When HYOH Does NOT Apply [Part 1]

Whether you’re on the trail or vicariously living through social media, if you’ve spent any iota of time in the social forums around the Appalachian Trail (AT) you’ve probably come across the phrase “hike your own hike.” Sometimes abbreviated “HYOH” it’s probably the most frequently referenced phrase on the AT if not the entire hiking community at large.  These four simple words have spread everywhere throughout hiker culture and have come to represent a popular philosophy championed by many hiking enthusiasts.

In it’s most basic form the phrase represents the idea that there is no single “correct” way to hike a trail. In other words it’s every hikers prerogative to do whatever they choose to do in order to make their hiking experience everything they want it to be regardless of anyone else’s opinion.

Want to carry a ludicrously unnecessary piece of gear because ? Shove that sucker in the pack! Want to detour on a water-fall filled blue-blaze instead of staring at the same ol’ Green Tunnel for another 5 miles? Do it!  Prefer hiking in cotton even though other hikers tell you it’s a bad idea? If it’s what you want to do then do it! Get the idea? It’s all about doing what you think is going to make you happiest on the trail. It’s no wonder that HYOH is so widely accepted.

Yet, there are still those that do not hold the idea of HYOH in such high regard. To some HYOH is simply an excuse. They’ll tell you it’s just a result of the “everybody’s a winner” mentality. They’ll tell you that it’s just something people who didn’t really thru-hike the trail have to tell themselves because they can’t face the reality of falling short or having to “cheat” in order to reach their goal.

The thing is thru-hiking is not a competitive sport. There is no National Thru-Hiker League of America. You generally don’t see kids wanting to grow up to be “professional thru-hikers” or getting scholarships for how awesome they are at backpacking. Very few people actually manage to find ways to get paid to thru-hike, and I can tell you those that are lucky enough to do just that aren’t doing it because it’s such a lucrative career opportunity. A thru-hike is something altogether more intimate.

Descending South Twin in the White Mountains

Descending South Twin in the White Mountains


What drives each person to thru-hike is deeply personal, as are the mental, physical, and even spiritual changes each hiker experiences during the journey. Perhaps at one time a simple definition about hiking the entirety of a 2,000+ mile trail from end to end was enough to sum up the act of “thru-hiking”. In fact, to those outside the hiking community this definition may still be sufficient. However, for the rest of us the term has evolved beyond such basic semantics. A thru-hike is something else: a journey, an adventure, an escape, an excursion, a pilgrimage, a crusade, a wayfare, a walkabout, or anything in between. It could be any, all, or none of these things at the same time. Those of us who’ve undertaken such a hike know it’s so much more than just walking along a trail. It’s a personal journey that’s customized in some way by every individual who takes up the challenge. The goals, methods, encounters, situations, and outcomes of every single hike are different. Therefore it is up to every hiker to take charge of their own hike to ensure they make it everything they hope it could be. This principle is the core of what it means to hike your own hike.

Yet, there’s much more to this philosophy than encouraging a blind march toward personal satisfaction. “Hike your own hike” also contains a moral framework to keep the more self-centered core principle in place. This framework represents a basic standard for hiker etiquette. In layman’s, it means that every hiker is entitled to hike their own hike up and to the point that it begins to negatively impact the experience of another hiker.

When someone commits to hiking a trail such as the AT, PCT, or the like, they are also committing to enter into the communities that surround those trails. To be a part of community of any kind means there will always be limits on individual freedoms; you are free to do as you like until your freedom begins to affect the freedom of others. That’s just how a society works – like it or not we all have to live together in perpetual compromise.

So if HYOH isn’t a cover-all, what kind of situations aren’t “protected” under the philosophy? This is a difficult question to approach as the exact semantics behind HYOH are ultimately relative to the interpreter. There is no sacred hiker artifact with the HYOH philosophy carved into it. It’s simply an idea that’s been passed on from one person to another–one that developed naturally through the growth and maturation of hiker culture. If you were to ask ten different hikers what it means to hike your own hike there is a real possibility you could receive ten different answers. However, in order for the ideal have spread so ubiquitously most interpretations must undoubtedly share the same core principle: that you are free to hike your own hike as long as you grant other hikers the same privilege. Though the nuances may differ the core is maintained. With this foundational principle in mind I’ve developed this post series to address some of the most common situations and behaviors which I feel are contrary to the spirit of HYOH.

So let’s kick off this series with what I consider one of the most frequent situations where HYOH simply doesn’t apply.

I know what some of you might be thinking. How can I hope to prescribe any valid points without violating the very principle I’m trying to defend? Before skipping down to the comment section to put me in my place know that my goal here is not to declare, justify, or suggest a single “correct” way to hike the Appalachian Trail or any other trail for that matter. I don’t care what kind of gear you use. I don’t care if you northbound, southbound, blue-blaze, yellow-blaze, pink-blaze, aqua-blaze, section-hike, consider yourself a purist, or whatever. These sort of trivialities aren’t my focus. So let’s continue! 

When You’re Being a Dick

Crude? Yes, but to the point. Why doesn’t HYOH apply here? While the experience is uniquely your own, the trail is not. Being a dick implies that you’re behaving in a way that ignores this basic principle.

Of course I’m painting with a pretty broad brush here. What exactly makes somebody a dick? There are a slew of possibilities. Acting abrasive, rude, condescending, uptight, judgmental, proud, selfish, opinionated, elitist, or entitled are all possible dickish behaviors. All of these are attitudes that are easy to slip in and out of making this one of the most common ways to fail at HYOH. It’s a mentality that’s hard to self-govern because, odds are, the offender isn’t even aware that he/she is doing it.

It should be noted that there is a difference between lacking congeniality and being a dick.  While the former is likely going to negatively impact your own experience, it is not necessarily an infringement on HYOH.

So what does it mean to be a dick?

A good rule of thumb: if you have to ask whether or not you’re being a dick then you’re probably being a dick.

If that litmus test doesn’t quite cut it for you, here’s a small sampling of some common behaviors to avoid:

  • Setting up a tent or hammock inside the shelter ignoring the possibility that other hiker’s may be looking to use the space as well.
  • Inconsiderately blaring music from headphones or speakers at camp without checking to see if it would bother any other nearby hikers.
  • Smoking cigarettes or other such substances in the shelter without asking others permission…particularly on rainy days.
  • Pooping directly on the trail. Yes, this actually happens. For real.
  • Stepping on other people’s gear with muddy boots.
  • Stepping on other people’s gear. Period.
  • Not packing out your trash.
  • Throwing your trash in the fire pit when you aren’t even lighting a fire.
  • Throwing your non-flammable trash in the fire pit even when you are lighting a fire. (Mountain House bags don’t burn people!)
  • Using soap or similar body care products in a fresh water source.
  • Saving spaces in a shelter for hikers who haven’t shown up yet. (It’s first-come-first-serve.)
  • Legitimately threatening to beat another hiker with your trekking poles because they accidentally woke you up.
  • Talking down to newbie hikers in the beginning of the trail just because you’ve hiked before.
  • Tagging your name on shelters, trees, or anywhere.
  • Shining your headlamp in people’s faces and you don’t realize it.
  • Shining your headlamp in people’s faces and you do realize it.
  • Being a repeat offender in the belligerently drunk category.
  • Not adequately respecting hiker midnight (within reason).
  • Asking other hikers to dump your cleaning water for you when the asker is snug and cozy inside their sleeping bag in the shelter and the askee is soaked and trying to stay out of the rain.
  • Refusing to bear bag (especially when everyone else at camp already has).
  • Cutting in line for the free hotel laundry to remove one hiker’s clothes from the dryer to insert you and your hiker friend’s 5 pairs of wet, smelly shoes.
  • Stealing another hikers socks out of the laundry.

If you’re wondering why some of the items on this list sound oddly specific it’s because all of them are things that have actually happened to someone. Every bullet point was crowdsourced from fellow hikers who offered up an example from their own experiences on trail.

Sharing is caring.

Sharing is caring.

Now, it’s to be expected that every hiker is going to have both good and bad days during the course of an extended hike.  Marching through a downpour, extreme discomfort, or a continual cloud of mosquitoes is enough to unearth anyone’s ugly side.  That’s part of being human.  You need not grin and bear it for the sake of the community.  Being in a bad mood doesn’t make you a dick.  But taking it out others does.

Also, I know people aren’t going to get along with everybody they meet on the trail at all times. In fact, on a 2,000 mile adventure it’s pretty much a guarantee you’re going to eventually run into someone who rubs you the wrong way. Sometimes personalities just clash. It happens.  The bottom line is that no matter how much you’re annoyed or fundamentally disagree with someone’s thoughts or actions, being a dick never helps the situation.


Taking stock of how your presence and actions affect the experience of other hikers you encounter is fundamental to being part of the AT community, both on and off the Trail.  No catchphrase is capable of dissolving this.

But at the end of the day, nothing I write here is going to do much to deter selfish or inconsiderate behavior on the trail.  If someone’s dead set on being a dick, that person is going to be a dick.  It’s an unavoidable reality.  The point is, there is no four word saving grace for your actions.  Offering a “hike your own hike” after acting selfishly implies that you’re misguided and a dick.

Just remember that it’s okay to not like things, just don’t be a dick about it.


Click Here to read Part 2


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Comments 9

  • Frozenfella : May 16th

    Great article! I’m saving this one to share along.

  • Charlene Vernet : May 31st

    Loved this!!!! Another dick move is telling a hiker that just arrived at the shelter that “we” will make room for them when we are clearly full. Honestly, this person never asked the rest of us if it was okay. Then the person who ok’d it just moved out of the shelter and into their own tent?!?! I was freakin ticked off. My dad, who is 80 and is a cancer survivor, needs a little extra space to get out of the shelter in the middle of the night. This person said that these extra people could just sleeping bag on the stoop of the shelter?!?! I really hate when people speak for you without your permission, asshats.

  • George Morgan : Dec 29th

    I’m a little surprised that you left out two of the most dick-like trail behaviors: hikers carrying firearms and hikers bringing their dogs. I’ve been hiking and backpacking for more than half a century and never needed a firearm. And dogs–ANY and ALL dogs–can threaten or even bite a stranger (hiker) they meet on the trail. Don’t be a dick–leave the guns and barkers at home.

    • James Gardner : Nov 17th

      George, according to your statement all of the following people are dicks: Forest Rangers and other LEOs that carry firearms on trails for their own and other people’s protection, people who live near trails and walk their dogs on the trails daily while cleaning up after their dogs as well as the many thru-hikers that leave trash behind, hunters who use trails to access public land, people who bring service dogs on trails, a solo female hiker who is a survivor of multiple sexual assaults and carries a firearm for her own protection.

      I know people who fit into each of these categories and none of them are dicks. I personally fit into the first three, so am I a dick for occasionally carrying a concealed firearm for my own and other people’s protection while hiking off duty, even though I never remove it from the holster and you would never even know I have it with me? There have been murders and assaults on hiking trails, and the trails where I live have bears and mountain lions that occasionally attack hikers. So while I am glad you, most likely a white male, have never needed a firearm in your more than half century of hiking, there are people who have. I and many people I know carry a rifle or shotgun on the trails during hunting season, I fail to see how going hunting automatically makes someone a dick. My dog has been walking with me on trails almost every day for the last 13 years and has never so much as snarled at any of the thousands of hikers we have encountered. Most people ask if they can pet him, some who don’t like dogs avoid us, but he is no threat to anyone who is not a threat to us.

      You sir, sound like a dick for judging everyone else who doesn’t hike the way you hike. These trails are shared by all of us, not everyone is there to do exactly what you are doing and not everyone has the same views you do, HYOH bro.


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