In order to maintain a positive outdoor experience for you and your fellow hikers, it’s important to know and follow proper trail etiquette. By heeding a simple set of hiking rules, practicing basic manners, and exercising common trail courtesies, you are not only creating an optimistic atmosphere but protecting nature in the process.
Understanding and implementing the following hiking etiquette rules on your adventures will ensure that our future generations can continue to see and enjoy the same beautiful trails. Together, we can construct a better experience and maintain a clean environment for years to come.
Welcome to Trail Etiquette 101! In this guide, you’ll learn the basic rules of hiking that every hiker should know and follow. You’ll learn who has the right of way on trails, trail etiquette with dogs, how to respect fellow hikers, wildlife, and the land, and some common courtesies on the trail!
Trail Etiquette 101
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Hiking Right of Way: Who Has the Right of Way on Trails?
It’s common to share trails with a variety of different recreators: hikers, bikers, trail runners, horseback riders, etc. People are enjoying the trails in different ways, so as hikers, we need to understand who has the right of way.
Along with communication, this hiking right-of-way triangle will help avoid traffic jams and keep the trails moving.
It can seem complicated but essentially, just think of hiking right of way in this way: Whoever is going to have the easiest time moving out of the way should always yield.
Downhill Hikers Vs. Uphill Hikers
Downhill hikers always yield to uphill hikers. The reason for this is that uphill hikers are working harder and exerting more energy. It’s more difficult for them to break their pace than downhill hikers.
Usually uphill hikers concentrate on the ground directly in front of them while downhill hikers have a larger range of vision. This makes it easier for downhill hikers to yield to uphill hikers.
Uphill hikers who are trying to pass other uphill hikers should wait until the trail is wide enough before kindly announcing their presence and asking to pass. Downhill hikers who are trying to pass other downhill hikers should do the same.
Bikers Vs. Hikers, Horses, and Other Stock
While technically bikers need to yield to hikers, horses, and other stock, it is common trail courtesy for hikers to yield to bikers.
Since bikers move faster, it is more difficult for them to stop. As hikers, you should always be paying attention to your surroundings. You can listen for approaching bikers (who should be using their bell or voice to announce their presence) and react quickly by stepping aside to let them safely pass.
Hikers Vs. Horses and Other Stock
Hikers always need to yield to horses and other stock. If you hear or see one approaching from either direction, step to the side to allow them to pass.
Be aware that horses scare easily so never quietly approach a horse from behind. Announce your presence so as not to startle the animal.
Hikers Vs. Trail Runners
Hikers should always yield to trail runners. This allows trail runners to maintain their pace.
Groups Vs. Solo Hikers
If you are hiking in a group, stay to the right in a single-file line to avoid crowding the trail. Allow faster hikers to pass on the left.
Solo hikers should yield to groups. If the group is moving slower than the solo hiker, the group should kindly allow the faster solo hiker to pass.
Slower hikers, keep to the right just as slow drivers do on the road so that faster hikers can announce their presence and pass on the left.
What is Trail Etiquette for Dogs?
Leash Your Pet
It’s important to leash your pet even if leashes aren’t required. Most dog-friendly trails do post signs, reminding hikers to keep pets on a six-foot (or shorter) leash. If the sign is absent or you choose to not leash your pet, you won’t be kicked off the trail, but you may get some looks.
Unleashed pets are frowned upon because dogs are at risk of wildlife threats and not all dogs are friendly.
Dog encounters with bears, mountain lions, and coyotes are higher when unleashed. If a hiker encounters a bear, the dog is less at risk when leashed because the hiker can reel the leashed dog away from the dangerous wildlife. Dogs may feel empowered to approach wildlife, or vice versa, if they are untethered.
Though your dog may be friendly, not all dogs are this way. Your dog may pass another dog that is less friendly, and a confrontation could ensue.
→ READ NEXT: How to Hike Safely With Your Dog
Pick Up Pet Waste
Picking up after your pet is important, not just for maintaining a trail’s cleanliness, but for the safety of other dogs and wildlife. Dog waste can be full of disease, causing harm to other pups or wildlife that may encounter the pile.
Waste also won’t break down very quickly, and it’s not fun for humans to step in. So do your fellow hikers and four-legged friends a favor: pick up the poop!
Know the Rules Before You Go
Not all trails and parks are dog-friendly, so make sure to do your research before you go.
National Parks are notorious for prohibiting dogs, but I’ve written an article that reveals the most dog-friendly National Parks in the USA! Make sure to give it a read!
Respect the Land, Wildlife, and Other Hikers
Respect the Land
Keep to the trail. Trails are designed and maintained by rangers and volunteers so that the land remains protected and preserved. Trampling on off-trail grounds could ruin a habitat or destroy precious plant life. Stick to the trails unless otherwise marked or advised.
→ READ NEXT: Trail Anatomy 101 🥾
Public lands are gifts to the public. We are granted full access to millions of acres of desert, mountains, rainforests, waterfalls, volcanoes, bodies of water, glaciers, caves, and more.
In order to preserve these natural landscapes, we all need to treat the areas with respect. Treat the towering mountains, the voluminous lakes, and the giant craters as you would treat your home because the Earth is your home and it will be home to billions of people in the years to come.
Respect the Wildlife
Never approach wildlife, never feed wildlife, and never tamper with their natural habitat. After all, we are in their home.
I have an entire guide about bear safety, including how to prepare for a hike and set up camp in bear country, how to react to a bear encounter, and more!
Respect Other Hikers
Your fellow hikers deserve respect just as the land and the wildlife do.
When passing by other hikers and their dogs, throw a hand up in a greeting, ask if a dog is friendly and wants to be pet, or strike up a conversation if you desire. At the very least, smile or wave. I find that friendly interactions with fellow hikers enhance the overall experience.
Going to the Bathroom on the Trail
At many parks, there are often restrooms or pit toilets available at visitor centers or trailheads.
But if you are on the trail and you need to go, there are a few things you should know.
- Pick a spot to pee that is at least 200 feet from trails, campsites, and water sources.
- Bring a toilet kit: a pouch with pre-torn squares of toilet paper, hand sanitizer, a trowel (and/or poop bag), and a plastic bag for the used paper.
- Always pack out your used toilet paper.
I wrote an entire blog post on outdoor hygiene tips for hikers and campers. It goes over hygiene essentials to bring and to leave at home, hygiene basics like brushing teeth, peeing, and pooping outdoors, dealing with cramps, bathing outdoors, and more!
Common Courtesies on the Trail
Use “Inside Voices” Outdoors
Keeping a low voice will ensure that wildlife is not disturbed and fellow hikers can enjoy nature. Disrupting the calming aura of the woods can have a negative effect on someone’s experience or startle an animal.
If you are in bear country, on the other hand, noise is encouraged to keep the bears away. Just be mindful of your fellow hikers and don’t yell, sing loudly, or shout profanities.
Silence Your Phones
Disconnecting used to be one of the main benefits of exploring the outdoors. Nowadays disconnecting is a bit more difficult as most people rely on some sort of technology to get them through the day. Communication with loved ones, business transactions, and social media connections tend to be some of the reasons that people keep their phones on them at all times.
For the outdoors, hikers benefit from navigation and emergency service connections. Some argue that a hiker can’t truly get the full outdoor experience if a phone is in their backpack or their pocket, but it’s sometimes too tempting to leave behind.
For safety reasons, a phone provides excellent peace of mind. Just keep it silent when not in use.
Don’t Blast Music
Blasting music through your phone or Bluetooth speaker is discouraged on the trails for a few reasons.
- Wildlife relies on natural sounds for survival. They might not be able to communicate or navigate with loud music blaring.
- Music can be a safety hazard. With loud music, you might not be able to hear nearby wildlife, calls for help, etc.
- Music disturbs other hikers who just want to soak in the sounds of nature on their hike.
Leave No Trace
Stay on the Trail
Always stick to the trail! Never take shortcuts or venture off-trail.
Hikers that venture off-trail or take shortcuts risk damaging the plants and/or eroding the landscape.
Don’t Touch Cairns
Cairns are stacks of rocks whose purpose is to mark the trail. These are usually found in desert landscapes or other areas where there aren’t trees or soft ground.
Pack Out Your Trash
Whatever trash you bring in or accumulate, you must pack it out. Never leave your trash on the trail. Not only would you be littering but you could be attracting bears and other wildlife.
Try to bring an extra trash bag on each of your hikes. That way you can pick up other people’s trash that you see strewn along the trail. This will help the park staff and volunteers keep the trails clean.
Leave What You Find
Never take souvenirs from the trail.
Just think if everyone took a rock from a mountain or a vial of sand from a beach, there would eventually be none left!
For more information on Leave No Trace, read my guide that details each of the seven outdoor principles and how exactly you can implement them in each of your hikes and camping adventures!