Hiking Etiquette: How to Stay Respectful on the Trail

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In 2020, almost 58 million people went for a hike in the United States. That number is double what it was in 2006, showing just how popular hiking has become over the last several years.

As great as it is that so many people are getting out to enjoy nature, there are a few complications that arise in the process. Double the people means double the traffic, double the trash, double the impact on the environment, and double the chance to have an unpleasant encounter with another outdoorsman. Which means that it’s even more important to take a refresher course on proper hiking etiquette, so you and everyone else can have an enjoyable time in nature.

Right of Way

When it comes to hiking etiquette, it’s important to know how to properly share the trail. While it’s never a bad thing to yield to others, there are some specific occasions where you want to be more intentional about doing it. Here are just a few to look out for:

Hikers/Bikers

In theory, mountain bikers never have the right of way. This is because bikes are generally considered more maneuverable than human legs, so it’s always proper etiquette for them to yield to hikers. However, things don’t always work out this way, simply because bikes tend to move much faster than legs!

If a biker is coming over a hill or around a sharp curve, they may not have enough time to stop and swerve out of the way to avoid you. More often than not, it’s just easier for a hiker to yield their right of way to a biker. But even so, a biker should never expect this from a hiker, and they should still make an effort to yield when it’s safe to do so.

Hikers/Horses

donkeys walking up a mountain trail

Horses and pack animals always have the right of way. Not only do they take up a lot of room, but they’re also easier to spook, so it’s best if you keep your distance. Additionally, horses are less maneuverable, and can lose their footing more easily than a person will. As such, it’s always best if you take the initiative to move out of the way, giving them plenty of space to pass.

Hikers/Hikers

Always do your best to share the trail with others. Follow proper etiquette by yielding to uphill hikers if you’re going downhill, and if you intend to pass someone, make them aware of your presence.

I know many of you are probably wondering why hikers going downhill are supposed to yield to those going up. After all, shouldn’t others get out of your way when you’ve got gravity pulling you down the slope?

Well, the reasoning behind it is quite simple. Hikers working their way uphill have a narrower field of vision (they’ve got the ground right in front of them, and they’re focused on where they’re stepping). Not to mention, they’re trying to keep their momentum going, so they’ll have an easier time making it up the incline. So chances are they won’t see you before you see them, and even if they do, they won’t want to stop!

Solo Hikers vs. Large Groups

Should solo hikers move out of the way for large groups? The answer is yes, especially if the group is following proper etiquette by walking in a single file line while passing.

As a rule of thumb, when it comes to hiking etiquette, you should yield if you’re the one who will have the easiest time doing so – and vice versa. Alongside that, you should always yield in a way that protects the environment. Try to stay on the trail, so you don’t damage any sensitive wildlife growing in that area.

Dogs and Trail Etiquette

dog walking down a trail wearing a backpack

Dogs aren’t exempt from trail etiquette either! If you want to bring your furry friend with you on a fun hike, there are a few things that you’ll want to keep in mind.

First off, not all trails allow pets, so you’ll need to find a dog friendly hike to bring your pooch on. Once you’re there, take a look at the signage – many locations require you to keep a leash on your dog at all times. If leashes aren’t required, you’ll still need to have full control of your pet through the use of vocal commands. This is important for reining them in when another hiker is approaching, and for making sure they don’t get too close to a dangerous animal.

Leave no trace principles (which we’ll talk about shortly) also apply to your dog, especially when it comes to waste management. Always carry poop bags, so you can pack out any deposits that your dog will make along the way. Don’t leave these poop bags on the trail, even if you plan on picking them back up again when you’re on your way back down the trail. Instead, section off a specific part of your backpack that you can use to store these bags, making sure to keep them far away from any food or water you’re carrying.

Read More: Camping with Dogs? Here’s What You Need to Know

Leave No Trace Principles

a set of footprints in the snow

If you’re really concerned about hiking etiquette, the best thing that you can do is to leave nature the same way you found it. Considering the sheer number of hikers that head out every year, it would be easy for waste to build up, and for fragile ecosystems to be destroyed, if we don’t do our part. For the enjoyment of everyone, and the safety of our natural resources, always follow proper Leave No Trace (LNT) guidelines.

Check out our in-depth guide to LNT principles HERE!

Leave What You Find

You’ve probably heard this saying before: “Take only pictures, leave only footprints.” When you’re on the trail, it’s important to respect other hikers and nature by leaving things the way you find them. Snatching a flower might not seem like a big deal to you, but what if everyone grabbed a flower every time they passed through the field? Before long, there wouldn’t be any flowers left!

Leaving the environment pristine and untouched is the best way to preserve the area for future enjoyment. Even if you aren’t actively taking anything, it’s still disrespectful to dig trenches, pound nails into trees, destroy local flora, and cut off live tree branches. Do your best to leave everything the way you found it when you first arrived.

Dispose of Waste Properly

On the same line of thinking, always dispose of your waste properly. This includes both trash (food wrappers, gum, or other items) as well as your own human waste.

If you expect to produce a lot of trash, I would recommend bringing a plastic bag to store it in until you reach a garbage can. Consolidating everything will make it easier to throw it out in one deposit, while making sure you don’t lose track of a wrapper is some random corner of your backpack.

Human waste will be a little trickier to take care of, but it’s a process that can go smoothly if you’re prepared. Generally speaking, you can pee anywhere that’s out of sight and not in a small body of water, like a lake, pond, or stream. It’s perfectly acceptable to pee in an ocean or large river, though, as the large amount of water will thoroughly dilute your urine.

However, if you need to poop, it’ll be best if you take the time to dig a cathole. If you don’t have a shovel, or don’t feel like taking the time to dig a hole, you can also relieve yourself by using a wag bag. For a complete explanation on how to poop in the wild, check out our guide HERE.

Respect Wildlife

caribou standing on a plane with clouds and mountains

I know it’s tempting to inch closer to wildlife in order to take that perfect picture. However, for your sake and for theirs, it’s best if you keep your distance and use a zoom lens instead. During my time travelling to various parts of the world, I’ve seen quite a few people with their cameras get dangerously close to bears, moose, and bison. That thoughtlessness could have led to a dangerous situation where their lives would have been threatened, all because they wanted to get a selfie or a close up of the animal.

Be Considerate of Others

At the core of hiking etiquette is this simple idea: be considerate of others. Think of the golden rule, “do unto others as you’d have them do to you” as you go about your hike, and you’ll probably do pretty good when it comes to hiking etiquette.

Would you want others to get in your way when you’re huffing it up a hill? Would you want others to blast their music while you’re trying to relax? Would you want to step in dog poop halfway down the trail? If you’re normal, you probably wouldn’t like any of those things. So why would you do them to anyone else? As long as you’re conscientious of those around you, you’ll find that it’s easy to follow proper etiquette without even thinking about it.

Be Friendly

No need to be a grouch – try to smile and nod at anyone you pass. You’re all sharing the same space, and enjoying the same experiences, so why not be friendly to a fellow hiker? I believe this is all the reason you need, but there are a couple other benefits as well.

Whether you’re out for a day hike, planning to camp out overnight, or going solo, it’s nice to have friends on the trail. By chatting up some fellow hikers, you’ll be able to get a feel for what the trail conditions are like up ahead, or they might tell you the best place to camp. At the very least, you can feel a little more at ease knowing that someone else is aware that you’re on the trail. In case of emergency, this could be a lifesaver.

Should You be on Your Smartphone?

woman holding smartphone outside

There’s nothing inherently bad about being on your phone while you’re hiking. Sending a few texts and taking a few photos won’t harm anything, but be aware of how your phone use is affecting those around you. If you’re hiking in a group, your friends might feel neglected if you focus more on your phone than on them. Loud phone calls or music can be abrasive and disruptive for other hikers who are trying to soak in the peace created by the sounds of nature. But even beyond that…why go on a hike if you’re not going to appreciate your surroundings?

The amount of time you spend on your phone is up to you, but always remain courteous and respectful to those around you. Listening to music is fine, but use earbuds instead of a Bluetooth speaker. Don’t get in the way of others just because you want to take a photo, and save your phone calls for after your hike.

Keep an Eye on Trail Conditions

Did the fresh rainfall turn the trail into a muddy bog? As much as I’d like to tell you to press on and enjoy your hike anyway, turning around at this point is going to be for the best. Not only would your shoes (and pants/legs) get caked in mud, you would also run a greater risk of slipping and falling. Injuries come easily when folks attempt to press on through difficult trail conditions.

You’d also run the risk of damaging the trail even more. And by slipping off the trail, or by skirting the edges of it to avoid the dangerous parts, the surrounding ecosystem will suffer. So at the end of the day, in spite of the disappointment you’ll probably feel, it’s best if you turn around when you encounter a wet and muddy path.


Spencer Yeomans

Spencer Yeomans

A lover of the outdoors, and especially the mountains, Spencer has always enjoyed pushing people to step outside their comfort zones. His mission is to help others get out of their homes to have fun and stay active in nature.

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