How to Be a Good Citizen on the Hiking Trail

guy with water bottle and backpack goes hiking outside in rocky creek near waterfall

Treehugger / Sanja Kostic

For many people, visiting a national park during the holidays is a time-honored tradition. However, this holiday season many hikers and nature lovers were in for a shock once they hit the trails.

Due to the current federal government shutdown, all U.S. national parks are operating with skeleton crews — meaning that visitor's centers, restrooms and other facilities are closed but visitors may still enter and enjoy the park. Several national parks are reporting that people are using the bathroom near high-traffic areas, dumping trash along the trails and even off-roading.

"It’s so heartbreaking. There is more trash and human waste and disregard for the rules than I’ve seen in my four years living here," Dakota Snider, who works in California’s Yosemite National Park, told The Associated Press (AP). "It’s a free-for-all."

While there is no word yet on when the shutdown will end, some experts are already worried that the destruction will have long-term effects.

"We’re afraid that we’re going to start seeing significant damage to the natural resources in parks and potentially to historic and other cultural artifacts," John Garder, senior budget director of the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association, told AP. "We’re concerned there’ll be impacts to visitors' safety."

It's hard to say whether or not people are willfully hurting the parks or are just simply don't know what to do in situations like this. But it's quite easy to learn how to be a proper and respectful hiker.

Learning the rules of the trail

They're not hard to learn. They're not overly cumbersome. Most of them aren't even rules as much as they are fervent suggestions.

Still, when you're hiking, whether it's a short day trip on a mile loop in the closest state park or a thru-hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, you have to know them. You have to know that, for example, blasting Skrillex from a wireless Bluetooth speaker strapped to your backpack is not cool. And it's not because it's Skrillex. It's you.

"That's a pretty big pet peeve of mine," says longtime hiker Whitney "Allgood" LaRuffa of Portland, Oregon. "That one is bad. I generally try to stop and educate others about that."

The basics of hiking etiquette are almost a given. The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics — see, it's about ethics, not law — spells them out in seven steps:

  1. Plan ahead and prepare
  2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces
  3. Dispose of waste properly
  4. Leave what you find
  5. Minimize campfire impacts
  6. Respect wildlife
  7. Be considerate of other visitors

You don't have to be Johnny Backpack to see that many people don't know the basics, though. Go out on a day trip. Head out on an overnighter. Too often there are too many people mucking it up for others.

Noise, like the guy with Skrillex, is one problem that crops up from time to time. But keeping the wilderness clean is a constant challenge, especially for the part-timers out there.

"So many people think that throwing sunflower seeds on the side of the trail, they think, 'Oh, it'll go away,'" says Christy "Rockin" Rosander, a hiker from Tehachapi, California.

“Even the little corner of a protein bar [wrapper]. That one corner," says Trinity Ludwig, a hiker from Boulder, Colorado. "I find so many corners."

A sign at the start of a national park trail encourages people to collect their own trash
If some people forget about this sign at the start of the trail, it's okay to gently remind them to pick up their trash. Larry Mundy/

The problem, of course, is what to do about it. What if you see people littering? What if you see them drop that corner, even accidentally?

Is it OK to bust them on it?

"I pick it up and bring it to them. I don't want to be mean or condescending to anyone in the wilderness. They have just as much right to be there as I have. I'm not special because I have more experience," Ludwig says. "So I always bring it and say, 'Hey, I noticed that you dropped this [...] I just wanted to make sure this didn't end up out here in the wilderness.' You want to kill them with kindness.

"I feel like if you attack people and you're like, 'Dude, you just littered that, and that is sooooo bad for the environment,' then they're going to be like, ‘Wow, she's a bitch. It's just a bottle.'"

Says Rosander: "You tell them that's not part of how nature is out here, so you should haul those out. Instead of saying. 'Pick 'em up!' Some people don't listen, and they do get mad. I've had that, too."

That's a big key to etiquette on the trail: Making sure everyone knows that the outdoors are out there for everybody, not just the guy flicking his cigarette butt or the woman going to the bathroom too close to the stream — and then covering it, toilet paper and all, with a rock.

Again. None of that is cool. So speaking up is important, but it needs to be done the right way.

"The overwhelming response I get has been very positive. People don't even realize it," LaRuffa says. "It doesn't even register with them that it would be unacceptable."

How to respect other hikers

group of people hike on dirt trail while last guy holds large camera by his side

Treehugger / Sanja Kostic

Some basic etiquette — the American Hiking Society has a list — most people know, or should. Like:

  • If you're headed downhill, give way to uphill climbers (they're usually hard at work, with their heads down).
  • Give way to horses (they're bigger).
  • Stay on the trail. Don't cut through switchbacks. If there's a mud puddle in the middle of the trail, go through it. Don't make the trail wider.
  • Be aware. Listening to music — with headphones or earbuds — is fine. But don't listen at such levels that you can't hear other people (or a bear) coming up on you.
  • Say hi to other hikers. Be encouraging. Be positive. Lend help if they need it.

Other etiquette falls in the Leave No Trace realm. Like being considerate, which includes being quiet (especially when it's quiet on the trail) and not hogging up that great viewpoint by taking a half-hour worth of selfies.

"I'm probably a bit of a curmudgeon in some ways, but I also don't like a whole lot of electronics in the backcountry. People taking a picture from a mountain and posting a John Muir quote on it," LaRuffa says. "Dude, John Muir would roll in his grave if he saw you doing that. If the whole reason you're in the mountains is to take a picture of yourself on top of the summit that says 'The mountains are calling,' it’s like you missed the point of the mountains calling. The mountains are calling you to turn off, unplug and immerse yourself in nature."

Many hikers see modern technology in the wilderness as a kind of cop-out, but many view it as a critical tool. A device that has GPS and maps and helps you to stay connected while deep in the woods is something many just won't give up.

But, yeah ... yakking on a cellphone while others are within earshot?

"I don't sit on top of Mount Whitney and talk to my kids aloud, because that is annoying," Rosander says. "But I do text."

In the end, hiking etiquette is mostly common sense about respecting both the environment and your fellow hikers. And on the occasion you need to enforce a rule — or, maybe, just point out a little etiquette faux pas — that's OK. Most hikers, rookies and long-timers alike, are good with a little well-delivered tip now and then.

"If you’re really nice about it, they might ask for more information, or they may give you space to give you more information," Ludwig says, "and then you're doing the wilderness good."