Most hikers agree that among the reasons we hike, a peaceful nature experience is paramount. It isn’t an effective getaway if the urban jungle comes with you, right? One of the best ways to ensure positive human interaction on the trail is to adhere to the mostly unspoken, or perhaps mumbled, trail etiquette for hikers. Most of these etiquette rules fall under the category of common sense, but even the most experienced need an occasional review.

Trail Etiquette

1)      Do your homework.

Always read the trail sign before embarking on a hike, this can help you stay prepared for the conditions on the trail and prevent you from an ill fate at the hands of a ticked hiker. If a trail prohibits dogs, you can always take Fido to a pet-friendly locale. If a trail says ‘No Fires’ put your flint and steel back in your pack, and if it limits the size of groups, simply split and stagger the party. While some rules seem like overkill, they are created for a reason. Ignoring them leads to ruining the experience for other hikers. For instance, most trails in Washington have a 12-person-per-group limit on trails. Imagine having to stop as a pair of hikers and wait for 18 people to pass you.

2)      Stay on the trail.

This can be one of the most difficult rules to follow as a hiker. While bushwacking is an excellent way to explore the unbridled backcountry, when walking on well-traveled trails it is good etiquette to keep your boots on the designated path (like keeping your elbows off the table when company comes over). Staying on trail can ensure the safety of native plant life, protect surrounding wildlife and keep the trail pristine so that other hikers can enjoy it. This is particularly important when it comes to switchbacks, and one of the best examples is Mount Si—getting creative with your shortcut can scar the landscape.

3)      Follow driving rules.

Well you don’t necessarily have to stop at every intersection or turn on your blinkers every time you make a turn, but it is good etiquette to follow the same laws you do when you’re driving. This means that if you are walking on a wide trail always keep to the right if you see other hikers. If you hear a faster group coming behind you, give them room to pass on the left. If you’re the one doing the passing, give a call first instead of pushing through a group of fellow hikers. A great way to let hikers know you are coming is to call out: ‘On your left!’ but frankly any guttural sound will do.

4)      Adhere to yield rules.

There are quite a few yielding rules that are followed by hikers on the trail. If you are hiking in a larger group, always yield to a single or pair of hikers (unless they insist you pass). Downhill hikers should yield to those hiking uphill—because they are working hard it’s rude to make them break their stride. If you are stopping to take a picture or enjoy a sip of water, move off to the side of the trail to let other hikers pass. No one wins in a collision.

Lake Ann ©Erika Klimecky

5)      If you pack it in, pack it out.

Nobody likes a dirty trail, and by no means at all should you be contributing to the litter problem in our beloved wild areas. Frankly, if you are in good enough physical condition to carry food on the trail, you probably have the strength to carry the bottles and wrappers out. We all know it can get a little windy on the trail, but if a wrapper somehow slips away through your fingers do your best to chase it. Go above and beyond: if someone else left trash, put it in your pocket. You will most likely be awarded with good karma.

6)      Don’t vandalize the trail.

While that joke might be really funny, you don’t really need to write it down. Although the vandalism that once adorned Mailbox Peak sparked the occasional laughter, it took away from the experience. Even though you’re head over heels for your girlfriend, do you really need to carve your initials in that tree by the trail? If everyone did it, the trees would all be scarred (and/or die). If you love to whitle and carve, one of those good ole home improvement stores has a convenient stock of plywood to get it out of your system. We’re happy for you that you got Sally’s number (or Ben’s). But we don’t need to read it along the trail. Keep that information to yourself  and leave the trail just as you found it.

7)      Say no to Magic Markers.

Congratulations, in this scenario you’ve gone off trail. While it might seem like a fun idea to mark your etiquette-breaking achievement with a cairn, stay right where you are. Cairns are generally used to indicate a well-worn or established path, so stacking a few rocks with that architectural precision of yours could actually lead a hiker astray. Also an off-trail cairn could lead more foot traffic to your scenic locale, transforming a pristine morsel of untouched wilderness into a shoddy landscape chewed by boot treads. If you’ve gone off trail and discovered the perfect slice of nature, be selfish and keep it a secret. Some better ways to track your trail include a map and compass or GPS.

New ferns along the Lake 22 Trail ©Erika Klimecky

8)      Just photograph it.

A picture is worth 1,000 wilted fern fronds. If you’ve found a plant or flower you just can’t live without, take a picture as your souvenir. A picture lasts longer than a piece of foliage and, unlike that trillium, will still be around next year. Physically breaking and taking rocks and plant life from the trail is poor trail etiquette, and can lead to the gradual desolation of the trail, not to mention the flora and fauna involved.

9)      Two inch voices.

When you’re hiking, it is important to keep your voices at a reasonable level. Most hikers flock to the wilderness to enjoy the silence of nature, which can be a little bit difficult when someone is loudly discussing their first date disaster from the previous night. Try to keep your voice at a level where only your intended hiking ensemble can hear. It is also important to recognize unintended, but nearby, audiences. If you are walking by a family with three children, swallow the four-letter words and keep your vocabulary proper, your saucy stories can wait just a minute.

10)   Be cordial.

It wouldn’t be a trail etiquette guide without stressing the importance of being nice to your fellow trail-mates. Even if you embarked on the hike simply to get away from people, it never hurts to chime out a greeting and nod your head to another hiker who has ventured onto the same trail as you. Although no conversation is required, a simple ‘Hello’ or ‘Good day’ can transform a silent wilderness meeting into a friendly occasion. Contrary to passing calls etiquette above, try not to greet with guttural noises, or this may cast you as somewhat strange. Depending on your maternal instincts, you may even be polite enough to inquire of that solo hiker and make sure he is confident (not lost, hurt or unprepared) on the trail.

Please keep these tips in mind the next time you set off on an outdoor expedition. Just a few changes in your trail etiquette can improve your hiking experience and set a good example for your fellow trekking-mates.

Are there any other trail etiquette rules you would like to add? Tell us.

Mt Si and the view toward the Olympic Mountains ©Erika Klimecky
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