Trail Etiquette

Whenever we hit the trail, just as in any social situation, there are protocols of etiquette that we should follow. We share our local, state, and national parks with each other and, in order to provide the best experience possible, we should respect the written and unwritten rules of the land.

As always, the “golden rule” is paramount:

Treat others the way you
would want to be treated.

While there is no set list of rules all hikers should follow, below are five key points of trail etiquette that are commonly agreed upon across the hiking community.

The Right of Way | Dogs on Trail | Leave No Trace
Respect the Shared Space | Help Maintain the Trail

The Right of Way

Always check local signage and follow the correct right-of-way yields. Trails shared with cyclists will have direction markers to designate the flow of traffic. Hikers should ALWAYS go against traffic. It’s safer to see what is coming at you, than have it sneak up behind you.

Signs or no signs, the general rules of the trail are:

When possible, I move aside for bikes (and anything else traveling faster than me) because they have a harder time stopping than I do. Horses and other pack animals can frighten easily (and can kick pretty hard), so it’s best to give them the space they need to pass. When making room for other hikers, bikers, or horses, step off trail and STOP. Do not try to walk past them. Walking on the edge of a trail reduces its sustainability and causes it to erode faster.

When in doubt, be the bigger person and step aside to make room.

Dogs On Trail

I LOVE hiking with our family dog but our furry pals are not exempted from hiking etiquette. Dog owners are ENTIRELY responsible for what their animals do, and if you are not in complete control of your pup, please refrain from going in public areas with them until you are.

Most trails require dogs to be on a leash no longer than 6 feet. Even if your dog is a friendly dog, OTHER DOGS MAY NOT BE. Furthermore, not everyone is comfortable with a dog running full speed at them. To protect the safety of your animal and those around you, leash up. If you are in an area that allows pups to be off-leash, always keep your dog under control and within sight. Whenever a hiker approaches, ensure your puppy is under your command and move aside for the hiker.

Always clean up after your animal. Not only do people universally despise stepping in dog poo, but as a responsible hiker who follows Leave No Trace, we must dispose of waste properly. Pack it out if you have bags, or bury it in a cat hole (dog hole?) 4-6 inches deep and 200 feet away from water, trail, and camp.

Leave No Trace

The Seven Principles of Leave No Trace are guidelines set to minimize our impact when we recreate and help to foster greater respect for our parks, wildlife, and the other people sharing the space. If you are unfamiliar with the principles, visit To list them here:

The Leave No Trace Seven Principles
  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
  2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly
  4. Leave What You Find
  5. Minimize Campfire Impacts
  6. Respect Wildlife
  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors

© 1999 by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics:

Respect the Shared Space

Everyone hits the trail for different reasons and we should be respectful of that. Some good rules to follow to ensure everyone has a great trip outside are:

  • Hike quietly. Not everyone wants to listen to your music or be a part of your conversation. Use headphones and speak softly.
  • Share the trail. Don’t take up the whole width of the trail, particularly if you’re in a group. If you need to pass someone from behind, it’s courteous not to sneak up on them. Announce yourself and ask to pass.
  • Be friendly. You don’t have to strike up a conversation with everyone you see, but pausing to say hello or at least smile creates a pleasant atmosphere on trail. Not only that, but in an emergency situation, having someone remember the last time they saw you could save your life.
  • Poop off trail. Come on. It’s gross. Always be at least 200 feet away from any trail, water source, or campsite, and bury your poop AND your toilet paper 4-6 inches underground. No one wants to step in that.

Help Maintain the Trail

As stewards of our public lands, it falls on us to help maintain them. Rangers and volunteers who create and manage the trail systems cannot always keep up due to the sheer volume of traffic some of our more popular spaces have. While you enjoy the trails, be active participants.

  • Stay on the trail. Leaving the trail can damage fragile ecosystems (especially at the alpine zone) and can kill certain plant and animal species.
  • Go through the mud. If the trail is badly eroded due to recent weather conditions, consider coming back a different day to help maintain trail integrity. If you do decide to hike on, go through the puddles and not around them. Widening a trail is bad for sustainability and makes it harder for volunteers to maintain them.
  • Leave it BETTER than you found it. Is there a branch blocking the path you can move? Was there a candy bar wrapper laying on the side of the trail? Do what you can to help keep our trail systems clean and litter free.
  • Leave it WHERE you found it.Try not to move anything that you don’t have to — especially ROCKS. Many strategically placed piles of rocks, or cairns, are used for navigational purposes and building one can: 1) Get people lost and 2) Damage local ecosystems, particularly in waterways. Rocks on the bottom of streams provide valuable shelter for fish and maintain the structure of the riverbed. Moving them can disrupt natural habitats and cause erosion.