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Hiking Etiquette: Rules of the Trail for All Hikers

Hiking Etiquette: Rules of the Trail for All Hikers

We’ve been avid hikers for decades, so we know how important hiking etiquette is. And it’s not just a courtesy to others, but for hiker safety and trail preservation, too.

Today we’re covering hiking trail etiquette for newer hikers, with important reminders for all of us seasoned hikers as well.

The more we all follow the rules of the trail, the happier and safer all hikers (and wildlife) will be. And the more likely the trail will continue to exist for others to enjoy.

What Are the Rules that Comprise Hiking Trail Etiquette?

Hiking is an excellent way to experience the many gifts the great outdoors offers. It’s also great exercise!

But trails are shared with other hikers, wildlife, and the environment itself.

Based on common sense, there are both written, and unwritten rules in place. They’re followed and shared by experienced hikers, the National Park Service, and the American Hiking Society, primarily to preserve the environment, including wildlife and water sources.

Here are the most commonly acknowledged rules of hiking trail etiquette:

Leave No Trace

One of the most important rules of hiking etiquette, Leave No Trace is widely practiced by experienced hikers everywhere.

It applies to all hikers on every type of trail, protecting the natural environment and preserving our ability to enjoy hiking for years to come.

Established by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics and developed by the US Forest Service, National Park Service, and Bureau of Land Management, Leave No Trace is key to caring for the wild areas we visit.

The 7 Leave No Trace principles are:

  • Plan Ahead and Prepare
  • Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
  • Dispose of Waste Properly
  • Leave What You Find
  • Minimize Campfire Impacts
  • Respect Wildlife
  • Be Considerate of Other Visitors
A "Leave No Trace" sign on the side of a hiking trail

When hiking the beautiful trails all around us, take only photos and leave only footprints!

Stay on the Trail

Trail users should always keep foot traffic concentrated in the one place designed for it: the trail itself.

Diverting from the hiking trail, including “short-cutting” on switchbacks, adversely impacts the land by causing vegetation to die off, or excess erosion to occur.

In some places, like the US Desert Southwest, a single step can destroy cryptobiotic soil that can take decades to grow. That’s right… even footprints can damage the environment!

Stay on the trail!

Mind Your Dog

Only bring dogs on trails that are marked as dog-friendly. This is not only for the safety of other hikers but also for your pet’s safety.

In addition to bringing your pet only where they’re allowed, note these additional rules anytime you hike with your dog:

Pick up and Carry Out

This should go without saying, but always pick up and carry out any dog waste. It’s not only common courtesy to other hikers who could step in what your dog leaves behind, but it can also negatively impact wildlife.

And don’t think you can leave pet waste behind just because you feed your dog a “natural diet” — bring bags, and use them!

Keep Your Dog on a Leash

Maintain control of your dog at all times. This is important for the safety of other hikers and your dog. There are hazards, such as wildlife, on the trails and your dog’s safety depends on you.

Other hikers may be alarmed by an unrestrained dog coming toward them. Your dog may be your best friend, but other hikers know nothing about them. If your off-leash dog rushes toward another hiker and gets a face full of bear spray, who’s fault is that?!

A man and a woman hiking with a dog

If you want to hike with your dog, hike only “dog-friendly” or “pet-friendly” trails, and keep your dog on a leash and under your control at all times. And pick up after your pup!

Step to the Side

Always step to the side of the trail (not off the trail but to the side of the trail) to allow other hikers to pass.

Traditionally, hikers step to the right side of the trail to allow others to pass on the left. And hikers heading uphill have the right of way!

More on the “right of way” in the next section!

Know the Right of Way Rules

Just as there are right-of-way rules in driving, there are also right-of-way rules in hiking etiquette.

  • Yield to Uphill Hikers

Step aside and allow uphill hikers to pass if you’re hiking on the downhill side of a narrow trail. Body language will generally get the job done on level ground, as someone will yield!

Acknowledge fellow hikers, even with a simple nod of the head. (The busier the trail, the less likely you’ll be to have much conversation with each passing hiker.)

  • Cyclists Yield to Hikers and Horses and Other Pack Stock

If you’re cycling on a trail that’s open to mountain bikes, you must yield to everyone else on the trail. Cyclists yield to hikers and horses or any other pack stock like donkeys, burrows, etc.

  • Hikers Yield to Horses and Other Pack Stock

Hikers must yield to horses any other stock that might appear on the trail.

Remember that some horses can be easily spooked. Maintaining quiet while allowing horses to pass is an important part of hiking etiquette on mixed-use trails.

Several horses being ridden through a field

Hikers yield to horses and other pack animals on mixed-use trails. Stay still and quiet to avoid spooking them.

Pass on the Left

When passing other hikers walking more slowly than you are, pass them on their left.

If you’re the one walking more slowly, step to the right to allow others to pass on your left.

Hike Quietly (Usually – There’s a BIG Exception To This Hiking Etiquette Rule!)

In general, anytime you’re hiking, it’s best to listen to the sounds of nature rather than anything else.

Not only does this enhance your own hiking experience, but it’s also respectful of other hikers and of nature itself.

Remember that many species of wildlife rely on sound as communication and guidance. Avoid disturbing the sounds of nature with a cell phone, music, or even talking too loudly or too much. However, there is an important exception to this rule.

Exception to the “Hike Quietly” Rule

There is one important exception to the rule of hiking quietly.

  • Hiking in Bear Country

An exception to this rule is when hiking in bear country.

Because this is such an important topic in certain areas, we don’t want to paraphrase advice from the pros.

“Making noise on the trail can alert a bear to your presence before you have the chance to surprise it. Talk to your partners and occasionally sing loudly, yell “hello” or “whoop! whoop!” and clap your hands loudly to let any bears know you’re coming.

Make extra noise when you’re close to loud natural features such as rivers, streams, and on windy days.

Also make lots of noise when approaching features that make it hard for a bear to see you (such as a crest in the trail or a blind corner).

Bear bells may be a popular item to put on your backpack, but they don’t effectively warn a bear you’re in the area. Bears won’t hear the bells until you’re too close. Yelling, clapping, and talking are more effective ways of alerting a bear to your presence.”

— Courtesy National Park Service

A little humor on this topic… if you can bear it:

How can you tell the difference between black bear scat and grizzly bear scat?

Grizzly bear scat is larger, contains small bells, and smells like pepper!

Seriously though… here’s how to identify bear poop in the woods. And yes, that’s where they do it. And it’s important to know the difference, since black bears and grizzlies behave differently, requiring different actions on your part in the highly unlikely event of an attack.

Bear attacks are very rare. But this rhyme is good to know, just in case: “If it’s brown, lay down. If it’s black, fight back. If it’s white, say goodnight.”

A silhouette of a bear containing words of advice about hiking in bear country

When hiking in bear country, it’s important to respect all the advice professionals offer.

NEVER Litter

This should go without saying, but since we do sometimes see litter on the trail, here we are saying it. This includes biodegradable items like apple cores or banana peels. Unless you’re hiking in an orchard, or in a Central or South American jungle, that stuff isn’t native and doesn’t belong there.

The rule is simple: “Pack it in, pack it out.” This means whatever you bring on a hike, you take with you when you leave and dispose of it properly.

A woman's hand placing a wad of paper into a trash receptacle

Always carry out ALL trash and dispose of it properly.

Don’t Disturb or Feed Wildlife

As tempted as you may be to use food to coax an animal to come closer for a photo, never feel wildlife. Human food is the wrong thing for them to eat, so not healthy. Over time, it will also cause them to lose their natural fear of people, and equate “humans” with “food”.

This makes it more likely that they’ll be hit by a car when they approach roadways, or starve during the winter when people aren’t there to feed them. You’re visiting their natural environment. Allow them to live their lives undisturbed.

Review the National Park Service’s 7 ways to safely watch wildlife, for further information.

Take Only Pictures and Leave Only Footprints

As “Leave No Trace” dictates, we should leave nothing behind (no trace of our ever having been there), other than our footprints.

But we also shouldn’t disturb the natural environment or take anything away from it.

As mentioned above, even footprints can be damaging in some places. The Desert Southwest, has many areas with living crusts, known as cryptobiotic soil, that can be destroyed by walking on it. Be sure to learn about the areas you plan to hike to avoid accidentally damaging crypto soil.

Leave Space for Other Hikers

If you’re hiking in a group of two or more people, try to avoid taking up the entire width of the trail. Hiking single file is the best way to keep the trail healthy while offering space for faster and oncoming hikers to pass by without stepping off the trail.

A split screen showing hikers taking up the entire width of the trail on the left and hikers hiking single file on the right

Avoid taking up the entire width of a trail (left). Hiking single file (right) is best, especially on narrower trails.

A Final Note About Hiking Etiquette

Hiking is a wonderful and healthy experience. We should all do everything we can to protect the trails for future generations of people hiking behind us.

We also want to mention how important it is to be aware of your personal limits as a hiker.

There are all levels of hikes available in every state and province, and sticking with a level that works well for you is the best way to hike.

Hiking a trail rated as “strenuous” without proper gear, experience, or fitness level can result in a rescue being needed.

Don’t get us wrong: we do like to challenge ourselves. But we’re experienced hikers who know our limits. You should too.

For some inspiration, we’ll leave you with video of one of our many hikes up Angels Landing in Zion National Park:

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Gay RV Enthusiast (Jason)

Friday 6th of January 2023

Hey guys. I hope you're doing good. Good advice regarding hiking. I had to laugh at what you said about bears shitting in the woods. I've been asked whenever I ask if they did something, the response is sometimes "Does a bear shit in the woods?" I love hiking, but I hate doing it myself. I'd much prefer to have a partner to hike with.

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