Trail Etiquette: Basic Rules Every Hiker Should Know

hikers following trail etiquette
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Every game has its own rules and unwritten conventions and hiking and backpacking is no exception. There are things that we learn through experience and observation and not through training and exams. Trail etiquette is one of them and for the most part, guided by unwritten rules. These rules and conventions are generally accepted and help stay safe, direct traffic on the trail, protect domestic tranquility, promote cleanliness and preserve the wilderness.

Following trail etiquette improves the outdoor experience for everyone on the trail and the people living in the area. You are not alone if you ever got held up in a ridge-line traffic jam and wondered what is the best way to respond to situations like these.

The most important thing to remember is that trail etiquette is about common courtesy and common sense more than anything else. Although most of the things covered here are common sense stuff, it’s not always common among the masses.

With the number of hikers and backpackers increasing steadily around the world, it’s always good to know these basic things that can help maintain a positive atmosphere for everybody.

Sure, these are not commandments, but we need to follow them for a better hiking experience for everyone and to avoid educational scolding from experienced hikers. Let’s start with the right of way and some other tips before moving on to ‘leave no trace’.

The Right of Way

Hikers and backpackers spend most of their time in solitude and peace, but there are times when you have to share the trail with other hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians. Yielding or giving way refers to patiently waiting for your turn to move on.

In the hiking and backpacking world this usually means stepping off the trail slightly and calling others to move on. We’ll go through each of these one by one, but here is a quick summary for the time conscious.

  • Hikers and horses have the right of way over bikers
  • Horses have the right of way over hikers and bikers
  • Horses/mules/other animals yield to no one
  • Hikers moving uphill have the right of way over hikers moving downhill

hikers taking a break on the trail following trail etiquette

Hikers vs. Other Hikers

As a general rule of thumb for backpacking and other activities, anyone going uphill has the right of way. That’s mainly because hikers who are heading up usually have a smaller field of view than those going downhill.

You also would not want to break their pace and rhythm. You should only move downhill if the hiker going uphill gives you a call (to take a break etc.). Whenever in doubt, treat others with respect and get back to solitude.

When passing someone else on a trail from behind, a simple hello is usually enough to announce your presence. Try staying on the trail to minimize erosion, especially when passing by other hikers.

These basic things become even more important when you are hiking/backpacking in groups. In such cases, hikers should try to hike single-file and only take half the trail-space. Failing to do so can destroy drainage diversions and erode switchbacks.

Hikers vs. Bikers

Bikers are expected to yield to hikers because most of them ride on mountain bikes, which are a lot more maneuverable than legs. However, the same bikes are also a lot faster than human legs, so it won’t take long for a hiker to step aside and let them pass, especially when a biker is going up through a tough incline.

It’s also important to be aware of your surroundings, including fast-moving mountain bikers, who should give a call when coming down blind switchbacks and steep slopes. When it comes to hikers vs. bikers, sometimes you have to rely on your common sense.

It’s better to step aside when you see a biker coming towards you blazing the trail. There isn’t much time to think in these kinds of situations and wait for their call. There is no point in bothering the fast-moving bikers when you can easily step aside for a few seconds.

Hikers vs. Horses

Animals are unpredictable, get spooked easily, maneuver slowly on trails and it’s not easy for the rider to maneuver them on tough trails. That’s why horses and other animals get the right of way from both bikers and hikers.

Try giving equestrians as much berth as possible on the trail and avoid making abrupt movements when passing by them. Talk calmly and approach others slowly if you want to talk, so you don’t end up startling the animal.

When walking on narrow trails and passing by horses/mules, it’s better to get off the trail a bit on the downhill side as soon as you spot them approaching. Horses/mules are a lot more likely to run uphill when spooked, so this ensures that you are not in their path when that happens.Try your best not to upset an animal that weighs a lot more than you and can be spooked fairly easily.

man riding horse on a trail

Hiking in Groups

The basic rules are the same as discussed above, but a single hiker/smaller group of hikers should yield to a larger group of hikers. The logic behind this is that if a large group of hikers steps off the trail, it might be damaging for the plants and the trail itself. It’s also easier for a small group/solo hiker to step aside than trying to yield a large group of hikers.

It’s better to split large groups into smaller ones and leave some space for others, allowing other hikers to get around you easily without having to think about who should pass and who should wait. In the end, solo hikers do have the right of way over groups, but it’s better to make your call keeping the situation and terrain in mind.

Another thing to remember when hiking in groups is to do your own work and don’t leave all the chores to the rest of the group members. Experienced hikers should also avoid doing all the things for new hikers as it will prevent them from learning things, and they might become totally dependent on other group members.

When traveling with a group, stay in one place if you are lost and give the group members some time to rescue you (wait for someone to come back). When unsure about your whereabouts, keep close to each other for the safety purposes.

Stay on the Trail and Don’t Cut Switchbacks

Switchbacks refer to the steep and challenging parts of a trail where it is difficult to charge up the incline directly. Switchbacks can vary from 0.01 to 3 miles as well as vary in incline percentage.It’s a good idea to research about the trail before beginning your journey. A trail might only be 5 miles in total length, but if 4 out of 5 miles are switchbacks, that’s going to be one tough trail to finish.

Although a straight line is the fastest and shortest way from point A to point B, hikers should try to stay on the trail unless absolutely necessary for some reason. Staying on the trail is also good for the environment. Worn up trails start showing up when hikers frequently cut switchbacks.

Keep yourself hydrated, keep a comfortable yet steady pace and avoid sitting when taking a break (can bring your heart rate to normal) when trying to make it up switchbacks. If you use hiking poles, it’s recommended to shorten them or hold non-adjustable ones further down.

Trying to cut out a switchback can cause you to lose grip and you may start sliding back down to the main trail. In addition to a risk of injury, you are also likely to damage the soil around you and erode the trail.  This can create channels through which water can easily flow downhill and further damage the trail. You can easily prevent this from happening by simply staying on the trail.

Keep Left/Right

Depending on where you are hiking you need to keep to the right or the left, which follows the driving rules of the country. For example, in countries like the USA and some countries in Europe, it’s the right side, while in countries such as Australia and the UK it’s the left side. Don’t be surprised if you see hikers walking on the opposite because either they don’t know this basic rule or are from somewhere where they drive on the opposite side.

The Don’ts of Hiking

Avoid Sour Attitude, Say Hello often and Keep a Smiley Face

With so much serenity, beauty and peace to absorb from the natural world, there should be no space left for a sour attitude.  Be courteous and don’t forget to keep a smiling face when on the trail. Just a smile can make a big difference and enrich the outdoor experience of everyone. Being friendly is good for the soul as well as for your own safety and well-being on the trail.

Greet people you come across during the hike with a smile on your face, be friendly and stop for a while to chat. This in some cases can even save your life. If someone has to come back and look for you when you are in danger or lost, those you met along the way are more likely to remember a smiling face and eyes they have made contact with. Most importantly, you can make the day of someone else better because it’s not all about you.

Don’t get upset when you don’t get a positive response despite being friendly to others. Some people are not interested in talking to complete strangers and might think of you as someone creepy.

Politely say goodbye if you think the conversation isn’t going well or the other person does not seem to be interested in it anymore. Similarly, use your gut instinct to spot people who are unsafe to talk to. In such situations just try to keep moving.

Avoid Bringing the Tunes

Most hikers and backpackers want some peace and have a certain outdoor vibe. Blasting music in the wilderness disintegrates the quiet and peace in a large radius. Things such as these are more suitable on car rides and in your own private time at home. Use hands-free earphones if you must listen to music on the trail, but there is no alternative to soaking up nature’s tranquil sounds.

Avoid Leaving Trash Behind

Finding trash on the trail is a disappointment for hikers even if it’s something small in size. It can make a big mess when thousands of hikers keep throwing their trash on the trail and might cause other hikers not to visit the trail again. Man-made stuff that you brought to the trail should also go back with you. Always keep ziplock bags that are recyclable and can be cleaned easily.

Avoid Vandalism

Vandalism is not only unethical, but it’s also illegal in most countries. It’s likely that the initials of you and your partner inside a heart will last longer than the relationship itself. In addition to avoiding it yourself, you can also report these things to the authorities. Also, avoid rolling off stones from cliffs and trails because you never know it might hit someone below you.

Avoid Treating Sick Wildlife Yourself

There might be situations when you’ll come across a sick or injured animal. Instead of trying to move or treat it yourself, try contacting a wildlife officer.

Avoid Recreating Cairns

Many hikers find it tempting to recreate the rock piles that are perfectly balanced on a trail. There is no functional benefit of doing so, instead these already balanced piles often serve as turns, trail markers or point of interest deep in the forest. Recreating cairns can cause confusion, erosion and even some trouble for other hikers. It’s best to keep the wilderness untouched. Avoid building a cairn yourself, but if you see a cairn along the way, just let it be and avoid destroying it.

stone cairn on side of cliff overlooking trees at daytime

When Sleeping in Shared Shelters, Cabins etc.

  • Don’t mess around with or move other’s gear when sharing space. When really necessary to move gear of others, ask first, they won’t say no in most cases
  • Set up the gear and keep everything ready before it gets dark to avoid disturbing others who might want to fall asleep early
  • Leave the cabin/shelter cleaner than it was before your arrival
  • Don’t make loud noises/play music/talk loudly when it gets dark, especially in small cabins. It’s also not the right time to unpack or get tomorrow’s food ready
  • If you are a snorer and the weather/situation allows, sleep outside
  • Avoid taking a lot of space inside the shared kitchens, which have a limited space that others also have to use. Finish whatever you have to do there as quickly as possible and pack up your stuff after you are done.
  • Don’t irritate others with smelly socks. Try merino wool socks such as Silverlight that prevent bacteria and odor from building up and wick moisture like a champ

Leave No Trace

Depending on the local laws and best practices, it’s important to understand things such as where to dispose of waste and camp. This helps ensure clean, beautiful and pristine trails and a better outdoor experience for everyone. The basic principle of leaving no trace is to make the wilderness even better or at least leave it as it is. Here are some basic principles for leaving no trace:

Prepare and Plan Well Ahead

  • Make sure to read and understand the local regulations as well as special instructions for the trail you are about to visit
  • Always be prepared for extreme conditions such as emergencies, unexpected weather and other hazards.
  • Schedule your adventures such that you can avoid high-use times
  • Prepare a backpacking checklist to make sure you don’t miss anything important
  • Wear appropriate shoes and clothing according to the climate and terrain. Lightweight hiking shoes are a better option in most situations than heavy-duty hiking boots
  • Be prepared for blisters and keep a blister treatment kit
  • Hiking is a challenging endeavor, so make sure to understand the challenges associated with it
  • It’s equally important to consider the mental challenges with loneliness being the biggest. Keep a check on your goals along the way and focus more on immediate goals instead of thinking about the whole journey
  • Make sure to properly do the financials, especially the cost of thru-hiking which can be costly affair for most
  • Try hiking in smaller groups or break a large group into smaller segments
  • Pack as light as possible, please refer to our dedicated post on ultralight backpacking
  • Choose your socks wisely and avoid cotton
  • Minimize waste by repackaging items and food
  • A map, compass or other navigational equipment saves you from having to use paint for marking, flagging or creating rock cairns
  • Research in advance about possible dangers such as poisonous plants, falling rocks and dangerous wildlife
  • Be extra careful near steep slopes and cliff edges
  • When in doubt about conditions ahead, ask someone or head back calmly and slowly

Avoid Getting Exhausted and Be Prepared For Group Hiking

  • Try not to push yourself too hard and don’t ignore the signs of fatigue
  • Understand what you are capable of and don’t depend on your group members for everything
  • Pack supplies that you are able to carry, preferably lightweight snacks for quick energy and essential survival tools
  • Always be aware of how many hours you are left with before sunset
  • When hiking solo, make sure to inform others and keep them updated about your whereabouts whenever you can
  • Avoid venturing off marked paths and retrace your steps back if you think you might have gotten off course

Camping

  • Camp only on surfaces that are durable, including established campsites, dry grass, gravel or sow in cold weather.
  • Try to camp at least 200-feet away from streams and lakes to protect riparian areas
  • Instead of trying to make a good campsite, try finding one. In most cases you’d find one and don’t have to alter a site to make room for your camp
  • Avoid taking up a lot of space for the camp, which can make it difficult for other campers to pitch their tents
  • Avoid camping right next to others unless you are left with no other choice. Tents are not sound-proof so keep that in mind when setting up a camp and spending the night
  • Proper Disposal of Waste (including waste of pets)
  • Properly dispose of the waste and take your waste with you when leaving
  • Make sure to scan the rest areas and the campsite for trash and pick it up
  • Dig 6-8 inch catholes to deposit human/pet waste and cover them afterwards, the holes should be at least 200-feet away from the trail, campsite and water
  • Keep toilet paper and other hygiene products
  • Similarly, wash at least 200-feet away from the water source such as lakes and use biodegradable soap

hikers camping in mountains near lake

Leave Everything Untouched on the Trail

  • Avoid touching and examining historic structures, cultural items and artifacts along the way
  • Leave everything along the path as it is, including plants, rocks and natural objects
  • Avoid bringing in non-native species or transporting native species from the trail areas
  • Avoid digging trenches or building structures along the way
  • Be Careful with the campfires and minimize its impact by things such as a lightweight stove and candle lantern
  • Fires are not permitted on all trails and where they are permitted, make sure to use established fire rings, mound fires and fire pans
  • Try to keep fire as small as possible by using small sticks that can easily be broken by hand
  • Let the wood and coal burn to ash, which makes it easier to completely put out campfires and then scatter the cool ash

Respect Wildlife (and Control Your Pets)

  • Respect wildlife and observe it from a distance instead of going near them or feeding them
  • Feeding wildlife can be bad for the animals health and might alter their natural behavior. This can expose them to other dangers as well including predators (feeding animals can make them lower their guard)
  • Store both your food and trash securely to protect from wildlife
  • Make sure to keep control of your pets throughout the journey
  • Don’t try to get near wildlife, especially under certain circumstances such as when they are nesting, mating, raising the young or during winter
  • If a trail allows you to unleash your dog/pet, make sure to always keep them within line of sight
  • Keep your dog under command when you see another hiker approaching towards you and let them know if your pet is friendly or not
  • Don’t let the poop bags of your pets lying around, thinking you’ll pick them up and dispose of on your way back, dispose the waste timely and don’t wait for it
  • Keep distance when observing wildlife and do not approach or follow them

black bear near trees

Be Courteous and Respect Visitors

  • Consider other hikers/visitors and be courteous
  • Camp and take breaks away from the locals, other visitors and the trail
  • Avoid playing loud music or making loud sounds and let the sounds of nature prevail

The Grey Areas

It’s hard to give a verdict on some things such as use of smartphones and bringing other technology on the trail. It’s almost impossible to live without modern technologies in today’s information-driven era.

However, the best advice we can give is to use electronic devices sparingly while being aware of your surroundings. Avoid making loud phone calls and put the smartphone on airplane mode when not in use. This not only helps preserve the battery, but also allows you to focus on what matters most i.e. nature and the environment.

Try not to get in the way of others when taking pictures and use earbuds if you want to listen to the music. Use common sense and decide according to the situation.

You might encounter people who feel like they can do whatever they want on a trail. You need to keep your guard on and eyes open in all situations for your own safety. You can report such incidences later to the authorities. These are just a few examples of some grey areas. You have to judge the situation and make appropriate decisions yourself while keeping the other basic hiking etiquettes in mind.

What to do During the COVID-19 Pandemic?

The best option is obviously to stay home, especially if you or someone around you has been exposed to the virus. Social distancing slows down the spread so it’s recommended to limit yourself to essential trips for the time being.

Empty trails do not necessarily mean that they are open for the public, so avoid going to the trails that are officially closed. Many public places and trails are open, but make sure to keep a safe distance and avoid group interactions unless necessary.

It’s not practical to keep wearing a mask throughout the whole journey, especially when thru-hiking, but you should at least wear a mask when coming into close distance to others on the trail.

When passing by other hikers, step as far as possible to the side to maintain the 2-meter recommended distance. It’s better to avoid narrow trails if you think you won’t be able to maintain a safe distance.

All hikers need to play their role in restricting the spread of coronavirus and it’s their responsibility to take precautionary measures as specified by health organizations.

With most of the parks and other public spaces being closed, we can assume that there will be more people on the trails that are open, so that’s another factor to keep in mind.

Follow the aforementioned trail etiquette tips for safer traveling and to avoid putting yourself and others at risk

hiker wearing a mask

Conclusion

Common sense and courtesy remain the golden rules of trail etiquette. Hikers and backpackers should be aware of generally accepted hiking conventions and follow them to make the experience memorable for themselves as well as other hikers and locals they encounter during their adventures. Trails are shared and we should not treat them like they belong to us and that we can do whatever we like when hiking.

Keeping your cell-phone off and hiking quietly might sound like little things. But things like these make hiking more enjoyable for everyone and allow you to truly enjoy the sounds of nature and your surroundings. When taking a break, allow others to pass by and move off the trail a bit.

Don’t keep tossing your trash along the way, even if you are carrying biodegradable items (may not be good for the native species). Keep your pets under control and on a leash. Instead of bringing native plants and other stuff, the things you should come back home with are memories, amazing photos and an improved fitness level.

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trail etiquette basic rules every hiker should know

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