The towns along these trails offer amenities and supplies to the hordes of people with funky feet and smells who wander around. Hostels are a key part of this infrastructure. For those unfamiliar, hostels are a popular form of community and budget accommodation with travelers around the world. They typically have dorm-style accommodation, shared bathrooms, and shared lounging areas.
Some may be put off at first by the prospect of these crowded neighborhoods, but hostels can be an amazing place to make new friends, forge new memories, and immerse yourself deeper in backpacking culture. While not all hostel stays are exceptional, most unpleasant experiences can be avoided with common sense, communication, and good manners.
In 2021, I spent a month working at Above the Clouds Hostel on the Appalachian Trail on my attempted hike and spent countless nights in hostels around the world. Here are some of my top tips to help you maximize the awesome and eliminate the dull.
Don’t be an asshole
Consider this the cornerstone of proper hostel etiquette. Most bad behavior can be eliminated by simply following this rule.
I asked my friend Lucky, owner of Above the Clouds, what unwritten rules hostel guests should know. His response was “Pretend you’re at a friend’s house and you should be fine.” It’s a slightly more family-friendly translation of my own motto.
This concise statement pretty much covers everything you need to know about hostels, but you’re here for the extra secret sauce, so I’ll go into a little more detail.
This is less about courtesy and more about protection against deception. If you know the day of your stay in town and are lucky enough to have cell service, calling a day or two before to reserve a spot is never a bad idea. Even calling in the morning gives you a better chance of getting a bed than just showing up unannounced.
Some hostels run their own shuttle service and all are familiar with transportation options to and from the trail. They will usually be able to help you arrange a ride at a reasonable cost. Shuttle drivers who rip off their guests are bad for business, and word spreads quickly on the trail.
But not too far
There is too much notice. Calling weeks in advance to reserve a spot often results in two things: you walk faster/slower than expected and have to change your reservation at the last minute or you have to change your pace to arrive on the right day. In the first case, you run the risk that the hostel is now full, in addition to complicating things for the owners of the hostel. In the second case, you risk pushing useless kilometers to arrive on time.
My recommendation is to call no more than two days in advance, or three if bad weather can make accommodations difficult to find. This is not a hard and fast rule, so use your best judgment.
Take off your shoes
The first potential pitfall presents itself before you even have a chance to step inside. Take off your shoes.
It’s surprising how many hikers, overwhelmed with impatience to finally be indoors again, rush inside, leaving days of accumulated mud and dirt in their wake. Hikers are a dirty breed and the hostel staff work tirelessly to keep the spaces clean and comfortable. Don’t make it difficult for them. Leave your Lone Peaks on the mat.
This also applies to trekking poles and anything else you might have that is covered in mud. If it’s your whole body, your host will likely suggest the most direct route to a shower and the laundry room.
Some hostels have a designated area for gear storage, so it’s always good to ask when you arrive. If you return after a wet night or two, ask your host where you can hang your wet tent. This ensures you won’t forget and helps minimize indoor puddles.
Do your chores!
After a few days of hard work in the backcountry, the last thing a hiker wants to do is…well…whatever. There are a few things you will want to do during your stay and taking care of them right away leaves you free to relax.
First on the list is to claim a berth. You don’t want to give up that prime spot on the bottom bunk because you didn’t stake your claim right away. Go put a piece of equipment on the bed to mark your territory and move on to the next task.
Most important on this list is a shower. Let’s face it, you stink after a few days of trail riding. Even if you care less about feeling fresh and clean, your hosts and fellow hikers will thank you. Hostels often have limited shower facilities, so do yourself and everyone else a favor and jump in the shower as soon as possible.
Once you’re fresh and clean, there’s no point in going back to your dirty rags. Fortunately, hostels almost always offer a laundry service for backpackers, either included in the price of the stay or for a nominal fee. You and everyone else will likely take advantage of this opportunity. The large amount of laundry means doing it early is not just a courtesy to the hard-working staff, but a way to ensure you have clean, dry clothes the next day.
If you’re an ultralight backpacker and you’re not carrying extra clothes, or your spares are also dirty, don’t worry, most hostels will lend you clothes that you can wear while the yours are washed.
Once that’s over, you can head to the common area, put your feet up, and relax. You deserved it.
Talk to staff
Backpacker hostels are usually small operations with very dedicated owners and staff. They are almost always hiking enthusiasts. They saw hundreds of hikers pass by. They’ll be able to tell you all about the next section of the trail, give you helpful tips, and they’ll tell you some of the most interesting stories of anyone you meet on the trail.
Dealing with Equipment Explosions
Getting off the trail for a night provides the perfect opportunity to do some regular cleaning and maintenance of your gear. It may also be the first time in days that you need your wallet, the charger for your electronic devices or your earplugs (pack a few, you won’t regret it).
While rummaging wildly through your backpack, do your best to contain your damage. The dorm floor is one of the worst places to unpack because others will constantly come in and out, tripping over your stuff. I’m used to pulling things on the bed. Better yet, find a less crowded room and store your things there.
When you’re done, put everything away immediately even if you think you’ll have to look for something else later. This will reduce the risk of your gear getting lost, tripped over, or accidentally falling into someone else’s bag. It happens a parcel with Injinji liners.
When the clock strikes midnight
Dragging your backpack in the mountains all day is tiring work. Even if you’re a night owl in your day-to-day life, you’ll find yourself planting yourself early. Out of respect for fellow hikers, the trail community agreed to quiet down around 9 p.m., also known as “Hiker Midnight.”
At first, you might want to revel in the famous party scene on the trails and stay out late into the night drinking beers with your newfound friends. The exhausted hiker heading south, the guy who just smashed 30 miles, and the hard-working hostel staff might not share your interest. As such, it is a courtesy to keep the volume to a minimum.
Keep the shenanigans outside the dorms. If you use psychotropic substances, know your limits. You may not realize how loud you are after a few colds or a “safety meeting”. All of this will help you avoid an awkward scolding or dirty looks across the breakfast table in the morning.