It’s spring! The days are finally getting warmer, but there’s still a chill in the air. You know what that means! It’s hot spring time! Idaho has most “soakable” hot springs of any state in in the country, and if you haven’t checked one out yet, you’re truly missing out. There’s nothing like sitting in 102-degree water on a snowy spring day while watching an icy stream rush by only feet away.
Idaho’s hot springs range from developed pools that charge an entrance fee, to natural rock pools just feet away from major state highways, to muddy bottomed pools located a seven-mile hike and two-mile bushwhack from the nearest road.
No matter what kind of hot spring experience you’re looking for, there are some basic rules that everyone should follow when visiting natural hot springs. Get on board with these basic rules, and you’ll quickly gain the respect of your fellow soakers and start feeling like hot springs are your second home!
1. Broken Glass = Broken Dreams – Yankees and Red Sox fans. Me and my Ex. Glass and hot springs. These are some things that shouldn’t ever be near each other. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got the fastest reflexes on the planet, a glass bottle balanced on a rock has has an odd propensity to tip over, and often break. Trust me, the last thing you want in the bottom of a hot spring is glass. Clear, brown, and green glass have an amazing ability to camouflage with rock on the bottom of hot springs, and a broken bottle generally means draining the spring, removing all the sand/rocks, and then hauling in new sand/rocks – a time consuming and laborious task. Many a hot spring steward has spent a Saturday morning with a shovel, rehabilitating a hot spring instead of the relaxing soak he or she had dreamt about all week. You can get wine, beer, and spirits in plastic and aluminum containers nowadays, so there is NO excuse to bring glass. And if you do, expect to be publicly shamed and told to leave the glass far away from the springs. Do everyone a favor and leave the glass at home.
2. Pack It In, Pack It Out – This may be the obvious one on this list, but also the most often violated hot spring rule. If you hauled it to the spring, you had better be hauling it out. No excuses. Dropped your towel in the spring? Wring it out and tie it to the outside of your bag. Forgot your suit and used your underwear instead? Don’t leave them on the rocks for someone else to deal with. Had a couple beers? Crush those cans and throw them in your bag. Others shouldn’t have to look at and then deal with your trash because you were too lazy to do it yourself. Bring some trash bags if you’re worried about wet towels/bathing suits. And if you happen to notice that others have been disrespectful and left their trash? Be the bigger person and take it out with you. The folks behind you will appreciate it.
3. Don’t Trespass – Many of Idaho’s hot springs are on private land. And many landowners have chosen to allow the public to continue using their private property, contingent on good behavior. Don’t abuse the privilege. Many landowners have decided to cut off access to hot springs on their private property after repeated abuses such as drugs, trash, and rowdiness. If you show up at a hot spring and it’s posted as no trespassing, respect the owner’s decision. You’re just as likely to find the police waiting at your car as you are to have bullets flying over your head (true story). Just don’t trespass. Along these same lines, if you pass through a gate on the way to a hot spring, leave it the way you found it (unless there is signage stating otherwise). Whether private property or public lands with a grazing lease, the owner/leasee left that gate the way it was for a reason. Don’t mess with stuff that isn’t yours!
4. Don’t be a Hot Spring Hog – Many of Idaho’s hot springs are on public land. That means they belong to all of us. Just because you got to the best pool first doesn’t mean you’re entitled to have it all to yourself for the entire day. Be prepared to share with others as they show up. I’ve met so many cool people at hot springs, and there’s nothing like a good conversation with a new friend while soaking in 102-degree water in a snowstorm. As an added bonus, they might have information about a spring you haven’t heard about yet!
5. Post Those Rad Pics – WITHOUT the Geotag – You made it to the hot spring and have earned the right to make your friends jealous, but for the love of our natural hot springs, leave the geotag out of it! Do you know who all 1,782 of your Instagram friends are? Do they all know proper hot spring etiquette? Do you want one of them ruining a spring with glass, trash, or a raucous party? If someone wants to know where you took a picture, they can ask, and you can be the judge about if they are trustworthy enough to be let in on the secret! You’re responsible with your physical footprints at hot springs, right? Be responsible about your digital footprints too.
6. Going Au Natural – Many of Idaho’s natural hot springs don’t have a dress code, so don’t be surprised to walk around a corner and see body parts that are only allowed uncensored on HBO and the occasional Super Bowl half time show. As a general rule of thumb, if you don’t see any signs saying nudity is prohibited, then lounging around in your birthday suit is probably ok. The further the hot spring is from the parking area, the more likely that nudity is ok. Use your judgement here. See a family with kids with suits on? Keep yours on or ask if they are ok with you stripping down. Others already in the nude? Go for it, but feel free to keep covered up if you want. No one is judging you. And this should go without saying, but if people are enjoying the wonders of nature au natural, respect people’s privacy and put the camera away.
7. Use The Healing Powers Wisely – This is another one that should go without saying, but if you have open wounds, cuts, or infections of any kind, stay out of the hot springs. Don’t potentially subject others to your bodily fluids. I’m sure you would want others to show you the same respect.
8. Beware of the Dreaded RSM – The Red Spider Mite that is. It’s present at many hot springs in Idaho and would love to burrow under your skin and lay its eggs. Yeah, it’s as gross as it sounds. The worst part is that you won’t know it until it’s too late. Each one can bite you multiple times, and trust me, you don’t want to go through the aftermath, which involves days of cortisone cream and resisting the urge to itch your skin off. Red Spider Mites are barely visible to the naked eye and tend to live on the vegetation and rocks around hot springs. One way to check for RSM’s is to stick your finger into the water and move it all around. RSM’s will often cling to your finger where you’ll JUST BARELY be able to see them. Along the same lines, although uncommon, the brain eating amoeba Naegleri fowleri can exist in hot springs. Keep your head above the water and it’s not an issue.
9. Mind the Vibes – Arrived at the hot spring to find a loud party that everyone is enjoying? Dive on in! Find four other people quietly enjoying nature? Be mindful of that and leave the Bluetooth speaker in the backpack. Everyone enjoys hot springs differently, so take in the vibe, and do your best to match it.
10. Camping – Many of our natural hot springs are in the backcountry, far from the nearest road, and many people find that the best way to enjoy them is to camp out for a day or two. This can be a great way to experience hot springs (imagine, a hot bath 5 or 6 times a day!), but you should be mindful of your impacts. Always camp at least 200’ from the hot spring and try to use a durable surface (rock or gravel) or an area that has been previously impacted.
11. Hot Springs Are Not Private Bathrooms – These are public pools that everyone should be able to enjoy with all the natural smells that come along with. No one wants to watch you wash your stinky armpits with Irish Spring, and they surely don’t want to smell it either. Do us all a favor and keep the soap, shampoo, sunscreen, bug spray, and perfumes out of our hot springs. And while we’re talking bathroom behavior, do your business at least 200’ from the hot spring and other water sources. Number one can go right on the surface. Number two should be buried in a 6-8” deep hole. Used TP? Pack it out, don’t bury it. And if you’re thinking about doin’ the deed in the hot spring…. Well, you read the part about Spider Mites, right? RIGHT??????
12. Dogs – Dogs shouldn’t enter the hot springs for many reasons. They’ll likely disturb others. They’ll probably pee in the water. They could get burned (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/aug/26/hiker-badly-burned-after-jumping-into-idaho-hot-springs-to-save-dogs). They could become dehydrated just like we do. You’re best off leaving the pooch at home for your hot spring adventure. If you need to take them along, find a nice spot to tie them up somewhere away from the spring and out of the paths of other visitors. And treat there waste just like your own – pack it out or bury it in a cat hole.
13. Dehydration – Hot springs should come with a warning label just like hot tubs – DO NOT USE FOR MORE THAN 15 MINUTES. Remember, you’re sweating the entire time you’re in the hot spring. Imbibing in some adult beverages at the same time? The dehydration effect is amplified. Throw some water in your backpack and remember to stay hydrated. If you stand up and feel a little light headed, take a moment to gather yourself, then go chug a Nalgene of water.
Following these basic rules while visiting Idaho’s hot springs is a great way to show your respect for these natural treasures and preserve them for future use. Many natural hot springs have been closed in the past due to people not following these basic guidelines. Don’t be the person that gets another one of Idaho’s hot springs closed to the public!