Hiking Trail Etiquette: Hiker’s Rules of the Road

Hiking etiquette seems to have fallen off the cliff. With so many new people out there taking to the hiking trails, it’s no wonder there’s trash everywhere, wildlife interactions, loose dogs and just plain utter disrespect to the environment. So, how do we fix this senseless lack of respect and common courtesy on the hiking trails?

Seven years of hiking all over the United States, we’ve noticed a steady incline of people taking to the outdoors. In one retrospect, it is awesome to see so many seek the outdoors over digital devices.

However, at what cost? Is it okay to expect and accept poor behavior as a sign of the times?

Perhaps it’s that they just don’t think their poor behavior affects others. Maybe it’s because they simply don’t know the trail rules. But then there are some who just don’t care.

Let’s be clear here. These trails didn’t just appear out of nowhere. The reason these hiking trails exist is, many years ago, someone else forged new paths amidst nature’s beauty and said, ‘this must be shared’.

But unfortunately today, these beautiful places have become dumping grounds for trash as a result of irresponsible or bad behavior.

Let’s change that.

Hiking Trail - HYOH
Photo by Always On Liberty

As with anything, the first step towards healing this open wound is to teach others how to be good stewards of the land where these hiking trails exist. And with that, comes sharing those rules of the road; hiking etiquette.

Essentially, by practicing good hiking trail etiquette will result in keeping America’s public lands and National Parks clean so others can enjoy them decades from now.

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So, I think by putting these hiking etiquette rules in writing for as many as we hope to read, will help keep us all safe on the trails. And, will create a better hiking experience for all.

Let’s jump right in and get down to learning these hiking rules to remember; also known as hiking etiquette.

Hiking Etiquette: Hiking Rules to Remember


Respect the trail rules

Look, we all can appreciate, rules suck! But hiking trail rules are there for a reason. They’re to keep everyone on the trail safe and so we all can enjoy why we’re there; including you and your family.

The minute you step foot on any hiking trail, you’re expected to honor and respect the rules set forth by the Park management and law enforcement authorities. So, if the Park rules stipulate not to do something, simply don’t do it. 

Four things could happen:

      • You’ll incur a hefty fine
      • Loss of privileges and be banned
      • Imprisonment
      • Hiking trails will be closed to everyone

Do you really want to be the person responsible for the closure of the hiking trails or the place where they are located?

It’s not all about YOU

Be mindful that you are not the only one enjoying the hiking trails.

Everything you do on the trails affects not only the environment and wildlife, but also other hikers who are sharing the trail with you.

It’s simple. Simply respect and appreciate all that encompasses the reason why we’re out there; the beauty of nature, wildlife and their habitats and of course, the freedom to enjoy the outdoors.

Dog hiking etiquette

Dog behavior on the hiking trails seems to be a hot topic around the campfire.

We get it, dog owners want to share their outdoor experience with their best friends. But in most instances, trail etiquette concerning dogs is put into place to protect the environment and everything and everyone who uses it.

Photo by Always On Liberty

If the trailhead sign or trail map states ‘no dogs’, it’s for good reason.

Firstly, it’s for the sake of wildlife and their habitats. Wild animals may be attracted to your pet; including rabid or diseased animals. And second, it’s pretty crappy to think it’s okay for your dog to chase wildlife out of their habitat or separate them from their young.

Also, there’s ground flora and foliage that may be endangered species or a food source for the wildlife. This is just one of the many reasons why it’s necessary to stay on the trail; including your dog(s).

Those hiking etiquette rules that apply to dogs is about you and your dog’s safety, as well as others on the hiking trails.

Hiking Trails - Dog
Photo courtesy of StrykerADV

There’s a miriad of dangers that may harm either of you; including venomous snakes, scorpions, spiders, cactus, poisonous mushrooms and plants, etc. But let’s not forget, your dog could startle a bear or big cat which would end badly for all involved.

So, if the trail signs stipulate no dogs allowed, please  follow the rules. Don’t take offense to it. And never turn a blind eye by ignoring the signs or lying by saying you didn’t see them.

That said, if dogs are permitted, keep them short-leashed. We all have to remember and respect that not everyone is a dog person. Some trails are very narrow or may be on the side of a cliff. You certainly don’t want either your dog or another hiker falling off.

Further, keeping your on a short leash will also keep them from approaching unsuspecting hikers. Not everyone loves your dog the way you do. Some are fearful or had bad experiences. Give them the room they deserve.

Always On Liberty - Hiking Trail Etiquette - Dogs
Photo courtesy of StrykerADV

Lastly, I can’t stress enough that your dog’s feces does not belong on the trail. Whether you know it or not, your pup’s feces can have an environmental impact (ie. parasites, diseases, etc.).

In other words, your dog’s crap should be in their bodies or in a bag headed for the trash receptacle. And for the sake of hiking trail etiquette, don’t be one of those dog owners who collects it and then leaves their doodie bags, even if they are biodegradable, at the entrance or alongside the hiking trail. Finish the job! Take it with you. LEAVE NO TRACE! That applies to your dogs too.

HYOH – Hike your own hike!

Always On Liberty - Hiking Rocks
Photo by Always On Liberty

While we get ‘the mountains are calling and I shall go’ mantra, if you’re not fit enough or prepared to climb those mountains, don’t.

Don’t go beyond your own comfort level and physical ability. Otherwise, it could land you in a world of hurt but also put others in danger while trying to rescue you.

Typically, National Parks and State Parks will provide hiking trail maps that show an aerial layout of the hiking trail system along with trail description and hikers ability level (i.e. easy, moderate, strenuous, etc.).

And always tell a friend or your family where you’re going and when to expect you back. Give them the coordinates of the location, trails you’re hiking and clothing and hiking supplies you are taking.

Our best advice is to hike your own hike. Don’t be pressured to hike faster or over-extend your hiking abilities to prove a point or keep up with others. Do your own thing on the trail. Hiking isn’t nor should it be a race.

Share the trail

You and those in your hiking party do not own the trail. There are other hikers who may be sharing the trail with you; hiking behind you or hiking the opposite way.

Hiking trails have the traffic flow as driving on a road (at least in the United States).

Hiking Trail Etiquette - Group Hiking
Photo by Always On Liberty

Here’s some simple hiking etiquette tips on trail traffic flow:

      • Always yield to uphill traffic.
      • Don’t stop in the middle of a trail. Hikers behind you will not appreciate it.
      • If you need to stop, step aside in a safe area so others hiking behind you may pass.
      • Slow hikers stay to the right of the trail.
      • Faster hikers should alert hikers ahead that you’re approaching and passing them on their left.

You also may be sharing hiking trails with horses and their riders. It’s recommended when you come in sight of a horse rider, to greet them with a calm voice so the horse recognizes you as a human. Be aware, horses may see you as a threat; especially if you stand uphill from a horse.

Hiking Trail - Horses
Photo by Always On Liberty

So, if possible, step off the trail on the downhill side. If startled or on loose terrain, a horse may bolt uphill to gain momentum. In other words, stay out of the horse’s way.

Also, be aware that some mountain bikers may share the same trails as hikers as well. So, keep your ears open for their approaches; hence, one of the reasons NOT to wear headphones or earbuds.

Unfortunately, not everyone respects the same hiking etiquette on the trails. Therefore, for safety’s sake, just step aside and let whomever pass. Being kind and considerate is part of hiking etiquette.

To be or not to be…quiet

Nothing kills the hiking vibe than hearing loud music or unnecessary loudness. So, leave the tunes in your car or at home. While I personally don’t recommend it, if you do insist on listening to your favorite twangs, wear earbuds.

However again, don’t become oblivious to everything or tune everything around you. Always be alert and aware of other hikers, mountain bikers or mountain lions.

So, unless you are hiking on a social trail (deemed by State and National Parks), please keep your voices low; including your childrens’. We understand the excitement of seeing wildlife but the animals will flee from unfamiliar noise. 

However, there is exception to this rule!

If you are in bear or big cat country, it’s a good idea to actually make noise while on the hiking trails. You’re actually encouraged to make your presence known to wildlife before they or you even see each other. So, on those trails it’s definitely a good idea to sing, talk loudly and wear a bear bell.

Remember, you’re hiking in their habitats and bare encroaching in their territory. The last thing you want to do is come upon them as a surprise or startle them.

Photo by Always On Liberty


If you noticed, I placed this topic line in big capital letters for good reason. Apparently by all of the trash we’re seeing on the hiking trails and on our public lands, some seem to not get that message.

Please pick up all litter, whether you brought it in or not. Any foreign objects, including trash and litter, are dangerous to wildlife.

Birds can choke on straws, small animals can ingest strings and larger animals can choke on bottle caps or pop tops. Be sensible about how and where you put that granola wrapper or tissue; ensuring it doesn’t fall out of your pocket.

Read more:  LEAVE NO TRACE: Pack in Pack Out Rules of Camping

Take nothing but pictures

Photo by Always On Liberty

Removing or relocating any cultural artifacts, rocks, plants, ruins, geodes, arrowheads, plants, flowers, etc. from National Parks and State Parks is strictly prohibited.

Never destroy, deface, injure, dig, collect or otherwise disturb park resources including plants or animals (dead or alive), fossils, rocks, or artifacts. It is a violation to possess park resources and you WILL be heavily fined, imprisoned or both.

Do not feed wildlife

As tempting as it is to feed the critters, don’t.

While Yogi may want your picnic basket, do not share it with wild animals. It’s not good for them and it certainly is not safe for either. It will bring animals closer to the trail which can be a danger to you, other hikers or even the wildlife.

If you feed the animals, they will become dependent and wildlife interactions will become a menace and dangerously prevalent. Additionally, their diet regime is not the same as ours. Human food, especially processed food, can harm or even kill wildlife.

Should you be camping where bear boxes are available, use them. They are there to protect the animals AND you.


Never approach, interact or molest the wildlife

As stated prior, close encounters with wildlife can be dangerous and life threatening. Wild animals are unpredictable.

Here’s a few tips on sharing the hiking trails with wildlife:

      • Do not try to coax or tease animals using food to get that perfect Instagram shot.
      • Avoid confrontation of any type.
      • Do not engage with, chase or run with an animal.
      • If you see animal babies, stay away! Their moms and dads are not far. They will eat you first.
      • Keep children close to you
      • If they approach you, be cautious and try to keep distance between yourself and them.
      • Never run from a big cat or bear or turn your backs to them. They can run faster than you. And eat you.
Photo by Always On Liberty

Another great tip is we highly recommend attaching a hiker’s whistle to your body. And, if you’re in bear country, have your can of bear spray easily accessible such as clipped on your belt.

Stay on the trail

Hiking Trails - Stay on the Trail Sign
Photo by Always On Liberty

While it’s tempting to grab a shot of a bright cactus flower or rock formation that’s off the trail, don’t. Or, pose your family with the dynamic backdrop to get that incredible Instagram shot, don’t. It may very well be your last!

Be mindful that going off the trail puts you at greater risk of wildlife that you can’t see such as venomous snakes, scorpions and toxic spiders. Don’t put yourself at risk of becoming eaten, bit, stung, or injured.

Hiking Trail - Foliage Plants
Photo by Always On Liberty

If you do go off the trail, be respectful to the plants and vegetation. Never step on them. As mentioned earlier, they could be an endangered species or the only food source for particular wildlife.

They are there for a reason; whether it’s for erosion control or that’s just where they were intended to grow.

No drones or professional photography

Always On Liberty - No Drone Zone
Photo by Always On Liberty

Drones have become popular amongst videographers. But they also have become a menace to wildlife as well as other hikers.

Do not set up professional photography equipment and props that distracts or impedes hiking trail traffic.

Before flying any unmanned aircraft (drone), we highly suggest you read the National Park website’s Unmanned Aircraft in the National Parks for information and FAQ’s.

Drone operators should keep their unmanned aircraft out of our National Parks. In August 2014, the National Park Service made it illegal to operate drones in National Parks under 36 CFR 1.5 without a permit.

But, if you do want to fly your drone in a National Park, you will need to apply for a Special Use Permit.

If you are caught flying without your permit, National Park Service Rangers have the authority to confiscate your gear. The maximum penalty can be as severe as six months in jail and a $5,000 fine.

However, if you do plan to take professional photos inside National Parks or those Parks within the National Park Service should become familiar with National Park Permits for Filming and Photography.

No rock stacking

Rock stacking has posed controversy amongst Rangers, hikers, outdoor enthusiasts who consider cairns (artful stacked rocks) as vandalism.

Hiking Trail Etiquette - Rock Stacking
Photo by Always On Liberty

However, it’s important to know that in some places, stacked rocks could be natural trail markers.

If you see a cairn or rock stack, just leave them. If they’re not allowed, the Ranger or trail management will remove them.

Take a photo if you wish but don’t be the downer and destroy them. And really, don’t add to them. Again, be the positive part of the leave no trace stewardship.

But if there are hikers creating these cairns or stacking rocks in a National Parks, by all means, report them. Take a photo and share the coordinates with a Park Ranger.

Bury your crap!

Face it, we’ve all been on a hiking trail when Mother Nature calls. Where do you go? That water you drank to stay hydrated has got to go somewhere, right?

So, if you need to pee, scope out an area off the trail and without trampling vegetation, go behind a tree. Conceal what you’re doing. Not everyone wants to see what you’re doing.

If you need to do a #2, you need to dig a cat hole and bury your crap. This goes for dogs too if you don’t have a poop bag! Lastly, bag your toilet paper and take it with you. And ladies, never leave your trash as it attracts animals bringing them closer to the hiking trail. Again, leave no trace.

See something? Say something!

Finally, part of hiking etiquette is having an eagle eye. You should absolutely report others are breaking the law such as poaching, stealing, desecrating or vandalizing, menacing or molesting wildlife or disobeying park rules to the Park authorities.

Hiking Trails - Report Vandals
Photo by Always On Liberty

Anything that could affect the well-being of wildlife, park resources or other hikers should be brought to park officials’ attention. The safety off all is of utmost importance on the hiking trails.

We hope our readers appreciate these simple ground rules of hiking. Courtesy goes a long way and it’s not hard to render. Just be kind. Let’s all put our best foot forward in keeping our environment and the hiking trails well mannered.

Always On Liberty - Hiking Etiquette Checklist

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