There are hundreds of national parks in the United States and hiking/biking is the best way to experience them. You’ll get fresh air, exercise, and could encounter lots of beautiful wildlife on the way.
But just because you’re outside doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want. There are certain rules of etiquette for those hiking and biking trails and following them will ensure you stay safe and don’t incur the wrath of other hikers/bikers or even wild animals.
What Are the Basic Rules of Hiking Etiquette?
A lot of trail etiquette is common sense, but there are some specific written and unwritten rules that might not have occurred to you.
Stay on the Trail
The trail is there to prevent you from damaging the ecosystem, as venturing away could scare wild animals or harm vegetation.
Whether you’re walking, riding a mountain bike, or straddling a horse, stick to the trail.
Leave No Trace
“Leave no trace” means you should never litter, always pick up dog poop, and avoid disturbing rocks, animals, and vegetation where possible.
Leave everything exactly how you found it and take all trash home with you. That includes foods and drinks, as food waste could attract bears and place other hikers in danger.
Hike Single File If You’re In a Group
To make sure you don’t leave the trail or cause problems for other hikers, always hike single file when you’re in a group.
Single Hikers Should Yield to Groups of Hikers
Solo hikers should yield to groups of hikers, especially if they are following basic hiking trail etiquette. It’s much easier for you to step out of the way and allow them all to pass.
Remember that passing lanes on a hiking trail are the same as on the road—pass on the left and keep to the right.
Don’t Disturb Wildlife
National parks are home to an array of animals, some of which are incredibly dangerous. Sticking to the trail will limit your run-ins with these creatures but if you do encounter them, keep your distance.
Don’t leave the trail just to get a closer look or snap a few pictures for social media. Don’t taunt the animals and learn how to react in the event of an attack.
Make Yourself Known
If you see another trail user, say a quick “hello” or give them a nod. If you’re behind them on a bike/horse and they haven’t seen you, yell out to them.
It’s one of the unwritten rules that keeps the trail polite and friendly, but it also lets them know of your presence.
Tune In To Your Surroundings
Open your eyes and your ears and focus on the world around you. Listen to the natural sounds of animals, streams, and the wind rustling through the trees. Pay attention to the sound of approaching bikes and horses or the distant roar of a bear.
Don’t simply tune out by throwing on a pair of headphones and turning your music up all of the way. Not only is it good trail etiquette, but you’ll feel better for it.
Check the Trail In Advance
Are you planning a hike in bear country? Are there coyotes or mountain lions nearby? Learn these things before you set off on your hike.
You should also check the weather conditions. Muddy trails aren’t best suited to mountain bikes and if the conditions are very hot and dry, you’ll need to take plenty of water with you.
Be Considerate When Running, Jumping, or Riding Quickly
If you’re on a narrow trail, be considerate of other hikers and don’t run, jump, or ride bikes at speed.
Don’t Risk It for the Gram
It doesn’t matter how “perfect” the picture will be, you should never get too close to an animal, linger near the edge of a steep trail, or block other hikers just to snap a picture for Instagram.
There’s nothing wrong with taking pictures in general. We all do it and there are a lot of opportunities for perfect snaps. It’s a free world. But your freedom ends when everyone else’s begins.
Use Your Smartphone Sparingly
Just because you’re out in the wilderness doesn’t mean you should leave your phone at home. It can actually be very useful if you get lost or become injured.
However, you should refrain from playing loud music or shouting loudly into the device. People go on hikes and bike rides to get some peace from the noise and chaos of their everyday lives. The last thing they want is to get stuck behind someone shouting into their phone.
Mountain Bikers, Horses, or Hikers—Who Has Right of Way?
Bikers are technically supposed to move aside if there are hikers on the trail, but it’s often easier for the hiker to step aside than it is for the biker to change their course.
If there is enough distance between the biker and the hiker, and they are not moving too quickly, the biker should make the effort to steer clear. If the biker is moving quickly and closing in on the hiker, the hiker should yield.
It’s common sense. If a bike is racing toward you, don’t just stand there and let it knock you over.
Horseback riders should stay on their current course and both hikers and bikers should yield for them. Horses typically move very slowly and are easily spooked. They can also kick out and cause harm if they are surprised or scared, so other trail users should accommodate them.
How Does Trail Etiquette Apply to Dogs?
If you’re talking your dog on a hike, stick with dog friendly trails, and always keep them on a leash or nearby. Only let the animal off the leash if they obey your commands and will come when called.
Keep the dog in your line of sight at all times and call to them if they venture near wild animals or other trail users. Although most people are happy to greet and pet dogs, some are allergic, some are scared, and some just want to be left alone. Don’t assume that everyone will love your dog, no matter how lovable it is.
How Do You Go To The Bathroom Outdoors?
The “leave no trace” principle can seem a little challenging if you desperately need to use the toilet. And if bears do it in the woods, why can’t you?
If you need to go, simply set your belongings down at the side of the trail and venture at least 200 feet away from any trail, campsite, or water source. Try not to trample any vegetation or alert any wild animals and pack away all used toilet paper.
There are special packs and toilet kits that are tailormade for the great outdoors and can be used to store both human waste and food waste.
Summary: Proper Hiking Etiquette
To summarize, keep the following trail etiquette rules in mind the next time you’re hiking, biking, or horseback riding at a national park:
- Leave no trace
- Pass on the left
- Keep a safe distance from wild animals
- If you’re a solo hiker, move aside when large groups pass
- Bicyclists yield to hikers but hikers should use common sense if the bikers are moving quickly or appear out of nowhere
- Be friendly to other trail users
- Don’t risk your safety or inconvenience fellow hikers for the sake of a selfie