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Prof. Hike: 5 Unwritten Rules of Trail Etiquette

If Miss Manners backpacked, she'd agree with us.
Professor HikeChatting with other hikers makes you smarter and safer. (Jason Stevenson)

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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