Wednesday, June 9, 2010

How to: Hiking Etiquette

I screamed down at the top of my lungs to two hikers heading up with Mt. Whitney Trail. They were putting on their crampons and fishing their ice axes out from their packs to advance up a steep snow slope after the trail disappeared beneath it. In truth the trail cut to the left and crawled up a cliff side to a creek where my hiking partner and I were standing. The snow slope the hikers below us where about to climb lead nowhere. They didn't hear me the first time. So I called out several more times until I got one of their attention's. I frantically waved to the left, indicating the actual location of the trail. The figure below nodded in recognition and they packed away their crampons and followed the dry trail up to our location narrowly avoiding a potentially costly mistake. Yet if a pair of Indian hikers had not stopped to give us the same advice, we would have been lost on the snow slope too (even with their advice we almost started marching right up it). The Indian couple could have simply kept walking right by us as filtered some fresh water, but their advice saved us from making a huge error. We in turn passed it forward and saved another group.

Good trail etiquette makes you friends, it saves people energy, it helps prevent errors on the trail, and has probably even saved lives. Yet so many people are unaware or unwilling to respect other on the trail. The following is guide to polite behavior on the trail.

Right of Way

    Uphill hikers have the right of way: This is the rule I see broken, or unappreciated the most. Backpackers need to recognize this especially, those moving up the trail with heavy packs are working hard and should be yielded to. Often the uphill hiker will yield their right of way to catch their breath, if they do, a thank you is polite.
    Hikers should yield to Equestrians: Horses are less predictable and can spook so they should be yielded to. Mountain bikers should yield to Hikers and Equestrians When yielding to a horse, position yourself below them as they are less likley to be spooked by you and think of you as a predator.
    Groups of hikers should yield to single hikers: Because it takes more effort to pull the larger group aside the smaller groups will often move aside but its their right of way, however the large group should yield anyway.

Respect the Environment

    Pack it in, Pack it Out: with almost every trail I've walked, backpacked, or climbed I've found trash and signed of negligent humans simply tossing their trash to the side of the trail. On Mt. Whitney I found wag bags (used to contain human waste) sitting in a stream, carrots left whole in the snow, along with rotting banana peels. Nothing ruins a wilderness experience quite like seeing garbage. There is no excuse for leaving anything but boot prints on the trail.
    People shouldn't be able to hear you unless they can see you: Noise pollution can also ruin a wilderness experience, remember those around you are there to enjoy some time in nature, not listen to your music, or listen to your conversation. If you want to listen to music, do it with headphones only. Avoid yelling (when I hear yelling I usually think there is an emergency). Noise pollution also disturbs wildlife.
    Don't have extended cell phone conversations: Many hikers hit the trail to remove themselves from the convenience of things like cell phones. I can't honestly put my finger on why hikers find them so offensive, but cell phones seem to anger hikers like nothing else. You will get more dirty looks on a cell phone than doing just about anything else.

Stepping on wildflowers causes a domino effect on the ecosystem

Stay on the trails!

    Do not cut switchbacks: It might be easier, but it also accelerates erosion and destroys plant life. When going off-trail to reach a scenic point do so only with extreme caution using foot paths left by others, or carefully avoiding disturbing the ground. When you step on a plant, it's not going to spring back to life the next day, it will die. Almost manic caution should be used among fragile native wildflowers.
    Don't step on flowers: Laying down in a bed of wildflowers sounds like a quaint idea, but it's highly destructive. Not only will you crush wildflowers ruining them for a year, but your boots will carry the seeds of invasive plants that will take its place. Killing wildflowers also has a domino effect, killing lady bugs and butterflies as well as bees, and other insects and the birds that eat them.

Respect each other

    The rules of common courtesy that we often forget apply more than ever on trails. When someone lets you pass, say thank you, its the right thing to do even if its your right of way. Stop to give trail directions if there is a confusing intersection, or a hazard ahead, you might save your butt and they'll thank you for it. Respect for fellow hikers, cyclists, and equestrians makes you friends. Part of what's so wonderful about hiking is the distance it creates from the barriers we place around ourselves in every day life.

For more tips, information, and guides visit the how-to center.


  1. On which side should the downhill hiker yield? Hillside or cliff side?

    send me an email

  2. I've emailed you this response but I'm also addressing this so that others may benefit from the response because it's a good question.

    When passing other hikers it does not matter especially what side of the slope you stand on, same with bicycles. With equestrians however it does make some difference as horses can be spooked by a person standing above them (they see this as a potential predator from what I understand). While the possibility of a real problem happening as a result of standing uphill from a horse is fairly remote its probably best to just generally yield down rather than up slope.

  3. Well said points! This information needs to be widely disseminated, so THANK YOU.

    It should be noted, however, that right of way with large groups, as you have written, can be extremely damaging to the trail and plant life off trail. Although it makes sense to politely offer smaller groups the right of way, the more people step off the trail, the more likely the trail is to be widened, cause trail flooding, erosion or braiding, or simply (and perhaps worse) kill small plant or animal species. I love your article here, but I would hope solo hikers would consider these trail issues and have the humility and patience to yield - to call ahead to larger passing groups encouraging them to stay on trail.

    1. That's a really great point!

      I've been considering revising this post for awhile and trail widening is...obviously a very serious issue which I did not touch on much here. Thanks for pointing that out.