6 Reminders on Hiking Etiquette

by A Manly Guest Contributor on October 18, 2013 · 46 comments

in Manly Skills, Outdoors


Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Andrew Stephens. 

After spending a number of years in Utah hiking infrequently used trails, I returned to my native Washington state. Last month, I wanted to show my girlfriend some of the more popular local natural wonders, so we laced up our boots and headed for the hills. Not much had changed since my youth, but the trails sure did seem to be more crowded. After a few frustrating encounters on the trail, I realized that I had forgotten just about everything from my scouting days regarding trail etiquette. Here are a few things with which I needed a refresher, and that every hiker should keep in mind:

1. Horses, Hikers, and Bikers

The first thing that you need to know is that there is a hierarchy on the trail. Horses have priority, followed by hikers, and then bikers. It’s pretty simple to remember and makes encounters much more pleasant when everyone knows who gets to go first. Always check to see what other kinds of travelers will be sharing the trail with you before you start. If horses or bikes are allowed, then be mentally prepared to encounter them.

When being passed by horses, it is important to step off the trail, on the downhill side if possible. This helps in two ways: it will help keep from startling the horses, and it will keep you from getting run over if they do get spooked. Horses are prey animals, and as such they are always on guard for threats from predators. Standing uphill from a horse may give it the impression that you are larger and more threatening than you actually are. So always try to stay downhill and stay relaxed. Talking to the rider also helps the horse know that you’re a human and not some mountain lion lying in wait. Horses also tend to bolt uphill when they are startled, so staying out of the way will keep you from getting squished.

2. Yield to Uphill Traffic

Always yield to uphill traffic. If you’ve ever been plodding up a hill at a nice steady pace only to be run into by someone in a hurry to get down, then you understand the logic behind this. Going uphill is hard work, and changing up your speed can ruin your momentum. This is why people traveling uphill have the right of way. Of course, some hikers (like me) welcome any opportunity to stop and rest and we will often signal for downhill hikers to pass us. This happens a lot. Just remember that it’s up to the guy going uphill to make the call. Otherwise, yield.

3. Stay to the Right, Pass on the Left

The trail is a lot like the road in this respect. Keep to the right side of the trail when you are being passed.

If you want to pass someone from behind, get his attention by shouting out “On your left.” However, you don’t need to be overly formal or gruff, and a friendly, “Hi there. Can I get around you?” works just as well.

4. Leave No Trace

This rule can be observed in a number of ways.

The most apparent way is to clean up after yourself and pack out anything that you brought in. Even things like banana peels and apple cores can take quite a while to decompose and they don’t improve the scenery one bit.

This goes for dogs too. If you’re unwilling to clean up after your dog, then don’t take it out. No one wants to step in your dog’s little presents on the sidewalk, and the trail is no different.

Another way to leave no trace is to stay on the trail. You don’t need to prove your manliness by cutting across switchbacks on your way up the mountain. This can damage fragile plants, erode trails, and loosen rocks and boulders that may injure you or people below you.

5. Tech on the Trail

The increase in the use of technology in our daily lives has led to a proportional increase in its use in the outdoors, so a few courtesies should be taken. Remember that you (and your twitter followers) aren’t the only person on the trail. If you are listening to music or taking pictures or videos, be sure to be aware of your surroundings. Look around to make sure that you are not blocking the trail or holding up fellow hikers. Your kid really is adorable, but he will still be adorable after you get out of the way of the people behind you.

Phones are good to have on hand in case of an emergency, but their use should be limited to such. One of the wonderful things about hiking is the chance it provides to get away from the noise and annoyances of everyday life, and loud gabbing ruins this restorative stillness. If you absolutely must make or take a phone call, keep the conversation short and your voice low.

6. Be Friendly and Have Fun

Your fellow hikers are out to have a good time just like you are, and a friendly “howdy” or “hello” can go a long way toward fostering a positive atmosphere among everyone on the trail.

If you’re looking for more information about trail etiquette or hiking in general, there are a lot of great resources. One of my favorite sites in Washington is the Washington Trails Association. Do a quick search for more resources in your particular area.

I hope to see you all out there!

{ 46 comments… read them below or add one }

1 David D October 18, 2013 at 3:18 pm

Hmm, I understand the “Yield to Uphill Traffic” rule, but I’ve always yielded to those coming down, rationalizing that it can be harder for them to stop where they are. It’s a case by case situation anyways, just interesting to hear this point of view on it.

2 Caleb October 18, 2013 at 3:45 pm

One other rule for general enjoyment of the great outdoors: be friendly and willing to help out when needed. There is an unwritten code that you help out others you find in the woods, even if it takes you out of your way.

If you would see some stranger in town walking or driving, it is normal to go about your day. If you see someone in the woods you need to great them or at least wave.

3 Shawn G October 18, 2013 at 3:59 pm

Perfect timing on this article, particularly #4. I had just finished reading a news article about the Boy Scout leaders that destroyed the rock formation in Goblin Valley State Park in Utah.

4 Michael October 18, 2013 at 4:02 pm

Hikers before bikes? I’ve always yielded to bikes, especially those going downhill, because they’re typically much faster than hikers. No sense not letting them pass.

5 Brandon B October 18, 2013 at 4:20 pm

I always hike with a gun that is visible on my hip. Because of this I always make sure to smile and say hi to others on the trail to not seem threatening.

6 MM October 18, 2013 at 5:58 pm

Always, always yeild to uphill traffic. When you’re on trail hiking up the side of a mountain 10 miles into the middle of nowhere common courtesy goes a long way.

Good Post

7 Rich in NH October 18, 2013 at 7:57 pm

I’d like to add, as one whose name on the trail is Fleetfoot, another etiquette rule. Just as in golf, if you and/or your group hikes slow, especially on a narrow impassable trail, take a breather and allow the faster group/hiker to pass. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to clear my throat loudly before running someone’s tail in the Whites of NH…

8 Andrew October 19, 2013 at 7:13 am

Friendliness might seem like a throw away rule, but Caleb is spot on there.
Friendliness could save you or someone else’s life. I could go into some stories about it but if you want to see a case study in the do’s and don’ts of trail etiquette, hike the Grand Canyon.

9 JF October 19, 2013 at 11:42 am

This goes for horses too. If you’re unwilling to clean up after your horse, then don’t take it out. No one wants to step in your horses large presents at the trailhead, and the trail is no different.

10 AdventureRuss October 19, 2013 at 11:42 am

I have a few questions for you regular American hikers.

I am a British man who grew up in a rural area and I have done alot of hiking, but there are several things here that don’t make sense to me. Is this article referring to mountain trails with no stable ground around them? I ask because when hiking I prefer to avoid well worn paths in order to see more interesting things.

Secondly, when I am out hiking I don’t particularly want to meet anyone else and usually avoid anyone I see. It would be very disconcerting to me to engage someone in conversation when I am out trying to get away from society. Do you think this is a cultural difference or am I just anti-social?

11 Ben October 19, 2013 at 11:46 am

I can’t tell you how many times I have ridden my bike through horse manure. Clean up after your dogs and horses! At least stop and sweep the horse manure off the main trail. There have also been a fair amount of times I have ridden on clearly marked “bike only” trails and seen horses and pedestrians. That is scary when I am coming down a blind hill over 20 mph to see the rump of a horse.

12 Ben October 19, 2013 at 11:50 am

@Adventure Russ, typically they don’t want you walking off of the worn path. For example I live in a historic battleground area on the east coast, and if you walk off the trail you could be disturbing historic landmarks.

Most people I come across don’t try to talk too much, usually just a hello. If you don’t want to talk they probably won’t take it too seriously.

13 Native Son October 19, 2013 at 12:01 pm

A minor note on trail precedence. Extra vigilance is required around bikers, no matter where you’re at. Not that all cyclists are evil or rude, but, especially in some areas, a visible minority tend to act as if no rules, whether of courtesy, custom, or law, actually apply to a someone on a bicycle. Always better safe than sorry. Can’t count the number of times a guy on a bike has blown past me from behind without even an “On your left!”

14 Patrick T Birchfield October 19, 2013 at 12:15 pm

I really like the style and content of AOM and Huckberry. Nostalgic, practical, and proud. Lots of cool things on Huckberry this week, but I’d have to choose the carbon fiber straight razor.

15 Harold Chase October 19, 2013 at 12:27 pm

When hiking uphill your field of view may be restricted to only a few yards up the trail. Hikers who are downbound have a much longer line of sight and have more time to react.. That is why they yield to uphill traffic.

16 RachaelM October 19, 2013 at 12:36 pm

I would add one more to the list — leave the “Chatty Cathys” at home! There’s nothing more irritating than trying to enjoy peaceful settings, listening to the sounds of the wind, birds, etc., to have one’s ears assaulted by motor mouths!

17 Dave October 19, 2013 at 1:02 pm

As someone who trail runs, mountain bikes *and* competes in endurance horse riding (competitive, technical trail riding at high speed, frequently on rather neurotic breeds of horse) – you will never, ever, seriously-who-suggested-that-are-they-insane see me standing on the downhill side of a horse.

Getting crushed when a 1000lb critter slips or spooks and tumbles down the hill is not my idea of a good day. A simple, even-toned greeting in non-mountain-lion language from the high side of the trail with no rapid movements lets the horse know you are not going to leap on it’s back and eat it. “Hi, how’s it going? Nice looking horse you have there. What kind is it? Looks like it gets a little muddy up there, have a great ride…”

18 Michael October 19, 2013 at 2:49 pm

Regarding tech:
I absolutely agree that talking on the phone while hiking is inconsiderate to others and, quite frankly, defeats some of the purpose of going for a hike.
However – many people use their phones as a camera. Additionally, all of the Audubon field guides are available as iOS and Android apps and are much more convenient than carrying around the books. Keep that in mind before you judge someone if you see their phone on a hike.

19 Timothy October 19, 2013 at 5:09 pm

One thing I remember well from my childhood camping is to “leave it cleaner than you found it.” I think this is an improvement on “leave no trace.” When leaving a campground or picnic area look around carefully to make sure you got all of your trash but also pick up anything else you see that may have gotten left from previous hikers. If you don’t pick it up than who will? By doing so you will make the experience more enjoyable for whoever comes after you.

@AdventureRuss Interesting to hear your experience in Britain. That sounds like a different sort of hiking then we have in the states (at least in the Northwest, as I’m from Oregon, next door to the author’s Washington). Hiking is a very popular pasttime here, but it’s mostly confined to set trails that are usually maintained by State or National parks or forest departments. Most people who enjoy hiking (including myself) are not especially handy with a map and compass and prefer the safety of a clearly marked trail where you will occassionally see other people. It also may be that most of the wilderness around here where people enjoy hiking is in hilly or mountainous areas where it is more difficult to maintain a sense of direction. At least this is my estimation. It doesn’t sound like you’re antisocial, but instead that hiking is different where you’re from. I’d be interested to hear more about what hiking typically looks like across the pond if you wouldn’t mind sharing.

20 Sam October 19, 2013 at 5:55 pm

Dave, nice to see another equestrian on here! Let me take a wild guess–Arabs?

I wholeheartedly agree–don’t stand on the downhill side! Going downhill is easier and faster for a horse, and as a prey animal, they’re going to take the path of least resistance if scared. Also, remember that horses can’t see directly in front of or behind them. If you come up on a horse, make some noise. Whistle, sing, say something. Hikers can be very quiet, and riders may not hear a hiker over the creak of tack or hooves.

21 John October 19, 2013 at 6:00 pm

I would agree with Michael. It makes no sense for a biker to yield to a hiker. I learned it that hikers yield to everyone, and everyone yield to horses. If you replace horses with cars, it is very similar to the city.

@Adventure Russ: It ties into the whole Leave No Trace thing really. The goal is to have one, single path, to minimize the damage, rather than having many paths, covering a larger area, but with a smaller impact. For better or worse, it seems that the U.S. is guided by thinking that nature exists for nature, not so much for men to enjoy it. Where you are hiking makes a lot of a difference too. In a National Forest, do what you want, but National Parks will have more regulations. You can still go off trail, but you are often discouraged from doing so. And in some, like Mesa Verde you shouldn’t at all, due, like Ben said, to the historical artifacts. But overall, it is just a different philosophy about how to protect the Earth.

22 Evan October 19, 2013 at 8:55 pm

Great list. I know the uphill / downhill yield rule is debated among hikers and backpackers, but I firmly agree that uphill hikers should have the right of way. Basically, the person who would have a harder time with stopping and starting should be allowed to continue uninterrupted (if they choose), and generally this will be the uphill hiker. An exception to this might be when the downhill hiker has a large, heavy pack and the uphill hiker has a light one.

Bottom line, hike the golden rule. =)

23 Robb October 19, 2013 at 10:20 pm

AdventureRuss probably doesn’t do much of his hiking in national parks the way we in the States have to do. Trails in the UK tend to meander through fields and woods — known as public rights-of-way — rather than through carefully maintained nature preserves.

All the “hikes” I’ve ventured out on in the UK were really five-mile nature walks with a nice pub at the end. I haven’t found anything like that in the US!

24 blp October 20, 2013 at 1:19 pm

I must vehemently disagree with your right of way rules regarding bikers.
For bikers to dismount and move to the side of the trail is extremely difficult (especially if using clipless pedals), causes significantly larger amounts of environmental and trail damage, and it is much much harder to get going again on a bike (especially when on a hill) than on foot.
As such, I submit that Horses, then bikes, then pedestrians is correct right of way.

25 Kevin October 20, 2013 at 1:59 pm

Evan hit it on the nail. There are absolutely going to be situations where the uphill should yield to the downhill hiker. Use common sense.

26 AdventureRuss October 20, 2013 at 3:17 pm

@Timothy I have never needed a map for the hikes I do. I always have a compass strapped to my wrist, but very rarely have to use it. I can only speak for Dartmoor (south western UK). It is fairly hilly with large, widely spaced rock formations (Tors). From high ground you can see a reasonable distance, usually including the nearest towns.

Public footpaths criss-cross the whole thing, going through active farmland, Tors, woods, towns and rivers. I very rarely follow a set trail, preferring to keep to myself and enjoy more natural surroundings.

@Robb That’s fairly accurate, but without the Pub part for me. I usually hike alone so it’s not a social thing.

27 Native son October 20, 2013 at 5:15 pm

My parents, who grew up around horses always averred the worst place to be around a skittish horse was behind it.

28 Paul DiMarco October 20, 2013 at 6:44 pm

If you hike with a dog, keep it on a leash, and please do not let your leash block the trail. Clean up after your dog too.

29 Steve October 20, 2013 at 8:39 pm

A note on staying to the right; if you’re in a country where they drive on the left, then keep left while hiking.
It seems like common sense, but you’d be surprised at the amount of tourists who don’t seem to realize this.

30 Dr Boatman October 20, 2013 at 11:25 pm

Just a tip for anyone going hiking (bushwalking) in Australia: never leave the trail. I grew up in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, and every year someone would leave the trail, get lost, and later be found dead. Or not found at all. It’s tragic and serious stuff, and it just requires a little commonsense to be avoided.

Perhaps some of the more experienced hikers with maps and compasses and years of experience to keep them safe will be okay, but if you’re out for a day trip, best advised to play it safe with this one and just stick to the marked track.

31 Werner van Rooyen October 21, 2013 at 3:26 am

I know of someone who yielded down-hill, got bumped by the passing horse, lost his balance and fell down a cliffside and broke his arm. I always stand higher (mountainside) of cattle and horses. If they get startled I’d rather have them bump me to the ground running up a hill than push me down a deadly cliff.

32 EvilRosser October 21, 2013 at 1:15 pm

According to IMBA, bikers should yield to horses, hikers, and all other forms of non-motorized transportation. While most hikers will yield, the biker should be prepared to dismount whenever encountering someone on the trail. Please check with IMBA or your local Mt. Bike group to know the proper rules of the trail.

33 Mike Z October 21, 2013 at 2:46 pm

I like hiking for the seclusion, so trail traffic is rare for me, but I think courtesy and respect are almost always the best things to offer your fellow travellers. Common sense can dictate how that manifests.

34 jerry October 21, 2013 at 6:18 pm

my many years of experience tell me that bikers may be the rudest most arrogant group on the earth.not all of course but many many. They seem to gain rudeness while in groups….kind of like wolves.

Open carrying on the trail is too provocative…why anyone allows someone to see their advantage is exhibitionism to me.

35 Captain Tyler Smith October 22, 2013 at 10:53 am

I wish they had these reminders posted at the bottom of trails.

36 speedyk October 22, 2013 at 9:52 pm

AdventureRuss, I live in the southwest US in a rural area, and I also prefer not to see other people. When I do meet others, which is rare enough to startle me, I don’t stop and chat, but if they were clearly in trouble of course i would try to assist.

My experience with bicyclists, and I am also one, is that many ride beyond their visibility, so my keister is off the trail when I hear one approaching. In some places where the trails are steep downhills this is a survival tactic. Pocatello, ID, I’m talking about you.

Agree on being uphill of a horse. Most riders have a self-preserving way of greeting me ahead of close proximity, and I make a point of moving well off the trail for them.

37 JohnnyT October 23, 2013 at 8:54 am

I’m an avid mountain biker, so I don’t have anything against bikes. But the next jerk bombing down a singletrack trail shouting “Strava!” is going to get a stick in their spokes.

38 Nay October 23, 2013 at 12:58 pm

‘Stay to the Right, Pass on the Left’

I’ve always found it was the other way round in the United Kingdom!

39 Rangeroo October 24, 2013 at 5:54 pm

First, I am glad to see this post. In my experience taking care of a wilderness area, I am constantly having to remind people of the very things mentioned here. However, in my professional opinion, “Leave No Trace” should be first on everyone’s list. Human being have left their impact on every inch of this planet; the air that we breath and the forces that control our climate have felt our touch. Isn’t it more important that ever that just 2% of American soil can feel wild? Secondly, I would like to point out that the Wilderness Act makes use of “mechanized equipment” illegal within the boundaries of a National Wilderness Area. Using your phone or playing music out loud is not just rude to other people trying to enjoy a primitive experience, it’s illegal. I’ve issued tickets for it on my patrol.

40 Jonathan October 27, 2013 at 6:40 pm

As both a hiker and a biker, my biggest gripe is when people use a trail for a purpose it was not intended for. More often this is hikers on mountain biking trails. Narrow winding single track, you don’t expect two people and their dogs in the way was you come down a hill or around a blind curve.

41 Jose November 3, 2013 at 4:30 pm

Good post!
I usually give way to bikers, especially if they are coming at a steady pace.
Posts like this should be spread all over the world, recently very young hikers care more about the “facebook shot” than going out to walk.

42 pebbleshoo November 4, 2013 at 3:36 pm

“On your left” generally only works with Bikers. You can’t assume a Hiker will know how to respond. A lot of the time if I say “On your left” the individual steps to their left which causes all sorts of mayhem.

Asking “Can I pass” works better, as the individual can step to the side and then you can pass on the side they leave free.

43 Kris December 3, 2013 at 6:59 pm

Hah! I climbed that mountain in the background. Look up “Grand Sentinel” near Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada. Route is called “Cardiac Arete”. Randomly looking at this picture.

44 Franklin B. December 21, 2013 at 4:08 pm

A helpful rule # 7: Always lead with the weakest member first . The leader can watch, and give directions calling for rests when the “leader” is worn thin. The strongest will maintain their vigor, the weakest will build theirs ,not feeling left behind , nor worn to a frazzle. As always. have fun!

45 Brandon December 27, 2013 at 4:05 pm

I hike quite a bit and I’ve always yielded to people coming down the hill as it’s much easier for me to stop than it is for them.

Regardless of the “rules” in your area, just making an effort to be polite goes a long way. I’d much rather encounter someone yielding to the “wrong” side than someone who if flying down the mountain on a bike and really doesn’t care if you’re in their way.

It’s too bad b/c they make hikers think all MBers are jerks which obviously they aren’t. A few can ruin it for the many

46 Markc December 30, 2013 at 1:52 pm

Bikers yield to hikes for 2 reasons in my area, Tx. #1 to maintain access to trails. Rudeness and or accidents are often, along with erosion, the reason trail access is lost, closed to off road bikes. #2, safety. Bikes usually are traveling faster than others and accidents with injury can easily occur. it is incumbent upon cyclists to exercise caution.

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