Hiking in the mountains is one of the most effective ways to leave behind the noise, stress and pressures of a daily urban existence. Study after scientific study has shown that the health benefits for both the body AND mind from hiking and time spent outdoors are numerous. According to the National Institutes of Health, hiking has been shown to decrease blood pressure, decrease stress levels, enhance the immune system and lower cortisol levels. For stressed out Americans, an opportunity to start living a healthier life can be as simple as getting outdoors more and hitting some hiking trails. And with countless trails to explore across this country—hiking opportunities are endless! Yet as more individuals realize the wonderful health benefits of hiking, some of those trails can become a bit overcrowded. With more people sharing the trails, especially during the summer months, it’s essential for hikers to understand the written and unwritten rules of the trail. While we may have similar goals and reasons for going on a hike, there is nothing that’ll turn a positive experience into an unpleasant one quicker than hiking among others with complete disregard for basic trail etiquette.
Aside from the principle of having common courtesy for fellow hikers, remembering some basic trail rules is also about having the utmost respect for the natural world and the beautiful wild lands across this extraordinary planet. Maybe you’ve heard of the term “Leave No Trace” – most outdoor enthusiasts take this concept VERY seriously. If you’re not familiar with it, in simple terms, it means to keep our wild spaces clean and undisturbed...keep them wild! Leave what you find and protect our natural spaces by leaving no trace that you were there. If you are newer to hiking or simply want to brush up on your trail manners, please keep reading for our Top 10 Tips for best hiking etiquette:
1. Obey the Written Trailhead Signage
Some backcountry trails don’t even have a well-marked trailhead with signage and some may simply have a wooden sign with the name and perhaps distance of the trail; but if you do embark on a trail that provides a more detailed sign posted at the trailhead, it would behoove you to look it over before starting off on your trek. Many trailhead signs give important and helpful information such as routes with distances and a map of the area; as well as information about camping permits and overnight parking restrictions if backpacking. Some will also list hazard warnings to alert you to recent obstacles on the trail such as areas of flooding or trail closures in addition to warnings of increased prevalence of particular wildlife in the area with safety precautions should you encounter a bear or mountain lion for example.
2. Stay on the Trail
Don’t step off the trail unless it is absolutely necessary when yielding to others. Hiking off the trail can be dangerous for hikers as the ground can be uneven, slippery or rocky which could lead to a sprained ankle or other unfortunate injury with just one misstep. Additionally, hiking off the trail can lead to erosion that can change how rainwater flows which can completely wash out sections of the trail making it unsafe. Hiking off trail is also damaging to vital plant life…think about if young tree saplings are toppled over by hiking boots…they will be prevented from developing into new plants and large trees which are crucial for our beautiful forests. And especially in alpine environments, straying from the trail can kill fragile plants and certain animal species. For the safety of others and yourself as well as the preservation of forests and all natural spaces, please always follow the well-traveled path.
3. Uphill Hikers Have the Right of Way
Downhill hikers should always yield to uphill hikers. When you’re descending a trail, step aside and yield to hikers who are climbing uphill. This is a courtesy to uphill hikers as it takes more energy and effort to go uphill than down. But keep in mind that many uphill hikers (especially at higher altitudes above treeline) will gladly welcome a little rest and may possibly signal to downhill hikers to proceed past them while they take a breather. Additionally, bicyclists should yield to hikers and horses. Hikers should yield to horses and other pack stock.
4. Whatever you Pack in…Pack it Out!
If you’re packing it in, be sure to pack it out! Remember this is not the city, there are no trash receptacles on the mountain. Anything you’ve stashed in your daypack—snack wrappers, disposable beverage containers, extra tissues—all of it needs to leave with you. Bring along a large Ziploc bag or two to stash any used wrappers or other trash. Even the peels from that orange you enjoyed at the summit of your hike, don’t leave them behind, pack ‘em out and dispose of it after your hike.
5. Maintain Respectful Noise Levels
Please for the love of humanity—don’t play loud music! You may enjoy your crazy beats but not everyone else around you does. If you and your friends want to play your music on a mostly low trafficked trail…fine but keep the volume on the low side and please turn it down if you come across other hikers on the trail.
6. Give a Hoot; Don’t Pollute!
Those of us ‘70s children may remember this famous slogan from the U.S. Forest Service’s national symbol/advertising character Woodsy the Owl. While it should be common sense not to litter, it’s astonishing how much trash is still found along hiking trails all over the country. Again, if you brought it with you, don’t be a litterbug and leave it behind.
7. Don’t be a Trail Hog
When hiking in a group, use the trail single file. Nothing is more annoying than coming across a group that takes up the entire width of the trail and worse, a group whose members lack special awareness and neglect to move into a single file line when they see other hikers coming in the opposite direction.
8. When Nature Calls…
We’ve all been there…when nature calls, find a discreet place to go away from the trail and that is nowhere near a stream. If you need to go while above treeline in an alpine area, remember you are in mountain goat territory and goats are attracted to the salt in urine. Therefore peeing on a rock surface is recommended rather than on fragile vegetation which may get dug up by goats trying to get to the salt. Lastly, listen up ladies…although this should be self-explanatory…PLEASE, PLEASE don’t ever leave behind your feminine hygiene items. It is never ok to do this! Some of you may be wondering why I would even mention this, but trust me I’ve seen it happen before—soiled feminine hygiene products left right on the side of an alpine trail! YUCK! Not only is it completely disgusting but it’s horrific for the environment. Just as you would bring for your other trash, bring large ziplock bags to dispose of used toilet paper, tissues or other sanitary supplies and pack it out with you.
9. Do Not Disturb Wildlife
This should be a no-brainer but it’s quite bewildering how many people get too close to wildlife while trying to snap a selfie with a Bighorn Sheep, Mountain Goat, Elk or Moose. It’s an all too familiar news story we hear about each summer at national parks across the country—visitors get too close to wildlife and since they are in fact wild animals, they react with sometimes tragic consequences. The same recommendations for staying at least 25 yards from all large animals that applies to national park tourists also applies to hikers anywhere. Not only is it dangerous and the quickest way to quite possibly get rundown by an animal much larger than you, but it’s also unsettling to the animal. Alpine environments and wooded forests are their home. How would you like it if someone came into your home and got a little too close? Always be respectful of wildlife and enjoy from a healthy distance.
Most hikers generally are a friendly bunch. When you encounter another hiker or trail user, a friendly hello or even a simple nod helps to create a friendly vibe on the trail. When approaching another hiker from behind, announce your presence in a calm, friendly manner and let him/her know you want to pass. Often a simple “on your left” easily lets others know you intend to pass them on their left side.
While many of us retreat to the woods to escape the annoyances of congested urban areas, that doesn’t guarantee you’ll always have the trail to yourself. On heavily trafficked trails, you’ll definitely want to practice your best trail manners to keep hiking a positive experience for all. Even on those less-trafficked trails, you should think about how your own behavior and actions will impact the beauty of the area and make it a goal to be a good steward of the natural world. Above all, the best thing to remember is the Golden Rule—treat others the way you would want to be treated. Knowledge of some basic trail etiquette will go a long way in making your hiking experience more enjoyable, as well as for all those around you. ~ KM