Trail Etiquette 101: 15 Essential Hiking Etiquette Tips You Need To Know

Hiking. It’s one of the best ways to decompress, de-stress, and reset your body after a long week.

It’s one of the best and most accessible ways to enjoy the outdoors – there are hiking trails all over the country!

But what if it’s your first time? What are the hiking etiquette rules to follow when out on the trail?

Whether you’re a beginning hiker or a veteran trail explorer, here are the 15 hiking rules and trail etiquette tips you need to be following.

Your Complete Guide To Trail Etiquette: 10 Tips For Being a Good Hiker

1. The Golden Rule – Treat Others How You Want To Be Treated

A very simple but very impactful trail etiquette tip is to treat others how you want to be treated.

By doing this, all of the other tips and suggestions we share will come naturally, because they are really ways how we ourselves want to be treated too!

When hiking in the Pacific Northwest (or really, anywhere), remember that we are a collective group of visitors in nature, so it’s important to treat everyone with respect.

People hike for so many different reasons (forest bathing, taking photos, connecting with others) and it’s important we honor and respect everyone’s collective experience.

2. Avoid Large Crowds & Peak Times (If You Can)

Summer season, weekends, and well-known trails can often draw large crowds. 

If you are able to come during less popular times (early in the morning, weekdays, shoulder season) it’s actually a win-win situation for all.

Coming during a shoulder period lets you enjoy the park with fewer crowds.

Visitors will be able to spread across a larger time frame, allowing park management to keep up with maintenance, cleanliness, and safety for all.

Not an early riser? Here are ways to wake up early in the morning:

  • Set out your clothes and gear the night before. (No decisions to be made in the morning!)
  • Plan to eat breakfast, or get breakfast. Looking forward to a coffee is a big motivator!
  • Meet friends. You’re less likely to bail on your plans if someone is depending on you.

3. Know The Trail Conditions

The most important aspect of trail etiquette is to be a prepared hiker!

Trail conditions, weather, and time of year can all affect how safe a trail is. It’s important to be aware of all of those factors before you venture out.

First, review recent trail reviews. We like to use Washington Trails Association and All Trails to read recent reports from people who have hiked the trail recently.

Read More: The 15 Best Hiking Apps To Download Before Hitting The Trail

We also check the forecast a few times – the first time 24 hours before the trip, and then again the morning of our hike.

Check your state’s online traffic/highway status webpage to see if you can safely access your trailhead. Driving conditions and times of the year can close roads – it’s important to see if your route is accessible!

A final thing to consider is to be aware of any notices from the National Park/Forest Service.

For example, the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire still inhibits a lot of things to do in the Columbia River Gorge and it has continual and ongoing maintenance. They are very good about updating this web page for trail closures and notices.

4. Pack In It Pack It Out – Leave No Trace

One of the easiest ways to practice proper hiking etiquette is to pack out the trash you came with and take it HOME to toss.

If you’re feeling extra responsible, bring a reusable bag to pick up any leftover garbage you spot on the trail.

By picking up trash and taking it out with you, it does two things:

1.) It sets a higher standard for future visitors to pack out their trash too, and

2.) it prevents popular trailhead garbage cans from overflowing.

Reminder: You’ve probably heard people say “this is biodegradable” when peeling an orange or throwing an apple core in the bushes, right? What they don’t consider is that it just doesn’t go away in a day.

It takes WEEKS for these things to break down, and that’s plenty of time for it to disturb the eating habits of wildlife and attract unwanted attention (plus is looks gross). ‘Biodegradable” or not, pack it ALL out with you!

5. Be Friendly To Other Hikers

While being friendly to other hikers is a nice trail etiquette to practice, it’s also a great safety measure!

If hiking alone, it actually can be a really good idea to look people in the eye and acknowledge them.

If someone has ill intentions for you, they might think twice if you are able to get a good look at their face and recognize them in a police lineup.

If you go missing, other hikers may be able to describe you if they remember encountering you on the trail.

6. Do Downhill Hikers or Uphill Hikers Have The Right of Way?

One of the hardest parts about hiking is keeping that uphill momentum!

If you’re heading back down the trail, it’s proper trail etiquette to step off to the side and let those uphill hikers keep up that pace.

Who else has the right of way?

The quick way to think about it is whoever is going to have the easier time moving out of the way must yield.

Here are some examples:

  • Solo hikers should yield to larger groups.
  • Slower hikers should move aside for faster hikes on the trail.
  • Any hikers should always yield for stock animals (horses, mules, etc)
  • Hikers with dogs should yield to other hikers.
  • Hikers must yield to mountain bikers. This is because boots have less of an impact on the trail than tires do.
  • Hikers must yield to trail runners. This allows runners to keep the rhythm of their pace.
Emily Mandagie walking on String Lake Trail, - TheMandagies.com

7. Stick To The Trail

A very simple trail etiquette tip to practice is staying on the designated trail

Switchbacks are the biggest culprits for spotting those trail shortcuts!

Don’t take these steep alternatives and just stick to the main trail. This will help keep the integrity of the slope and prevent it from eroding away. 

See stacks of rocks (cairns) along the trail? Don’t touch them! Also, don’t make your own. These are natural trail markers that have a navigational purpose. Making your own for fun may confuse people if they have lost their way.

Simply leave them be.

Read More: 30+ Beautiful Hikes in Washington State

8. Need To Use The Bathroom?

It’s proper trail etiquette to use the facilities on-site at the trailhead. For a comfier time, do your business before getting to the trailhead. 

Have an emergency and need to use the bathroom mid-trail?

  • Find a spot at least 200 feet from the trail, campsite, or water source. 
  • Pack some toilet paper and a ziplock back wrapped in duct tape. This way, you can stash the toilet paper and pack it out, without having to look at it!
  • Number 2? Learn how to use a blue bag, and know how to properly dispose of solid waste. 

Can’t find a place to go 200 feet away or are worried about compromising sensitive vegetation?

Use your common sense and assess the situation at hand. Use your best judgment to determine the best place that makes the least impact.

Finally, try and find a spot out of eyesight for anyone on the trail – you don’t want to be surprised by hikers rounding the bend!

New 2022 LNT Waste Disposal Practices: Because of the variability of landscape, and the volume of existing waste currently present outside, it is recommended to pack in and use WAG bags, and carry out your waste. Stock up on these disposable waste bags for your next adventure, especially in desert terrain.

Read More: 14 Essential Tips For Camping Hygiene + Staying Clean While Camping

9. Don’t Blast Music – Keep it Quiet

People come to nature trails for so many reasons, from escaping the hustle and bustle of everyday life to exploring new places.

Occasionally, this calm mood can be doused by someone blasting music from a portable speaker on the same route.

Here are some reasons to keep the tunes at home:

  • Forest Bathing: Have you tried it? It’s one of the most relaxing ways to enjoy hiking, which soaks in the forest with all five senses!
  • Music can disturb others: Music may be a source of relaxation for you, but consider others and their own experience on the trail too.
  • Wildlife relies on natural sounds for survival: Many rely on the sound of nature for communication and navigation, and loud music or crowds can disrupt their way of life.
  • Music can be a safety hazard: Loud tunes can prevent you from hearing calls for help, nearby wildlife, or (god forbid) someone who wants to harm you.

There is no hard and fast rule for tunes on the trail, but it all comes down to being considerate of others and leaving as little impact as possible!

10. Don’t Disturb Wildlife

Never step off the trail to get a closer look at wildlife. This is dangerous because you can harm its habitat or spook it into doing something unexpected.

Wildlife is simply that – wild. Their behavior is unpredictable, and you don’t want to put yourself in harm’s way.

It’s also important not to feed animals any food. The squirrels may be cute, but you could actually be training them to rely on humans for their source of food, rather than foraging for food themselves.

This leads to more encounters with humans and animals, putting both people in a potentially dangerous situation. Proper trail etiquette is to leave them be!

11. Walk In A Single File Line

Hiking with a large group of friends can be fun, but potentially a nuisance to others on the trail.

Don’t fan out and take up the trail by walking side by side. Instead, walk in a single file line to that everyone is sticking to the trail.

Want to all stick together? Put your strongest hiker in the back, and let your weakest hiker lead.

This ensures that everyone will stick together, and no one gets left behind.

12. What is Trail Etiquette For Dogs?

When hiking with your pet, it’s important to follow the hiking etiquette rules set out by the particular trail.

Keep your furry friend on a leash if the trail permits leash-only dogs. If the trail allows dogs to be off-leash, keep a line of sight at all times.

If you approach a hiking group or another dog, make sure your pooch has great recall. Step off the side of the trail to let them pass, and let them know if your dog is friendly or not.

Pack extra poop bags so you can pack out their waste. DO NOT leave them on the trail to pick up on your way back.

If you have a pet that’s highly reactive, choose a trail less traveled. You could also come during times when you know there will be fewer people on the trail with you.

Read More: The 16 Best Hiking Gifts For Adventure Dogs

13. Leave What You Find

Notice a cool rock on the trail?

If you picked it up, and everyone else followed suit with their own rock souvenirs, there would eventually be none left on the mountain or the beach!

It’s important to leave what you find so that others can enjoy it too. Take only pictures, leave only footprints!

14. Walk Through The Mud – Not Around It

Surprisingly, one of the best ways you can preserve a trail is to trudge right through the mud!

This prevents the trail from getting wider and wider, as people go around to avoid the puddles.

Go ahead and do your part by practicing trail etiquette, and splashing through them!

Read More: How To Choose The Right Hiking Boots For The Trail

15. Should You Bring Your Smartphone on the Trail?

In today’s world, it’s inevitable that technology will follow us – even out on the trail!

Berty and I often use our smartphones to download hiking apps for keeping track of our distance on any given trail.

Therefore, we think it’s alright to have smartphones on the trail, just be discreet about it!

Follow trail etiquette rules and look up to avoid tripping or running into other hikers. Also, don’t blast music or make loud phone calls.

Did we miss any trail etiquette tips? What are some other hiking etiquette rules you’d add to this list? Tell us below!

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