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Trail Etiquette 101: The Basic Rules of Hiking

Here is a complete guide to hiking trail etiquette – the unwritten rules of hiking – that every hiker should know.

Discover the Do's and Don'ts of proper trail etiquette. Learn how to be a conscious, respectful hiker to maintain a positive atmosphere on the trail.

Being aware of proper trail etiquette can make or break your’s or someone else’s experience outdoors. If you have ever found yourself held up in a traffic jam on a ridge line or wondered what is the best way to engage with another passerby on a hike you’re certainly not alone. Although trail etiquette is synonymous with common courtesy it isn’t always common sense among the masses.

With more people getting outside, knowing the ins and outs of what good trail etiquette looks like is super important for maintaining a positive atmosphere on the trail.

Want to know more about the unwritten rules of the outdoors? Here is your guide to proper trail etiquette.

Do Uphill or Downhill Hikers Have the Right of Way?

Proper trail etiquette requires downhill hikers to always yield to uphill hikers. Why? The reason being is simply that 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. Since downhill hikers have gravity and a broader perspective on their side that allows them to easily see what’s ahead, it is common courtesy to give uphill hikers the right of way.

If you are an uphill hiker trying to pass another fellow uphill hiker, it’s nice not to sneak up on them. Instead wait until the the trail is wide enough, and let them know you’re there by simply saying “excuse me, mind if I pass?”

Kristen hiking uphill with hikers behind her

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Should Solo Hikers Move for Big Groups?

The answer is yes. Especially if the big group is following proper trail etiquette and hiking in single file so as to not go off trail and risk trampling wildlife. As a solo hiker or a small group, it’s easier to step aside and let the group pass. Just remember, the passing lanes on a trail are the same as when you drive a car: keep to the right and pass on the left.

A group of hikers hiking single file in front of snow capped mountains

What is the Trail Hierarchy of Horses, Hikers and Mountain Bikers?

While hikers are used to sharing the trail with other hikers it’s not always common to encounter someone on horseback or two wheels. Whether you are on two feet or two wheels everybody has a right to be out there, what’s most important is knowing who has the right of way in order to keep the trail safe.

Mountain Bikers vs Hikers

If you are on a shared trail, be aware that mountain bikers are technically supposed to yield to hikers. With that said, this is where common sense should come into play. It’s harder for bikers to slow down, so hikers should always be on alert. In these types of situations, if it’s easier for you as a hiker to step aside, why not help the biker out, so they don’t lose momentum especially if they are going uphill.

Horses vs Hikers

In this case, it’s the exact opposite. A rider on horseback will most definitely be moving slower and since horses can be spooked or easily lose their footing on a trail with a loose and granular surface, hikers should safely move out of their way.

Trail courtesy sign showing that bikers yield to hikers and horses and that hikers yield to horses

What is Trail Etiquette for Dogs?

Even your pooch isn’t exempt from the rules of the trail! Always hike on dog-friendly trails and keep your furry friend on a leash if there are signs that only permit leashed dogs. If the dogs are allowed off-leash always keep your dog under control and within a line of sight. When another hiker approaches — dog or dog-less— make sure your dog is under your command (either by leash or voice) and step to the side. Be polite and let them know if your dog is friendly or not.

As a part of the Leave No Trace principles, always clean up after your dogs and keep them on the trail. Do not let them bother the wildlife or trample on flora and fauna, and PLEASE don’t leave your poop bags lying around for others to pick up (even if you intend to pick it up on the way out). That is the definition of poor trail etiquette.

Kristen hiking with her dog Charlie in a desert landscape

>> Read Next: Tips for Backpacking with Your Dog

Be Friendly to Other Hikers

Discover the Do's and Don'ts of how to be respectful to others and to the environment while you are out on the trail. Here is a complete guide to hiking trail etiquette - the unwritten rules of hiking - that every hiker should know.

It’s important to be friendly and chatty with other passersby you meet on the trail and not just because you’re all having such a great time bagging peaks and taking names. The benefit of briefly pausing to say hello and chatting about your plans is for safety reasons. Especially if you are on a long day hike, an overnighter or hiking solo, you can learn important info about current trail conditions (or they might fill you in on the best place to camp). This could also be the difference between having someone know where you are in case of an emergency or having no one to help direct rescuers at all.

>> Read Next: How to be an Ally to People of Color Outdoors

Should You Bring Your Smartphone on the Trail?

In the high-tech world we live in today, avoiding smartphones is nearly impossible. So what’s the consensus on bringing your technology out on the trail? Use it sparingly, discreetly and be aware of your surroundings. Don’t blast music on your phone, make loud phone calls, or get in the way of others while taking a photo. If you want to play music, we suggest a single earbud, so you can still hear or simply turn down the speaker volume when you see others coming. The bottom line is using a smartphone on the trail is a personal choice, but be aware of how you using it affects others.

Going to the Bathroom

Everybody has to pee or poop once in a while when you’re out hiking. If that’s you, set your pack off to the side of the trail so it doesn’t block the path or take it with you so critters don’t get into your food. Then, according to Leave No Trace, best practice is to go 200 feet away from any trail, campsite or water source and do your business. If 200 feet from the trail isn’t possible without trampling sensitive vegetation or falling off of a cliff, then use your common sense. Do your best to find a private spot behind a rock or a tree so passing hikers aren’t caught off guard.

And please please please, pack out any used toilet paper. Learn more about going to the bathroom outdoors here.

Leave No Trace

An important part of following trail etiquette includes the guiding principles of Leave No Trace. In the outdoors, it’s just as important to consider your etiquette towards people as it is to the wildlife and the environment around you. This frame of mind helps all of us take better care of our wild places and recreate with respect and responsibility by being accountable for our actions. Here are two great ways to Leave No Trace while hiking; staying on the trail & packing out your trash & waste.

Pack out any trash you find

Always carry in and carry out your trash, recyclables and food waste, and make sure you are following Leave No Trace principles when it comes to human waste. But carrying out trash shouldn’t just be limited to your own. If you find other trash on the trail that others left behind, pack that out too. Leave it better than you found it!

Stay on the Trail

While hiking, be mindful and stay on the trail to avoid damaging the surrounding environment and leave the area just as you found it — including rock cairns. Don’t add or take away from those strategically placed piles of rocks, instead, simply leave them be. These rock cairns have a navigational purpose and by building your own you could cause someone else to get lost.

Woman hiking past a rock cairn

Got any questions? Something we missed? If you have any questions or suggestions about trail etiquette leave them in the comments below.

Discover the Do's and Don'ts of proper trail etiquette. Learn how to be a conscious, respectful hiker to maintain a positive atmosphere on the trail.

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  1. Thanks for the article, especially clarifying who yields. Wish people would mute their damn phones!
    One thing needs correction: “Whether you are on two feet or two wheels everybody has a right to be out there.” Mountain bikes are like dogs or horses. They aren’t allowed everywhere. It’s not cool to selectively choose rules we’ll follow then toss out the rest. It makes all of us look bad when other mountain bikers are on hiker-only trails.

  2. Great post, especially about staying on the trail and leaving no trail. Always frustrates me when you see signs asking people to stay on the trail and people completely ignoring them.

  3. Is it okay for hikers to break off branches from trees and shrubs along the trail to use as bug whisks on heavily traveled trails.

    1. Hey Peter! Great question, we recommend searching for something that’s already dead and fallen on the ground. It’s also my personal tactic at warding off mosquitoes during buggy NE summers!

    2. Uphill hikers should yield! It is dangerous for a downhill hiker to put the “brakes” on, especially when the natural gravity push is exacerbated by a pack. Sudden downhill braking invites twisted ankles, knees, or worse. Uphill hikers do have a more limited vision, but can safely stop and/or step to the side. Just communicate.

      Rick (MD)

  4. what is proper etiquette of a dozen in a hiking group who engage in CONSTANT chatter ??
    In selection of a hike, is the grade a giveaway as to the strenuousness? IE 450EG vs 850EG?
    Do you have a gage for time completion of 4-1/2 miles and 850 EG of rolling hills?

    1. Elevation gain doesn’t necessarily determine the strenuousness of a hike, but it can give you a general idea of how easy or challenging it will be when compared to mileage. A short hike with a high elevation gain will be more challenging than a long hike with the same elevation gain.

  5. All the normal trail rules can be summed up in simply being a good practitioner of ‘situational awareness.’ Be mindful you’re not the only one using the trail. Don’t be a jerk.

    Additionally, an often overlooked (and violated) piece of trail etiquette is to not crowd another backpacker’s tent site. Whoever arrives at that fantastic spot first wins the right to a bit of privacy so they can enjoy that site. That’s not the time to think, “We can squeeze our tent(s) in here, too.” On the trail there are usually many places to pitch a tent. Keep moving until you’ve located another site with enough distance between yourself and others. And for crying out loud, once at your site don’t talk at a 125db. Sound travels far in the wilderness. No one wants a wilderness night intermingled with your loud talking or laughing echoing in the distance. Which circles right back to developing a sense of situational awareness.

  6. Great ethics! I wish State parks and national parks required people to learn this and demonstrate it. I have noticed lately, as much as I love kids and think it’s fantastic that families are outdoors, I encounter parents that let the kids scream the whole time they are out. I get it! Nature invokes such delight, but it is disrespectful to the whole experience for others and prob freaks out the fauna! Outdoor etiquette should be instilled in kids too.

    1. Hi Delia, thanks for reading! I love the Junior Ranger program that many NPS sites have for kids. It’s definitely a balance!