One of the best ways to relax and connect with nature is soaking in primitive hot springs. Hot springs are naturally heated by geothermal heat and often form pools that can be soaked in (sometimes a little manmade intervention is needed to create the pools). Hot springs are truly a gift from the Earth, but it’s important that everyone who visits practices hot springs etiquette to help keep these sacred places pristine.
There are hundreds of soakable hot springs across the United States, with most located in the west in states like Idaho, Colorado, Washington, California, Oregon, Utah, and Nevada. Some hot springs are developed and run by commercial operations. Others are primitive and located on public lands. Some hot springs are accessible from roads. Some hot springs require a strenuous hike to access. Some are lukewarm. Some are HOT HOT.
Regardless of the hot springs you visit, applying these 13 essential tenets of hot springs etiquette will help ensure you have a fantastic soak without leaving an impact!
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1. Leave No Trace
The seven Leave No Trace principles are a set of guidelines to help minimize your impact when recreating outdoors. It’s always important to practice Leave No Trace, but it’s particularly important when visiting hot springs where the environment is more sensitive and susceptible to degradation by heavy or irresponsible use.
I’ll dive more in-depth on a few of the most relevant principles throughout this post, but here’s a refresher on the 7 Leave No Trace principles:
- Plan ahead and prepare.
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces.
- Properly dispose of waste. This includes packing out all of your trash as well as pet and human waste!
- Leave what you find.
- Minimize campfire impacts.
- Respect wildlife. Depending on where you’re soaking you could encounter any number of different wild animals. Most wildlife is unlikely to interrupt you while soaking, but be respectful if you see something. Remember never to feed wildlife because it could make them dependent on humans!
- Be considerate of other visitors.
The member-driven Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics teaches people how to enjoy the outdoors responsibly. This copyrighted information has been reprinted with permission from the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics: www.LNT.org.
2. Skip the Glass
This hot springs etiquette tip is short and sweet- if you’re visiting hot springs, leave all glass at home! Not only does glass break easily (especially around rocks), having broken glass around a hot spring is dangerous. Opt for drinks in aluminum cans or bring your own stainless steel water bottle instead!
3. Leave the Soap at Home
Hot springs aren’t your personal bathtub! Don’t use soaps, shampoos, or conditioners while soaking in hot springs. Even biodegradable soaps can have deleterious impacts on the delicate hot springs ecosystem. If there’s a tub that’s separate from the hot springs source, that water is going to have to drain somewhere, which means it’s still going to end up back in the hydrologic system.
In addition to not using soap in hot springs, try to rinse off or avoid wearing any products on your body (including sun screens, bug sprays, and lotions) to prevent chemicals from contaminating the water. Many commercial hot springs require you to shower before entering their pools, so it’s a good practice to follow when you’re at even more ecologically sensitive primitive hot springs.
4. Be Mindful of Nudity
Many people prefer soaking au natural in hot springs. In fact, this may be more eco-friendly than wearing a swimsuit when you consider the detergents people use and the microplastics many swimsuits shed. However, nudity is still very taboo in the United States, so it’s important to be mindful of where and when you strip down.
Hot springs located on private land will typically post rules regarding whether or not nudity is permitted. Nudity is generally allowed in National Forests or on BLM land, where you’ll often find primitive hot springs, but some areas may have regulations prohibiting it, especially if it’s popular or near a roadway. Of course, consider your audience. Always have a swimsuit handy to cover up in case kids are around or people are uncomfortable.
Most commercial hot springs require swimsuits, but there are a handful of more progressive operations that allow nudity. One of my favorite commercial hot springs in Colorado, Orvis, is clothing optional. I’ve soaked there nude a few times and have never felt uncomfortable.
5. Leave it Better For the Next Person
Making sure you leave a hot spring better than you found it for the next visitor ensures that everyone has a pleasant soaking experience. It will also make it more likely that they’ll pass on the favor, keeping the hot springs clean and pristine.
Leaving it better includes packing out all of the trash that you find (even if it’s not yours!) and cleaning up after yourself. Depending on how the hot springs is configured, it could also include draining and refilling a tub, or rearranging rock pools. Ideally you want to leave the pool as clean and warm as possible!
6. Be Respectful of Others
This piece of hot springs etiquette touches on Leave No Trace principle no. 7- be considerate of other visitors. Hot springs are intimate spaces that you may find yourself sharing with others. Be courteous and respectful of other people and their experience. If you’re at a small hot springs and other people are waiting, try limiting your soak to 10-20 minutes so other people can have a turn.
If other people are around, avoid playing loud music or partying. Remember, more shenanigans often leads to more regulations and restrictions by land management agencies, so keep things chill!
7. Photograph Responsibly
Hot springs naturally lend themselves to some pretty wanderlust inducing photos, but not everyone wants to be the subject of your art. If you’re lucky enough to have a hot springs to yourself, feel free to snap away! Be mindful of where you stand or set up your tripod so you’re not harming the surrounding environment.
If other people are around, either find a private area to take photos and avoid getting other people in your shots, or ask permission to take photos. If people are nude or children are around, it’s best to keep your camera away so people don’t feel uncomfortable.
I recommend arriving early if you’re planning on photographing popular hot springs. Even if it’s busy when you arrive you can usually find a moment or two for a photo op if you stay long enough!
8. Camp With Care
If you’re planning to camp in the vicinity of hot springs, be sure to choose a site at least 200 ft. from the water source, per Leave No Trace guidelines. This helps ensure that your human waste won’t contaminate the hot springs, and prevents erosion in the immediate area.
9. Research Fees & Permits
If you’re heading to a developed hot spring you can typically expect to pay a fee. You should also research whether you need to make a reservation ahead of time. Another one of my Colorado favorites, Avalanche Ranch, keeps their soaking experience intimate and books out reservations months in advance!
Most primitive hot springs on public lands are going to be free, but some require a parking fee or permit. Primitive hot springs on private land may require a fee, donation, and/or reservation, so always do some research in advance.
10. Stay Hydrated
Soaking in hot springs will dehydrate you faster than you realize. Always keep a water bottle accessible while you’re soaking to help stay hydrated. While I know many will disagree, I would also recommend skipping any alcoholic beverages during your soak.
Be careful standing up after a long stretch of soaking, especially if you’re in a very hot pool. My husband and I could easily soak for hours, especially if no one else is around, and I always forget how woozy I get after a long soak. Again, make sure you have water and consider adding some electrolytes like Liquid IV to help you replenish.
11. Keep Pets Away From Pools
If you’re traveling with your dog or other pet to hot springs, please keep them away from pools. Many hot springs restrict dogs and other pets from entering pools, but even if there isn’t an explicit restriction it’s best practice to keep them away so fur and pet waste doesn’t contaminate the water. Also keep in mind that dogs run hotter than humans, so a comfortable soaking temperature for you may be way too hot for your dog.
If you bring your dog to hot springs, keep them leashed and away from pools. Also remember to pack out pet waste!
12. Remember Hot Springs Are Sacred Spaces
Local hot springs have long been considered sacred by Indigenous peoples. Even today, many people find spiritual solace and healing in mineral-rich hot springs. By showing respect for the land and water, you’re showing reverence to local Indigenous peoples while also exploring your own connection to nature.
Hot springs are truly a gift from Mother Earth. Cherish the soaking experience and leave the space better than you found it!
13. Share Mindfully
Primitive hot springs are unique natural wonders that often lack infrastructure to support high numbers of visitors. Unlike a developed hiking trail that can support consistent foot traffic, hot springs have a very limited carrying capacity before ecological damage occurs. This is why it’s important to be mindful about how and where you share information about the locations of primitive hot springs.
I know the geotagging vs. gatekeeping debate can get heated on social media. I personally take a middle-ground approach and believe using discretion in what you share can go a long way. My personal policy when it comes to sharing hot springs on social media is to only share commercial operations or hot springs that have sufficient infrastructure and management to support heavier levels of recreation.
The potential to go viral to an audience that may not be aware of the hot springs etiquette tips I’ve shared here is high on social media (especially when it comes to Reels & TikToks). I’m more apt to share details about hot springs here on my blog where I’m able to provide more in-depth information about responsible recreation, and it’s more likely that the people who find the post are actively seeking this information out.
At the end of the day we all need to do what we can to help ensure hot springs remain accessible and protected for future generations. Following these hot springs etiquette tips will ensure that you’re doing your part!