Footsteps in the Forest

Trail Etiquette

9 Important Rules for Enjoying the Great Outdoors

Athletes shouldn’t step on their team’s logo.

Diners should politely argue about who gets the privilege of paying the bill (even if you’re secretly hoping to lose).

Movie goers should shut their yaps once the film starts.

There are rules of etiquette for nearly all aspects of human existence.

And that includes those times when you’re enjoying the trail. That’s right – bikers, hikers, and even horseback rides need to follow a few important rules of etiquette while spending time in the great outdoors.

Don’t worry; most are pretty intuitive, and they’re all easy. We’ll share some of the most important ones below.

Nine Rules of Trail Etiquette: Do This; Don’t Do That

Different people will organize their thoughts on trail etiquette in different ways, but we’ve broken them down into nine basic rules. Just make sure you familiarize yourself with them before your next adventure.

1. Follow all posted rules.

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The rules often differ from one trail to the next.

Fires are allowed on some but not others. Bikes are welcomed on some but prohibited on others. Permits are required for some yet unnecessary for others.

In practice, you’ll typically find the rules posted at most good trailheads include some basic trail etiquette guidelines (like those shared here), as well as some location-specific rules. This means experienced hikers can generally skim the list and pick out any unusual rules they must follow. 

2. Be polite and respect everyone you encounter.

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This could honestly just be considered plain ‘ol etiquette – no “trail” qualifier is necessary.

But it is important to be polite to the people you encounter while enjoying the great outdoors.

We’ll stop short of saying you need to be outright friendly. You shouldn’t feel obligated to interact with others you encounter if you don’t want to (though it bears mentioning that being social on the trail may provide additional health benefits when hiking).

Many of us hit the trail specifically for the solitude it often provides.

Nevertheless,

But you do need to be courteous and avoid negatively impacting anyone else’s time.

And remember: Being polite isn’t just worth doing for its own right; it can also help avoid (potentially violent) encounters.

3. Practice “leave no trace” principles.

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Everyone should embrace leave-no-trace principles – there’s just no way around it. Many of us love hiking, biking, paddling, camping, birding or geocaching because it takes place in a natural, “unspoiled” area.

But when you leave your protein bar wrapper on the trail, you ruin this for others. So don’t be a litterbug – pack out what you pack in.  

And on the flip side, don’t take things from the natural world, either.

No, the single bigleaf magnolia leaf you take isn’t going to cause the ecosystem to come crashing to its knees. But you aren’t the only one out there (potentially) doing so. And if everyone took one, it would cause significant harm to the environment.

4. Learn who has the right-of-way.

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As long as you stay on the trail, you can walk wherever you like while you’re alone. But once you see anyone else approaching (from in front of you or behind), you’ll need to snap into trail-right-of-way 101.

In a nutshell, the right of way rules on the trail work as follows:

  • Horses have the right of way at all times. Horses are living animals, who’re not entirely predictable, and they’re not as nimble as hikers or bikers. So, hikers and bikers must yield and give horses plenty of room to pass.
  • Bikers should yield to hikers. There is no debate about who has the right-of-way. However, in practice, it is often far easier for hikers to simply step aside and allow bikers to pass. Bikers should be prepared to yield, but hikers who yield to hikers will allow everyone to better enjoy the trail and earn a ton of good karma.
  • Hikers moving downhill should yield to those moving uphill. Hikers walking downhill have a much broader field of view and are generally not working as hard, so it is easier (and safer) for them to yield to their hill-climbing counterparts.
  • Small groups of hikers should yield to large groups of hikers. If you encounter a whole cadre of hikers while you’re out there by yourself or with your special sweetie, step aside and let them pass. 
  • Hikers with dogs should yield to everyone. Like horses, dogs often act in unpredictable ways – yes, even your dog, Karen. Pull your pooch to the side and allow hikers, bikers and – especially – horses to pass in peace.

5. Mind your mutt’s manners.

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Speaking of dogs, there are a variety of additional points of etiquette dog walkers must embrace in the name of politeness, safety and general order.

For starters, unless the area you’re walking in specifically allows for off-leash dogs, keep your dog leashed. Period.

Some people are frightened of dogs. For that matter, many dogs don’t like other dogs.

You’ll find that relatively few wilderness areas allow off-leash dogs, anyway, as they’re often dedicated to protecting wildlife. And we covered all that in rule number one (follow all posted rules).

Leash issues aside, it’s also important that you don’t allow your doggo to approach people who don’t want to interact with him or her. Also, be sure to collect your dog’s poop and – more importantly, in my mind – take the bag with you. I’d rather see someone not pick up their dog’s poop in a natural area than to bag it and leave the obnoxious-looking bag (which will take forever to biodegrade) on the side of the trail.

6. Walk single file when traveling in groups.

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There are few things more annoying than being stuck behind a group of slow hikers that are taking up the whole trail.

Look, go slow if you want – no one has a problem with that. But stick to a single-file line on the right side of the trail. That way, faster hikers can pass you easily. Incidentally, be sure to give other hikers a heads up when you’re passing them. A simple “on your left” or “hello!” works.

Along the same lines, be mindful of the places you stop for a break when you’re in a large group. Don’t hog entire areas or post up in trail bottlenecks.

7. Poop and pee properly.

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There’s nothing wrong with answering nature’s call while enjoying nature. But you need to do so in a respectful and environmentally friendly manner.

Start by always traveling at least 200 feet from the trail (or any water source). That’s actually a pretty significant distance – roughly 2/3 of an (American) football field. You can’t just tinkle on the far side of a trail-side tree.

If, for some reason, you can’t achieve this, just use your judgement and do your best. Try to find a sheltered spot as far away from trails, creeks and campsites so nobody sees anything they’d rather not witness.

Also, don’t leave toilet paper behind – you gotta pack it out or burn it (assuming you can do so in a safe manner). Ladies may be interested in checking out Kula Cloths or similar toilet-paper alternatives to avoid this problem.    

8. Stay on the trail (barring a few exceptions).

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This is one of the simplest rules to follow. After all, you probably spent some time deciding which trail to enjoy, so once you’re on it, stay on it.

And it is especially important that you stick to the trail when encountering switchbacks – don’t take a straight line to cut down on the distance. Switchbacks are important for allowing the safe passage of horses, preventing erosion, and making some grueling climbs a bit easier for hikers and bikers.

All of that said, this isn’t an unbreakable rule — there are a few reasons you may have to temporarily go off trail.

As we just discussed, you may have to relieve yourself, which is best accomplished away from the trail, or you may have to walk around a downed tree. You may even need to select a campsite that’s off-trail in some parks. You may also want to just snap a photo of something noteworthy or beautiful – just refrain from doing so in ecologically fragile areas.

9. Don’t be loud.  

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We honestly thought about listing this etiquette rule first, given how absolutely maddening it is.

You can certainly talk with the other members of your crew, but don’t unnecessarily shout or carry on at high volumes (emergencies are obviously an exception). This also means keeping your kiddos reasonably quiet. We all get that kids are going to shriek, laugh, exclaim and shout on occasion — but let’s keep it to occasions, rather than constantly.

Similarly, we understand — and often share — the desire to listen to music on the trail. But if you want to rock down the trail, you simply must ride or hike with earbuds. Forcing other people to listen to your music is rude, and it disrupts the tranquility of the great outdoors.

And keep in mind that loud noises aren’t only annoying for other hikers but the local wildlife as well.

Trail Etiquette Infographic

Need something easy to share or print? Just check out our handy trail etiquette infographic. Feel free to share it!

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There are certainly times in which some of the rules and principles discussed above won’t apply, but treat these exceptions as just that – exceptions.

By doing so, you’ll avoid spoiling the fun of your fellow trail travelers and help protect the natural environments we all love so much.

Let us know your thoughts on trail etiquette in the comments below. Are there any rules we missed? Are there any you think should be relaxed? Let’s hear it!

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