Five Hiking Trail Etiquette Tips

If another hiker, cyclist, or horse is
coming toward you, do you know what to do?
Is one of your goals in the upcoming year is to spend more time on the trails? Are you hoping to introduce friends and/or family to hiking in 2018? Trail etiquette is important no matter the time of year, and there's no time like the present to brush up on your etiquette knowledge. Though trails might be less crowded in colder months, it's important to observe a few key rules to maximize the enjoyment of the trail experience for you and others.

Be aware of who has the right of way.

During both peak and off-peak hiking season, there's a good chance you'll run into other hikers, especially if you're on a popular trail. If you're on a steep trail, the uphill hiker has the right of way. As an uphill hiker, I'll typically use this as a chance to take a breather! As the downhill hiker, if the uphill hiker stops to let you pass, that's completely fine, just remember that it's the uphill hiker's choice.

But do you know what to do if you encounter someone on a bike, or on a horse? As a rule of thumb, horses always have the right of way. Step in the downhill direction from the horse to avoid startling them. A second rule of thumb is for bikers to yield to hikers. But as always, use common sense; if you're in a spot where it's easier for you as a hiker to yield to a cyclist, it'll be safer for everyone if you do. And if you're hiking in winter, keep an eye out for groomed cross country ski tracks; chopping them up with your feet is generally not good etiquette.

If you take something on the trail with you, bring it back out...

It seems so simple to take the water bottles, granola bar wrappers, and orange peels back to your car after a hike and dispose of them properly, but it's not uncommon to see these and similar items left behind. The concept of “pack it in, pack it out” is crucial to the protection of the landscape, to the longevity of the trails, and to the enjoyment of others. Items like apple cores and orange peels may seem like things you can toss in the bushes, but they take time to decompose, and if they're not native to the area, that's even more problematic.

...this includes things you need to do your business!

Seeing a discarded water bottle near the trail is frustrating, but seeing a pile of used toilet paper is downright disgusting. The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics is a great place to start when it comes to how to relieve yourself with minimal impact on the trail environment and others.

No one likes seeing yellow snow and piles of toilet paper while they're hiking, especially when there are facilities nearby!

As a general guideline, start by getting yourself far off the trail, and be picky about where you do your business. This makes it less likely that someone else will inadvertently find you temporary toilet. Bring a plastic baggie or other vessel to pack out your toilet paper in. I've found Sh*t Kits are a perfect little package of everything I need. Leave No Trace principles also suggest digging catholes to bury solid waste as applicable. Read more about how to manage human waste outdoors.

Leave objects as you find them, including cairns.

In places like the High Peaks Wilderness in the Adirondacks and above treeline in the White Mountains, cairns are essential for wayfinding. And that's what they're meant to be used for. Building your own cairns might be fun, but in doing so, you're permanently altering the landscape, and depending on how large the cairn gets, causing wayfinding issues for future hikers.

When the landscape looks like this, cairns can be the only way hikers know where they're going!

In the same vein, there's no reason to take rocks, sticks, or other souvenirs with you. Anything you remove from the place you're visiting is going to leave to some sort of impact, especially in isolated areas. In some federally managed land like Acadia National Park and Petrified Forest National Park, it's illegal to remove things like rocks, and if you're caught doing so, you're subject to fines.

Be courteous with your use of technology.

On a recent trip to Iceland, my fiance and I noticed an incredible number of people with drones, including someone who almost got hit by a giant wave while flying his at Diamond Beach. We visited Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon, but frequently had an otherwise quiet and beautiful scene interrupted by a giant drone buzzing around our hears. Turns out, the Icelandic Transportation Authority determined rules around drones are required, given how ubiquitous they are these days.

As useful as some of our favorite devices can be, that doesn’t mean they're appropriate all the time and in every situation. It also doesn't mean everyone around us wants to hear our text message alerts, ringtones, our favorite music, or witness accidents because we’re not paying attention to where we’re walking.

I can understand why you'd want to fly a drone here, just make sure it's legal, that you don't take your eyes off the ocean,
and that you're not disturbing other visitors.

Keep your phones on silent unless it’s essential you hear alerts, and if you do stop to use your phone, make sure you’re not blocking other trail users. My iPhone has a feature that, when in Do Not Disturb mode, I can set it only to alert me when I receive calls or messages from specific people. Also consider leaving your headphones at home. Listening to music makes it tougher to hear what’s going on around you, including other trail users and wildlife.

To be fair, I've broken at least one of these written and unwritten rules in my hiking history, but it's all about learning and passing the knowledge on! What other tips would you add?