In 2017, the number of folks who reported having gone hiking or backpacking in the United States tallied a whopping 47.2 million. That’s a lot of boots on the trail, and a lot of potential ground to cover when it comes to our expectations for polite behavior. Whether you’re brand new to the outdoor lifestyle or would just like a quick refresher, here are our tips for basic hiking etiquette.
Figuring out who yields to whom on the trail can be a little complicated, especially since the rules typically aren’t as hard-and-fast as, say, the rules of the road. The first thing you’ll want to be aware of is with whom you’re expected to share the trail. Some permit foot traffic only, but others are multi-use trails designed for horses and mountain bikers too, and come snow season you may also be looking at the possibility of skiers, snowshoers, and snowmobiles. As a general rule, vehicles, bikers, and snowmobiles always yield to hikers, and everybody yields to horses. Additionally, downhill hikers yield to uphill hikers. This is a courtesy that allows uphill hikers to maintain their pace and momentum. Yield by stepping just off the trail on the downhill side where possible, or to the right if the ground is even.
A quick note about groups: if you’re lucky enough to hike with a group of buddies — when it is safe to do so — it’s important to go single-file on established trails. This gives other hikers room to pass on your left, whether they’re outpacing your group or simply coming from the opposite direction. And while more may be merrier, keep in mind that larger groups tend to be noisier, so take extra care to keep the volume low so that both you and your fellow outdoor recreation enthusiasts can appreciate the natural sounds of the wilderness around you.
Leave No Trace
Some of the most basic hiking etiquette requires adherence to the principles of Leave No Trace. Remember the saying “take only pictures, leave only footprints”? That’s the gist of it. Remember that you’re a visitor in that wild blue yonder, and take care not to leave evidence of your passage. This means no graffiti, including scratching your sweetheart’s name into picnic tables or tree bark. Also, no littering, including uneaten food and bags of dog poo you totally intend to come back for later. And speaking of poo, if you’ve got to go and you’re not in an extra-sensitive area where you’re expected to pack it all out, dig your cathole about forty paces off the trail. Otherwise, stay on the path. Cutting switchbacks might save you time, but it’s not worth adding trail erosion to somebody’s maintenance backlog. Leave cairns as you found them, especially if they’re marking trails, and don’t build new ones. If you’re backpacking or in trails-what-trails backcountry, walk and camp on durable surfaces to avoid damage to vegetation.
Leave Wildlife Wild
If you’ve ever been dive-bombed by an overly-aggressive gull at the beach, you’ll understand why some folks get irate when other folks just can’t help but feed the adorable squirrels. Look, we get it, the siren call of Instagram love for pics of cute critters eating right out of the palm of your hand is mighty tempting. Just keep in mind that those adorable squirrels are probably laden with hantavirus, and those grey jays are probably carrying salmonella. Deer kick, chipmunks bite, and by definition, no wild animal is “safe.” Feeding them just emboldens them to approach and harass hikers, backpackers, and picnickers. Also, the food you’re giving them is probably bad for them anyway.
Last but not least, say hello! You’re not required to become BFFs with everyone you meet on the trail, but particularly on more secluded or less well-traveled routes, it can make the outdoors feel just that little bit friendlier when folks are willing to see one another and offer a kind greeting. Plus, if you find yourself in need of rescue, those folks just may be the last people to have known your whereabouts, so it pays to make a good impression.