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Jonathan Stull | 05.09.2017

If you’re planning a weekend getaway to your favorite hot springs, imagine yourself in a quiet, sulphuric pool, warmed halfway to boiling point by subterranean magma, the gases of which slowly and steadily emanate to the earth’s surface in—most of the time—non-lethal doses.

Now, wipe the steam from your spectacles, and you might find at least one other person in that pool with you. In less igneous locales, it would be a little unusual to share a bath with an individual with whom you share neither blood nor relation. In fact, it is probably stranger in that oversized crockpot fueled by the earth’s life-force, wherein you stew perhaps hundreds of miles from social norms.

What do you do if they wear no clothes? How should you behave were they to invite their cohort? Do you exchange pleasantries, or are there things that are better left unsaid? Hot spring etiquette wasn’t taught in college—no, modern civilization teaches us proper social behavior with schoolyard abuse and ice cream cones.

Which brings us to the main problem: You can’t take ice cream cones into hot springs. That would be weird. And that is why you need to learn right from wrong, as it relates to those steamy, heart-pounding soaks in the wilderness. Well, we have the solution to your problem right here, and the reward is unambiguous: a joyous and revitalizing experience among new friends in the beautiful, great outdoors.

Word to the Wise

  • Be aware of where you are when you think about how to behave. There are hot springs throughout the country. The Interior West is more conservative than Oregon and California, and you are likely to encounter equally conservative standards while at a hot spring.
  • Respect the space. People come to hot springs chiefly to relax, and people do this in their own way. Some may prefer to soak in the solitude, others may prefer to socialize with friends—to each their own. That said, people are attracted to hot springs for the opportunity to relax. Be respectful of the opportunity for quiet relaxation.
  • Where it occurs, be accepting, open, and respectful of nudity. Backcountry hot springs are typically clothing optional, while easily accessed springs are not, but it depends on the place and the time. When in doubt, use your judgment. In the right atmosphere, soaking in the buff can be a liberating and empowering experience. Be open and welcoming of others when soaking nude. Be respectful when joining a clothing optional hot spring; don't engage in staring or other behaviors that objectify others' bodies.
  • Hot springs are not baths! If you can, it is ideal to shower before you enter the pools. The level of access will determine how feasible this is, but cross-contamination is a real possibility and can cause problems for you and for the long term health of the springs. Pathogens and bacteria are typically introduced to hot springs, and proper hygiene can reduce this risk.
  • Know your limits. Hot springs are known to induce fainting spells. Hotter pools, which can exceed 110 degrees, can easily induce heat stroke. Stay hydrated, and check in with your body. A racing heart or headache is a good indication that your body has had enough—give it a break! And when exiting pools, do so with caution. A fainting spell is easily induced with overactivity.
  • Do not bring glass near the hot springs. When it breaks, it becomes a serious hazard that is very difficult to remove.
  • Be aware of high-traffic times and adjust accordingly. It helps to manage impact to visit popular hot springs at less congested times, and it will improve your experience greatly to avoid the crowds.
  • Respect the landowner. If the hot springs are on private land, you are a guest. Disrespect can easily lead to an end to public access.

Leave No Trace

Even when considering natural areas that are developed with a specific human use in mind, it is important to take account of the principles of Leave No Trace, especially given the increased activity around these vulnerable areas. Although developed, these are still sensitive lands, and Leave No Trace principles still apply. In fact, doubly so: the Forest Service, BLM, and other managing agencies lack the resources to properly care for many of these places, and some will close if not taken care of. It is our responsibility to make sure access endures so that we are all able to enjoy these hot springs.

  • Be very careful about plantlife near the hot springs, and take care not to trample plants that grow around the springs.
  • Pack it in, pack it out. Whatever you bring with you to the hot springs should leave with you, and be sure to clean up after others if they didn’t clean after themselves.
  • If in backcountry settings, camp well away from hot springs—100 yards or more.
  • Leave your dogs at home. For obvious reasons, it is impossible to maintain a standard of cleanliness with your furry companions in your company.
  • Regarding using the bathroom, plan ahead and relieve yourself before coming to a hot spring area. If you absolutely must go number 1 during your hot spring visit, observe standard Leave No Trace rules about human waste. 

 

Comments

Nudity on public lands in Nevada is ILLEGAL. I once had to call the police on this pervert Californian that bragged about swimming nude on the hike down to Gold Strike canyon on the Colorado River. We had children in our group and I bluntly informed him of the law. Didn't stop him though. He still didn't believe the police even as they handcuffed him and wrote the citation for indecent exposure.
In many states, nudity around a child under 18 years old is a crime; typically a very serious one, i.e. you need to keep your house lights off on Halloween. Also, in most states, public nudity is a crime despite the amount of water involved.
Whether the nudity is in the forest or in a hot springs is completely irrelevant. Even in the back country, state law applies, not whether there is a clear law in the federal code.
It only takes a picture of the militant nude bather on a cell phone and a few pics of the license plates at the trail head to make an arrest a real possibility.
Contact the local ranger station to understand the laws - they are usually very helpful. That way you can assess if your insistence on siting in a hot pool of water naked around strangers is worth the risk. Or on the other hand, one may wish to demonstrate a bit of class and courtesy i.e., when around strangers in close proximity in a hot springs, put on a swimsuit.
I would suggest a modification to your advice of being "accepting, open, and respectful of nudity." I would suggest, "Be educated, courteous, and respectful that others may not want to see you in your Adonis like grandeur. Educate yourself on the local laws so when you parade your 50 year old male body in front of 2 girls and 1 boy between the ages of 9 and 17, you don't end up in jail." It seems like a simple little effort to avoid a colossal amount of trouble and possible criminal record.
Use common sense and read the room, er, hot spring.
You've missed some great springs in Washington. More importantly, while you do mention to wash off before entering, you do not mention what additional additives, i.e. sun tan lotion, perfume, etc. will do to harm the natural springs. Public springs can often clean the pool each night, not so the natural ones. Nice and important article otherwise.
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