Hiking Trail Etiquette: The Unwritten Rules On The Trail

Most people who hit the trail for a hike aren’t aware of the basics of hiking trail etiquette. This is why they often find themselves in awkward situations where they run into other trail users.

Such hikers simply assume that others will yield the trail or that there’s enough room to accommodate both groups. Situations like this can lead to annoyance and sometimes, even all-out rage.

But, following proper trail etiquette isn’t just about right of way. It’s about minimizing your impact on the trail as well, aka the “Leave No Trace” principles and practices. These apply both to on-trail and off-trail hiking to reduce erosion, wildlife distress, groundcover trampling, and other negative impacts.

If you’re a little rusty on your hiking trail etiquette or didn’t even learn it, don’t worry! We’ll run you down the basics to help both beginners and seasoned hikers looking to refresh their basic skills.

Hiking Trail Etiquette: The Right of Way

You should follow these guidelines in situations when you encounter other hikers on the trail. They largely apply to singletrack trails, although yielding always applies when encountering equestrians.

However, we want to remind you to always yield in an LNT manner (Leave No Trace.) Try to step onto a rock, gravel, or other durable surfaces to avoid damaging plant life and prevent trailside erosion.

Hiking Trail Etiquette # 1: Downhill vs Uphill Hikers

Uphill hikers have the right of way on the trail. They’re typically more engaged and focused on maintaining a steady rhythm anyway, so they have the right to go first.

On the other hand, uphill hikers may choose to yield to downhill hikers to catch their breath. This is fine, but always let the hiker going up call the shots.

Note: Many LNT-conscious hikers tend to yield to other hikers, no matter if they’re heading up or downhill. This is because, unfortunately, many hikers aren’t aware of or concerned with LNT practices.

They just step off the trail without regard to soil or vegetation. So, we suggest choosing a responsible spot to step yourself aside, even if you technically have the right of way.

Hiking Trail Etiquette # 2: Group vs Solo Hikers

Solo hikers should yield if they meet a group of hikers coming their way. Firstly, it’s easier for you to step aside compared to the whole group. Secondly, it’s less damaging on the trailside substrate.

Hiking Trail Etiquette # 3: Slow vs Fast Hikers

Slower hikers who are often overtaken by faster hikers should yield the trail. If you’re coming up behind a hiker, you may cough or even whistle a little to make your presence felt. Moreover, say a friendly “hello” as you come nearer and a friendly “thank you” if they let you pass.

If you’re in the opposite situation and see someone coming behind you, find an LNT-friendly spot to step aside in. If you’re not sure whether the other hiker is planning to pass, stop and ask.

Hiking Trail Etiquette # 4: Hikers vs Mountain Bikers

Basic hiking trail etiquette suggests that cyclists should yield to hikers. However, we think it’s best not to assume bikers will yield or that they even see you. Considering the overgrown, twisty, and visibility-compromised trails, they can still fail to notice you.

Plus, from an LNT viewpoint, it makes more sense for hikers to give way to bikers on narrow singletracks. This is because a pair of boots has less impact on the trailside surface compared to a pair of wheels. Besides, hikers intuitively yield to bikers, given how fast they are and how disruptive it is for cyclists to stop and pull aside.

Just remember to always be aware on multi-use routes that are open to bicyclists. Also, be ready to step off quickly in case an oblivious biker suddenly comes along.

Hiking Trail Etiquette # 5: Hikers vs Horseback Riders

Yield to horses, mules, and other animals on the trail. Step off the trail on the downhill side and talk gently to the riders and animals as they approach and pass.

Never make sudden movements to avoid spooking the animals. Finally, wait for a second or two after the animals have gone before getting back on the trail.

Hiking Trail Etiquette # 6: Hikers with Dogs

Hikers with dogs should yield to other hikers. Be extra careful when yielding to horses and other stock and follow the downhill tip we mentioned above. This will minimize any spooked or aggressive response to your dog from the stock.

Only take your dog if they’re properly trained and under firm voice control during a hike. Use a non-retractable leash no more than six feet long. If dogs off-leash are allowed on the trail, which is rare, ensure that you have a leash ready. Keep the dog close, make sure they won’t dash off, and leash it when you see other trail users.

You may consider your dog friendly. However, other hikers may have canine phobia, so ask if your dog can approach them while they pass. Just keeping the dog by your side is a better option. Other dogs may be on the trail, too, so talk with the other dog owners as they approach.

Having your dog’s vaccination records on hand in case of a bite is also a good idea.

Hiking Trail Etiquette # 7: Hikers vs Trail Runners

Hikers should always yield to trail runners. Again, it’s more about respecting the rhythm of the other trail user. In this case, it’s less disruptive for a hiker to stop and step aside than for a trail runner to do so.

Hiking Trail Etiquette: Other Tips to Remember

As we mentioned in the beginning, hiking trail etiquette isn’t just about who yields to whom. Here are ways on how to hike more conscientiously, both from an ecological and social perspective:

Respecting Other Hikers

Give other hikers a simple smile and greet them whenever you meet them. Having a friendly environment will help keep everyone more at ease.

On the other hand, if hiking with a group, make sure to keep your volume level down. This is to avoid ruining the outdoor experience of other hikers and trail users.

Respecting Wildlife

Give wildlife plenty of room during a hike. As per the National Park Service, stay at least 25 yards away from critters and about 100 yards from bears. But, remember that this mandatory distance varies per park so always check the local regulations first.

National parks normally have some wild animals that are used to the presence of people. This is why you may encounter wildlife on or close to the trail that won’t move off. If this is the case, detour widely around that animal while making sure to travel gently in the process.

Furthermore, always follow specific hiking regulations concerning wildlife. This may include conforming to seasonal and temporary trail closures. These may help protect nesting birds or keep you away from carcasses that are fed upon by a grizzly bear.

Never Leaving Any Trace Behind

Hike as much as possible in the center of a trail to minimize your impact on the environment. If in a group, hike in a straight line unless your path is wide enough for side-by-side walking.

Avoid detouring around fallen trees, deep ruts, muddy stretches, or other obstacles. Doing this will trample trailside vegetation and can begin making an unofficial path that expands the human footprint. Similarly, never cut corners at switchbacks and take shortcuts.

Additionally, consider going back if the trail is excessively muddy. Hiking on mud has more of a negative impact than hiking on harder soil. This is one of the reasons many forests and parks in the north close trails during the notorious “springtime mud” season.

Using the Bathroom

Backpackers aren’t the only ones who should be prepared to do their business outdoors. This scenario can apply to hikers as well.

Go at least 200 feet off the trail, waterways, and campsites for both No. 1 and No. 2.

If peeing, make sure to pee on bare earth, rocks, or duff instead of living vegetation. When it comes to pooping, pack it out or use the cathole method and pack out your toilet paper.

Taking a Picture

If you ever find a pretty rock or flower along the trail, avoid keeping it and let it stay where it is. While we need a memento for every trip, consider taking a photo instead and move on.

Imagine what the place would look like if the hikers before you took what you’re about to put in your bag. Do the same and be considerate of the hikers coming after you.

Similarly, more and more people are carrying cardboard signs to the top of mountains to take photos for social media. While this is fine, remember the “leave no trace behind” rule. No matter how pretty they are, they’re still trash. Don’t expect other people to clean up your garbage for you.

Conclusion

Practicing common sense on the trail can go a long way to becoming a more responsible hiker. Remember to keep this hiking trail etiquette guide and keep safety in mind.

Happy shopping and stay safe outdoors!

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