(Or… How Not to Be an Asshole in the Woods)
So, you’ve felt the call of nature, and you’re being beckoned into the woods. That’s great! The great outdoors never disappoint. But, before you hit the trail, it’s important to understand the basic rules of hiking etiquette. By doing so, you’ll help preserve the peace of the wilderness for yourself, and everyone who comes after you.
There are a lot of questions that arise for beginning hikers, some of which you don’t anticipate until you’re on the trail. For instance, “I’m on a trail 5 miles in the woods, I ate too much fiber, and now I need to poo. What do I DO?!?!?”
Don’t worry, we have the answer for this testing question, and others below. But first, let’s start out by setting a foundation for hiking etiquette 101.
Table of Contents
The Leave No Trace Seven Principles
The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics is an organization that continually conducts research, and publishes articles to help establish practices that minimize the environmental impacts of outdoor activities. As part of their efforts, they’ve established the Seven Principles of Leave No Trace:
- Plan Ahead and Prepare
- Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
- Dispose of Waste Properly
- Leave What You Find
- Minimize Campfire Impacts
- Respect Wildlife
- Be Considerate of Other Visitors
As you can see, these principles create a framework for how to behave in the outdoors. By following these practices, you can help to preserve the wilderness. If you don’t, you’re basically ruining it for everyone… yeah, which means you’re THAT asshole.
Don’t be that guy. Before you get on the trail, get familiar with the Leave No Trace Seven Principles.
Hiking Etiquette & Trail Rules
Okay, now that you’ve gotten somewhat of a foundation, let’s focus on some of the most important rules of hiking etiquette. These are some of the most common questions that come up when your hiking. So, pay attention.
COVID Trail Etiquette
This is the most recent etiquette update that we need to consider when hiking. With physical distancing, and reduced indoor gatherings, more people than ever are hitting their local trails.
This can cause trails to be busier than usual, and can pose the risk of exposure to COVID-19. Even though you’re in the open air, it can sometimes be difficult to achieve 6 ft of separation when passing fellow travelers on the trail. So, if you’re hitting the outdoors, please take the following COVID precautions out of respect for others on the trail.
- Carry a mask or face cover. You don’t need to wear it the whole time, but at least put it on if you encounter other parties.
- Avoid busy trails. It’s tempting to hop onto those popular trails, but the most popular trails tend to be very busy. This increases the risk of exposure, and also causes a lot of stress and wear to the trail. If the trail you want to do is busy, pick a different trail, or choose a time when it gets less traffic.
- Keep 6 ft of distancing. Sometimes this is difficult on a trail. Do your best. If you see a party coming the opposite direction, look for a good spot to step aside, and let them pass with the maximum distance.
- Travel in small groups. Now is not the time to be gathering in large groups, even when hiking. If you must travel in a group, be respectful of others. Keep your groups to a small size and allow maximum distance when encountering other groups.
- Don’t trample the vegetation. When trying to maintain 6 ft of distance, it’s often difficult to find ample space while staying on the trail. Try to step aside without trampling on vegetation, and avoid walking parallel to the trail through vegetation.
By following these COVID trail rules, you’ll reduce you and other trail users risk of exposure to COVID-19. At the very least, you may also help reduce other people’s level of anxiety.
I’m starting with this one, because it’s one of the most disgusting problems on the trail. And, it’s because of this one simple fact.
No one wants to see your crap.
Imagine you just found the most perfect spot to camp, or a perfect vista to enjoy your mountain view. You drop your backpack and get ready to feast on the visual bounty you’ve worked so hard for. And then… in the corner of your eye, behind a bush you see it.
“Is that? Is that? No… it couldn’t be. Here? Seriously?”
It’s toilet paper. And now you notice more, scattered around the area. A piece here, a piece there. You carefully tiptoe away in disgust.
Look, everyone poops. Everyone pees. So, if you spend enough time on the trail, it’s going to happen. But, don’t be an asshole and ruin it for everyone. Follow the rules.
How to Pee in the Woods
If you have to pee, it’s fairly simple. Find a spot off the trail where no one will sit, or set up camp. If you can find a rock to pee on, that can also be good because urine often attracts animals that are craving salt, like mountain goats. If you pee on bushes these animals sometimes trample those areas, so by peeing on rocks, they can more readily access it with less damage. Also, remember that pee is sterile. So, that means you don’t need TP to wipe. If you do use TP, pack it out!
How to Poo in the Woods
If you have to poo, there’s more of a process. To prepare ahead for when nature calls we highly recommend carrying a trowel for digging yourself a cat hole as well as some durable bags for carrying out toilet paper. And, don’t forget a small bottle of hand sanitizer.
K, to poo in the woods properly, you’ll need to do the following.
- Find a spot that’s at least 200 feet away from any source of water.
- Use your trustie trowel to dig a hole 6-8 inches deep.
- Do your business.
- Bury it.
- PACK OUT any toilet paper.
- Clean your hands with hand sanitizer.
Yes, that’s right, you have to PACK OUT that TP. Some people think this is gross. But if you just bring some plastic bags along, it’s no big deal. I usually double bag it, and throw it in a designated stuff sack when I’m on long multi-day hikes. Also, be aware that some trails have different rules. In higher alpine settings, where the environment is sensitive you have to pack out everything, waste, TP and all.
Hiker Passing Etiquette
Everyone hikes at a different pace, with different goals, and hiking schedules. Some people might be out for a trail run, while others are enjoying a casual stroll stopping to see each squirrel. So, it’s not uncommon to pass or be passed. Hike your own hike, and be cool about it.
If someone is traveling faster than you, step off to the side of the trail (without trampling vegetation) and allow them to pass. They’ll appreciate your consideration. Similarly, if you’re hiking behind someone and they’re not allowing you to pass, they might just not realize you’re there. Feel free to announce your presence with “on your left”, or ask “do you mind if I pass?”. That should do the trick. To keep things friendly, greet others as you pass as well, and say thank you.
In general, the rules of passing are similar to when you’re driving a car. Stay to the right, and pass on the left. If you’re traveling slower than others, safely pull over to allow them by.
On one last note, don’t go off trail to pass people. This causes unnecessary wear to vegetation.
Here are a few other rules of hiking etiquette for passing:
- Stay to the right when hiking, and pass on the left.
- Yield to uphill traffic.
Who Gets the Right of Way on Trail?
If you’re hiking downhill, the general rule is that the person walking up hill gets the right of way. That’s because walking uphill is harder than coming down hill. If you’re walking up hill, it can take a while to find your rhythm, and you can get pretty focussed – you might not even notice the person speeding downhill until their right in front of you.
Of course, sometimes people coming up hill will stop and pull to the side if they see you coming. Since it’s hard work they also often appreciate the break. Just remember, when in doubt, the uphill traveler gets the right of way.
Group Hiking Etiquette
If you’re hiking in a group of people, be considerate of other users. Large groups should hike single file so they don’t obstruct the entire trail. If you’re a small group of two, it’s also important to be conscientious. It’s okay to walk side by side but just be aware of others on the trail, and return to single file to allow people to pass by.
Groups can also be fairly noisy. That’s to be expected if you’re out with a group of friends. But just remember to respect the wildlife and other trail users. Avoid yelling, and keep your voices at a reasonable level. It’s not necessary to broadcast your life story to fellow hikers. They’re there for nature and wildlife, not you. So, don’t make them listen to you.
Dog Hiking Etiquette
Furry friends can make excellent hiking partners. They love sniffing and running, and wearing out their little paws. After a nice long hike they’ll rest well, and appreciate your kindness with tail wags and kisses. But, make sure you’re being respectful to the outdoors, and other hikers.
For starters, most trails require you to have your dog on a leash. So, have your dog on a leash. If you’re in an area where it’s okay to have your dog off leash, only do so if you can control your dog. If your dog is a wild man that attacks every hiker, biker, and runner it sees… maybe you need to go to a dog trainer first.
If you need to constantly yell at your dog, you’re ruining the outdoor experience for everyone else.
Also… pack out your dog poop. It doesn’t just go away or mysteriously vanish when your dog poops outside. And, no one wants to look at or smell your dog poop. Plus it’s a health hazard to other dogs, which can pass disease through sniffing fecal matter. Keep the outdoors clean. Pick up your dog poop.
Hiker Etiquette for Encountering Horses
Sometimes when you’re hiking you might encounter people riding horses, or even pack mules. Don’t panic. The best thing to do is to just remain calm, and step to the side of the trail to let them pass.
Horses in particular can be somewhat jumpy. So, when they pass try to avoid making any sudden movements or noises. That will just help you to avoid startling them. Their rider or handler will appreciate that.
Phone and Music Etiquette
If you’re on the trail, try to leave your technology at home, or at the very least, don’t let it interfere with the experience of others. Talking loudly on your phone as you walk down the trail will make you look like an asshole. If you need to make a call, make it brief.
If you want to listen to music, use earbuds. Leave your fancy bluetooth speaker at home. Noone wants to listen to your Maroon 5.
Okay, you’ve hiked all this way, followed all those rules, and now you’re exhausted. Where do you setup camp. On some popular trails, like the Wonderland Trail in Washington’s Mt. Rainier National Park, the rangers will actually tell you where you can camp each night.
On less traveled trails, you’ll need to find a proper camping spot for yourself. These will sometimes be marked with trail markers, but often are not. So, instead, you can keep an eye out for surfaces that appear packed down. They may look worn down as if others have camped there. Better yet, they may even have a fire ring made of stones. That’s a good clue that it’s a campsite. Just remember to avoid starting a fire if there’s a fire ban in effect.
You should avoid setting up camps in fragile alpine meadows because you can cause irreparable damage. Try to stick to established spots.
Also, be respectful of other campers. Most people are out there to enjoy nature. So, it’s rude to camp right next to someone if there’s lots more space around to camp. I once had someone plop down 10 ft away from us and setup camp along the PCT. Meanwhile there were tons of spots available with beautiful views. Apparently he had been dreaming of camping in that exact spot for the past year.
So we packed up and found a better view. There’s usually plenty of room, and plenty of beauty. Don’t crowd your fellow hikers.
Last of all. It’s important to be friendly and courteous. Most of us hikers have some shared values and interests. After all, we choose to spend our time off outdoors, away from technology, and social comforts. You probably have more in common with that fellow hiker than you think.