Hiking Trail Etiquette

Before you head out on the trail, check out these tips from Hiking & Camping expert Hannah K. to learn the basics of hiking trail etiquette.

Photo by Ted Bryan-Yu
Published on

It was an early morning, I was hiking with a friend, and then a group of girls came charging towards us with a big speaker blasting some pop songs that I’m too old to know. As they tried to pass us, I asked them to turn off their music. They laughed and walked away.

Growing up in Los Angeles, everyone loved to hike—it was the fashionable thing to do (regardless of if you actually liked being outside or not). There I would be, on a Sunday morning trying to get my daily dose of vitamin D, when I would hear music blasting from a speaker, dogs running all over the place, and people getting in each other's way. It was frustrating to deal with these distractions when all I wanted was to enjoy some trees and get out of the city. Before you go hiking next, read up on these tips to learn about some hiking trail etiquette.

Let’s start with the basics.

Use Earbuds Please

No Sarah, I don’t want to hear you blast Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift on the trail despite how much you love them. If you want to listen to your favorite music on the trail, just use earbuds. It is an easy solution but one I rarely see people take advantage of. You can get a really cheap pair for five bucks from Target or practically any other store. Remember, your favorite artist is not mine.

Many people prefer the quiet and peace of the trail, and enjoy listening to singing birds or the wind rushing through trees. Don’t ruin that for others. Use earbuds. Thanks!

Tech on the Trail

Using your phone or camera to take pictures is great and highly recommended. Using your phone to go on Instagram or call your friend is not the point of hiking – wait until you get to your car to talk loudly on the phone or scroll through social media platforms.

Put Your Dog on a Leash

This one is also very simple. Even if your dog is trained to stay on-trail and be nice to everyone, not everyone will want to stop and pet your dog. Some people are afraid of dogs. “My dog loves everyone and just wants to say hi.” “But my dog pulls on the leash and doesn’t enjoy the trail as much!” Then train your dog to walk on a leash nicely. Not only is leashing your dog best for everyone, but it also keeps your dog safe. Rather than running off into a bear cave or stepping on some cactus, they are next to you!

Say Howdy when You Pass People

If you run into someone on the trail, say hi or hello or howdy (whatever your greeting of choice is) and smile. It makes the entire experience more positive and pleasurable! Offer some advice- “Oh there is a snake up ahead” or “There is some scary scrambling at the top, but it’s manageable.” Things like that remind me that the world is a good place.

Similarly, if you pass someone from behind, make sure to yell out “passing on your left” so they are prepared to move out of the way.

Helpful tip: Just like cars will stay to the right and pass on the left, the same rule can apply to hikers. Stay on the right and let faster movers pass on your left.

Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace is an amazing concept. In simple terms, pick up your trash and don’t leave anything behind. This also means carrying out dog poop. I don’t want to see any more apple cores or banana peels thrown into the bushes. Yes, they will decompose but that doesn’t mean you should leave them there.

Leave No Trace also means that you stay on-trail. This is so important! When you walk off-trail, you essentially wear down and harm natural vegetation. The point of one trail is to be able to see nature that is preserved. So help preserve it, and stay on-trail. If you happen to step off the trail to let someone pass (like a biker or horse) or need to find a spot for lunch, look for hard surfaces such as rocks or snow near the side of the trail or slightly farther.

This also means not cutting the switchbacks, they are there for a reason.

A sign in front of a body of water reads "Please Don't Litter." It is partially covered by green tree branches.
Photo by Cam Bradford

Group Hiking

When you hike in a big group of friends (how fun) try to hike in a single file. You don’t want to all stand next to each other and block the trail off for other hikers, bikers, or horses. Although it is tempting to want to hear everything going on and being said, hike behind one another and catch up on all the latest gossip a little later. Or switch around who you stand behind so you can have time to chat with everyone.

Yielding Rules

The right of way can be confusing for different groups: hikers or trail runners, mountain bikers, and horses.

Uphill hikers are generally given the authority over downhill hikers to keep going. The general idea is that they are working harder. Many uphill hikers will prefer to yield to downhill hikers if they need a break – but let the uphill hiker decide.

Bikers should yield to horses. Horses are big, move slowly, and can be unpredictable. Hikers should yield to bikers, who will get out of the way faster for the hiker who is moving slower. Conscientious mountain bikers should try and yell out to the hikers in front of them so they can move out of the way. It will be easier to move your body out of the way than a bike. A bike will have way more momentum, and thus it will be more difficult to stop and move out of your way.

Hikers, make sure to be quiet when a horse passes you and quietly ask the horseback rider if you are okay to wait where you are or if there is a better spot to stand.

If your dog is afraid of horses and will bark at them, don’t bring your dog on a trail that is horse-friendly. You don’t want to spook the horse and potentially injure the rider. Or a great trick is to bring a bag of dog food and distract your dog that way. Works for me every time!

Two people on horseback travel down a dusty trail.
Photo by Mehmet Turgut Kirkgoz

Take Pictures

We don’t want to pick that pretty flower or move the cool rock formations. Take a picture instead of harming the natural vegetation.

Be Friendly and Create a Welcoming Space

Hiking trails are no place for judgement, bias, or stereotypes. Leave the negativity at home and focus on the positive things of life. Negativity spreads and that is probably the heaviest item you can take out of your pack and leave in your car. Trails should be accessible to everyone, let’s help make that a reality and welcome all people to the great outdoors.

So next time you go hiking, think about your trail etiquette. If someone isn’t following these guidelines, nicely suggest an alternate option. No need to yell at someone for throwing a banana peel or accidentally leaving a water bottle. A simple and calm explanation of what is bad about that behavior will do the trick! The outdoors are beautiful and should be accessible to everyone, but not everyone may know these rules to preserve their natural surroundings. Educating our fellow trail-users is a great way to keep our trails clean and alive. Any etiquette tips or tricks or rules I left out? Hit me up through my profile and let's chat about all things outside.

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Written By
Although I've been hiking for most of my life, I didn't start backpacking and camping until college when I joined the University Outdoors Club at my school. My first backpacking trip was ambitious, the Batona Trail in the Pinelands in New Jersey done in two days. To do that, we had to walk a maratho...

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