A special thanks to KJ for his recent question. He asked about how to prepare for aggressive, belligerent, or annoying hikers on the trail. I thought it was a perfect time to write a post about trail etiquette and how best to navigate around others.
Generally speaking, just like with driving (for people in the U.S.) try to keep to the right side of the trail when approaching other hikers. There are exceptions — such as a narrow trail where the only natural pullout is on the other side of the trail.
New hikers may not be aware that trail etiquette dictates the UPHILL traveler has the right of way. If the trail is flat, use common sense, be polite, and wait your turn. Treat others as you would like to be treated. And if someone is struggling (i.e. if they’re being helped down the trail due to illness or injury), give them extra space and time–even if you’re heading up.
Avoid High Usage Times and Locations
Despite national, volunteer, and outdoor organizations — think Mountaineers, Washington Trails Association, and the Sierra Club — offering training in proper trail etiquette, not everyone who ventures to the mountains has learned how to respect others while sharing the trails. What’s more, since COVID, many people have headed for the backcountry who otherwise wouldn’t be there.
While I love the fact that more people are heading outside, newbies may not know how to behave around others. Or worse, they simply don’t care. I recently added Snow Lake to my “rethink” list because of youngsters cranking rap music without personal listening devices.
We can’t control others’ behaviors. The very best way to avoid disrespectful behavior is to select less popular hiking routes where there won’t be hordes of people. Hike in the off-season when crowds are less likely. Go when it’s raining to cut down on crowding. Avoid holiday hiking when everyone else has a day off. And go at dawn or dusk when there are fewer people on the trail. My favorite idea is to hike during the week. No weekend mobs!
Trail Etiquette: Respect Multiple Uses
I love visiting the mountains to recharge, to listen to birds, rustling leaves, and flowing water. On the Snow Lake hike, I should have been able to hear 25-28 bird species. We only heard 7. Too many kids chattered or made annoying monkey calls. Instead of coming back stress-free, I felt like smacking the next pair who approached deep in loud conversation.
Rattlesnake Ledge is another “rethink” destination for me. Following hundreds of other hikers and their dogs without any chance of solitude feels too much like walking around Green Lake in Seattle on a sunny weekend. First, the likelihood of running into a problem dog is high. And second, if I wanted to be outside around scores of people I’d save gas and head to the nearest dog park.
Trail Etiquette: Control Your Own Response
If you use headphones or earbuds, realize that you might have difficulty hearing approaching hikers or trail runners. Get to know when trail runners are out and consider hiking without music or podcasts. Along the I-90 corridor, weekend mornings between 7-9 a.m. seem to be popular. And if you’re using multi-purpose trails, know which paths might include mountain bikers, snowmobiles, or equestrians. By doing a little research you won’t be caught off guard.
When you encounter people who seem to be going about your pace but show signs of impatience, step off the trail to let them pass. Anyone itching to be “first” might get nasty about trailing a slower hiker. No need to provoke them. Remember, it’s always okay to stop and take a water break, remove or add a layer of clothing, or get a bite to eat.
Try timing rest breaks to coincide with when others around you might be just finishing theirs. This provides more space on the trail so you aren’t all clustered together. Preventing your OWN ‘road rage’ from building up will lead to a much more enjoyable outing.
Use Breathwork Techniques
If you do find yourself getting annoyed, remind yourself that you are in control of your thoughts and experiences. Try taking 3-4 box breaths – 4 counts in, hold for 4 counts, 4 counts out, hold out for 4 counts for 4 repetitions. This is a great stress control breathing technique to use anytime you feel your blood starting to boil. Remember, you cannot control others!
Recognize that people have different reasons for going to the mountains. Trail runners love going fast. Kids love messing around and exploring. Naturalists love looking at flowers and plants. Birders love listening to birds. Trail etiquette means respecting ALL people’s rights to enjoy whatever they’re out to enjoy.
If you feel someone’s behavior is irritating more people than just you, you might consider politely pointing out the offense. They may not even be aware they’re doing something that is bothering anyone.
Prepare for alternate plans. If you have to walk half a mile to get to the trailhead because there’s no available parking, consider doing another hike. Mark overused trails as ones to avoid during popular hours since people usually return to their favorite places.
By keeping these tips in mind, everyone can enjoy themselves and share the wonders of the wilderness. If you have a tip I’ve overlooked, please share it in the comments, so we can all learn from one another.