Trail etiquette: how to yield, stay safe, preserve the wilderness (and have fun!)
Who yields to whom? What if we're hiking in a large group? How can I help preserve the wilderness while I'm having fun out there? Here's a few of our tips for trail etiquette while exploring the South's great outdoors.
On any given day, there are lots of folks out enjoying the same trails. Do you know which trail user has the right of way? If you’re on foot or on a bike, what should you do if you come upon horses? Is it okay to build trail cairns? Take a look at these common rules of the trail to figure these things out (and more!) before you head out on your next adventure.
Hiker, runner, biker, horse: know your place!
Yielding on trails means about the same thing it means while driving a car– patiently wait your turn to proceed. While out exploring nature, this usually means stepping slightly off the trail, and waving the other party to continue on. Who passes whom? The official rule looks something like this: bikers yield to hikers and horses, both bikers and hikers yield to horses, and the magnificent beasts themselves yield to absolutely no one.
Let’s expand on this…
Though the rule of “bikers yield to hikers” is pretty standard, I like to use common sense and courtesy with each situation I encounter on the trail. While hiking or running, if I see a mountain biker blazing the trail with athletic fury heading straight towards me, I’ll simply step to the side and wave them on. I feel it’s oftentimes easier for me to briefly pause my leisurely effort than to make the biker dismount for me to slug on past. But ultimately, it’s the person without the bike who gets to make the call in this situation.
As for horses, this one remains strict. Always yield as soon as you see them approaching. Horses can spook easily, and I, for one, do not want to upset an animal that outweighs me by a few hundred pounds! It’s best to step downhill off the trail if you can, to make yourself appear smaller. I like to quietly ask the riders if I’m okay standing where I am before they pass. Remain calm, and remember to never reach out and pet the animals. The same rules apply to the pack animals you might encounter while hiking in the mountains.
Up, down, and all around.
When you are on a trail exclusively created for hiking, remember that everyone hiking downhill should yield to those moving uphill. This one may seem impractical to some, as they feel most people moving uphill might like a break. However, the logic is sound. The hiker moving downhill will have a better vantage point as to where to step off and yield. Additionally, it’s good not to break the concentration and momentum of someone working hard to get up the hill. Again, many hikers will be happy to take a brief rest and wave you on as they move uphill, but that’s at their discretion.
Hiking with your crew.
Hiking in groups can be a tricky one when it comes to the rules of the trail. Traditionally, groups are encouraged to yield to single and smaller group hikers. However, this has caused a bit of debate in the outdoor world. Some feel encouraging large groups to step off trail might cause extra damage to the plant life surrounding the trail. Additionally, I often deem it easier for everyone if I step off trail and wait for a moment to let a large group pass.
On the contrary, if you have ever been to an extremely populated trail such as Mt. Yonah on a sunny day, and have encountered several large groups while hiking alone, you just might want to put those yielding rules into action! After stopping multiple times for large rowdy groups to pass, the thought of groups yielding to single hikers seems much more appealing!
To eliminate any confusion, consider splitting your large group into smaller groups. Remember to hike single file to leave room for others to get around you. No matter how big or small your group is, keep in mind that it is ultimately up to the single or paired hikers to decide to stop and wait for your crew, or to proceed.
Stay on the trail!
Once, while hiking a difficult trail in North Georgia, I came upon a group of young folks attempting to cut out a large switchback by climbing up a steep side trail. A couple of girls leading the charge up the hill lost their grip and began to slide back down to the trail below. They were okay, but the the soil around them was damaged.
Switchbacks are designed not only to make your climb easier, but to help eliminate trail erosion. Veering off trail is not only dangerous, but it can create channels where water can run rapidly downhill, eventually washing out the trail. (And yes, only a few steps can create some really significant damage!)
For just a couple minutes of extra effort, this group could have prevented costly damage to the trail system, and you can prevent this too. Stay on the marked trails, and respect signage indicating areas that are off limits. This will help keep you safe, and help preserve the trail and the environment around you.
And please, don’t be that guy!
…that guy who doesn’t smile.
There’s so much beauty and serenity to absorb in the therapeutic outdoor world, there’s really no room left for sour attitudes! To help enrich everyone’s outing, smile and be courteous. Just a nod or smile can make all the difference.
Additionally, being friendly on the trail is not only good for the soul, it’s good for your safety! Greeting fellow trail enthusiasts while hiking, trail running, or biking just might be the thing that saves your life. If you are ever lost or in danger, and someone has to come look for you, other hikers are more likely to remember you if you exchanged words and made eye contact. So go ahead, give a hello and wave, or maybe even add a “Have a nice hike!”. Even if it doesn’t save your life, you could at least make someone’s day brighter.
…that guy who brings the tunes.
Nothing will kill your outdoor vibe quicker than some Tupac. It’s true. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been out trail running and stumbled upon someone blasting gangsta rap from their iPhone’s loudspeaker, effectively disintegrating any ounce of peace and quiet within a quarter mile radius…sigh… Don’t get me wrong. I love Tupac, but I love him a whole lot more on the car ride home! Please [PLEASE!] keep the music off. Silence your phone, and drown the noise. Remember that though you may really enjoy hiking to some reggae, country, or bubblegum pop, the rest of us likely don’t. Soak up the tranquil sounds of nature instead. I promise you will be better for it!
..that guy who leaves his trash.
Imagine walking through a calm forest of towering pines, taking in the breathtaking sights and smells. You see something small and colorful in the distance. Some wildflowers, maybe? As you get closer, you find it’s not a patch of flowers, at all. It’s actually a 24oz soft drink cup, and a cupcake wrapper. Ugghh…such a disappointment.
You may believe that leaving behind something small like a gel packet, or a gum wrapper wouldn’t make a big difference in the grand scheme of things, but you are wrong! If everyone shared that sentiment, our parks would be filthy, and you certainly wouldn’t want to visit them. So if you brought it into nature with you, it has to go back out of nature with you. No exceptions here!
…that guy who makes his mark.
It’s not just trash that can destroy a good park. Another chronic offender is vandalism. Not only does it look bad, but it is illegal. And chances are that you and your partner’s initials inside a bubbly heart will last a whole lot longer on a tree than the relationship will itself. If you do spot some fresh looking vandalism, please report it to the park authorities.
…that guy who lets their dog run free.
An unleashed dog (whatever its intentions) bounding towards an adult, child, another dog, a bear, or other wildlife can be a nuisance. Or it can cause a dog bite, human bite, or worse. For safety, and out of respect for everyone on the trail, please keep your four-footed hiking buddies on a leash.
…that guy who creates a cairn.
You might be tempted to recreate the perfectly balanced rock piles you see on a trail, but please don’t! Old cairns often serve as trail markers, indicating significant turns or points of interest deep in the forest. Adding your own cairn can not only cause some confusion here, but can also cause a bit of trouble. The moving and relocating of rocks can damage the delicate ecosystem, and cause unnecessary erosion. Please let nature remain untouched and wild.
Please Leave No Trace
In addition to these tips, please take the time to educate yourself on the 7 principles of Leave No Trace to learn more about where to camp, dispose of waste, and other important information. This will help you make sure you are doing everything you can to keep our parks beautiful and clean for years to come, and to get the most out of your own outdoor adventure.