A conversation about hiking etiquette
Hiking – it’s a relational sport
Hiking is a relational sport involving family, friends, and always the strangers that come before and after you.
This being the case, there are so many ways to connect with people and enjoy nature while hiking. But only if everyone involved minds their manners!
So are you a rude hiker?
Here are 9 questions to ask yourself.
1. Do you know where to poop and pee?
Call me indelicate, but this is a fact of life on most hikes. It’s important to get it right. Cause…gross if you don’t.
Rule of thumb (or bottom): walk 200 feet from the trail, campsite, or water source to do your business. Two hundred feet is approximately 40 adult paces.
And just like dog owners, if you bring it in, take it out – this includes toilet paper.
2. Do you leave no trace?
Even 5-year-olds know this one.
Don’t be a litterbug.
Pack it in, pack it out.
If we leave our junk and trash all over the place, there will be less beauty tomorrow and certainly for the next generation.
I’ve often wondered, “what did this area looked like before it was all developed?” Or, “this was probably a beautiful place before it got covered in garbage.”
Hiking in Mt. Rainier one day, we stopped at a beautiful overlook. Unfortunately, people had turned the gulley beyond the guardrail into a trash heap. My brother was a little guy, and as he finished his snack, he saw the garbage pile below and added his wrapper. The entire family gasped in shock! To him, it looked like a place to throw your trash. Understandable for a 3-year-old to make that mistake. Inexcusable (and often criminal) for the rest of us.
And to dispel a myth – it’s not OK to toss “organic” material, like food scraps, on the ground. Even banana peels and pistachio shells take time to break down. They add a sprinkling of ugliness and attract vermin in the meantime.
You don’t have to identify as a tree-hugging eco-tyrant to value leaving a legacy of beauty.
3. Do you respect the terrain?
Want some stink eye from experienced hikers?
Try to shortcut a switchback. Trails are carefully developed and maintained to do the least damage and prevent erosion while still allowing for human recreation. Switchbacks are there for a reason. When people try to cross-country up the hill – yes, even one person – it creates a cascade of issues.
In general, stay on the trail.
Second, would you go to your friend’s house and pocket a nice bauble displayed on their mantel? I hope not!
In many state and federal parks, taking flora and minerals (aka. rocks) of any kind is prohibited. Illegal or not, it’s just good nature manners to leave stuff where you found it. Packrats with a burning desire to collect stuff can pick up other people’s garbage.
And finally, don’t mess with wildlife. It’s dangerous either for you (think baby bears) or them (think abandoned baby birds). Stay a good distance away, not feeding them, and for the love of all things natural, never move or touch a wild critter.
4. Do you mind your pet’s manners?
First order of business, are pets even allowed? And are they required to be on a leash?
As a dog owner, it’s best to rein your pet in close and step aside to let the folks pass if you come upon fellow hikers. It’s everyone else’s job to keep their hands to themselves unless invited to pet an animal.
And like any dog walking activity, it’s standard etiquette and eco-friendly to pack out their waste.
Of course, dogs are expected to respect the terrain and wildlife as much as their humans.
Here’s something else to think about. You may be tempted to break the rule and bring a dog on a prohibited hike. However, you will want to think twice.
The ‘no dog rule’ is in place to protect the dog and owner as much as the trail. Wild animals in the area will probably leave humans be, but they will have no problem hunting and attacking a dog in their territory. Do you really want to defend your pup from a mountain lion?
5. Do you give people the time of day?
Say hello to people you pass on the trail, and if it seems appropriate, strike up a conversation.
The trail runner or intense hiker may not be the person to chat with, but many other people are often enjoying the trail at a leisurely pace.
Being friendly is not just polite; it’s also a good safety precaution. Talking to the people you pass is like leaving breadcrumbs when it comes to wilderness rescue. You want to see and be seen. It could save someone’s life.
For example, on a hike up to Blue Glacier this past summer, my family and I ran into two guys that had been up to the glacier and were headed down. They warned us that there was a little black bear near the trail up ahead eating berries. There wasn’t anything to worry about, but knowing ahead of time kept us alert and aware. We did get to see the bear as a tiny black spec meandering through huckleberry bushes.
Also, friendly hikers are the best source of information on, yes, more hikes!
We stopped to chat with a couple from Canada on this same Blue Glacier trip.
The woman suggested a spot in their area that had some amazing old-growth cedar. A tip that I would never have come across on my own.
Sharing information and the common interest of hiking with others can be valuable and energizing. If the opportunity arises, share stories, swap tales, and enjoy the outdoors alongside others, it will make your experience richer and more memorable.
At the very least, give a nod and a howdy-do to passing hikers.
6. Do you know how to yield right-of-way?
Here’s the gist – mountain bikers yield to hikers who yield to horses and pack animals (please don’t try to pet pack animals).
The person coming up the hill gets the right-of-way. There’s a logical reason for this. The uphill trekker has less field of vision, gravity is working against them, and maintaining momentum on the climb is important.
Keep right, pass left.
Groups should hike single file.
Those are the rules – then there’s common sense…
The above is standard procedure, but you can never assume everyone has good hiking manners, especially when it comes to bikes. There’s no glory in being “right” if a mountain biker mows you down. Be ready to move.
Or, the uphill hiker may stop and insist you go first so they can take a breathing break! In which case, go ahead.
I’ve experienced both ends of this – as the person stepping aside for the uphill hiker and as the person allowing others to come down first so I could breathe!
I was standing in a crosswalk in our small town as a loaded log truck approached. I stepped back and waved him through, figuring it was going to take a lot more oomph for that multi-ton truck to stop and start than it was for me to wait an extra 10 seconds.
Hiking is like that – be aware of what’s expected – then make smart decisions depending on the situation.
PS. It’s also polite to announce yourself if you’re coming up behind someone.
7. Do you realize others exist?
Be aware that other people are trying to experience their hike too. People that like nature sounds.
Respect is maintaining a quiet talking volume, not playing music, or making unnecessary noise.
Caring is sharing but not when it comes to tech on the trail – phone calls, notification bells, and music don’t pair well with birdsong.
If you’re hiking a familiar trail for sheer exercise, it’s acceptable to have one earbud in, but still be aware of the risk of not being 100% aware of your surroundings when out in nature.
Generally, not being obnoxious is a great start toward “hikers’ empathy.”
8. Do you let someone know where you are?
Leave an itinerary with someone, just in case. Even when you are hiking with a partner or in a group, someone in the outside world should know where you are.
It could save your life, which is definitely good manners toward your friends and family :).
At a minimum, let someone know the location you are visiting.
And remember to check in with them when you return – lest they send a ranger after you.
Your loved ones will appreciate knowing you are safe.
9. Do you build the hiking community?
Hiking and backpacking attract a great community of enthusiastic people. It’s a community of all different ages, backgrounds, and nationalities but holds a common joy of being outdoors.
Whether you get your energy from people (extroverts) or from time alone (introverts), interacting with others while hiking can enrich the experience.
Inviting someone to share a hike with you and modeling these nine etiquette rules builds the hiking community.
Instilling a love of the outdoors in children is another way to contribute to the future health of our outdoor treasures.
Good manners come down to one golden rule – Be aware of others; be mindful of helping them have a good experience, and you will have a good experience too.
For a copy of our Prepared Hikers Checklist join the Jaunty Library of Printables (completely free).