Trail Etiquette 101: The Basic Rules of Hiking

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Trail Etiquette 101: The Basic Rules of Hiking

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As an avid adventurer with years of hiking experience, I’ve been through it all. I know what it’s like to start as a beginner hiker but wanting to explore all the unique places around me.

Hitting a hiking trail to explore a new environment is an exciting way to connect with nature and pick up a new hobby. But there are some general guidelines you should try to follow in regards to hiking etiquette.

If everybody follows proper trail etiquette and the unwritten rules of hiking, it creates a more positive atmosphere for everyone on the trail while protecting the natural environment at the same time.

So what’s considered to be the proper etiquette while on the trail? Let’s dive in.

Yield and Give Right of Way

The first thing to keep in mind is who has the right of way in different scenarios. Uphill or downhill hikers? Individuals or groups? Hikers or bikers? While there isn’t a guidebook of rules for trail users, these are the general best practices when passing others and giving the right of way on the trail.

Who Has the Right of Way on a Hill?

Uphill hikers always have the right of way.

When going uphill constant momentum helps hikers push through the tough parts of the climb. When going downhill, downhill hikers have a greater site of the trail allowing for more time to find better places to step off the side of the trail.

Trail users should yield to uphill traffic and step to the side unless the uphill hiker steps aside first, as the decision is up to them.

Do Groups or Individuals Have the Right of Way?

Following proper trail etiquette, groups should always yield to an individual or pair of hikers.

If hiking in a group, hike single file and stay to the right side of the trail. Although individuals technically have the right of way, it is generally easier for an individual to step to the side and let the group pass. Use common sense and follow what the individual decides.

Horses, Hikers, and Bikers: Who Yields to Who?

Proper trail etiquette states horses always have the right of way. Mountain bikers and hikers yield to horses and mountain bikers yield to hikers.

Before you begin hiking, check the trailhead map and information to see if horses and mountain bikes are prohibited on the trail.

Another one of the main rules of hiking is that if you encounter horses or other livestock, step off the trail as soon as possible. Many animals have unpredictable behaviors and feel skittish around humans. As prey animals, they often feel threatened by larger beings. Step off the trail on the downhill side to appear smaller to the animal.

Normally mountain bikers should yield to hikers, however, this is situational. When mountain biking, it is much harder to slow down riding a mountain bike. As a hiker, if you notice you’re in an easy position to step off the trail, it’s best to do so and let the mountain biker pass.

Follow General Hiking Safety Rules

As a hiking trail user, staying safe on the trail is one of the most important ways to assure an enjoyable time while hiking. Make sure you plan ahead and stay assertive while exploring to minimize the risk of accidents.

Watch Where You Step

Snakes are common in many different biomes and are typically easy enough to avoid if you watch your footing. Most snakes will slither away on their own, as long as they are not stepped on. When walking through a narrow trail with tall grass it can be helpful to lead with hiking poles to scare them away from a greater distance.

In desert regions watch out for larger insects. It’s not uncommon for a scorpion or tarantula to cross your path. Like other animals, they’re more scared of you, so give them their space and be on the lookout.

Carry Bear Spray in Grizzly Country

Some locations have specific rules about animal safety. Montana, Wyoming, and parts of Idaho lie in grizzly bear country; you may be required to carry bear spray (and knowing how to use it is important too!).

Follow the Rock Cairns so You Don’t Get Lost

Piles of rocks or cairns are commonly used to mark the direction of travel where trails open up or where vegetation is sparse across boulder fields and solid rock. They are set in specific locations to make trail navigation easier.

Unless you are knowledgeable about proper rock cairn placement, do not add cairns along trails. Improperly placed cairns can confuse hikers and divert them off route which is dangerous for both humans and the surrounding habitat.

Awkwardly placed cairns that are stacked too high or are prone to fall over risk injuring wildlife. In Great Smoky Mountains National Park, inadequately placed cairns in a river bed affected the breeding grounds for salamanders and fish. Moving or removing the rocks can destroy the habitat of the native wildlife. Cairns stacked too high have also injured bears when knocked over.

Keep Your Dog On A Leash

When on trails, always keep your dog on a leash. Everyone else on the trail has the right away to dogs. Yield to horses, mountain bikers, and all other hikers. Be sure to take care of any waste your dog leaves on trails.

Carry a First Aid Kit

Blisters, small cuts, open wounds, and sprains are not unusual while hiking. First aid kit supplies often provide enough care to reduce the risk of infection or further injury. The MyMedic Solo is a fantastic first aid kit for a solo hiker, though they also make larger kits like the MyFAK for larger groups.

Sign in at the Trailhead

Some trails have log books at the trailhead. Log your name, your party size, your expected route, the time you start, and when you sign out, the time you finish. 

If there is any concern you are missing this information is valuable to search in rescue. Also, it allows the park or area to track how many people frequent the trail.

Let a Friend Know

Before you hit the trails be sure to let someone know where you’re going. Give them as much information as possible; the park or area name, the trailhead name, and an approximate time they should expect to hear back from you if there is no cell service.

Follow Trail Etiquette and Stay on the Trail

Trails were built by crews to preserve commonly trafficked areas while protecting fragile vegetation. Cutting switchbacks or stepping off trail for photos affects both plants and wildlife and contributes to erosion which deteriorates the area.

Certain trail conditions make it especially tempting to wander off-trail but it should be avoided. Flower meadows bloom beautifully in the spring. Walking through these fields tramples flowers. This ruins views for other hikers and harms the habitat of insects and small animals.

It’s especially important to stay on the trail in deserts. In some desert regions, there is an important microorganism called cryptobiotic crust. This microorganism protects the desert soil from blowing in the wind and helps manage water absorption after flash floods. It is fragile and can be ruined in seconds but takes decades to hundreds of years to recover.

Do Your Business 200 Feet Away

Going to the bathroom outside is a normal occurrence, however, there are some important rules of the trail to follow when doing so.

For both liquid and solid waste stay at least 200 feet from any water sources, trails, or campsites.

  • In a forest environment or a place with loose soil, bury solid waste. Use a trowel (I love the GSI Trowel) or a rock to dig a hole between 6-8 inches deep and 4-6 inches in diameter. Cover up the waste with the surrounding soil from which you dug the hole.
  • In desert environments where the sand or soil is rocky, or in areas of exposed rock, it is best to pack out human waste in a WAG bag (Waste Alleviation and Gelling)—basically, a doggie bag for humans. WAG bags are usually available at local stores or on trails for donation.

Follow Leave No Trace Principles

The Leave No Trace Principles are guidelines to minimize human impact on the environment while visiting the outdoors. Whether you are visiting a local park, hiking in the backcountry, or spending time in your backyard trail etiquette applies to all wilderness areas.

The seven Leave No Trace Principles are:

  1. Plan Ahead & Prepare
  2. Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly
  4. Leave What You Find
  5. Minimize Campfire Impacts
  6. Respect Wildlife
  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors

These Leave No Trace principles are an important part of following trail etiquette. To maximize trail beauty be sure to pack out waste and leave the environment natural.

Leave Natural Objects

Don’t take pinecones, grass, or rocks. In some places, it’s illegal to take these items. Pinecones are homes for insects and are filled with seeds to help repopulate the forest. The more people start taking these items, the greater effect it will have on the area over time.

Pack Out All Toilet Paper in a Plastic Bag

Seeing toilet paper piled up looks unpleasant and as one person does it, more rubbish accumulates which ruins the landscape. Toilet paper takes time to break down and decompose especially in dry environments or where vegetation is scarce. Avoid burning it as that can start forest fires.

Pack Out All Trash

While hiking on trails, be sure to pack out everything you bring with you. Oftentimes, there are minimal trash cans. If they are available, use them, but they quickly fill up. If this is the case, don’t pile your trash on top, just pack it out.

Don’t Leave Food Scraps

Pack out banana peels, apple cores, anything you eat. While these foods will disintegrate into the soil, they take much longer to decompose than thought. These foods are not native to these environments and scraps give off an unpleasant aesthetic.

Dropping food scraps along trails or out a car window attracts animals closer commonly frequented areas. This can result in unnecessary interactions between wildlife and hikers or drivers.

Be Friendly and Mindful of Other Hikers

While hiking it’s important to create a welcoming environment for all visitors. Friendliness and respect go a long way in maximizing hiker enjoyment while on the trail.

Say Hello!

A simple “hello” or nod to other hikers when passing them establishes a friendly trail etiquette. It’s an easy way to start a conversation, encourage someone on their way to a viewpoint, or provide a warning about what may be ahead. If an accident occurs, having greeted someone earlier in the day will often make others more likely to stop and help you.

Avoid Smoking

Many people head outdoors to hike in the fresh air. When breathing in the forest aroma no one wants to smell smoke. Therefore, it’s best to avoid smoking when around any other hikers. 

If you choose to, be especially careful during fire season as cigarettes have been the cause of forest fires. Be sure to pack out any cigarette remains. Don’t bury them in the soil.

Avoid Disruptive Sounds

Don’t blast music while on the trail. Many people explore the outdoors to enjoy the peaceful sounds of nature. While you might love your taste of music, not everyone else does. If you choose to listen to music it is best to do so by wearing one earbud which allows you to stay alert to sounds on the trail.

When traveling in a group don’t be loud and disruptive. This is generally a problem with larger groups. Out of respect for wildlife and other visitors try to keep your tone low.

Pass on the Left

When passing someone on a trail proper trail etiquette is to hike on the right and pass on the left. To avoid startling someone when approaching them from behind announce your presence by saying “passing on your left” or “hey, can I pass you?” is appreciated.

The Unwritten Rules of Electronics on the Trail

Smartphones are commonly used on the trail. They take great photos and allow you to download topographic trail maps, such as AllTrails, which can prevent getting lost. When using phones, use common sense and remain mindful of others around you. Step aside while taking photos on the trail. Avoid phone calls.

Drones are another commonly debated topic on the trail. Should you use them or not? While drones can capture incredible footage, they are also loud and distracting. If you choose to fly a drone in a populated area, make sure you ask others around you if it’s ok. The buzzing sound can take away from the tranquil landscape.

Be sure to check the local rules before venturing out. Drones are banned in all US National Parks and visitors can receive fines for using them. Also, drone crashes risk starting forest fires in dry environments and have been known to interfere with native bird species.

Do Not Disturb Wildlife

The opportunity to see wildlife while on the trail is an exciting experience but safety for both you and the animals is essential. Before you head out, check what wildlife is native to the area. This is commonly listed at trailheads.

Give Animals Their Space

Animals should not notice or feel threatened by you. Most will continue with their business, eating or roaming around if they feel safe. If they start to make sounds or look timid, back away. General trail etiquette is to stay at least 300 feet away from predatory animals like bears, moose, and wolves and at least 100 feet away from all other animals.

If you are presented the rare opportunity to observe a mother animal with their youth, you are especially lucky. However, mother animals are most aggressive if they feel their young are in danger. Allow extra space and if the mother looks concerned back away.

Never Feed Wildlife

This makes animals more dependent on human food and puts you at greater risk of injury. Many squirrels in Zion National Park are so large they can barely move. The Grand Canyon sees more squirrel bites than any other animal encounter in the park. In Yosemite, the chipmunks look cute but they carry a plague. It’s not just the large animals you have to watch out for, it’s the bites from the little ones that cause the most recorded injuries.

Have Fun!

Most importantly, have fun! Hiking is both a challenging and rewarding opportunity to learn about yourself and the environment you are exploring. Following these guidelines is a fantastic way to minimize your impact on the area, please other hikers, and set a good example on a trail.

Picking up trash helps keep nature beautiful and by following the rules of hiking and educating others about proper trail etiquette, together we can make these places safe, fun, and enjoyable for everyone!

Jeremy Scott Foster
Jeremy Scott Foster
Jeremy Scott Foster is an adventure-junkie, gear expert and travel photographer based in Southern California. Previously nomadic, he’s been to ~50 countries and loves spending time outdoors. You can usually find him on the trail, on the road, jumping from bridges or hustling on his laptop working to produce the best travel and outdoors content today. You can read more about Jeremy at his bio.

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