When you’re outdoors, you’re not alone. We share the outdoors with hundreds of plants, animals, and people. There are unwritten rules and guidelines you need to follow — not only for your sake but for others too. Below we’ve put together a guide to hiking etiquette 101 to keep these in mind the next time you step into the outdoors.
Guide to Hiking Etiquette 101
Respect the Sound of Nature. The chirping of the birds, the rustling of the leaves, the howling of the wind, and the rippling of the rivers and streams — these are all sounds of nature people love. It’s peaceful and serene. Playing loud music on hikes can ruin this experience for others. More importantly, loud music can also disturb animals who use nature’s sounds for survival methods or mating calls. If one must listen to music, please wear earphones instead.
Stay Right, Pass Left. Most trails are only wide enough for one party to go up or down. So who steps aside? The rule-of-thumb is that the ones hiking down do. Going down, one has gravity on their side, which makes it easier for them to stop and start again. However, when going up, one is hiking against gravity and it would be harder to regain momentum after a few seconds of rest.
Stay on the Trail. It’s tempting to go off trail or cut switchbacks. Many do it for some risky “fun” and because they want to take a shortcut to the top (or bottom). Respect the trail and stay on it. This helps reduce erosion and protect the plants that live there. Plus, trail helpers have put their hard work into the creation of the trails. Respect this by using it correctly and respectfully.
Leave No Trace. The outdoors is for everyone to enjoy. Pack out your trash and leave the environment more pristine than it was when you got there. Be a good Samaritan and go the extra mile to pick up other people’s trash seen on the trails too. The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics is a great resource to learn more about Leave No Trace principles and how to respectfully enjoy the outdoors.
Leave Flora and Fauna Alone. The environment is a fragile ecosystem and everything has its place. Leave flowers, foliage, rocks, acorns, and pinecones as they are. Nature is not a museum for us to come and take items home as souvenirs. Bees and butterflies depend on wildflowers for seed, nectar, and pollination. Squirrels pick up pine cones to stow away for the winter. When these are taken home, it hurts the chances of nature replanting and regrowing its natural ecosystem. The same goes for animals (we’re not joking). If a baby animal looks lonely or cold, let them be. It is part of the natural cycle of the wild. If one interferes, it could end badly like this unfortunate bison calf.
Don’t Drink Standing Water. Avoid standing water at all cost. It is the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes and other insects; they love to hang out and lay their eggs in it. Instead, use running streams or waterfalls, or any active body of water to filter drinkable water.
Hike Ahead When You See Stacks of Rocks (Kind of). Lost? Look for a stack of at least three rocks (also known as a cairn). A stack of rocks on a trail is usually unnatural, meaning another hiker must have put it there. It is a trail marker indicating that it’s the right way. With that being said, use your best judgment as some hikers may have stacked the rocks for fun (don’t do that!) and may potentially lead you to the wrong trail.
Do Your Business in the Natural Restroom. When out hiking, one should never assume restrooms will be found along the trail. So what is there to do? Go in nature. We’ve discussed this before in our Guide to Backpacking 101 article, but here’s a refresher. The Number One is easy; pick a spot at least 100ft away (~ 45 adult steps) from the trail, waterways, and campsites to do your business. Number Two is a bit trickier. First, pick a spot at least 200ft away (~70 adult steps) from the trail, waterways, and campsites. Then, gather smooth sticks, rocks or leaves to use as “toilet paper” (it’s less messy and cleaner than using actual toilet paper). You can also use a handkerchief, just make sure to rinse it off after and have no one else touch it but you. After, dig a hole at least 6 inches deep, and do your thing. When done, cover the hole as if you were never there.
* If you can imagine, human poop is actually ruining our national parks. Read more about it here. One way to help is to use a WAG bag and pack it out. Some places have even required hikers to only use WAG bags to help preserve that natural area such as Mt. Whitney.
Stay Away from Wildlife. It’s not every day one gets to see a bear, a bison, a bighorn sheep, or a wolf. Even smaller animals such as snakes and marmots are rare to encounter. Although it can be exciting, remember that they are still wild. It’s very important to keep a distance and to not startle them.
* Tip: before heading outdoors, do research about the animals that live there and what do if you encounter one.
Disconnect to Reconnect. When we stare at our phones all day, we forget to look up and see the world in front of us. Like the city, there is always something to see and hear in the natural world. Put away the phones, leave the selfie sticks at home, and enjoy what the natural world has to offer.
Smile Like You Mean It. Get friendly and say hi to your fellow hikers. We’re all enjoying the outdoors together!
*This article was updated on January 30, 2019.