Trail Etiquette 101

Since basic trail etiquette is oftentimes different from what’s generally accepted in “normal” society, many hikers are unaware of how their actions could be negatively affecting others when out on the trail. After all, right of way issues and campsite courtesy aren’t exactly common knowledge throughout the population, so it makes sense that many newbie hikers and seasoned veterans alike are unknowingly spoiling the wilderness experiences of their fellow hikers.

We’ve got you covered though – welcome to your official crash course on trail etiquette 101:


Who Has The Right of Way?

As far as foot traffic is concerned, downhill hikers should always yield to those traveling uphill. The logic is that uphill hikers are currently exerting the most energy, and that’s it’s courteous to not mess with their momentum. An exception to this rule is when the downhill hikers are part of a large group. In this case, proper Leave No Trace protocol is to yield to the larger group so that it minimizes the amount of footsteps taken off  trail when allowing the other hikers to pass. Most trails are not exclusive to foot travel, and in this case horses and other stock animals have the right of way in every situation. It’s largely accepted that it’s harder (and more dangerous) to have a large animal move to the side of the trail than any other form of travel. When mountain bikers are also allowed on a specific trail, they are to yield to every other traveler. Following the “right of way rules” helps keep the trails safe, and helps keep singletrack single by minimizing erosion and trail growth.

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How To Respectfully Bring Along Fido

Hiking with a dog can be a rewarding experience for both the dog itself and its owner. However, many people tend to look the other way on rules that keep our trails dog friendly. The biggest piece of courtesy that many dog owners fail to do is picking up dog poop. Although it is biodegradable, dog poop is often not the best type of waste to litter our trails with. Aside from the fact that any type of animal waste carries disease, dogs generally have a vastly different diet than most wild animals, and their waste is full of nonnative bacteria. You could opt to bury your dog’s poop in a cathole, but most people will choose to carry it out in a doggie bag. And please, if you are going to take the effort to put your dog’s poop in a bag, then hikers everywhere will be ecstatic to see you carrying it out instead of leaving it on the side of the trail.

Additionally, having control of your dog at all times is essential when backpacking. Not only can this help keep your dog safe from wild animals, but it’s the courteous thing to do as far as other hikers and dogs go. Not every hiker wants a dog running up to them, and likewise, some dogs are aggressive towards others. These reactive dogs have every right to use the trail as long as their owner has control over them, and it’s not fair for your friendly unleashed dog to trigger an aggressive dog by running up to it. If you’re going to hike with your dog unleashed, please have an honest and realistic conversation with yourself about how well trained your dog is, and how well they listen in on-trail situations. Remember, if enough people leave dog poop on the trail and allow untrained dogs off leash, then many trail organizations will ban dogs from some of our favorite wilderness areas.

Unofficial Quiet Hours

Nothing ruins the serenity of backpacking quite like a loud group of hikers waking up a campsite at 12am. If you are planning to camp in the backcountry, please be mindful of unofficial quiet hours. Generally speaking, when the sun goes down, quiet hours begin, and after sunrise is when louder noise levels are accepted. Yelling or playing music in the backcountry is frowned upon at all hours of the day, but doing these things during quiet hours won’t make you too many friends. Always be mindful that if you are getting into camp after dark, there could be a tent set up out of sight that you could be disturbing with your noise. Keep headlamps dimmed, voices low, and general unpacking noise to a minimum. The backcountry is also not the place for big fire pits and drinking until late into the night. Although there is definitely a time and place for this type of camping, a remote backcountry campsite is not it.

Leave It Better

It’s always amazing when you find the perfect backcountry campsite after a long day of hiking. Unfortunately, this situation is becoming increasingly rare as many hikers leave campsites in worse shape than when they arrived. Please always remember to remove trash from the fire pit, pick up any crumbs or food waste, and pack out (or bury) toilet paper. The last thing anyone wants to do after a day on trail is clean up a campsite before they set up, but many hikers are left with no other choice as uncleaned wrapper or scraps of food can cause bear troubles later in the night. When in doubt, think about how you would prefer to walk up to a campsite, and strive to leave every site like that for future hikers.

Our cozy two man setup

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Where To Set Up Camp

Many hikers agree that one of the best parts of backpacking is being able to experience the solitude that comes with a wilderness experience. However, this peaceful experience can be infringed upon by other hikers setting up camp less than a stone’s throw away. The general rule of thumb is to set up with enough distance that you can’t easily hear a conversation spoken at a normal volume. There are times in popular areas where you may have to set up camp a little closer than is considered kosher, but always talk with your potential camp neighbors beforehand and make sure they feel okay about you setting up close by. Many hikers will be understanding in this situation, but please be respectful of their decision if they tell you that you’re too close for comfort.

It’s also important to be mindful of Leave No Trace principles – such as not setting up camp closer than 200 feet from water sources, and away from sensitive vegetation – as ignoring these pieces of etiquette can effect hikers up and down the trail for years to come.

Follow Leave No Trace

Have you been noticing a trend that a lot of these etiquette rules fall in line with the Leave No Trace? Properly caring for our trails through LNT is some of the best etiquette you can put into practice as it helps keep trails pristine and ready to handle the massive amounts of hikers our wild spaces see each year. Sure, it’s easy to see how the seventh principle (Be Considerate To Others) can be applied to trail etiquette, but what about things like “Respecting Wildlife” and “Plan Ahead & Prepare”? In short, every principle helps keep trails wild, and – although we are only considered visitors in the backcountry – these principles benefit more than just animals and vegetation. Wearing footwear that allows you to walk through the mud (Plan Ahead & Prepare), helps prevent the trail from widening and minimizes erosion, which in turn allows our trails to stay open during muddy seasons and for trail crews to spend less time and money fixing structural issues. Hanging a proper bear bag not only falls in line with respecting wildlife, but it also helps keep backpackers safe by preventing animals from associating tents with food. Every aspect of the trail – from animals, hikers, vegetation, and water sources – benefit from us following Leave No Trace, and properly following the principles, as well as kindly educating others in the best way to follow them, is some of the best ways to be courteous on the trail for generations of hikers to come.

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Make The Trail A Kinder Place

Finally, one of the easiest pieces of etiquette to start implementing is being a friendly person to share the trail with. This can be as simple as waving or saying hello when passing a hiker on the trail, or as extreme as giving thru hikers a ride to town. Avoid giving out unsolicited advice on gear (unless the person will be in danger due to upcoming trail conditions), and try to keep the trail a friendly and welcoming place at all times. See someone looking like they need a little help? Ask if they are okay before passing by. Stumble upon a hiker not following LNT? Always keep the tone friendly and educational when correcting their actions. Our nation’s trail truly are there for every citizen, and hikers should strive to foster a friendly and hospitable environment for both seasoned outdoors-people, and newbies alike.

From observing “hiker midnight” to knowing who has the right of way in each given situation, some pieces of basic trail etiquette are vastly unknown by many hikers on the trail. However, by striving to foster a kind, accepting, and better informed trail community, we can make our trails a space where everyone can achieve a wilderness experience in whatever way that means to them. At the end of the day, it all comes down to the two golden rules: “treat others the way you want to be treated” and “leave no trace”. When in doubt, just strive to follow seven principles and you’re already half way there.

Happy Hiking!

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Comments 9

  • linda a wright : Jul 30th

    this was a good article except for
    i firmly believe that toilet paper should always be PACKED OUT

  • Shocktop : Jul 30th

    Thank you! The uphill right of way ignorance makes me crazy at times. Unfortunately the people who don’t follow it probably don’t read these articles. But every little bit helps.

  • Ellie : Jul 30th

    I appreciate the comment on aggressive dogs.

    My girl was badly abused and is scared of other dogs, so she is triggered by even friendly dogs.

    I can no longer take her hiking, which she really enjoys because it seems nobody else leashes their dog.

  • Jenn : Jul 30th

    Always pack out toilet paper!

    In 20+ years of hiking, I’ve only ever seen 1 dog that was truly under voice control (it was super cool to see, and well appreciated). If you’re wondering if your dog is under voice control – it’s not. Use a leash! Even friendly dogs in unfamiliar circumstances can become a problem. Your dog should never cause anyone any issues (stop a run, jumping, barking, lunging, etc. – not cool).

  • Patti : Jul 30th

    Agreeing with above comments. PLEASE make a correction about toilet paper. Out here on the west coast, especially in the desert, there’s not enough moisture to decompose TP. Animals dig it up and scatter it everywhere.
    Also, please check fire restrictions in backcountry before you go. Backcountry fires are banned just about everywhere in CA.

    Thank you for the article. I do believe most folks want to do what’s right and it’s just a matter of learning proper etiquette.

  • Rick James : Jul 30th

    Creating a fire pit in a perfect tent site ruins that tent site forever. I’ve seen this on the JMT in areas where campfires are illegal due to elevation and assume early season PCT hikers in high snow years (2017) feel that it’s okay because they are cold and wet.
    I’ve also experienced nice off trail campsites last ruined by people using them for pooping.

  • Luke : Jul 30th

    Keep the dog on a short leash! Not everyone wants to meet your dog or have it sniff and touch their clothing!

  • CatsMeow : Jul 30th

    As a kitty cat, I hate dogs. Okay, some dogs I may tolerate a little, but out in the woods, I don’t want your dog running up to me, growling, barking, sniffing my crotch, or trying to knock me over because it’s spooked or territorial or thinks its the alpha beast. Its bad enough when they run up barking and growling at my kids. It’ll get bear maced at best if it becomes overly aggressive. I’ve been attacked by dogs twice (german shepard and a pit bull terrier at different times), causing a shoulder injury on the last attack. You’ll be stuck with my medical bills and the bills for your vet when your vicious dog gets shot by someone protecting themselves. Something for you dog owners to think about. Keep the little demons on a leash, or keep them at home. Plus, pick up the poop. Good lord!!! No one wants to smell it or step in it. Otherwise, some wayward cats are going to poop on your tent in the middle of the night. And the hippie dippie music at 2am…you got a death wish? No one wants to hear your music 100+ feet away. That’s why we come out to nature, to get away from the noises of people and society. That’s what headphones are for at camp. And don’t wash your dishes in the only fresh water source for miles around….we don’t want your germs. Think McFly, think!

    That’s my 2 cent rant.

  • James C : Aug 2nd

    I disagree with the sundown quiet hours thing. This is quite ridiculous in New England in the Spring and Fall and even more ridiculous in Alaska.

    Additionally, the uphill / downhill right of way thing doesn’t bother me and I feel like it’s one of those things that shouldn’t even be mentioned. I try to follow it but I don’t get why this would be a rule or why someone would be overly upset about this. If it’s a problem for you, you don’t like people in general, go hike a less crowded trail.


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