Hiking trail etiquette seems to have, quite literally, plunged off the damn cliff! With so many new people out there taking to the hiking trails in our National Parks and State Parks, it’s no wonder serious hikers are pissed! Between people leaving their crap and trash everywhere, screwing with the wildlife, loose dogs and just plain utter disrespect to the environment, it’s no wonder authorities are either limiting or closing down the hiking trails.
So, how do we fix this senseless lack of respect and common courtesy on the hiking trails?
Check out these candid and maybe a little graphic hiking trail etiquette tips that will keep you on the path of least resistance in the wild!
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Hikers on the Path of Destruction
Nine years of hiking all over the United States, it’s hard not to notice the steady incline of people taking to the outdoors. But with that, there’s been a massive decline of respect and good manners on the hiking trails.
In one retrospect, it is refreshing to see so many stepping away from the digital world to seek the outdoors. However, at what cost? And who’s? Why is it becoming okay to behave so badly out in nature?
Perhaps it’s that some of these noob hikers just don’t know or are aware of how their poor behavior affects other hikers. Maybe it’s because they simply don’t know the trail rules.
But then again, the results of crappy behavior on the trails is seemingly from jack wagons who just don’t give a damn…about other hikers, the environment or even those who manage the trails.
Let’s be clear here. These trails didn’t just appear out of nowhere. The reason that hiking trails exist is, many years ago, someone else forged new paths to share nature’s beauty.
But unfortunately today, these beautiful places have become preverbal dumping grounds for trash, irresponsibility and poor behavior. Our public lands are wounded, changed and some may never come back to their original state.
We have to change that. It’s going to take a village. And it starts with sharing this blog article with new hikers as well as some who may be seasoned but forgotten what hiking trail etiquette is all about.
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 paths exist. That includes sharing the simple hiking rules of the road also known as hiking trail etiquette.
Essentially, by practicing good hiking trail etiquette will result in protecting our America’s public lands and National Parks and keeping them clean so others can enjoy them decades from now.
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 and much more enjoyable hiking experience for all.
So, let’s jump right in and get down to learning and reviewing these hiker rules of trail etiquette.
How NOT to Piss Off Other Hikers
A Candid Look at Hiking Trail Etiquette
Respect the trail rules
First things first, there’s always a set of rules usually posted at major trailheads. They serve as reminders to respect the trail, the land, the wildlife and each other.
Look, we all can appreciate, rules suck! But hiking trail etiquette are spelled out for a reason. Trail rules are there to keep everyone safe and so we all can enjoy why we’re there to begin with.
The minute you step foot on any hiking trail, regardless if it’s a National Park or some backcountry path, there’s an expectation that everyone who enters honors and respects the rules set forth by the Park management and law enforcement authorities.
So, if the Park rules stipulate not to do something, abide by it. It really is simple as that. If you don’t, you will face the consequences should you get reported or caught.
Four things could happen:
- You’ll incur a hefty fine
- Loss of privileges and be banned
- Hiking trails will be closed to everyone
Do you really want to be the person responsible for the closure of the hiking trails or even the place where they are located?
Hike your own hike!
While we get ‘the mountains are calling and I shall go’ mantra, just because they are there doesn’t mean you should climb them. Especially if you’re not fit, prepared or knowledgeable to climb those mountains, it’s just not wise to wake up one day and say, “I’m going to climb that mountain!”.
Always recognize and respect your own personal physical and mental abilities. Don’t go beyond your own comfort zone trying to keep up with more seasoned hikers than yourself. Otherwise, it could land you in a world of hurt. And, it puts your fellow hikers in danger or those who are trying to rescue you.
National Parks and State Parks always 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.).
But also, there’s cool hiking apps that list the length and expertise level of each trail.
Our favorite is AllTrails; the paid version that gives detailed information on each trail, download offline maps, get alerts for wrong turns, and more. It’s worth the money to have such information that will help bring you home safe.
Also, I can’t stress this enough. Before heading out to the trailhead, always tell a friend or family member where you’re going, trailhead location, clothing and hiking supplies you will be hiking with.
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 to see who gets to the top of the mountain the fastest.
It’s not all about YOU
As we’ve encountered this type of hiking entitlement behavior ourselves, there are some hikers out there who are totally oblivious to the world around them. Remember, you are not the only one enjoying the hiking trails.
Whether you’re chatting loudly about your kitchen renovation project or stopping in the middle of the trail for whatever reason, be considerate of other hikers.
Appreciate that everything you do on the hiking trail affects not only the environment and wildlife, but also other hikers on the trail in front of and behind you.
It’s simple. 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. Which, all of that leads us to the next section of hiking trail etiquette.
Nobody owns the trail!
You and your hiking party do not own the trail. There are other hikers who are sharing the trail with you; hiking ahead or behind you or approaching from the opposite direction.
All hikers should follow similar traffic patterns as driving a car on the road. Traffic flow dictates staying right of the trail when passing. If you’re a slow hiker or need to stop, stay to the far right of the trail.
Here’s some simple hiking etiquette tips on trail traffic flow:
- Downhill hikers must always yield to uphill hiking traffic. Step aside to allow incline climbers keep their uphill stride.
- Don’t stop in the middle of a trail. This breaks the flow of hiking trail traffic.
- Hikers that need to stop to tie a boot lace, take a photo or whatever, always step aside in a safe area so other hikers behind you may pass.
- Slow(er) hikers should always stay on the far right of the hiking trail.
- Faster hikers should alert hikers ahead that you’re approaching and passing them on their left.
- When you’re hiking with a group, hike in single file when approaching opposing trail traffic or when passing slower hikers.
Stop horsing around!
Some trails may include sharing with horseback riders, or horses pulling carts. Horses may see you as a threat; especially if you stand uphill from a horse. Should you encounter a horse or horseback rider, always greet them with a calm voice so the horse recognizes you as a human.
Also, step off the trail on the downhill side. If the horse startles or is on loose terrain, it may bolt uphill to gain momentum. At all costs, stay clear of the horse’s way.
Another hiking trail etiquette point to make is foot hikers may be sharing a trail with mountain bikers. It’s important to keep your ears and eyes open; watching for their approaches ahead and behind you. They have the right of way on the trail; especially if they are riding uphill on the same trail as you.
These are just a couple instances where wearing headphones or earbuds on the hiking trail is frowned upon. When hiking, you need all of your senses to keep you aware of what’s around you.
Unfortunately though, some new(er) hikers may not know these hiking trail etiquette points. A gentle ‘hey, you may not be aware but…’ may be all it takes to teach a new hiker how it’s done properly.
But never present yourself as a confrontational hiker. For safety and comfort sake, just step aside and let whomever pass. Being kind and considerate is part of hiking etiquette.
If you want to be something, just BE QUIET!
Nothing kills the hiking vibe than hearing someone’s loud music or unnecessary noise while enjoying nature sounds. So, leave your beats and tunes in your car or at home.
Again, it’s important not to become oblivious to everything or tune things out around you. Always be alert and aware of other hikers, mountain bikers or mountain lions.
There are certain exceptions to this hiking trail rule. If you’re on a designated social trail (deemed by State and National Parks), just keep your voices low; including your childrens’. We understand the excitement of seeing wildlife but the animals will flee from unfamiliar noise.
The other exception to this trail etiquette rule is if you’re hiking in bear or big cat country. It’s actually recommended to make noise on the trail; albeit singing, talking to your fellow hikers or even talking to yourself.
It’s highly encouraged to make your presence known to wildlife before they or you even see each other. The last thing you want to happen on the hiking trail is startling a bear or other large predatory animal.
So, on those particular hiking trails, it’s definitely a good idea to sing, talk loudly and wear a bear bell. And while we’re on the topic of bears, when hiking in bear country, always keep your bear spray easily accessible at all times.
Remember, you’re hiking in their habitats and are encroaching in their territory. The last thing you want to do is come upon them as a surprise or startle them.
Leave it better than you found it!
Some hikers seem to have not gotten the message of pack-in pack-out and leave no trace. Seriously, all of the trash and crap we’re seeing on trails and on our public lands, it has become such a bone of contention between careless hikers and those who who recreate responsibly.
Any foreign objects, including trash and litter, are dangerous to wildlife. Birds can choke on straws. Animals can ingest strings and choke on bottle caps or pop tops.
Be cognizant of where you put your empty granola wrapper or used tissue. Always ensure nothing falls out of your pockets or your daypack or backpack.
In other words, if you brought it, take it with you. If you drop it, pick up. And if you see it, pick that up too. Leave nothing behind that isn’t a part of the natural environment.
✰ READ MORE ✰ LEAVE NO TRACE: Pack in Pack Out Rules of Camping
Don’t feed the bears!
As tempting as it is to feed the critters, don’t. And if they seemingly beg, it’s because they have been fed which is detrimental to their health and well being.
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 them either. Feeding wildlife only brings animals closer to the trail. This presents not only a danger to you and other hikers, but also the wildlife.
Should you think it’s cute to feed a Cheeto to a chipmunk or bread crumbs to the birds, you’re essentially upsetting the balance of nature.
Animals become dependent on humans to feed them. And wildlife interactions will become a menace and dangerously prevalent. And let’s not forget, wildlife’s diet regime is not the same as ours. Human food, especially processed food, can harm or even kill wildlife. And those Cheetos? Yeah, they kill chipmunks!
Should you be hiking or camping in bear country where bear boxes are available, use them. They are there to protect the animals AND you.
Stop molesting the wildlife!
Now, molesting doesn’t mean what you think it does. Molesting wildlife is a generic term for harassing, instigating, antagonizing and baiting wildlife which causes them stress, fear and retaliation.
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 confronting wildlife of any type.
- Do not engage with, chase or run with any animal.
- If you see animal babies or young, stay away! Their moms and dads are not far. They will eat you first.
- Keep children close to you. Teach them to respect wildlife by observing only.
- If wildlife approaches you, be cautious, slowly back away and keep distance between them and you.
- Never run from a big cat, wolf or bear or turn your backs to them. They can run faster than you. And eat you. And you won’t live to tell the story of your amazing adventure.
Another great hiking trail tip is to attach a whistle to your body to alert other hikers. Whistles are also great for scaring off animals that may be pursuing you on the hiking trail.
And, if you’re in bear country, have your bear spray easily accessible such as clipped on your belt.
Stay ON the trail
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. Because it may very well be your last Instagram ever!
Be mindful that going off the trail puts you at greater risk of wildlife encounters that you can’t see such as venomous snakes, scorpions and lethal spiders.
Don’t put yourself at risk of becoming attacked, chased, eaten, bit, stung, injured or killed.
If you have an absolute dire need to go off 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.
The flora and fauna exist for a reason; whether it’s for erosion control or are a vital part of the food chain.
Stick that drone where the sun don’t shine!
Drones have become popular amongst videographers. But they also have become a menace to wildlife and yes, hikers.
Do not set up professional photography equipment and props that distracts from or impedes hiking trail traffic.
And never assume you can just turn on your drone and let it fly away in one of America’s National Parks. The National Park Service website explains it in their Unmanned Aircraft in the 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 National Park Permit for Filming and Photography. But this also goes for professional photographers inside our National Parks, Monuments, etc.
If you are caught flying your drone 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.
Knock off the rock stacking!
Rock stacking has posed controversy amongst Rangers, hikers, and outdoor enthusiasts who consider cairns (artful stacked rocks) vandalism.
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 that obviously marks a trail, just leave them. Should they not be, the Ranger or trail management will remove them. But, one thing you should also refrain from is adding to them or making additional rock stacks. Again, be a positive part of the leave no trace principle stewardship.
All of that said, if you notice people creating these cairns or stacking rocks in a National Parks just for the purpose of creating art or whatever, by all means, report them. Take a photo of damage and share the coordinates and description of the person(s) building them with a Park Ranger.
Stop making your mark!
Vandalism in America’s National Parks is on the rise. From cultural violence and desecrating petroglyphs to spray painting rocks and damaging living artifacts, the NPS takes vandalism very seriously. And they need responsible hikers to help catch those who desecrate our Parks.
If you as a hiker observe vandals, you have an unwritten civic duty to report those who are breaking the law. This includes poaching, stealing, desecrating or vandalizing, menacing or molesting wildlife or disobeying park rules to the Park authorities.
Anything that could affect the well-being of wildlife, park resources or other hikers should be brought to park officials’ attention.
Don’t leave your shit!
Sounds graphic, doesn’t it? But unfortunately, that’s exactly what some hikers are doing…literally.
Seriously, this is about those hikers who thinks it’s acceptable to leave their shit and/or their dog’s shit on the hiking trails or near it. Even worse, hikers leave their evidence in bags along the trail and expecting others to pick up.
Now, I think we all agree, when duty calls, we have to go, right? But, there’s a level of couth and respect that all hikers need to follow when it’s time to take a leak and take a dump.
If you need to pee, scope out a private area off the trail and without trampling vegetation, go behind a tree. But, it’s best to pee on rocks, gravel, or mineral soil instead of plants and vegetation so it dissipates better.
But, if you need to do a #2 doody (or is it duty?), this is where the conflict of what to do and where surmounts.
Some ultralight backpackers are quite adamant about taking your crap with you.
But old school naturalists say all you need to do is dig a cat hole 6-8″ deep and 4-6″ in diameter and bury your crap in there.
But therein lies the problem. Some hikers and backpackers aren’t doing the whole cat hole thing properly. They’re not burying their crap completely. Or worse, they just do a dump and run; leaving their toilet paper flying in the wind. Either of which are not acceptable and extremely unsanitary.
However, hikers should never bury wet wipes, tampons, and all other hygiene products. They will attract animals.
Therefore, it’s good hiker etiquette to pack out everything and take it with you to dispose of in proper trash receptacles. (Psssst! That’s what compostable zipper bags are for).
And if your dog decides to take a dump in the woods or on the trail, don’t leave it there! Since he can”t scoop his own poop, you’ll have to do that using eco-friendly poop bags and pack it out in his doggie saddlebags. Seriously, if he wants to go hiking with you, he needs to carry his own shit, right?
Haven’t we beat the whole leave no trace dead horse enough? Oh, and speaking of hiking with your dog…
Don’t allow your dog be a jerk!
In my opinion, this hiking etiquette point is a huge bone of contention and is notably the most controversial issue concerning those who hike with their dogs. (I read it weekly on certain social media groups!)
While dog owners love to talk about taking their dog hiking, there’s the other side of the campfire where if you say something about bad dog behavior on the trail, you’re instantly labeled as a dog hater.
We get it, dog owners want to share their outdoor experience with their fur friends. Heck, if I had a dog, I’d want to take him hiking too. But, I don’t. I have a cat and she doesn’t like to get more than 5 feet away from her food trough.
I do however, tune into such conversations to gather 411 to write about here. So, here we go.
There’s a lot of complaints regarding dog owners allowing their dog off leash on the hiking trails. They seemingly think it’s totally okay for their dog to approach other hikers and their dogs on the trails (“He won’t bite! He’s friendly!”), wander off trail, and poop wherever without cleaning it up.
Hiking trail etiquette is put into place to protect the environment and everything and everyone including hikers’ dogs who uses it. All of this points to preceding sections of Nobody Owns the Trail and It’s Not All About YOU.
If the trailhead sign or trail map states ‘no dogs’, it’s purposeful. And dog owners
should need to take it seriously.
Banning dogs from some trails is for the safety and respect of wildlife and their habitats. Dogs are notorious for chasing wildlife or separating mothers from their babies.
But, on the flip side, wild animals may be attracted to your pet; including rabid or diseased animals. Or worse, follow them back to you.
And then there’s ground flora and foliage that may be endangered species or a food source for the wildlife that dogs may dig up.
These are just three of the many reasons why it’s necessary to abide by the signs posted regarding dogs on hiking trails. Those hiking rules are set into place for you and your dog’s safety, the environment and wildlife as well as other hikers on the trails.
But, there’s more than just those issues listed above why it’s important to leash your dog on the hiking trails if and when they’re allowed.
There’s a myriad of dangers that may harm either of you; including venomous snakes, nasty rodents, scorpions, spiders, cactus, poisonous mushrooms and plants, etc.
And, let’s not forget that your dog could also startle a bear or big cat which would end badly for your dog, you and the animal.
Equally important, never ignore the signs or lie, saying you didn’t see them. That answer won’t be well received by the Rangers or law enforcement authorities.
However, if dogs are allowed on the hiking trail, always keep them on a short-leash (less than 6′). Remember, not everyone is a dog person or loves your dog the way you do. Some people, especially children, may be fearful or had bad experiences with dogs.
So, give other hikers (and their dogs) the respect and room they deserve.
Also, some trails may be narrow or wind alongside of a cliff. You certainly don’t want either your dog causing a hiker or their dog from falling off the cliff.
In other words, your dog’s crap should be either still in their bodies or in a bag headed for the trash receptacle. If the latter, don’t be one of those dog owners who collects and bags it but then leaves their doodie bags at the trailhead or on the hiking trail.
Be a responsible dog owner and finish the job! That means, taking it WITH YOU. Wait, didn’t we just talk about this earlier?
In other words, never leave it (or anything for that matter) behind for others to pick it up. The LEAVE NO TRACE principles apply to dogs too.
✰ READ MORE ✰ LEAVE NO TRACE: Pack in Pack Out Rules of Camping
Take nothing but pictures
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.
Wrapping up hiking rules and trail etiquette
Here’s the deal, there’s a lot of cool hiking trails out there! From within our National Parks and public lands, inside State Park and even small local parks, they are there for everyone to enjoy.
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.
We hope every hiker appreciates these simple ground rules of hiking trail etiquette are there to protect and preserve the land. But also to make hiking an enjoyable outdoor activity for all ages.
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