There are few experiences as relaxing and peaceful as heading out on the trails and enjoying the serenity of the great outdoors. I have noticed an increase in the number of hikers in recent years, a result, I’m sure, of the increased awareness of the benefits of spending time outside. With new hikers hitting the trails every day, it’s time to take a step back and discuss some of the basic hiking etiquette rules.
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There is no denying the fact that we are blessed here in Canada and the United States with a large number of BEAUTIFUL trails at our disposal. From National, Provincial and State Parks to conservation areas and nature preserves, there really is something for everyone! Many hikers, including beginners and those with more experience, have accepted hiking-related challenges this year.
One of the big challenges that I have seen discussed in a number of hiking and outdoor travel groups is the 52-hike challenge, encouraging hikers to get out and visit a hiking trail every week of the year.
While there is no denying the simplicity of a hiking trip (that’s one reason why so many people are drawn to it), there are still some rules and guidelines to consider. If you’ve discovered this post while seeking information as a new hiker, this is the most basic information you need to be aware of before heading out on the trails. Familiarize yourself with these basic hiking etiquette rules and you will avoid many mistakes that new hikers often make! Are you an experienced hiker that stumbled upon this post? Consider this an important reminder!
Table of Contents
8 Basic Hiking Etiquette Rules that Every Hiker Should Know:
#1 – Leave No Trace
It’s arguably the best-known rule of outdoor travel, and yet many still need a reminder. The basic idea is that when you leave a trail, you should leave behind no sign that you were ever there allowing for the hikers who come after you to enjoy the full experience. This means that any and all garbage and supplies that enter the trail with you must also leave with you when you’re done. If it wasn’t there when you arrived, it shouldn’t be there when you’re done. Taking this a step further, if you do see litter along the trail, pick it up and leave the trail a little better than you found it!
Another part of the Leave No Trace rule that is often overlooked is that you need to leave anything natural that you discover throughout your hike where you found it. Did you see a beautiful flower or an incredible artifact? Great, feel free to take pictures, but PLEASE leave it unharmed and undisturbed so that the next hiker can enjoy it too! Following the most basic hiking etiquette rules means not taking any souvenirs.
#2 – Stay On the Trail (If Using Marked Trails)
Continuing on the discussion of Leave No Trace, always stick to the existing trails. If you are hiking on a set of trails, don’t stray from them unless absolutely necessary. You may not realize it but stepping off the trails can cause damage to the ecosystem that you are currently exploring by damaging or even killing native plant and animal species. If the trails are too flooded or muddy, wait to take your hike on a different day when the trails will be accessible once again. Walking around mud patches and puddles that cover the trail will contribute to erosion, causing long-term damage to your favourite trails.
#3 – Be Mindful When ‘Doing Your Business’
If you’re going on a longer hike, there may come a time when you need to use the washroom. On most trails, you’re not going to come upon an outhouse along the way, so you need to be prepared to ‘do your business’ while causing the smallest impact possible. It is recommended that you move a minimum of 200 feet off the trail (approximately 40 average adult paces) and maintain the same distance from any water sources. When moving off the trail, watch your footing carefully and try to disturb the area as little as possible. Be aware of any sensitive vegetation so that you can avoid trampling it.
When you are finished, be sure to pack up ALL waste to remove from the trail with you. While it is true that toilet paper will eventually decompose, it is not a naturally occurring form of waste and should not be left to impact the ecosystem. That simple sheet of paper includes many different chemicals that can have a negative effect.
Finally, be aware of your surroundings. Make sure that you are out of sight of any other hikers that are enjoying the trails at the time. The best way to do this is to find a private spot behind a tree or rock.
#4 – Know Your Right of Way (And Yield to It)
Depending on the trail that you are travelling, you may find yourself encountering other hikers, mountain bikers or even horseback riders. In order to ensure that everyone can enjoy their experience (and do so safely), you need to understand the right of way guidelines and do your best to adhere to them. This will allow you to pass one another safely and both continue on your day. There is a hierarchy on the trails, and it exists to protect everyone involved!
If you encounter a horseback rider while hiking, it is your responsibility to move out of their way and allow them the right of way. Why? Horses can be easily startled and spooked, and a spooked horse can create a dangerous situation. For this reason, you should always announce your arrival calmly from a distance if you are coming up behind a rider. If possible, step off to the downhill side as it is seen as less intimidating to the horse.
If you encounter a mountain biker while you are hiking, it is the biker’s responsibility to yield. The idea is that bikers are able to maneuver easier and therefore they can stop or move out of the way easier than a hiker or horseback rider.
Finally, there are right of way considerations for hikers encountering other hikers. If you are a solo hiker or a small group, be prepared to yield to larger groups. It’s easier for you to move out of the way for a dozen other hikers than it would be for all of them to move for you. If you are on a hill, those travelling downhill should yield to hikers going uphill. It takes more energy to hike uphill and your visibility is limited to a shorter distance in front of you while hikers travelling downhill have clear visibility. Finally, much like on a road, if you come up behind a hiker you should pass on the left. Be sure to announce your arrival if you are coming up behind another hiker so that you don’t startle anyone.
#5 – Be Friendly and Amicable
No hiker is more entitled to the trails than any other. This is important to remember when you are out and about on your outdoor adventures. Basic hiking etiquette rules state that when yielding to another hiker, you need to make an effort to allow appropriate room for them to pass. Don’t simply stop in the middle of the trail and expect them to find a way around you. Take the time to step off to the side, moving any gear out of their way and restraining dogs if you are hiking with any. If you are hiking in a group, move into hiking single file when passing others or being passed.
Adding to this, you can approach or interact with your fellow hikers in a friendly and amicable manner. You don’t need to bark at someone to announce yourself if you are coming up behind them with the intent to pass. Instead, announce yourself in a pleasant tone. If you do encounter other hikers, greet them in a kind way. This doesn’t mean you have to stop and engage in conversation with them for the next 15 minutes, but even a smile and a nod of the head can have a significant impact on their day!
#6 – Minimize Noise Pollution
Another way that you can show respect to other hikers is to minimize your noise pollution when you are out in the trails. Remember, everyone is out here to enjoy the great outdoors. While there is nothing wrong with talking among your group when you’re hiking, try to keep volume levels down to a respectable level. Don’t shout on the trails unless it is absolutely necessary during an emergency situation.
Another form of noise pollution to consider is your use of modern technology. No one is heading out on the trails in hopes of hearing your music blaring or the constant noises created by your smartphone. If you aren’t comfortable shutting these devices off and storing them away (or silencing them if you are using your phone to take photographs), consider investing in a high-quality pair of Bluetooth headphones for your next hike.
Not only can high noise levels be jarring or upsetting for other hikers, but you can also frighten local wildlife. This may send them into hiding, reducing the chance of any sightings. If everyone were to disregard this rule, it could even have a longer-term impact on the ecosystem. Take the opportunity to take in all the peaceful, relaxing sounds of the great outdoors instead.
#7 – Don’t Feed the Wildlife
We have talked a lot about avoiding any disruption to the natural ecosystem on your favourite hike but have yet to discuss one of the most important points. When you’re out on the trails, never feed the local wildlife. This isn’t about whether the foods you brought along are safe for their consumption or not, it’s bigger than that. Feeding the local wildlife can have a long-term effect on their natural behaviours, exposing them to predators and other dangers while interfering with their natural ability to forage for food. For this reason, basic hiking etiquette rules state not to feed ANY food to the local wildlife, regardless of what it may be.
This includes not only avoiding actively feeding the wildlife but also being responsible with your own food rations. Store your food in your pack carefully to avoid leaving any behind. If you do stop for a snack, all food and waste should be promptly stored away securely afterwards.
#8 – Be A Responsible Dog Owner
We’re about to discuss some of my personal pet peeves. It is important to note that all of our hiking is done with our dogs, so I am not anti-hiking with dogs. I am, however, anti irresponsible dog owners on the trails! That being said, not all trails are dog-friendly. Always check before heading out.
If you are hiking on a trail with set leash laws, follow them. These laws are in place for a number of reasons including protecting your dog, other dogs that you encounter, the natural wildlife in the area and other hikers on the trail. NO ONE is above the rules, you are no better than any other hiker out on the trail at that time. Hikers that are nervous around dogs or that are hiking with a skittish or reactive dog will often be careful to select a trail with leash laws to avoid situations caused by encountering a loose dog. If you are unable to keep your dog on a leash, find a trail where that is permitted.
Further to this, keep in mind that not all hikers are dog lovers. There are many people who love the great outdoors but may be afraid of your dog, regardless of their size. Allowing your dog to run up to them or jump on them can cause distress and ruin their experience. When you are passing other hikers, always keep your dog close and under control. Assume that everyone you meet is afraid of dogs at first and react accordingly. If someone wants to approach your dog, they have the opportunity to ask you.
On a similar note, not all dogs are dog-friendly. It doesn’t matter how ‘friendly’ or ‘well-behaved’ you believe that your dog may be. We have 2 amazing dogs that love each other very much, one of which adores playing with other dogs regularly. However, in both cases, a strange dog running up to us on a trail would likely lead to a dangerous situation. We have one dog that is afraid of other dogs on the first meeting and, therefore, is dog reactive. The other is incredibly protective of me. Rather than seeing a new friend running her way, she would see a strange dog running in my direction and instantly jump into protective mode. These are perfect examples of why you need to keep your dog on a leash in order to keep YOUR dog safe as well!
Finally, ALWAYS travel with dog poop bags on hand. It is your responsibility to clean up after your dog. After you have used a bag, be prepared to carry that out with you. Going back to the Leave No Trace rule, no one else wants to see your dog’s poop bags sitting decoratively on the side of the trail.
What basic hiking etiquette rules do you feel are often overlooked? Share them in the comments below as a reminder to other hikers and a source of information to those that are new to the world of hiking!