Many people hitting the trail for a hike don’t necessarily know the ins-and-outs of trail etiquette; indeed, for some, it might not even be on the radar at all. Such hikers can find themselves in an awkward position when they run into other trail users. Barging along and assuming others will yield the trail, or that there’s enough room to accommodate both parties passing each other, can lead to annoyance and even all-out anger (“trail rage,” anyone?). Not insignificantly, it can also create a dangerous situation when the other trail user is, for example, a horseback rider or a mountain biker.
Abiding by proper trail etiquette is not just about right-of-way: It’s also about lightening your impact on the landscape. Leave No Trace principles and practices apply not only to off-trail but also to on-trail hiking, and help minimize erosion, groundcover trampling, wildlife distress, and other negative impacts.
If you’re a little rusty on your hiking-trail etiquette—or were never really clear on it to begin with—never fear: We’re running through the basics in this post!
Unwritten protocols are at play with regard to yielding and environmentally conscientious hiking, but remember you should always check on local rules—including spelled-out trailhead signage—pertaining to your specific hiking location. Certain places, such as national parks and recreation areas catering heavily to other trail users (mountain bikers or ATV riders, say), may have more stringent restrictions for hikers.
The following right-of-way guidelines apply for hikers encountering other users on the trail. It’s particularly applicable to singletrack trails, though yielding always applies when encountering equestrians.
Before we dive in, though, we need to address how to yield in a LNT-sensitive manner. To avoid damaging plant life or promoting trailside erosion, try to step off the trail onto a rock, log, gravel, or other durable surfaces whenever possible.
Hikers heading uphill have the right-of-way on the trail. They’re typically more strenuously engaged, after all, and more focused on maintaining a steady rhythm. That said, uphill hikers may opt to yield to downhillers as an excuse to catch their breath. Either way, let the hiker heading up call the shots.
A note on hiker/hiker encounters on the trail: Many LNT-conscious hikers decide to yield to other hikers no matter whether they’re going up- or downhill. The reasoning is this: Many trail users (unfortunately) aren’t so aware of or concerned with LNT practices, and may step off the trail without giving consideration to soil or vegetation. To avoid that possibility, you might consider choosing a responsible place to step aside yourself, even if you’ve technically got the right-of-way.
If you’re hiking alone and meet a party of multiple hikers coming your way, you should yield. For one thing, it’s just easier for you to step aside rather than the group. For another, it’s less impactful on the trailside substrate.
Slower hikers overtaken by faster ones should obviously yield the trail. If you’re coming up behind another hiker, make your presence known with a cough or some whistling, and give a friendly “hello” as you get closer—and an equally friendly “thank you” when the other hiker lets you pass. If you’re in the opposite situation, noticing a hiker coming up behind you, select a good, LNT-friendly place to step off the trail; if it’s unclear if the other hiker is actually hoping to pass, stop and ask.
General trail etiquette usually dictates that cyclists yield to hikers. As a hiker, though, it’s best not to assume that mountain bikers will indeed yield—or that they even see you, especially on twisty, overgrown, or otherwise visibility-compromised trails. From a LNT perspective, there’s also something to be said for the hiker to give way to bicyclists on narrow singletracks: A pair of boots has less of an impact on the trailside surface than a pair of wheels. Furthermore, your average hiker just intuitively yields to mountain bikers, given how fast they’re going and how much more disruptive it is for a cyclist to halt and pull aside.
Regardless, stay aware at all times on multi-use routes open to bicyclists and be ready to quickly step off the trail if an oblivious mountain biker comes barreling along.
Always yield to horses, mules, and other stock on the trail. Step off the trail on the downhill side—spooked horses have a tendency to run uphill—and talk calmly and gently to the riders and their animals as they approach and while they pass. Don’t make sudden movements, and wait a beat or two after the stock has gone by before getting back on the path.
If you’re on the trail with dogs, you should yield to other hikers. Be especially careful yielding to horses and other stock; follow the downhill approach explained above, and get well off-trail to minimize the chance of a spooked or aggressive response toward your pooch from the stock.
Only take dogs that are well-socialized and under firm voice control on a hike. Keep them on a non-retractable leash six feet or less in length. If dogs off-leash are allowed on the trail—usually not the case—make sure you have a lead at the ready, ensure the dog stays close to you on the trail and doesn’t dash off far ahead, and leash it whenever encountering other trail users.
Just because you consider your dog friendly, other hikers or trail users may have a canine phobia, so ask before allowing Fido to approach them as they pass. Or, better yet, just keep the dog at your side. Expect to run into other dogs on the trail, and clearly communicate with the other dog-owners as they approach. Have your pet’s vaccination records on hand in the event of a bite.
(Oh, and clean up after your four-legged friend, OK?)
Hikers should yield to trail runners. Here again, it’s about respecting the different rhythm of the other trail user: It’s more disruptive to a trail runner to have to stop and step aside than for a hiker to do so.
As we alluded to at the top, trail etiquette isn’t only concerned with who yields to whom. What follows is a miscellany of tips on how to hike more conscientiously, both from a social and an ecological perspective.
Give fellow hikers a smile and a word or two of greeting when you meet them. Maintaining a friendly environment on the path puts everybody more at ease.
When hiking with others, keep your volume level down to avoid degrading the outdoors experience for other trail users.
Give wildlife plenty of room while hiking. Following the National Park Service’s general guidelines on this front is a good bet: Stay at least 25 yards away from most critters, and at least 100 yards away from bears. (Keep in mind this mandatory distance varies in certain parks, so, again, always bone up on local regulations.)
Particularly in national parks, where wild animals may be habituated to the presence of people, you may occasionally encounter wildlife on or very close to the trail that won’t move off. Detour widely around the animal (taking care to travel gently off-trail as you do).
Definitely follow any site-specific hiking regulations concerning wildlife, including abiding by seasonal or temporary trail closures. These may protect nesting birds, for example, or keep you away from an animal carcass being fed upon by a grizzly bear.
To minimize your impact on the environment, hike as much as possible in the center of the trail. If you’re in a group, hike single-file unless the well-maintained path is wide enough to permit side-by-side walking. Don’t detour around fallen trees, muddy stretches, deep ruts, or other obstacles; this tramples trailside vegetation and could begin establishing an unofficial path that expands the human footprint. For the same reason, don’t cut corners at switchbacks or otherwise take short-cuts.
Speaking of mud, consider turning back if the trail tread’s really in mucky shape. Hiking on mud is more erosive than on harder soil, one reason why many parks and forests in New England close trails during the notorious springtime “mud season.”
Backpackers should obviously be prepared to do their business in the great outdoors, but the subject can most definitely apply to day hikers as well.
Go at least 200 feet off the trail—and at least the same distance away from waterways and campsites—to take care of both No. 1 and No. 2. Pee on rocks, bare earth, or duff rather than living vegetation. When it comes to (let’s just say it) poop, use the cathole method or pack it out, and pack out your toilet paper.
Paying attention and practicing common sense go a long way toward making you a more responsible hiker. That means clueing into other folks out on the trail as well as wildlife activity, and generally practicing situational awareness and basic human courtesy. Always keep safety and Leave No Trace in mind.
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