10 Rules for Proper Trail Etiquette

As people flock to multi-use trails, it's crucial to use them properly.

guy outside hiking with backpack pauses on old wooden trail to admire trees

Treehugger / Sanja Kostic

The great outdoors has never been more inviting than it is now, with gyms closed and many people feeling cooped up indoors. This situation has led to a surge of interest in walking and hiking trails, with trail use up more than 60% across the United States since the start of the pandemic.

Brandi Horton, a VP of communications for the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC), told Treehugger that "we've seen rates of biking and walking on multi-use trails nationwide surge at times over 200% compared with the prior year." While all this outdoor activity is something to celebrate, with it comes great responsibility. Horton goes on:

"What we’ve heard from many people is that they’ve found solace and social connection on the trails in their community, but they’ve also found a lot of other people — many who are new to trails and might not know the etiquette. As more people use trails, and trends toward higher trail use persist, it is essential that everyone share the trail and recreate responsibly. Trails are places for families, walkers, bicyclists, pet owners, roller bladers, skateboarders — everyone who wants to be active outside safely, separated from vehicle traffic."

So we offer a brief overview of trail etiquette, to assist those who might be brand new or out of practice or simply in need of a refresher, on how to ensure these trails remain open for everything to enjoy.

The RTC urges people to "recreate responsibly" with a campaign by the same name. It has published several articles on its blog offering tips. This post pulls together some of that advice, as well as other common-sense advice for staying safe.

1. See and Be Seen

guy uses phone flash light while hiking outside on trail

Treehugger / Sanja Kostic

Visibility is crucially important when on trails, particularly during these winter months when daylight hours are limited. Dress in reflective or bright-colored clothing, and invest in a headlamp or lights for your bike (front and rear). Always travel at a safe speed, even if you're brightly lit.

2. Keep Right, Pass Left

two hikers on trail pass each other with the keep right pass left rule

Treehugger / Sanja Kostic

It's the same as driving a car on a highway – stay on the right-hand side of the trail and let people pass you on the left, regardless of their transportation mode. The courteous thing to do is warn people ahead of time that you're passing. Ring a bell on your bike, call out a friendly warning that you're "coming up on the left!," or just say, "Excuse me, mind if I pass?"

3. Mind Your Pets

guy holds dog leash in one hand while dropping poop bag in public trash container

Treehugger / Sanja Kostic

Pets should always be kept on leashes while on trails, regardless of how well-trained they are, unless those trails are marked as off-leash zones. It's not fair to expect other people to have to interact with your animal, regardless of how lovely its demeanor may be. And always pick up after your pet – and take it with you! Nothing ruins a trail's beauty more than a crop of soggy doggy bags popping up as the snow melts away.

4. Leave No Trace

person disposes of brown paper bag in outdoor trashcan to avoid littering

Treehugger / Sanja Kostic

Familiarize yourself with the Seven Principles of the Leave No Trace philosophy. These create a framework for how to operate in the natural world with minimal impact, preserving its health and beauty for the organisms that live there, as well as for future visitors.

5. Downhill Yields to Uphill

two hikers pass and yield to each other going uphill and downhill on trail

Treehugger / Sanja Kostic

On a narrow hilly hiking trail, the downhill walker always yields to the uphill hiker. This is because the uphill hiker has reduced visibility compared to the downhill hiker. According to Bearfoot Theory, "Hikers trekking uphill have a more narrow field of vision since they are concentrating on the smaller and more immediate areas in front of them. Plus, they are working hard against gravity to have a good pace and momentum to get them up that steep ridge."

6. Be Considerate With Your Smartphone

guy turns cell phone to silent mode while out hiking on trail

Treehugger / Sanja Kostic

Don't blast music. If you want to listen to music or a podcast, consider using a single earbud or keeping the volume low so you can hear approaching hikers, runners, or cyclists. Avoid making loud phone calls or stopping to take photos that will disrupt others using the same trail. Mute your phone altogether if you can. Remember that trails are a wonderful way to get away from your phone; take advantage of that opportunity.

7. Be Friendly

two guys pass each other on hiking trail and wave hello to be friendly

Treehugger / Sanja Kostic

Smile. Say hello. Respond to friendly comments from passersby. Don't kill the happy mood by remaining distant and cool. You can be friendly while maintaining a safe distance, especially if you step off the trail to let others pass.

8. Stay on the Trail

guy in running shoes and shorts stays on hiking trail while heading into woods

Treehugger / Sanja Kostic

This is an extension of Leave No Trace, but deserves a point of its own. Do not leave the trail! Remain on it to avoid harming the natural spaces around it. Just imagine how it would look if everyone scrambled over the trees and rocks to explore further afield. The trail would lose much of its attractiveness. The only exception is that you should stand to the side of the trail when not moving, so as not to obstruct other users, or when allowing a larger group to pass.

Please don't build rock cairns or 'inukshuks', either. These are a hassle for park staff to remove, they disturb habitats you may not even be aware of, and they are an annoying reminder of humans' insistence on staking a claim everywhere they go. 

9. Know How to Relieve Yourself

guy holds tools for going to the bathroom outside, including toilet paper and small garden spade

Treehugger / Sanja Kostic

Anyone spending significant time in the woods should know the rules of going to the bathroom in the forest. Do not do this in an urban setting, but if you're in the wilderness it's acceptable (and necessary). And yes, there are right and wrong ways of doing it. Everything you need to know can be found here.

10. Keep Your Mask Handy

guy wears surgical covid mask on arm for easy access while hiking

Treehugger / Sanja Kostic

Different regions have different requirements for mask-wearing, but if it's recommended in the place where you're hiking, keep one handy to use when others are nearby. My nordic ski club requires masks to be worn in the parking lot, but then they can be removed on the trail. It's always a good idea to call ahead and find out what the requirements are, or to check Trail Link for more information.

View Article Sources
  1. "Trail Etiquette." Rails-To-Trails Conservancy, 2020.