packed, organized, and tidy. Keep your shoes in an appropriate location (probably not in the bunkroom; ask the owner). Dry out your gear in an appropriate location (again, ask the owner). Don’t leave small belongings lying around. Remember: the only space in the hostel that you have sole claim to is YOUR bed. That’s where all your stuff should live.
(If you don’t have a pet, proceed to next section) So you’ve brought Fifi or Fido out on the trail with you and you’re just dying for a night indoors. You call up the only hostel in town and the owner says pets are welcome to camp outdoors, but not allowed in the house. Well, there’s an easy way around this. You can LIE and tell them Pupper is a service dog. Bingo! You’ve just made an ass of yourself and left a bad taste in the hostel owner’s mouth about ALL pet owners. That’s what you wanted, right?
I could write a book on pet etiquette, but I’m not going to. I’m going to keep it short and sweet. True hostel etiquette: do not, I repeat DO NOT, call your dog a service dog if it is not. Don’t do it to gain access to hostels, hotels, or pet-restricted areas of the trail. Don’t do it to take your dog to restaurants or grocery stores. This makes it difficult for people with disabilities (you know, those who NEED service dogs) to gain access with their dogs. If a hostel allows pets, GREAT! I wish they all did. In this case, do not allow your dog on any furniture (including your bunk) without express permission from the hostel owner. Keep your pet leashed at all times and don’t allow them to roam freely. Avoid feeding your pet food and/or treats left out for hikers to enjoy. Simple.
(If you are confused about whether or not your dog is a service dog, CLICK HERE to read up on the ADA’s federal requirements for service animals.)
A general theme of this article has been the notion that bunk rooms are crowded places. Want to avoid the crowds all together and have the place all to yourself? All you have to do is snore! Better yet, get yourself a reputation for nasal vibrations that can rattle Mt. Katahdin and people will be sure to avoid having to share a bunk room with you in all future scenarios.
I fully realize that snoring is an unavoidable and mostly uncontrollable nuisance to most everyone, including the person who does the snoring. However, if you know that you are a snorer and choose to ruin the night of every other hiker in your bunk, that makes you a jerk. We ALL deserve a good night’s sleep, including you. So, true hostel etiquette: take precautions to avoid snoring whenever possible. Sleep on your side instead of your back or use those nasal-passage openers at night when sleeping indoors. If you’re confident you’re gonna rattle the timbers, opt for a private or semi-private room (share with other snorers?) in the hostel or camp outside so that EVERYONE can rest well.
If you haven’t by now managed to make a total a$$-wipe of yourself, this one is guaranteed to do the trick. Simply head out to the nearest liquor store and grab a couple handles of the cheapest alcohol you can find. Proceed to become as drunk as possible. You could even bring a few of your best hiker-trash buddies along for the ride. Fall down and break the coffee table. Mistake the pantry for the potty and urinate all over tomorrow’s meal ingredients. Pass out with your boots on.
One common theme among hostel owners and hikers alike was the blatant disregard some hikers had for common courtesy surrounding recreational drug use. This includes alcohol and marijuana, along with the other more dangerous and more illegal substances. I get it, we all like to have a good time. However, your good time shouldn’t come at someone else’s expense, figuratively or literally. True hostel etiquette: If you’re going to drink, make sure it is allowed. If it isn’t, don’t do it! If you’re going to smoke (any variety), do it discreetly and well away from the premises. Lastly, do not do illegal drugs at a hostel. No one should feel unsafe because of your decision to intoxicate yourself. Hostel owners shouldn’t be placed in a legal or financial risk because of it, either.
If you really want to grate the nerves of that sweet, older lady hiker who outpaces you up mountains, or that hiker who’s “health nut” attitude toward literally everything just bugs the crap out of you, have I got a plan! Stand right outside the hostel door and puff on a cigarette. Make sure you take a big puff and give a nice, long exhale when they exit the building. Make them extra miserable by smoking in the communal outdoor dining space. This way, they can’t even enjoy a social meal without inhaling your tar-tainted carbon dioxide vapor. Better yet, go in the bathroom tonight and take a few drags. The hostel owner doesn’t allow smoking indoors, but they will never know.
I’ll be honest, I can’t really understand how (or why) anyone would puff on cigs while climbing mountains. But, if nicotine is a habit you can’t quit, at least be respectful of other people who are disturbed (or even allergic to) the smoke you are exhaling into the air we all share. True hostel etiquette: smoke outdoors only. Stand well away from buildings so people can enter and exit without dragging your smoke with them. Never (at hostels or in the woods) smoke in a dining area or at a picnic table.
(If you aren’t convinced your second-hand smoke is really a bother, click HERE to help you understand why we don’t like to breathe in your exhalations)
Do you really want to make everyone hate you? Grab the nearest guy or gal and copulate on the living room floor. In the daytime. While completely naked. Make as much noise as possible.
Let’s be honest with each other. Everyone enjoys a good roll in the hay so to speak. There is a time and place for everything, but if you are in a shared public space, it’s probably not the right time for sex. True hostel etiquette: If you’re hiking with a partner and feel like getting frisky (or just think that cute hiker you met on top of the last mountain is cute), be courteous to others and get yourself a private room. Not only will you save other hikers the embarrassment and discomfort of feeling the bunk shaking at 3am, you will also get to enjoy yourselves much more fully.
You know what makes you super cool? When you like to hike out before sunrise and you wake up at 4:30am (when your cell phone alarm goes off), turn on all the lights in the bunkroom, and proceed to pack up all your gear. It’s even cooler when you do it with a partner. Why don’t the two of you chit chat about the price of rice in China while you’re at it?
This one hits a personal nerve with me. I’m not a late-nighter and don’t tend to stay up late partying. If I’m up past hiker midnight, I try to be courteous of others who are already asleep. When paying for a bed, I enjoy sleeping in. However, I’m frequently unable to because of early risers. True hostel etiquette: respect the sleeping patterns of ALL hikers. If you are late-to-bed, use your headlamp on red-light mode to find your bunk. Prepare by unpacking and changing prior to lights-out. Avoid conversing in the bunkroom. If you are early to rise, wear headphones so ONLY YOU can hear your alarm. Use your headlamp on red-light mode to pack. Plan ahead by pre-packing items you don’t need the night before. Get up and out quickly, without turning on the lights. Avoid conversing with others so you don’t wake sleeping hikers.
I’m not even going to try to be funny about this one because it’s so important. FOLLOW THE RULES established by the hostel owner. If they say no drinking, don’t bring alcohol on the premises. Oblige by the established curfews and quiet hours. Conform to gender-separation rules if they exist. Rules are in place for a reason and the hostel owner has every right to establish and enforce those rules. If you don’t like the rules, don’t stay at the hostel. It’s that simple.
Bonus: Straight from the hostel owner’s mouth
When you make a reservation at a hostel, they may have to turn away other hikers to save your space. In peak season, this means other hikers don’t get a place to stay that night. If you are a no show, not only have you caused another hiker to miss out on a night indoors, but you have also cost that hostel owner money if the space isn’t filled. This is inconsiderate.
Another similar situation is when you call a hostel owner for a ride. If you tell them you need to be picked up at a certain place, and then don’t show up because you hitched a ride or found a different alternative or just made different plans, that can lead to loss of revenue, stress and worry, and wasted time. One hostel owner said that she spent a great deal of time worrying over a hiker who was supposed to call her about coming into the place. The hiker never called and the hostel owner worried something might have happened. Don’t be that guy (gal). True hostel etiquette: Call back (or text) and tell them if you’ve
made different plans.
For more specific tips and even more information on staying at hostels, check out THIS article written by Carey “Carry-On” Belcher, a former thru-hiker who has not only stayed at many hostels during her long-distance hiking career, but has also worked at Top of Georgia Hostel in Georgia for an extended period of time. Needless to say she’s quite experienced at “hosteling”. If you’re going to be thru-hiking this year and plan to stop at ToG, you’ll likely get to meet her!
One Last Thing: Take Responsibility for YOUR OWN Comfort
It’s easy to let yourself have a crappy hostel experience and blame it on someone else. While it’s important for everyone to practice the standards of etiquette mentioned above, you should also know your personal habits and needs and take responsibility for getting those needs met. For example:
- Sensitive to nighttime noises? Carry earplugs and wear them while sleeping. Some hostels provide these for free, so ask if you don’t have any or have misplaced yours.
- Sensitive to light? Carry a sleep mask (they only weigh an ounce or two) to block out any overhead lights that may be turned on. You may also choose to claim bottom bunks so you’re not sleeping directly under the bulbs.
- Have pet allergies? Ask before arriving if the hostel is pet friendly. If so, inquire about private sleeping spaces that would be less exposed to allergens and pop some allergy meds prior to arriving to minimize your allergic response. No one wants to be awake (and keep others awake) all night sneezing and sniffling due to allergies.
- Have a pet with you? Always ask ahead of time if your pet will be allowed indoors and take responsibility for your PET’S comfort as well as your own. If they aren’t allowed, you may have to suck it and pay extra for a pet-friendly hotel room instead.
- Bothered by cigarette smoke and someone is smoking nearby? Move away or nicely ask them to step away if it’s an inappropriate are.
- Are you a smoker? Ask the hostel owner ahead of time about appropriate smoking areas. This way you know that you are accommodated and that you aren’t breaking any rules
- Not into the party scene? Do your research and avoid hostels that are known to promote that kind of environment.
Concluding thoughts on Hostel Etiquette
We all have it in us to be considerate guests and reasonable patrons of hiker hostels. Leave a good impression, help where you can, follow the rules, and don’t be a jerk. Easy, right?
Anything I forgot? Tell us in the comments what YOU think are important aspects of true hostel etiquette.
Contributors to this article include but are not limited to:
Alison Coltrane of Open Arms at the Edge of Town Hostel and Inn, Luray, VA
Tom Kennedy of the Hike For Mental Health organization
Carey “Carry-On” Belcher of Top of Georgia Hostel, Hiawassee, GA
Some photos contributed by Greasy Creek Friendly, Bakersville, NC
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