Trail etiquette teaches us how to engage with other trail users in a positive and beneficial manner

Many aspects of trail etiquette are learned from prolonged experience, and come natural to outdoor enthusiasts over time. These courtesies are not only vital to harmonious interaction between other wilderness visitors, but also help to protect and preserve wildlife while maintaining our beloved trails. All people wishing to hit the trail to soak in sunshine, breathe the fresh mountain air and let their eyes devour the colorful autumn leaves should be acquainted with the basic courtesies. If you are a beginner trail user, having a better understanding of trail etiquette will simply help you appear less like a newbie — while also doing the right thing. And for the experienced, a refresher never hurts.

trail etiquette trail sign right of way
A trailhead sign provides a simple image that is helpful to remind trail users who has right of way.Tiona Eversole

Right of way

To avoid potentially dangerous collisions as well as unpleasant or downright awkward encounters, knowing who has the right of way is immensely helpful. Before embarking on your adventure, learn what kind of traffic is allowed on the intended trail, and mentally prepare yourself to encounter other trail users such as hikers, runners, dog owners, bikers or horseback riders. 

In general, horses have priority: they can be skittish and spook easily. Getting trampled makes for a terrible day, not to mention the added danger to horse and rider. If you encounter a horse, step off the trail and keep calm. If the horse sees you behaving nervously, they will consequently become nervous. Do not make any sudden moves and avoid assuming any predatory postures. Speaking in relaxed tones to the rider will help assure the horse that you are no threat.

Hikers have second priority to horses, and hikers ascending have priority over hikers or bikers descending. It takes much more effort to climb, and so logically, it is courteous for downhill traffic to yield to uphill traffic.

For bikers, another biker riding uphill has the right of way out of courtesy for their exerted effort. Bikers should yield to all non-bikers. Maintain controllable speed and keep an eye and ear out for other visitors on the trail. If you encounter another biker riding faster, let them pass. When uncertain about a situation, yield and step off the trail. It also provides an apt excuse to catch your breath. 

fall mountain biking trail etiquette
Mountain bikers must yield to both hikers and horseback riders when riding on the trail. Terrance Siemon

Wilderness preservation

To preserve and maintain trails as well as the surrounding area, avoid widening the trail. Riding or hiking off the trail tramples the vegetation and can cause drainage issues that are difficult to repair. Try to avoid recreating on muddy trails, but if you should encounter a puddle, go through it instead of around. Putting this into practice will help keep trails pristine and preserve the natural vegetation.

As tempting as it may be to step off the beaten path and forge your own way, it is best to stay where humans should: on the trail. Traveling off the established trail creates social trails. Social trails are caused by foot traffic in areas originally untouched by man, and therefore endanger the local flora and fauna as well as other recreationists. It’s not only dangerous to yourself to leave the trail, but is also a threat to the natural order of the surrounding environment. 

Dogs on the trail

Bringing your furry companion should be a joy for all involved. Before bringing your dog with you, make sure that the intended trail is dog-friendly. Adversely, your dog should exhibit trail friendly behaviors. 

Yield to all other traffic on the trail. If there is a leash law, abide by it (a waist leash is a great, hands-free and convenient option). If there is no leash law and you would like to let your dog run free, make sure that they respond to commands and come when called . As a rule, it is always a good idea to leash when passing other traffic, especially another dog. Keep in mind that while your furry friend may be friendly, other dogs may be fearful, aggressive or undergoing obedience training. Your buddy running up on another dog may result in an unpleasant situation.

Which leads us to the question: how do you know if your dog is trail ready? If your dog is aggressive, barks, lunges at passersby, chases wildlife or does not heel on command, your pup could use a little more training.

To help maintain the trail and preserve wildlife, tread lightly and keep your dog on the trail to avoid widening the trail and trampling vegetation. And don’t forget to pack out your furry friend’s waste.