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Trail Maintenance and Etiquette: Respectful Hiking Habits

Posted On: 12/17/2020

Hiking is among the most popular outdoor activities for Americans of all ages. According to the 2019 Outdoor Participation Report, almost 48 million people hit the trails at least once in 2018. And it’s easy to see why so many people in the U.S. favor this sport — in addition to being a fun way to exercise outdoors, hiking is also beneficial for mental health and overall wellbeing.

However, it's vital to be respectful to other hikers and the natural environment when out on the trail. Though many trails are managed and maintained by employees and volunteers, all outdoor enthusiasts must do their part to keep trails in good working order. Taking time to practice trail maintenance and hiking etiquette allows many different people to enjoy the outdoors for years to come.

Why Is Trail Maintenance and Etiquette Important?

Both trail maintenance and etiquette are crucial to keeping hiking trails safe and usable. Trails need ongoing management and maintenance; without it, they can quickly erode or become run down by the elements, making them difficult and unsafe to traverse. Further, because many people with disabilities and mental health conditions enjoy spending time outdoors, trail maintenance is essential to keeping paths accessible for all users.

Trail maintenance also plays an important role in reducing the environmental impact of hiking. Without a designated trail, hikers may go into areas where they could trample vegetation, kill wildlife, and otherwise disrupt the environment. While it may not seem like a big deal if only one person does this, there can be serious consequences for a given ecosystem when every hiker, group, or recreator goes off-trail.

Additionally, following etiquette while you’re out on the trail can create a positive experience for your own group, as well as for other hikers. It encourages other people to follow trail etiquette and be respectful to other hikers in their future adventures.

Trail Maintenance Tips

You don’t have to be an expert to take care of recreational trails. Even if it’s your first time camping or adventuring outdoors, there are several things you can do anytime you use a trail:

Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace (LNT) is a set of guidelines designed to reduce environmental impact and promote conservation while recreating outdoors. LNT is based on Seven Principles:

  1. Plan Ahead & Prepare: Prepare for any outdoor trips you take to keep your group safe and avoid damage to natural resources.
  2. Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces: Stay on designated hiking and camping areas that are designed for human use so you can appreciate nature without harming it.
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly: Do not litter or leave garbage in natural environments. Always dispose of waste, including human waste, according to the rules of the area you’re in.
  4. Leave What You Find: Never take rocks, flowers, plants, animals, or archeological items home with you. Do not alter the sites or areas you visit.
  5. Minimize Campfire Impacts: From using firewood to potentially starting a forest fire, campfires can have dangerous impacts. Be careful when building, managing, and putting out campfires.
  6. Respect Wildlife: Do not disturb, approach, interact with, or feed wildlife.
  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors: Other people turn to nature and outdoor recreation to relax and have fun. Be mindful and respectful of others around you so everyone can make the most of their experience.

Though these guidelines were originally created for backcountry recreators, you can incorporate these practices into any of your outdoor activities.

Report Trail Blockages and Problems

When using a trail, you could encounter a blockage or other issue that affects its useability. Problems could range from a fallen tree to a bear roaming near the trail. Do not attempt to fix or correct these problems on your own, as this could compromise the safety of yourself, your group, or other trail users.

If you do come across any problem, report it to the organization or agency overseeing that trail as soon as possible. User reports can be the first line of defense for trail maintenance organizations, who might be responsible for managing large swaths of land or entire trail systems. With so many other areas to manage, it could take days or weeks to learn of an issue without the help of trail users.

You can report blockages or problems to a park ranger, campground host, or another official who may be at the trailhead. Also, be sure to warn other hikers or trail users you run into. If there isn’t anyone there, review signage for who to contact at the trailhead. If there are no signs, search online for the contact information of the trail system, state or national park, forest or wilderness area, or organization who manages that trail.

Join a Trail Organization

If you’re interested in learning more about the specifics of trail maintenance, consider joining a volunteer organization. Though certain trail systems have employees to maintain recreational paths, many rely on the contributions of volunteers to do so. These organizations tend to be based locally, so reach out in your area to discover potential volunteering opportunities.

In addition to helping maintain trails, you can also benefit from volunteering. From reducing your risk of high blood pressure to boosting overall health and happiness, there are countless physical and mental health benefits you can gain as a volunteer. Plus, as a trail volunteer, you can meet other like-minded individuals who are passionate about the outdoors and care about preserving the beauty of nature for others.

Keep to the Trail

The most important thing you can do to maintain trails? Stay on them! Always avoid going off of the designated trail. This is the easiest and most effective way to reduce your environmental impact and keep trails available for future visitors.

This is especially important if you’re mountain biking, riding a dirt bike, or using an ATV. Always stay on the trail, and always make sure you’re using trails where these vehicles are permitted. Recreational vehicles can have severe impacts on wildlife and natural settings; make an effort to be mindful of how you use them before you even hit the trail. Using the appropriate ramp and equipment, load and unload your ATV or dirt bike as safely as possible so as not to disturb the trail or other trail users.

If you’re out snowshoeing or cross-country skiing during the cold season, you still need to stay on designated trails. Even under multiple feet of snow, going off-trail can negatively affect the flora and fauna. Similarly, if you use winter recreational vehicles like snowmobiles, you’ll need the right equipment, including ramps and dollies, to load and unload it with minimal disruption. This can also reduce your risk of causing or getting caught up in an avalanche. All in all, taking the proper precautions before you set foot on the trail will make following the right etiquette that much easier during your adventure.

How to Practice Trail Etiquette

Following trail etiquette helps create a better hiking experience for you and for other trail users. Proper trail etiquette often comprises unwritten guidelines rather than official rules. Still, other trail users might expect you to follow these “guidelines” and might be offended or annoyed if you don’t. Some trail systems or hiking areas may have rules listed at the trailhead or on their website; in that case, always follow those rules while you’re hiking in that area.

Know Who Has the Right of Way

Uphill hikers always have the right of way, meaning downhill hikers should always yield or step off the trail to let them pass. Downhill hikers have a better view of the trail ahead and have already traversed it; uphill hikers have to fight against gravity and concentrate on the trail ahead. An uphill hiker might allow a downhill hiker to pass while they take a quick break, but it’s always their choice.

Further, hikers aren’t the only people who use hiking trails. In some places, you can find runners, mountain bikers, backpackers or multi-day adventurers, horseback riders, ATV users, and dirt bike riders all on the same trail. Hikers have the right of way over mountain bikers, though it’s usually easier for hikers to yield to fast-moving bikers. Horseback riders have the right of way over hikers, bikers, and other recreators, as they are slow-moving and easily spooked. Always step off the trail to let a horse pass, and give them some extra room, to keep everyone safe.

Move for Big Groups

If you’re alone or in a small group, you should always yield to large groups of hikers. Even if you technically have the right-of-way, it’s polite to avoid holding people up if they’re moving at a faster pace. Not only is it easier for a single person to step off the trail, but it also minimizes damage to flora and fauna.

If you’re part of a big hiking group, you can pass smaller groups or individuals in front of you — just try to do so respectively. Make sure everyone gets in a single file line and quickly passes on the hikers’ left side (just as you would pass someone while driving). Once you’re done passing, stick to the right side of the trail so hikers going the other way can walk freely.

Trail Etiquette for Dogs

For many outdoor enthusiasts, hiking is a great chance to exercise and spend time with their dogs. However, always make sure your dog behaves well before you take them with you. Not everyone who hikes wants to be around dogs; other trail users may be allergic to or afraid of dogs. If you bring your dog, make sure it listens to your verbal commands and you can separate them from other trail users who might want more space.

You should always keep your dog leashed when you take them hiking (unless you are on a designated off-leash dog trail). You may also come across other unfriendly dogs or wildlife that could hurt your pooch. Additionally, if your dog heads off the trail, they could damage plants near it.

If your dog goes to the bathroom, be sure to pick up after them immediately. Don’t leave the doggie bag on the side of the trail, even if you plan to pick it up on your way out. Ultimately, if you bring your dog hiking, you should do your best to be courteous to other trail users.

Using Your Phone on the Trail

You’re free to bring your smartphone with you, but be mindful of how using it could affect others. If you want to play music or listen to a podcast, don’t play it out loud. Considering using only one earbud or turning the volume down so you can still hear others approaching. You should also avoid talking on the phone, but if you need to take a call, try to do so quietly.

Also, be respectful of how others are using their smartphones. You may be on the trail to get away from your phone, but others may want theirs to take pictures, track their workout, or listen to music. Even if you don’t like it, all you can ask is that others are similarly considerate to you when they use their phones.

If there’s only one thing you need to know before you hit the trails, it’s that you need to try your best to be aware while hiking. Show others the same respect and kindness you’d like to receive to build a positive experience for all trail users. If you work to cultivate these hiking habits now, you can continue to develop them on your future adventures.