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Hiking Etiquette 101: Keeping It Positive and Well-Mannered on the Trails

08.28.18

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Hiking Etiquette 101: Keeping It Positive and Well-Mannered on the Trails
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Try to leave the Earth a better place than when you arrived.

Sidney Sheldon

How many times has someone refused to stop on the trail to let you pass while you are hiking uphill with 1,000 feet elevation left on mile 6 of a 13-mile hike? Have you ever hiked with another hiker so close behind you that you can hear them breathing down your neck, and you worry that if you stop and allow them to pass they may collide into the back of you?  Have you ever seen anyone leave his or her trash behind? Refuse to carry out their toilet paper? Camp a stone’s throw away from a water source? What about that individual who is blaring music so loud on the trail that you wish you had a pair of ear plugs to block out the noise pollution?

For many, venturing into the outdoors, whether it is an urban hike, a multi-day backpacking trip, or a fancy glamping trip in a popular national park, is an excuse to heal the soul, clear the mind, unplug from the day-to-day activities and reconnect with yourself or with others. The outdoors is a therapeutic escape that can truly be a positive experience if we all work together to follow the rules and mind our manners. With well over 100 million visitors on more than 10 billion outings in the United States each year, our love for the outdoors can take a toll on Mother Nature. Impacted areas suffer from litter, invasive species, habituated wildlife, trail erosion, polluted water sources, and more. While most of us do not intentionally harm our natural surroundings, we may lack the knowledge to preserve it, and we often overlook a few important behaviors and principles.

Leave No Trace

These principles are the backbone of outdoor etiquette, and whether you are gearing up for your first hike or your 60th, we can all use a little refresher on the Leave No Trace principles.

  1. Plan ahead and prepare: Know the regulations and special concerns for the area you will visit. Prepare for extreme weather, hazards, and emergencies, and schedule your trip to avoid the most populated times. Visit in small groups when possible and consider splitting larger groups into smaller groups. Repackage food to minimize waste (take food out of original bags and food wrappers and consolidate into Ziplock baggies). Use a map and compass to eliminate the use of marking paint, rock cairns or flagging (nobody likes spray painted rocks or stacked up rock cairns).
  2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces: Concentrate use on existing trails and campsites, camp at least 200 feet from lakes and streams, keep campsites small, focus activity in areas where vegetation is absent, and walk single file in the middle of the trail, even when it's wet or muddy.
  3. Dispose of waste properly: Pack it in, pack it out, inspect your campsite and rest areas for trash or spilled foods, and pack out all trash, leftover food (including fruit peels) and litter. Always leave a place cleaner than you found it (didn’t your parents teach you this as a child?). Deposit solid human waste in catholes dug 6 to 8 inches deep and at least 200 feet from water, camp, and trails, and then cover and disguise the cathole when finished. (Some highly impacted areas, like Mount Whitney, Mount Rainier, or riverside campsites in the Grand Canyon require human waste to be packed out, too.) Pack out toilet paper and hygiene products. To wash yourself or your dishes, carry water 200 feet away from streams or lakes and use small amounts of biodegradable soap and scatter strained dishwater (I just bought a Sea to Summit compression dry bag to use as my sink while backpacking because regular collapsible camp sinks are heavy).
  4. Leave what you find: Examine, but do not touch, cultural or historic structures and artifacts, and leave rocks, plants and other natural objects as you found them.
  5. Minimize campfire impacts (be careful with fire): Where fires are permitted, use established fire rings, fire pans or mound fires. Keep fires small and use only sticks from the ground that can be broken by hand. Burn all wood and coals to ash, put out campfires completely, then scatter cool ashes. Don't bring firewood from home, which could introduce new pests and diseases. Buy it from a local source or gather it responsibly where allowed. 
  6. Respect wildlife: Observe wildlife from a distance and do not follow or approach them. Never ever feed animals…. EVER (feeding wildlife damages their health, alters natural behaviors, and exposes them to predators and other dangers). Protect wildlife and your food by storing rations and trash securely. Avoid wildlife during sensitive times: mating, nesting, raising young or winter. 
  7. Be considerate of other individuals

“Respect for ourselves guides our morals, respect for others guides our manners”

Laurence Sterne

You never know who you may meet on the trail, and it is so important to respect others while you are enjoying time in the outdoors. Noise pollution is still pollution, and it can be a total disruption for others, so if you love listening to music, please listen to your favorite tunes through your headphones. If you want to play music for your friends on the trail, keep the volume down and please only do this if you are on a remote trail with few fellow hikers (you should not be doing this on crowded, urban trails…bring your headphones for these places). Stay off of your cell phones and enjoy the wilderness. Remember, we disconnect to reconnect. 

Respect all campground quiet time hours, which are usually in effect from 10 p.m. through 6 a.m. This means no screaming or loud music to disrupt other campers; you never know if your fellow neighbor is waking up to conquer a thru-hike or climb a 14er, and we need all the sleep we can get before these long and tedious journeys.

Do not yell or scream on the trail unless you have an emergency (this is just rude and annoying).

Yield to other users on the trail. Hikers, runners, and bikers should always yield to horses. Bikers should yield to hikers and runners. Downhill traffic should yield to uphill traffic.

Stay to the right and pass on the left. The trail is a lot like a road in this respect. Keep to the right side of the trail when you are being passed and when approaching others from behind, a friendly greeting does wonders to let others know you are coming, and common courtesy will always go a long way!

I am going to repeat two of these: Downhill traffic should yield to uphill traffic (which means step off to the side of the trail, with a smile, and allow your fellow uphill hiker to pass).
When approaching others from behind, a friendly greeting does wonders to let others know you are coming (please do not “tailgate” fellow hikers or try to run fellow hikers off the trail by cutting them off. Instead, use your words: “Hello, do you mind if I pass you”?)

Now for the gray areas: What if a downhill hiker meets an uphill cyclist? The guidelines would say the biker yields, but personally, I know it is a lot easier for me to stop and start hiking than it is when riding, so I generally step off the trail when hiking or running. I suppose the cyclist should never have an expectation that the hiker will let you pass, but it might happen out of courtesy. Another example: an uphill runner meets a group of 12 hiking down the trail. Downhill traffic should yield, but as a solo runner, I would always step off the trail, as I figure the impact of one person doing so is far less than 12 doing so.

If you are hiking in a group, don’t take up the whole width of the trail; allow others to pass.

Take your snack and meal breaks away from crowded areas.

Do not cut switchbacks or venture off trail (it destroys the land, the habitat, and can be dangerous). Walk through the mud or puddle and not around it, unless you can do so without going off the trail.

Say a friendly “hello” when you pass another human being on the trail. Remember we are trying to foster a positive atmosphere.

If someone looks in distress, ask them if they need any help.

Control pets at all times or leave them at home, and please carry out all pet waste bags.

I personally prefer to venture out into the remote wilderness because I find not only are there fewer people but that these individuals are more experienced in wilderness etiquette, which often results in a more tranquil and restorative experience.

I hope we all can practice more trail love so we can enjoy Mother Earth a little longer.

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