Skip to Content

Thru-Hiker Trail Etiquette: Essentials to Proper Manners

Read Time: Approximately 8 minutes

We all love hiking, and what could be better than spending a day out in nature? However, it’s important to remember that we are guests in the wilderness. When we head out on the trail, we need to obey trail etiquette so that everyone can enjoy their experience.

This guide will help you understand common trail etiquette, which means you understand how to respect others who are using the trail as well as the trail itself. Trail etiquette helps everyone stay safe and protects our trails for years to come, so when hiking who has the right of way on the trail?

What is Hiking Etiquette?

Hiking etiquette refers to the guidelines, or rules of trail etiquette, which are all about what you should and shouldn’t do while out hiking on the trail. While there are many unwritten rules that hikers follow, some specific events have led to a few written trail etiquette guidelines.

You should take it upon yourself to know the guidelines before you head out on the trail, but also know that a solid majority of the day, section, and thru-hikers may not take the time like you to know them.

Core Trail Etiquette

There is some core etiquette that all people on the trail should know and follow, they range from knowing the right of way for others and yourself to LNT principles and onto things like being friendly and using low voices on trail and headphones when listening to audio.

Let’s take a look into what I believe are the core principles of being a good hiker on the trail!

Know Right Of Way

Many trails are actually multi-use trails, you will be on them with other hikers, mountain bikers, horses, and sometimes motor vehicles. Each of these has a different set of rules to the right of way, so let’s take a look at each and make sure you have a good understanding of the right of way.

Hikers

Following proper trail etiquette would require a downhill hiker to always yield to the uphill hiker as the person moving up the hill is typically more narrow-focused on climbing the hill but the downhill hiker can survey large areas with more ease.

The hiker going downhill is able to achieve top speed again with little effort due to the gravity assist, this means that a stop doesn’t really penalize the downhill hiker the same as it is for the uphill push and battle to reach a peak is for an uphill hiker.

For most, all it takes is one time when hiking uphill and having a downhill hiker kill their momentum by not stopping for them to understand how they impact others on the trail.

Also as an uphill hiker should you need to pass another uphill hiker don’t just slam past them on a narrow trail section, look for more space and then make sure to tell them you are going to pass, something like the following:

“On your left”… or you may need to say “on your right” but this helps maintain good trail communications.

This is more to make sure fellow trail users know you are there and that you are a person and not an animal like a bear hot on their heels. Most slower hikers will understand reasonable speeds for faster-moving trail users and have no issue letting you pass.

Group Hikers

For single hikers, you will want to follow different guidelines when you run into larger groups on the trail. Typically, if the group is following proper hiking etiquette and hiking in a single file line then you want to step aside.

Having the single hiker move off the trail to allow passing is beneficial to the wildlife and causes less damage them taking more people off onto the surrounding plant life.

This is because it’s easier for one person to move out of the way, normally this will be done similar to US car traffic with the passers passing slower traffic or fellow hikers on their left-hand side.

Though if you are the organizer of a big group, think about splitting your group into multiple smaller groups to have less impact on other hikers on the trail.

Mountain Bikers

Those that choose to ride a bike on trail should yield to anyone on foot. Trail or mountain biking riders typically know their rules well and will try to follow them, but for you make sure to use common sense, and if the mountain bikes are flying down the trail move out of the way if you have a place.

Most conscientious mountain bikers who bike trails will want to avoid foot traffic also, so they will tend to try and avoid heavily trafficked trails to avoid these situations.

Horses

For a hiker, a horseback rider will have the right of way in most cases. Horseback riders have to carefully manage their animals as horses can be simple spook and cause panic and issues on the trail that could be avoided.

The good thing for thru-hikers is that horseback riding isn’t allowed on all trails, but make sure to check out the trail signs so you are aware, they are allowed on the PCT and along the CDT per each of their respective Equestrian center.

Also note, please don’t reach out to touch or pet the horses as this can cause just as much panic and issues. Do feel free to speak to the rider that you are ok where you are as this will help both of you have an uneventful pass.

Motor Vehicles

For many trails or sections of trails, motorized vehicles can be authorized which obviously are heavy and can be dangerous to a normal hiker. These can range from dirt bikes to bigger quads and similar so it’s always better to watch and keep your eyes and ears open.

Leave No Trace

Honestly for thru-hikers and generally anyone who chooses to go out into nature following the full scope of LNT principles to make sure you leave the trail in the same or better shape than when you use it.

With the pandemic there has been a gigantic rise in foot traffic and the overall number of people who are out on trails, this is excellent but they bring many problems from the cities to the forests.

The sheer quantity of people leaving trash out, marking trees, not carrying or burying poo and toilet paper is leading to all kinds of crises’ on trails.

This even led to the removal of camping from Max Patch because people were failing to take care of nature properly, learn more about cat holes and proper trowel work in my post here.

Many people aren’t traditionally experienced hikers, they more than likely haven’t read the LNT website and guidelines, they probably believe that biodegradable items like banana peels are fine to leave wherever.

Take time to talk to fellow explorers and explain LNT when you see it not being followed, don’t get into fights but express the issues these things can cause. I have met people who want to make rock cairns but didn’t understand they can be used for marked trails.

They weren’t aware that they could possibly be creating false trail markers by creating these rock cairns which could cause people to deviate off-trail and become lost.

Be Friendly to Other Hikers

In addition offer up a friendly greeting to fellow hikers when you pass them on the trail, build up the thru-hiker status by being amazing while out there! We all share a common love of the outdoors and can learn from each other.

In addition to being friendly, there is a lot of communication where you can help each other, especially if going in opposite directions you can let each other know of trail conditions or other specifics.

Pet Trail Etiquette

For many on a day or section hikes bringing a dog along is commonplace when allowed on dog-friendly trails, for many though they fail to follow the guidelines on cleaning up their pet wastes or they bag them and drop them to “pick them up when leaving”.

This approach though isn’t acceptable when bringing dogs on trails, as nearly every time it is forgotten, and now that they are encased in plastic they will exist for decades or until another person decides to clean up the mess on their behalf.

Another key to pets is that they need to be on a leash and controlled, off-leash dogs can lead to many issues on and off the trail. If allowed off the main trail they can damage the plant life and animals, destroying ecosystems that are away from the trail.

Quiet Voices and Music

Most are heading out to hike to get away from the noise pollution of the city, the yelling or loud people, non-stop white noise that invades your head leaving you gasping for quiet.

Make sure when you are on the trail keep in mind to try and speak in a measured volume so as to limit your voice carrying miles, this will help all people enjoy their treks.

Also, make sure to avoid yelling, frequently yelling will be seen as trouble when out in nature. Yelling should be limited to when you need to signal someone not at every overlook or opening.

Music is another issue that has become invasive on the trail and like voices, it is frequently being played loud without headphones. This is really poor behavior as most others don’t want or need to hear your music, audiobooks, movies, or other audio while out in nature.

Final Thoughts on Trail Etiquette

If you are one of the many people who love to go on hikes, it’s essential that you understand what trail etiquette is. Trail etiquette can help keep everyone safe while they’re out in nature and protect our trails for years to come by avoiding any negative incidents.

Please share your thoughts on the information above in the comments below. Did you know what trail etiquette is before reading this article? What are some of the things that you think people need to be aware of when they’re hiking? Let me know your thoughts!