Trail Etiquette Lessons: Tips for Harmonious Hikes
From right-of-way to other common courtesies, we've wrangled up the best tips for sharing the hiking trail. Here's how to coexist on the trails we love!
It’s sort of funny that we go outside for breathing room but trails are sometimes more cramped than city streets.
And rather than griping, I thought I’d brainstorm some ideas on how we might all share the trails in the best way possible. Whether you’re an expert, newbie to the hiking scene or somewhere in between like me, it never hurts to brush up on trail etiquette and how to be a kind human in these epic spaces. Without further adieu, here’s a breakdown of trail etiquette, right of way, and some other lessons I’ve learned from being outside that might help to make it a pleasant experience for all.
1. Keep It Down
For many hikers, myself included, the trail is an escape from the noise you’ll often find in a city: people shouting, cars honking, and speakers blaring. I don’t mean to hurt feelings, but I’m not there to listen to someone blasting the latest breakup song. Nature sounds sweet enough to me. I’m just asking that hikers kindly rock their headphones out of respect for all. Same rule applies to everyone trying to play Pokemon Go. (NOTE: Make sure you keep your volume low enough so you can hear approaching runners, mountain bikers, and horses, but more on that soon.)
While we’re on the topic of noise, try to keep conversations at a talking level. I know how it is out there, feeling giddy with excitement—especially after reaching the top—but try to refrain from shouting if you’re close to another group of hikers. Unless it’s absolutely necessary that you scream or shout, just don’t do it. With the possibility of an avalanche or rockslide, err on the side of caution and talk at a normal level.
2. Leave the Trail Better Than You Found It
Seeing trash on a trail seriously bums me out, and I know I’m not alone. So much so that my friends know me as “the guy who picks up strangers’ trash”. I don’t think there’s anything strange about it; there’s no reason to consciously toss a wrapper in the middle of the trail. I once left a water bottle on the ground to free up my hands for an upcoming traverse, and I never found it on the way down. It still bothers me. Who knows where it ended up?
Try this the next time you’re out on a hike: Pay it forward and collect three pieces of garbage. You’ll not only give back to the trails you love, but set an example for everyone in your group and maybe even passersby.
NOTE: Don’t take home any natural piece of a trail. Seriously, leave the plant life, wildlife, and everything else alone. In some states, it’s even considered a crime, and with good reason.
3. Trails: They’re There for a Reason
Built for us, by us, trails give hikers a little slice of the outdoors. Off the trail is off limits. There’s no real excuse to leave the trail other than extreme emergencies (e.g. if you see an injured hiker). The smallest detours can affect an entire ecosystem. This also applies to wildlife. Just leave that cute bison be, please! If you see an animal that’s injured, call the U.S. Forest Service. No cell service? Wait to finish the hike and find a way to contact them. Keep your hands out of it and let the professionals do their jobs. Ignore my advice and you might end up in headlines like…
- Watch: Man Survives Plunge Over Three Waterfalls in Olympic National Park
- Yellowstone tourists under fire for walking out onto Grand Prismatic Spring
- Bison Calf’s Death Shows Dangers of People in Yellowstone
Don’t be that hiker; stay on the trail and avoid meddling with the forces of nature. Some final thoughts on the matter:
- Avoid throwing rocks
- Don’t carve trees or rocks
- Leave cairns alone
- Graffiti looks terrible on rocks
4. Right of Way: Who Has It?
It wasn’t until I started my brief stint into mountain biking (only stopped because my bike was stolen, which is certainly breach of etiquette) that I learned about the right of way on a hiking trail. The basic principles apply to hikers, bikers, and horses. If you’re encountering anything other than that out on a hike, contact a local forest ranger ASAP!
So taking a look at the diagram above, who has the right of way? I’ll break it down on a case-by-case basis.
Bikers vs. Hikers
Since bikers have an easier time maneuvering, hikers typically get the right of way on this matchup. What that actually looks like depends on the circumstances, but if bikers notice hikers coming up on the trail, they should pull over. Once hikers have passed, bikers can resume. When it comes to downhill sections, hikers should try their best to make room for bikers to have a safe and easy path down the mountain.
Sometimes bikers have no choice but to speed down a slope or switchback. In this situation, hikers should make room for impeding bikers, be prepared to watch a potential wipeout, and offer help if you see someone get hurt. If a biker plans on passing a group of hikers, consider slowing down. After coming to a comfortable speed, bikers should call out the side they plan on passing with enough time for a hiker to move over. And if bikers have more riders in their group, they should call out the amount so hikers have a good idea of how long they should stay put.
Hikers & Bikers vs. Horses
Sorry hikers and bikers, horses have the right of way here. There are a lot of horses on southwest trails but I realize they’re something many hikers might never encounter. It never hurts to be prepared, particularly if you plan on hiking away from your home turf.
These majestic creatures can be highly unpredictable and fidgety. What’s that mean for bikers and hikers? SLOW DOWN! The last thing you want to do is scare a horse. If you encounter one on the trail, come to a stop, make as much room as possible for them to pass, and avoid any sudden movements. Both the horse and its owner will appreciate the gesture and you’ll avoid a horse hoof to the dome.
Hikers vs. Hikers
My visit to Poo Poo Point resulted in more run-ins with fellow hikers than I would have preferred. The crowded trail served as a prime example of how few people actually know right of way on a trail. To demonstrate the right of way, I drew a picture of two hikers, one going up and one going down.
Does Hiker A or Hiker B have the right of way?
If you said A, you’re right! Gold star for you. Hikers on the way up are usually winded and deserve the path of least resistance. Hikers descending a hike also have greater visibility on the trail below and can better adjust to hikers making their way up.
4. Be Kind, Say Hi, Repeat
I always say “Howdy!” on the trail, and find it hard to understand why some people are so standoffish. We’re all outside for a similar reason, and a simple “Hey!” or “Hello!” keeps trail energy encouraging for all. Keep the trails friendly and gauge how others are doing. Someone struggling to muster a response immediately leads me to a follow-up of, “Are you guys doing alright? Do you have enough water?”
Notice a struggling hiker? Approach them gracefully. Ask how they’re doing and if they ignore your advances, maybe leave them alone. Just try to be as helpful as possible without being overbearing. Hikers going up might ask how long it is to the top. Giving them information about the upcoming trail and any noteworthy sections can put their minds at ease and help fuel them to the finish.
Hiking with a pet? Keep them on a leash, call out to oncoming hikers that you have a dog in tow, state if they’re friendly or not, and always clean up after their mess. I personally enjoy seeing dogs outside, but I also know my fair share of friends get uneasy at the sight of them. Avoid startling fellow hikers by keeping fido by your heels. If you’re a hiker approaching a dog, do so carefully; ask for permission to pet the animal, don’t startle them, and make sure you acknowledge the owner’s existence (I have a tendency to interact with pets without talking to the owner, too).
We share the same trail, so let’s treat it and each other with respect and do our best to set an example for the next generation of little trekkers.
Are you like me and have this hunger to get out on the trail now? Get some inspiration on where to go next with the following trail guides. Enjoy!