I went hiking this past weekend with Bear, my trusty canine friend. During our hike, we encountered a few other hikers and some of the interactions really got me thinking about trail etiquette. I’m the type of person who believes pretty strongly in doing things the right way and the safe way. This is probably a result of my riding background. When you are dealing with 1200 lb animals, there’s very little room for error, so you really need to make sure you are following best practices. In a crowded schooling ring at a horse show, this isn’t just helpful, but it’s essential to protect yourself and others from possibly deadly mishaps. While hiking, things usually aren’t quite so dire, but etiquette and rules exist for a reason and should be followed as closely as possible.
The first hikers we encountered were two young men and two dogs. I could see the trail narrowing, so I stopped and waited. One of the guys called out to me to tell me that his dog was not very friendly. I offered to move myself and my dog a little further off the trail to avoid any mishaps. This worked out well for everyone, and I appreciated his communication. It allowed me to put myself and my dog in a spot where I had control over my dog, he had control over his, and we were able to continue our hike with no drama. Those hikers get a gold star.
I continued hiking and was about 1/2 a mile into 1.3 miles of pretty steep elevation gain. I could hear some people coming from the opposite direction. It was three middle aged men coming down the trail. All three sported hiking poles. At the point we met, the trail was fairly narrow. I had Bear heeling on my left side, as is customary. The men did not slow down, move over, or in any way give any ground. I have nothing against hiking poles, but they do tend to make a person’s “footprint” a bit wider. I was forced off the trail so they could pass. Trail etiquette dictates that the hiker going uphill has the right of way. I thought to myself that these are probably the same people who don’t understand merging, yielding, or general politeness while driving too. I also thought to myself that they probably have stupid stick figure family stickers on their cars. I also believe that they looked like people who let doors close in other people’s faces regularly. I have no scientific proof of any of those things, but I trust my hunches. However, I am what you might call a “cynical optimist” and thought maybe they really just didn’t know any better. Their gear and poles would indicate to me that this hike wasn’t their first rodeo, but that doesn’t mean they know the rules of the road. Any road.
Because this was far from the first time I’ve experienced people not following trail etiquette, I wanted to provide some guidelines for those who may have never been taught the rules of the wild. Some of the tips are basic politeness, but some are crucial to keeping the outdoors safe and clean and protecting the very ecosystem that we are out there to enjoy.
Right of way rules:
- Other hikers- as stated above, hikers moving uphill have the right of way. However, they sometimes will want a break (we encountered this roughly 100 times on the way down the hill from Cloud’s Rest to Tenaya Lake- nearly every person coming up the hill opted to stop and said they welcomed the rest!) and will wave you ahead. Just be aware of the space on the trail and always try to let the people working the hardest have the right of way. If you need to pass a slower hiker from behind, pass on the left and call out “on your left” so that they know to stay to the right side of the trail.
- Hiking in a group-when hiking in a group, always hike single-file, never taking up more than half the trail space, and stay on the trail itself. There is nothing more annoying that being on a trail that is wide enough for hikers to pass comfortably, but being unable to due to people hiking side by side or in a clump. A single hiker will usually make way for a group of hikers, however, the above rule still applies for hikers going up an incline, no matter the size of the group(s).
- Aggressive dogs- if you have a dog who can be aggressive or even extra excitable, it’s good form to let oncoming hikers know that and if possible, you should move yourself and your dog off the trail and let others pass while maintaining complete control of your dog.
- Kids- one of my ultimate pet peeves. Yes, we are all glad you are introducing kids to the outdoors. But that doesn’t mean they get to run amuck. Teach them the rules of the trail and ensure that they follow the right of way rules and also give other hikers, bikers, and horses appropriate space. Recently, we passed a father and son while hiking and then the son was trying so hard to keep up with us (literally, he was like 2 feet behind us), that he ended up falling and getting hurt. Not only did he feel bad, we did too, but the reality is that he should have never been permitted to follow us so closely. It’s a buzz kill on the whole “solitude” thing.
- Bikes- Mountain bikes are considered more maneuverable than a human on foot so bikers are generally expected to yield to hikers on the trail. However, mountain bikes are often moving fast so it may be easier for hikers to yield the right of way—especially if a mountain biker is huffing and puffing up a tough incline. A biker should never expect a hiker to yield, though. On shared trails, if you are the hiker, keep your ears open for bikers letting you know they are behind you, passing, etc.
- Horses- Horses are usually given the right of way. The riders should call out to you if you haven’t already heard them and made eye contact. Hikers should move to the side of the trail, or slightly off the trail if it’s narrow, to let the horses pass. Avoid rapid movements like waving your arms or throwing your pack on the ground when horses are close, as it may spook them. Most horses on trails will be pretty immune to seeing hikers, but some may not, so just be quiet and avoid startling them to keep everyone safe.
Basic Etiquette Rules:
- Whenever you stop for a view, a rest, or to yield, move off the trail so it is free for others. I can’t count how many times we have had to stop and wait for people to move who are in the middle of the trail removing layers or having a snack. Move to the side, people! If you are in need of a rest, try to find an appropriate place like a fallen log or rock. Don’t trample fragile plants or grass.
- Greet people you meet. This one is tough for me, as I am shy and part of the reason I’m usually out in wilderness is to avoid small talk. But a simple “hello” or “have a great hike” usually suffices.
- Be aware of your volume- just because you are in the woods or wilderness doesn’t mean other people can’t hear you. Conversations should be kept at a volume so that your companions can hear you but the person 200 feet behind you can’t. There’s nothing worse than being stuck for a mile or more behind a loud group when you are trying to enjoy the peace and quiet. Mike and I talk all the time while hiking, but we pretend there’s someone right behind us who we don’t want to hear us. This helps us be aware of our volume. Similarly, don’t play music out loud and turn off your phone ringer. We have actually passed groups who had music blasting from their phones while hiking. Use headphones if you can’t go for a hike without your tunes.
- If you reach a scenic overlook, take your pics and have lunch or a snack, but ensure that others who approach have the opportunity to take some pics or just enjoy the scenery as well. Try to make a little room to share the nature that we are all out there enjoying.
- If you are using a shelter like the ones provided on the Appalachian Trail, make the shelter available to thru hikers first. Also, never set up your tent inside the shelter. Your tent is your shelter. Or the shelter is your shelter. The shelter shouldn’t be your shelter’s shelter. That’s just rude.
- Follow the rules. Know the rules of the trail or shelter and abide by them. Stay informed about whether fires are permitted, trail closures, etc.
Leave No Trace (LNT) Rules:
- If you are camping, try to stick to established campsites. This weekend, I saw a group setting up 2-3 tents less than 1/4mile from an AT shelter/camping area. There were signs all over to stay on the trail due to reforestation efforts. I guess that group didn’t get the memo. Oh, they were chopping firewood too. In an area where fires were restricted. We have a name for those people. We call them “people who should have stayed at home”.
- Pack it in, pack it out. This means every bit of trash, toilet paper, etc. Litter is gross and can be dangerous for wildlife. And no, throwing your beer cans or bottles in a fire doesn’t make them disappear.
- Take pictures. Don’t pick flowers or move rocks or other items. The only exception is if a branch or limb needs to be moved off a trail. But don’t take nature home with you except in your mind and your film.
- Stay on the trail. The only exception is when doing your business, and then be mindful to limit damage to plant life and for heaven’s sake, don’t do your business within 200 feet of a water source. And if it’s #2, bury it!
- Don’t cut down trees. Sounds pretty simple, but I witnessed it this past weekend. If you can’t find enough wood laying on the ground, then don’t build a fire. Never cut live trees. The only exception to this would be in an extreme emergency when you need to signal for help.
*We roughly covered most of the LNT rules throughout this post, but for the full list and descriptions of LNT rules, see here.
What are your trail etiquette pet peeves? Did we miss anything that you have witnessed? Please let us know in the comments!