Everything You Need to Know About Trail Etiquette

Posted by
Sarah Lamagna
July 18, 2022

rules of hiking etiquette
Photo: Shutterstock

As more hikers flock to public lands, there is now more need for educating (and re-educating) outdoor enthusiasts on trail etiquette.

Wait, what? There’s etiquette on the trail? As there is with most everything in life, there are some unwritten (as well as written) rules to follow whenever you head out hiking. Even the most seasoned of hikers might need a refresher course on all things trail etiquette. It happens to the best of us — we get lax with our dogs, forget who has the right-of-way, and sometimes we just really want to blast that new Harry Styles album while getting our hike on — guilty!

Here’s the thing, though. For everyone to have the safest and best experience, there are some basic rules of etiquette for hiking. If we all followed them, there would likely never be a bad day out on the trail. So sit tight and read everything you need to know about trail etiquette below!

Uphill Hikers Have the Right-of-Way

This always seems to be a bone of contention for most folks, but it’s true, nonetheless. For the most part, hikers in the United States yield to those who are going uphill. Other countries have different customs so make sure you know the rules ahead of time (like in certain cultures, elderly folks on the trail have the right-of-way no matter the direction they’re going).

uphill hikers get right of way
Photo: Shutterstock

It doesn’t matter if you’re hauling butt up a mountain or fearfully clinging to life heading down into a canyon — those going down must yield to those going up. The reasons behind this include uphill hikers having a narrower line of sight and having a harder time gaining their momentum back.

I’ll tell you about the time I was carrying my 40-pound kiddo up a trail and had to stop for someone who didn’t know the etiquette. Boy, did my kid school them! In many instances, the uphill hikers tend to want a break so in those cases, you can quickly walk past them. The point is that they are the ones to decide that.

…But Not Necessarily if You’re a Biker, Horseback Rider, or in a Group

There are some nuances with this though when it comes to other trail users and groups. For instance, bikers always yield to hikers and horses/stock animals. If you are walking uphill and a mountain biker comes from behind you, though, be nice and move over — they’re working overtime! Hikers also yield to horses/stock animals.

If an uphill solo hiker encounters a group going down, the general rule is that the solo hiker should stop to allow the group to pass. This mostly has to do with having as minimal impact on the sides of trails as possible. If a group of six has to move over for one person, that causes a lot more damage than if only one person has to move over for six people to head down a trail.

There is Such a Thing as Noise Pollution

Most people think of smog or plastic in the ocean when they think of pollution. But did you know that there is such a thing called noise pollution? Granted, noise pollution usually relates to large cities where there is a constant “humming” because of traffic or mine/construction sites. However, when you bring your Bluetooth speakers on a trail and blast Lizzo’s latest hit, this is also considered noise pollution and definitely bad trail etiquette.

Many hikers get outdoors for the peace and quiet that surrounds them as they traverse a trail. This has become increasingly more difficult due to the sheer number of people getting out onto our public lands. The last thing any of us need is for a hiker to pass us and then we trail behind them for a few minutes while listening to whatever their taste in music is. It ruins the experience.

So either leave your Bluetooth speakers at home or bring headphones. If you do the latter, make sure you’re also staying safe and keeping one earbud out so you can always be alert on the trail. You don’t want a black bear sneaking up on you just because Beyonce’s latest album just dropped.

Leave a Place Better than You Found it

This seems like it should be a given but apparently it’s not. Trail etiquette starts with following the seven principles of Leave No Trace, but it also goes beyond that by leaving a place better than you found it. If you’re bringing your dog, make sure you have plenty of poo bags to pick up after them. And don’t just pick it up and then leave the bag on the side of the trail — what was the point if you do that?

picking up trash hiking
Photo: Manu Reyes

Also, just because something might be decomposable, doesn’t mean you should chuck it on the ground either. This means everything you pack in should be packed out: pistachio shells, orange peels, granola, whatever. Always have a reusable bag to place any trash in, including trash you find from others. It takes very little effort to pick up after those who might not be as mindful.

Make Yourself Known

As a slower hiker myself, I have many trail users pass me regularly but very little of them announce themselves. It’s just common courtesy to say “hello” or “on your left” or whatever phrase you come up with. When someone does announce themselves, I usually follow up their statement with “don’t mind me, just a geriatric millennial making her way up the trail.” Most people don’t laugh.

It’s also good if you’re coming around a bend or blind spot on the trail to say something along the lines of “coming ‘round” or “hiker incoming.” This is especially important for you weirdos who like the trail run (my personal version of hell) and are speedsters on the path.

Smoking Kills in More Way than One

I’ll keep this one short and sweet. Smoking isn’t just bad for you, it’s bad for others and the environment too. It’s becoming increasingly bad especially in the western states where unprecedented droughts are now commonplace. All it takes is one spark for an entire forest to go up in flames.

Leave the Heavy Perfumes at Home

We all smell, especially when we’re outside huffing and puffing out way up a mountain. It’s a given that there’s going to be some stink on the trail. But what we shouldn’t find are heavy perfumes that many people are sensitive to.

Plus, did you know that perfumes attract pests like mosquitos and bees? So unless you want an army of honey bees following you and noseeums attacking every inch of your body, leave the heavy perfumes/scents at home. Instead, opt for the unscented deodorants.

Kindness Matters

Again, this seems like a given but it’s important to point out. Kindness really does matter on the trail. I don’t mean that you should be overly friendly to everyone on the trail. What I mean is for you to help when you can. If you see a hurt hiker or someone who might be having a hard time, check in to see if they’re alright. Maybe you’ve got more in your first aid kit or a spare electrolyte packet.

kindness on the trail
Photo: Blazej Lyjak

I once sprained my ankle trying to get down a mountain too quickly to get out of the elements with my two-year-old at the time. A nice couple stopped and offered to carry my kid down the mountain while I hobbled the three miles back to my car. I’m now good friends with them. I’ve also given other parents a small bottle of bubbles on the trail when I noticed that their kiddo was having a tantrum.

Another way to be kind is to call out hazards to other trail users. If you see wildlife or if there’s a downed tree across a trail, it’s nice to let those you pass know about an upcoming hazard. It’s really the small things that can make a difference.

Stop Stacking Rocks

Many people have recently taken up the hobby of “rock stacking” or creating cairns on the trail. But did you know that stacks of rocks on a trail actually mean something? It’s usually a trail marker for trails that are above treeline or don’t have any solid piece of rock to paint a trail blaze on.

So when you make rock cairns that aren’t associated with a trail, you are potentially confusing other trail users on where the trail goes. Feel free to do whatever you’d like on your own property, but cease from stacking rocks on the trail.

Go Through the Mud

I know it’s icky, but don’t go around the mud on the trail — instead, go right through it. This is also the case for any water on the trail which means you should always have proper footwear. The reason you shouldn’t go around the mud is because it inherently widens a trail and accelerates erosion. This is bad and can cause land management agencies to completely shut down trails if it gets to unacceptable levels.

I’ll go even further and simply state, stay on the trail. Don’t make “social trails” and avoid going off trail as much as possible. The exceptions being to relieve yourselves which should be away from the trail anyway.

Bring the Right Gear

In other words, come prepared. If you’re headed out on a snowshoeing trail, make sure to bring snowshoes. If you start post-holing (i.e., when your leg plunges below the snow’s surface), not only is it a miserable hike, it’s also annoying for those who come after you.

Bringing the right gear also saves lives and prevents search and rescue workers from having to come find you. Bringing those extra layers or having that bear spray could be the difference between life and death.

Pay Attention to Leash Laws

This is likely one of the biggest pet peeves for most people on the trail. Many dog owners, myself included, think that their dog is the best dog. And they might very well be (mine sure is). But there are leash laws in place for a reason. It’s not only to keep other trail users safe, but your dog and the wildlife you might encounter the trail safe too.

hiking with dog on leash
Photo: Shutterstock

Even if your dog has great call-back and has never chased a deer or bitten a child in their life, you just never know. Keep dogs on leash when leash laws are in place or simply go to a trail that allows off-leash dogs (there are plenty to choose from).

A Friendly Hello Goes a Long Way (Except When it Doesn’t)

As a woman, I get very tired of other people telling me to smile more. I’m not here to make things more pleasant for you by smiling. But that’s not what I’m saying here. A simple “hello” or “have a good hike” gives other trail users a space that feels welcoming to them. And in a space like the outdoors which has been cut off for many underrepresented groups, this is more important than ever.

But, I’ll also state that when it comes to hiking solo on the trail (especially as a woman), you do NOT have to say hello to everyone. If someone is giving you bad vibes, feel free to move by quickly and avoid acknowledging them altogether. There is no shame in that and should, in fact, be avoided. Your safety should always come first.

The Moral of the Story

By doing the tiniest bit of research, staying relatively kind, and knowing trail etiquette, everyone’s experience on the trail will be better off. If everyone’s experience is even the slightest bit better, that means they’re likely to come back out again and continue to be better land stewards. Being better land stewards leads to trails being conserved for generations to come!

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