Five Points on Trail Etiquette

As a trail junkie, I can think of few better ways to spend an a day than exploring a gorgeous place in the wild. We each go out into the wilderness for our own reasons and seeking different experiences, but the fact is that we have to share it with others. Other people in our group, other people not in our group, and other living things that are not people at all. We all have a debt to act respectfully and responsibly when we go out into these places that belong to all of us.

Most people go out hiking thinking they are just going out for a stroll in nature, which may be the case, but what you may not be aware of is the fact that there are generally written or unwritten rules of behavior on the trail. These may be regulations, or they may just be the unwritten rules of courtesy. Either way, there are certain behaviors that are considered acceptable and some that are considered downright rude. You might not even be aware of them. I want to touch on some of these so that, if you hadn’t heard of them, you don’t have to look like a jerk out there. Because no one wants that. I hope.

As always, this is not meant to be an all-encompassing encyclopedia on trail etiquette, but I want to go over a few basic things to keep in mind. These are things I have repeatedly heard over the years and things that I have experienced first-hand in some cases.

Know your limits.

Some people, including myself, hate the idea of not being able to do something. Sometimes people go out on a demanding hike, without thinking about their physical limitations or considering the people they are with and the type of hike they will be on. Then they are on the trail and begin to complain. Or they push themselves too hard and end up having issues on the trail like heat exhaustion or whatever else, which others then have to address. It’s best to know and communicate the type of hiking you’re comfortable with doing to others in your group before departing for the hike. However, if you do find yourself having issues on the trail, which you cannot always prepare for, please make sure you communicate this to the group. It’s best to avoid this situation when possible, but if you need help, you should ask for it.

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If you’re with a group, be part of the group.

Along with the first suggestion I made, this one involves being conscientious of the group. You should be aware of the type of group you’re with and the terrain before you hike. If you know the group will need to travel slowly or quickly, you should plan around that before you decide to participate. Don’t be that guy who decides to leave everyone in the dust and hike ahead because they are going too slow, unless you communicate and decide with them that you are going to go on ahead. Communicate. Also, if you plan on staying behind and waiting, let the group know. Don’t just fade into the back and disappear. This separates the group and may cause others to be confused and feel the need to go looking for you. Communication really goes a long way.

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Be conscientious of those not in your group.

Being excessively loud and obnoxious is rude. There are situations in which we may have to be loud (like in bear country in order to let bears know we are present), but there is a difference between being purposefully loud and just being unreasonably obnoxious. There may be others who just want to enjoy the serenity or sounds of nature. Try to be respectful.

This also means being knowing how to say things at the right times. I had an embarrassing moment recently when someone in my group said something obscene, and around the corner came a mother and her kids at that moment. That was awkward. I’m not the clean mouth police, but it would have been great if my friend had kept in mind his volume and that others might have been around who didn’t want to overhear what he had to say.

Share the trail and know the right-of-way.

Different hiker groups all share trails on public lands. Just like you shouldn’t drive a car without knowing when to yield and when you have the right-of-way, you ought to be aware of the same concept on the trail. There are a few basic rules that apply. First, those travelling uphill have the right-of-way. This is because they are under more strain and fatigue than those travelling downhill and they are working harder to maintain balance. If you are the one going downhill, it’s best to slow down and stand to the side of the trail. Horses and mules always have the right-of-way. It is much easier for you to stand aside on the trail than for one or several horses to do this. They are also bigger and have a harder time maneuvering around. They are also more temperamental and unpredictable. When you are being passed by animals, it’s best to be willing to cooperate with the leader of that group. You should stand to the side of the trail farthest away from the edge (if there is one). Don’t make loud noises or touch the animals, because you don’t know how they will react.

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On the other hand, I have heard it said that hikers have the right-of-way to those on bicycles. Cyclists should yield to hikers and horses. That said, I would still get out of the way if someone on a bike decided to come flying down the trail, even if I did have the right-of-way. After all, you can only control what you do, and safety is priority.

If you decide you need to pass other hikers who are travelling more slowly, be courteous and politely let them know you are passing. If you hear someone behind you say “On your left” that means you should stay to the right because they are passing you. You should also pass on the left.

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Leave no trace.

Please remember that everyone leaves an impact. Please make sure yours is as minimal and manageable as possible, even if others are not being respectful.

I don’t think I need to say much about litter or trash. I feel like that’s been covered before. If you pack it in, pack it out.

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If nature calls, please do not emit your bodily wastes near the trail. You should do it in a restroom facility or well off of the trail. And if it’s solid, you should bury all of it under at least six solid inches of dirt.

I recently learned that it is frowned upon to leave or store your pack or belongings along the trail. Your backpack may be heavy, but leaving it behind a rock on the trail means wildlife seeking food may come and make the granola bars inside a source of its next meal. Feeding animals is not helpful to the ecosystem, and I don’t think I’d want a squirrel or a much larger animal rummaging through my things.

If you see someone vandalizing an area, please report that and a description of the individual to a ranger or authority. These areas need to be protected, and when someone selfishly and thoughtlessly defaces an area, they are damaging what belongs to all of us and our future generations. Ensuring they are caught can serve as an educational experience for them too. It doesn’t mean you’re a snitch. It means you are protecting what belongs to all of us. The more likely it is that these people will be caught, the less likely they will be to take the risk of vandalizing public or private property.

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If you remember these five categories, I think you’ll be in pretty good shape. If I have left something out, please leave a comment below and let me know what else you think would be important to remember. Knowing and practicing good trail etiquette will continue to make hiking a more positive experience for you and everyone on the trail. Thank you for doing your part. Happy trails.

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