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Trail Etiquette For Hikers:
Who Has The Right Of Way?

By Diane Spicer

Confused about who should yield on a hiking trail? Hiking For Her Shares the rules of the trail for hikers. #trailetiquette #whoyieldsonahike #hikingforher

Trail etiquette for hikers is a social code that you may not be familiar with if you're a new hiker.

As trails become more busy, there are frequent opportunities for you to meet others on your hike.

Some of those folks may be running, on bicycles, or riding horses.

Who has the right of way on a hiking trail?

That's the question at the heart of these unwritten rules for hikers.

And Hiking For Her is about to write them down for you!

You see another hiker ahead of you
on the trail. What to do?

If you can see that your pace is faster than the hiker(s) ahead of you, you will have to catch up and then pass this hiker.

But that can get tricky!

Newer hikers in particular don't think about yielding the right of way to anyone behind them.

Other times, hikers are deep in conversation and don't hear an approach from behind.

It's also possible that the hiker you are approaching is wearing ear buds, or is hard of hearing.

And you also have to factor in the ambient sounds of the trail: moving water, wind, bird calls and more.

So what can you do?

Make your presence known

Give a little warning to announce your presence when you're coming up behind another hiker who shows no signs of awareness of your approach.

Here's what I do:

I clear my throat or click my hiking poles together: soft, gentle sounds that won't startle anyone too much.

If that doesn't work, a friendly "May I pass?" in a louder tone usually works.

Trail etiquette for hikers:
When to step aside
and let oncoming hikers pass?

On a wide trail, it's possible to hike past another hiker without slowing down.

Unless you want to greet each other, of course.

But there are times when one of you is going to have to yield to the other due to a narrow, muddy or steep sided trail.

On a narrow trail, who has the right of way?

Your hiking pace is at the heart of this question about trail etiquette for hikers.

If you're slower than the hiker(s) approaching you, yield the trail.

  • You'll always yield to a trail runner for that very reason.

If you're in a hiking group, you are slower than a solo hiker or a pair of hikers. Yield the trail gracefully to them and let them pass unless they graciously step off trail to allow all of you to pass.

If you are a family group with small children... you know what to do.

General tip:

  • For oncoming hikers, make eye contact. Figure out who will yield, who will pass.
  • It might feel a bit awkward, but a smile and "thanks" smooths everything out.

On a steep trail, who yields?

A hiker putting in the hard work to gain altitude is probably a sweaty, tired mess.

A hiker going downhill is fighting gravity and working hard to maintain footing on sometimes dicey surfaces, but usually has a wider field of view and spots the uphill hiker first.

So who should step off the trail when they meet?

The accepted convention is that uphill hikers have the right of way.

But I've seen it go both ways.

The uphill hikers may want to stop and catch their breath a bit.

Or they have enough forward momentum that they absolutely do not want to stop!

Here's where reading body language becomes important on our list of trail etiquette for hikers.

If the hiker moving uphill towards you does not lift her head or acknowledge your existence, it's possible she's in the zone and doesn't even know you're there. She's concentrating hard!

So yield to her.

If she glances up and smiles (or at least grunts), she knows you're there. What she does next is important: stops hiking, or keeps moving.

Your next move will depend on her move.

Does a large group of hikers
always yield to a smaller one?

You may find yourself on a popular trail one day.

So popular, in fact, that you meet at least one large group of other hikers.

"Large" in the Hiking For Her universe means at least 6 people. Many trails have rules about groups larger than 12 people being forbidden. All that means is that you'll meet two large-ish groups, one right behind the other.

It's unlikely that a group of 6 hikers can move as quickly as 3 hikers, unless you have 6 expert hikers and 3 folks just trying to figure out the hiking thing.

So a smaller group which comes up behind a larger group should be allowed to pass the larger group. Neither party enjoys tailgaiting!

But don't push pass rudely. Wait for the hikers in front of you to find a safe spot to step off trail.

A large group of hikers should hike single file at all times to allow oncoming hikers to walk past each of them when the trail is wide enough for safe passage.

It's considered good manners for a single hiker or duo who meet a large group to step off trail and allow all of them to pass.

But always size up the group, and when in doubt, ask if passing is okay at that particular spot.

Trail etiquette for hikers on snow trails

A layer of snow changes everything about a summer trail. Including etiquette!

So the first question to answer is this: "Is this trail machine groomed for cross country skiers or snowmobilers?"

If it is, hikers and snowshoers (and their dogs) should not step in the ski tracks or freshly groomed track.

  • Put your footprints off to the side. It's more fun over there, anyway, and softer on the knees if the snow is deeper.
  • Do not posthole, meaning make deep marks in the snow where you are breaking through the surface. This leaves a problem for all others behind you.

Another thing to look out for: trail directionality. Some trails become one-way flow when there is snow on the ground.

  • Look for the appropriate signage at the trailhead to avoid collisions with machines, fat tire bikers or skiers.

Lots more trail etiquette for hikers on snow trails from REI right here.

Trail etiquette for hikers:
mountain bikers

These are the encounters I fear most on a hiking trail.

Bikes are bigger than hikers, they move fast, and they have a lot of momentum.

Also, not all bikers are fully in control of their bikes at every moment.

For these reasons, trail etiquette dictates that bikers yield to hikers.

Not sometimes, or when convenient, but every time there is no room for passing safely.

The hiker must be prepared to react

A rule is just a social code that is agreed upon in advance, so don't rely on every biker knowing or abiding by trail etiquette.

  • When the biker is not slowing down, or remains unaware of your presence, get yourself out of harm's way.

To protect myself when I hear a biker coming my way, I step off trail if at all possible. Why take a chance of getting run over?

And I always ask "How many more of you?" so I can know whether to remain on red alert.


  • Be especially alert on blind corners or areas where vegetation blocks your view of the trail. Not all bikers make noise or alert you to their presence.

Trail etiquette for hikers:
dogs on a hiking trail

Each of us firmly believes that our dog is the best dog on the planet.

And it's true in the confines of your living room or in a fenced back yard.

Here's the truth no one wants to hear:

  • Putting an unleashed dog on a hiking trail is inviting trouble for the plants and animals you will encounter, not to mention the impact on other humans.

Does it come as a shock to you that your 50 pound dog hurtling down the trail might be a bit intimidating to someone who is not comfortable around dogs?

Would it hurt your feelings to know that hearing you scream the dog's name over and over does not inspire confidence in your ability to control the animal?

And let's not even bring up the sweet little gift bags for the Poop Fairy, or the dog feces itself, left in conspicuous spots along the trail. Not. cool.

Pack out your dog's waste every time.

Moral of the story:

A leashed dog is a good citizen on the hiking trail.

An unleashed dog has the potential of wreaking havoc, regardless of how well trained she is.

So keep your dog leashed and close to your side when other hikers pass you.

If you unleash your dog where the rules permit it, don't allow it to run out of sight ahead of you. It may spook a horse, lunge at a biker, knock down a small hiker.

  • Keep the leash handy so you can use it when you spot other people on the trail or hear an approaching biker or equestrian.

Trail etiquette for hikers meeting large animals:
horses, llamas, mules

Trail etiquette for hikers includes the rule of everyone (hikers, bikers, runners) yielding to large animals.

You can never predict what kind of day the horse is having, or how a llama will react to your particular combination of backpack, hat, height and smell.

Once you are aware of one or more large animals coming toward you, whether behind or in front of you, it's important to communicate with the lead human.

Ask her what you should do to allow safe passage. Don't assume that every large animal behaves like the ones you know.

Be conservative with your body movements and voice levels. You already look weird with your backpack on, no need to startle these pack animals any further.

And be responsible if you're hiking with a dog. An unleashed dog rushing toward a large hooved animal is a disaster waiting to happen.

Hiking and COVID-19:
what are the rules?

We've learned a lot about the coronavirus since it burst onto the scene in 2019.

One piece of good news for hikers is that transmission is reduced when out of doors.

And reduced even further with social distancing.

Most of the time, you'll be at least 6 feet away from other people and in open space on a hike.

But you still need to take precautions.

Trails tips in the time of COVID

Carry a mask and be prepared to put it on when you approach others at a trailhead, campground or when passing on the trail.

  • You can lash it to your backpack strap to keep it handy.

If you have conversations with hikers you meet (maps, mileage, trail conditions and such) during a hike, wear your mask.

Avoid restrooms and port-a-potties to minimize exposure to microbial contaminants. Carry hand disinfectant when you do use these shared spaces.

Always be prepared: comfort stations may be closed due to the pandemic, along with visitor centers where you might be hoping for a heated bathroom.

When you spot an oncoming hiker, look for a good place to step off the trail to maintain 6 feet of physical distancing.

They may be doing the same, so watch their actions. No sense both of you stepping off trail onto vulnerable plants and animal habitat, right?

A friendly wave rather than a hearty "Good morning, great day for a hike. Where are you headed?" eliminates viral particles from wafting through the air between you.

And to be completely safe, cover your mouth or turn your head as the hiker passes you.

Hopefully, she will do the same.

A few extra tips for hikers during the pandemic

We've all got favorite trails. And some of them are fast becoming favorites of everyone looking for some recreational time outdoors.

Pick less crowded trails for your hikes! This will force you to get out a map and explore new territory, not a bad thing at all.

Not sure where to go?

Look at social media, and then go somewhere else.

If you arrive at a crowded trailhead or parking lot, you're going to have more exposure than you counted on. So always have a Plan B in mind.

Another approach: Hike early or late in the day or the season, within safety margins of course.

And be quick at trailheads.

  • Don't dawdle putting on socks, arranging your snacks, or looking at maps when there are other people parked right next to you.

Here's one more tip: be aware of personal space on a hike.

  • Don't stop in the trail to send a text, open a granola wrapper, or tie your laces. People are coming and going, and don't want to step around you. Find a spot where you can do what you need to do without impacting anyone else.
Open trail in high alpineMost of the time you won't have the luxury of large vistas to spot oncoming hikers

Why trail etiquette for hikers
really matters

I like to think of a hiking trail as a two way flow, allowing everyone to hike their own hike unimpeded.

Fresh air, sunshine, breezes and birds - ah, the hiking life!

But I also am a realist, based on my long hiking experience. I know that rules are important, but not everyone follows the rules.

So let me rephrase that just a bit:

"Hike your own hike - but don't be a jerk".

Need some examples of being a jerk
on a hiking trail?

I've got plenty of scenarios to share.

  • People blast loud music and shrill conversations into the ether, which can be heard a mile away (literally).
  • Trail runners blast up behind me and scare the living daylights out of me.
  • Mountain bikers blast around bends in the trail and force me to leap out of the way.
  • Off leash large dogs blast full speed toward me, oblivious of trail conditions or my fear.
  • Faster hikers blast past slower hikers without regard to personal space or safety.
  • You may have to blast through a large group of hikers sprawled in the trail.

Blast it all, by using trail etiquette for hikers, one blasted thing at a time.

Allow me to share a few suggestions.

Music and loud chatter, just say no

Let me put in a word for the healing power of silence.  It's a major reason why we hike.

But I get it. We are so accustomed to noise in our day to day lives that silence can feel intimidating.

Fill up the void with music and more music!

Ditto for loud conversations, both on and off cell phones.

Or belting out show tunes.

Or (my absolute worst nightmare) yodeling from somewhere over my head.

Please, I beg you: unless you're in bear country, keep noise and voices at low levels.

Most of us are out there for the same things: peace and quiet. Let's share it generously!

Stealthy trail runners

Runners are there to test their legs and build strength.

But make a little noise, people!

More than once I've been startled by the sound of heavy breathing.right.behind.me.

Is it a bear? Nope, a runner in a mighty big hurry for me to get the **** out of the way.

I'd be delighted to step out of the way before I jump out of my skin. But I'm breathing hard, too, and I don't hear you.

Instead of bear bells, maybe we need running bells?

Just kidding. Bells of any kind on a hike are not fun to hear.

How about a polite "On your left (right)" instead?

Think about your own impact
as you adhere to
trail etiquette for hikers

Trail etiquette sign showing bikers yielding to hikers, hikers and bikers yielding to equestrainsEveryone gets to enjoy the trail, as long as we all agree on trail etiquette.

Your feet or bike tires might look small in the scheme of things, but you can do major damage to plants that take a very long time to reach maturity.

Stay on the trail as much as possible as you hike. No switchback cutting, ever!

Take your pee and potty breaks off trail, well away from surface water, with minimal impact on vegetation. Use your hygiene supplies.

Don't make others step off trail to get around you if you stop to check the map or adjust your backpack.

  • Look for the best spot to step off trail to allow others to pass you.

Eat your snacks or lunch off the trail but first find a durable surface: logs, rocks, dirt patches.

If you need a rest break, do as little damage to your surroundings as possible by being mindful of where you plop your backpack and other gear. Those fiddlehead ferns only get one shot at growing this year!

Whew! Don't get me started on all the ways to be a conscientious hiker.

  • If you're interested, here is the complete Hiking For Her take on Leave No Trace guidelines.

To confront, or not confront,
those who breach trail etiquette for hikers

That's a tough one to answer.

It depends on who you are, how ticked off you are, and who you're facing.

Phase of the moon, also good to factor in ;)

My personal choice is always to keep moving past the one with lack of regard for trail etiquette.

I don't want to interrupt my hike with unpleasantness. Keep moving on and soon they will be in the past!

And who am I to be lecturing other hikers? Nobody wants a lecture on a hike.

However, if I see someone doing something truly dangerous or destructive, I will look for the teachable moment and speak my piece in the interest of preserving the trail for all of us to enjoy.

Hike your own hike, make your own choices.

An example of when I speak up
about trail etiquette for hikers

An exception to my passive approach occurred recently when a mountain biker sped toward me on a narrow downhill section of the trail that gave me nowhere to go.

I felt that my life had been endangered as he whizzed past within an inch of my left ear, so I yelled "Hey, stop!"

Surprisingly, he did.

We had a fairly civil conversation about why it would have made sense for him to yield the right of way (as he should have) to allow me to gain a wider spot to step aside just a bit further up the trail.

What would you have done?

It's always up to you to "read the crowd" and decide whether you want to plant your flag on the hill of common courtesy, or keep hiking and leave the etiquette ignorer in the dust.

Most days, I hike on rather than confront.

Trail etiquette for hikers
is about being mindful

A hiker hits the trail for many reasons.

  • Read about 6 types of hikers here.

Being mindful might not be at the top of the list, but it underlies the ability to have stress free encounters with others on the trail.

To sum up trail etiquette for hikers:

Mind your manners, mind your flow, mind the Leave No Trace guidelines.

Thanks for doing your part to make hiking a priceless experience for everyone.

We're all in this together, and together we will keep the trail open to all.

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Best Trail Etiquette For Hikers