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Backpacker Magazine – Online Exclusive

Prof. Hike: 5 Unwritten Rules of Trail Etiquette

If Miss Manners backpacked, she'd agree with us.

by: Jason Stevenson, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Backpacking and Hiking

Chatting with other hikers makes you smarter and safer. (Jason Stevenson)
Chatting with other hikers makes you smarter and safer. (Jason Stevenson)

professor hike
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After a brief holiday interlude, Prof. Hike is back with more tips and tricks aimed at novice hikers and experts who want to refresh their skills. I’m glad to be back, as there aren’t many jobs available for PhDs in outdoorology (turns out Smokey Bear has a very secure USFS contract despite not owning a shirt). So three times a month, the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Backpacking and Hiking (Alpha, 2010) will use this blog to dispense outdoor advice. Don’t worry–I won’t be snooty. After all, snootiness requires overconfidence, and the motto of this blog is "I’ve made the mistakes so you don’t have to." So let’s start with the first post of the year: 5 Unwritten Rules of Trail Etiquette.
Every game has rules you can’t learn from a book. In basketball, if you make a basket while shooting around, you get to take another shot. If the car behind you on the highway flashes its lights, he wants to pass you. After a blizzard, any cleared parking space marked by a plastic lawn chair is someone else’s claim. We learn these rules through observation and experience, not from exams. 
Outdoor recreation is also guided by unwritten but generally accepted rules. These conventions direct trail traffic, promote cleanliness, and protect domestic tranquility. They aren’t commandments, but if you don’t follow them, a more experienced hiker might notice the infraction and give you an educational scolding. To make sure you remain on the good path, here are five of the unwritten rules of hiking.
(1) Step aside on slopes
Vehicles making turns from traffic lanes enjoy the right of way. A similar rule applies to head-on encounters on the trail. If you’re descending a steep trail and you see hikers coming up, step off the path to let them pass. Since gaining elevation requires more energy than going down, it’s polite to give way to the person burning more calories. If the ascending hikers want to stop for a rest break, they can wave you ahead.
(2) Let cairns be
I have a certain friend who loves toppling cairns–the pyramids of small rocks that mark trail routes and decorate mountain summits. He justifies his destructive habit by claiming manmade objects have no place in the wilderness. He also scoffs at hikers who rely on cairns to find their way. His style seems too extreme to me. A better approach is to respect the status quo. Don’t destroy rock cairns, but also refrain from adding a rock to the pile to make them taller. Take only photos, leave only footprints, and let cairns be. 
(3) Take a long walk before taking a dump
The seven principles of Leave No Trace—commonsense outdoor rules to reduce human impact—are written down. The first point advises hikers to move 200 feet from a trail, campsite, or body of water before digging a cat hole to deposit human waste. Two hundred feet equals 40 adult paces, but hurried hikers often shorten that distance. But here’s why 25 feet isn’t as good as 200 feet.
The distance you walk is like the radius of a circle. The farther you travel, the bigger the circular area of your potential dumping zone. For example, if you walk 25 feet from the center of a campsite, taking one more step (approximately three feet) increases that circular zone by 500 square feet. A second step adds 550 sq. feet. You get the picture. The larger the radius, the bigger the zone, and the less the probability of someone stepping into your squishy cat hole (or you discovering someone else’s). Trekking the recommended 200 feet creates a circular pooping area equal to 2.9 acres–or more than two football fields.
(4) Say hello to other hikers 
When you encounter others on the trail, stop to chat. It’s not just about being friendly; it’s about safety. The family you chat with for two minutes could be the vital link that directs rescuers to your location after you break your leg and become overdue. You want them to remember talking to you. If you meet them head-on, ask about the trail conditions ahead–especially water sources, stream crossings, and how far until the next trail junction or campsite. The only exception to stopping is the rare event when you encounter another person who makes you feel unsafe. Keep moving in those situations, pull out a cell phone if you have one, or pretend you are with a group if you are hiking alone. 
(5) Drop in and tune out
Yes, Verizon’s 3G network is crazy awesome. But that doesn’t mean you need to test it at every viewpoint and summit. Use your smartphone for snapping photos, not for bragging to your cubicle buddies about the tremendous view. Prof. Hike and any nearby hikers will thank you. And they will be less likely to grab your phone and test its aerodynamic properties. Pack a cell phone, but keep it turned off (to conserve battery power) and buried deep in your pack.
Do you have your own unwritten rules of the trail? Post a comment to describe them, or send an email to
Next week I’ll describe five winter tips to prep your gear for spring hiking.
—Jason Stevenson


idiot's guide to backpacking and hikingJason Stevenson is the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Backpacking and Hiking

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Oct 12, 2013

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Sep 04, 2012

DESCENDING hikers always have right away. It's easier for ascending to stop and make way. Besides for all the calories and and energy being spent going up hill the ascending hiker might need a rest! Also ascending hikers making for descending hikers should step off trail to the up-side of the mountain.

Native Atlanta Girl
Nov 27, 2011

I was solo hiking camping over Thanksgiving & a couple with 2 dogs set up camp about 50 ft away, with a German Shepard & Pit Bull. I love animals & it was clear the dogs were enjoying their "freedom". They would come near me & bark, but owners assured me they were just playing.

The next morning, the Pit approached me a few times barking, like she had before, but she lunged & bit me on side/back of my knee. I kicked her & she ran off. Thank goodness I had been cold and put on 2 pr of thermals in the night. She didn't break skin but I have a huge bruise & had to cut my trip short. (Not to mention scared crap out of me!)

So my suggestion is to keep your dogs leashed.

R English
Aug 09, 2011

To Ed in Maine.
No. The fact is the slower hiker has the right of way, it is the responsibility of faster hiker to pass safely when they can. Same rules apply for Alpine or Nordic skiing, same rule for boating, same rule for automobiles.

I do not condone blocking the trail, keep right where possible so faster parties can pass on the left, but the slower party is under no obligation other than keep right where possible. If the trail is narrow, cool your jets and wait until it opens up so you can pass safely. Leave the city attitude in the city, it does not belong on the trail.

Jul 25, 2011

About cairns: they have their place and can be very useful in showing you the right way to go, like say on the large open granite flat we were on a couple days ago. The trail that exited on either side were diagonally across this little plateau. The cairns saved you looking across either side and maybe creating your own trail and tramping on nature that didn't need the extra wear and tear.

1) We don't need cairns on both sides of the trail directly across from one another.

2) We don't need cairns every 50' or even closer.

3) We don't need cairns on perfectly obvious trails that are tramped through the bark or crushed rock where even a visually impaired hiker could find her/his way.

4) We don't need cairns where there is no branch, no side trail, no possibility of getting lost.

5) We generally don't need hikers adding to the clutter or cairns - let the park service, forest service, etc put up cairns as they see fit.

Many, many hikers put up cairns because they are CUTE! Maybe to you while you are passing through but not to me. They are visual clutter, ego trips, look-at-me-Ma! reminders that man rules this place. I go into the back country to be with nature, not reminded of how you can stack three rocks together.

Apr 29, 2011

RE cairns

We just finished hiking Arches Nat'l and Canyonlands in Utah. Cairns are everywhere, and for good reason. They're used to mark the trail to keep (or attempt to keep) people from stepping on and damaging the cryptobiotic crust. This crust (which is everywhere) takes decades to grow, and is one of the primary reasons for vegetation growth in the desert.

So if you feel you must remove a cairn because it doesn't look right, just remember your single handedly do much, much worse to the desert ecosystem.

Apr 03, 2011

Who are you people? I like to have fun out there and sometimes I might try and bounce an echo off a cliff or in a ravine-kids are told to be quiet all day long and you'll turn them off with Shhhhh in the outdoors. Also, a horse person on the trail told me to keep talking to the rider as they pass and a horse is less likely to spook.

Ryan F.
Apr 01, 2011

my two cents:
DESCENDING hikers always have the right of way.
It's more difficult for them to stop.

Apr 01, 2011

To the website administrator:
I just noticed that whenever I refresh the page in order to view new posts that it re-enters my old post. I always wondered why some posts were up here numerous times, and refreshing the page seems to be the culprit. It would be helpful for viewers if you could work on that. Thanks.

Apr 01, 2011

My 2 cents worth.

I grew up in the outdoors, and was never let to be unruly or loud out there. It's naturally more respectful. Yet at 41 years old I love nature. I also support numerous environmental groups. Clearly being well mannered on the trail doesn't need to lead to disliking nature.

I love nature 1000 times as much as I like most people these days. People have proven to be rude, arrogant, lazy, self gratifying, and generally disrespectful of most things other than themselves. And everyday it becomes more popular to behave that way.

I know a number of very wonderful people into the outdoors, but that list grows shorter every day.

People have these discussions often, because they all too often run into these kinds of problems from others.


I’m not religious, but this hits the point home. “Do unto others as ye shall have others do unto you.”

Apr 01, 2011

I agree with cairns rule provided they are on an established trail that is marked on a map. If the trail is on a map one should expect some sort of guidance where there is no tread to follow. However, if they are off trail, where a person is doing their own route finding they should be knocked down. If you get everyone hiking from cairn to cairn there will soon be a trail/path that lacks the erosion control engineered into maintained trails. I've been in off trail locations where there are two or three trails, some of which are badly eroded, in a place where there should be no trail. Sometimes, if I'm day hiking in a tricky off trail situation, where there may be cliff bands or other obstacle, I make small cairns on the way up and knock them down on my way back.

Ed in Maine
Apr 01, 2011

Large groups hiking close together should give the right of way to solo hikers or couples.

Faster hikers coming up from behind should be allowed to pass. It seems logical and almost always takes place but I have had people intentionally block the way as if they were on the last lap of the Daytona 500.

Apr 01, 2011

For all of you without kids. Understand that sometimes you have to let them be loud. Sometimes they have to run around and be unruley. Why, because if they don't have FUN they wont grow to be hikers and ecoligists. Part of learning about the outdoors as a kid is listening to the eccos off the canyon walls, splashing in the steam, and flipping over rocks. Yes silence is good but they are costantly having to be quiet in school public transit you name it.

Apr 01, 2011

Re: noise. When we hiked with our kids in Glacier, we were TOLD to make noise - lets the grizzlies know you're there so they can avoid you rather than having a surprise encounter.

Utah Hiker
Apr 01, 2011

Cairns may be unnatural but are considerably less unnatural than trail signs. On the east end of the Uintah Highline trail hiking west from Highway 191 to the Leidy Peak trailhead there is relatively no trail. Very few hikers ever attempt this section of trail so cairns are critical to wayfinding. The topo map trails, and therefor any route created for a GPS, are off by over a half mile in some places on the first twenty five miles of this trail. Without cairns it is very easy to get lost. Thanks to those who take the time to build cairns and thanks to those who leave them alone! Those of you who think you are doing nature a favor may be placing a fellow hiker in danger. Think about it.

Apr 01, 2011

Cairns are not natural and should be torn down unless they serve a true purpose. if someone has trouble finding a trail in summer or winter then they need to stay in more established areas. with the reasoning used above we should leave old fire rings that others have built and not torn down. i would hate to be on any trail and come across a fire ring every 100 yards.

Apr 01, 2011

I don't agree with keeping your phone buried deep in your pack. If you take a spill and become immobile, your smart phone could become your lifeline. I would recommend keeping it put away, but somewhere you can reach it without taking off your pack.

Feb 27, 2011

A courtesy rule I normally follow is taking the "outside" of the trail in a meeting engagement with approaching hiker(s) while on a side slope. Naturally, "common sense" and the nature of the trail must be taken into account. Oh yeah -- we can't have everyone taking the outside or we may all go "over the side".

Feb 27, 2011

If you're gonna poop or pee be alert to camouflaged wildlife cameras in order to avoid being caught in the act. Such cameras are installed along the Appalachian trail for wildlife research purposes.

Feb 23, 2011

I always yield to the descending hiker. when a trail is steep, the downhill hiker has gravity working with her/him and might be harder to stop... I just stop going uphill and enjoy the opportunity to take a breath. I just think it is safer. And, of course, in a tight, precarious spot forget always dictates who yields.

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