The Hiker’s Code: Unwritten Rules of Trail Etiquette

To me, there’s something about going out on the trails, either solo or with friends, that will always hold a special place in my heart. It doesn’t matter if I’m having a good or bad day, I always look forward to spending time in nature. It clears my head and helps me focus on solving my troubles, plus there’s nothing like reaching the summit of a mountain and enjoying an epic view! 

Other hikers spend their free time outdoors for many other reasons. Maybe they just want to grab some fresh air, do a quick workout, or get away from their hectic lives. The point is, that hiking is special and personal to everybody. We certainly all have our “whys”. 

Shawnee National Forest Scenic Overlooks

Hiking is also a communal thing. Even if you’re wandering around alone, there’s still a feeling of a shared experience. The footprints of previous hikers or the notches carved into a wooden sign remind you that you are part of something bigger. It’s quite special when you think about it. 

To keep it special, we need to be respectful. We need to respect ourselves, others, and nature. Like William Shakespeare said, “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”

I’d like to share with you my view on how to go about this. There are certain things, unwritten rules you might say, that all hiking enthusiasts should know and follow. In this article, I plan to go over the main ones. They are simple and might even seem like “common sense” but there might be a few that surprise you. 

Interested? Great! Let’s get started. Hopefully, after you’ve finished this article, you’ll gain a new perspective and appreciation for Mother Earth and all she can provide. I mean what would we do without her? 


The Do’s of Hiking Trail Etiquette

Whether you’re cruising along a mountain ridge, stumbling over a sand dune, or navigating through a dense forest, there are things you should ALWAYS keep in mind no matter where you are. These are the universal “rules” for all hikers. I almost guarantee you’ll get some dirty looks if you don’t follow these. So be courteous, try and follow the golden rule, and treat each outing with the appreciation it deserves. 

  1. Leave No Trace 

This is probably the biggest and most fiercely defended or upheld rule for campers, hikers, backpackers, and basically anybody who spends a good amount of time under the sun and stars. LNT for short, means what you think it means, and so much more. Not only should you pick up and carry out all of your trash, you should minimize your impact on just about everything around you.

This includes but is not limited to, messing with wildlife, disturbing the environment, or generally doing anything more than you need to. For instance, I’ve seen inexperienced hikers roll huge boulders down a hill and into a river or throw rocks at a beehive and knock it down just for kicks. It might seem harmless on the surface, but believe me, this isn’t cool at all.

That river could be partially blocked now and interfere with how the local fish mate and we all know how important bees are to pollinating flowers and trees. One little thing you do can lead to disastrous effects without you ever becoming aware. Something to keep in mind.

  1. Control Your Pets

I know if you’re a dog owner, you want to let your little buddy roam free. I completely understand, but you must think of others while walking your doggos. If you didn’t know, dogs have teeth and even the friendliest animals can be scary to others.

I’ve bumped into sooo many dog owners that think it’s totally cool for their German shepherd to run at me full steam without doing a damn thing. There’s an intense pucker-up moment each and every time!

Banning Pets on Hiking Trails

So keep your dogs, or other pets, on a leash. This is especially important for high-volume or popular trails. If you must give your dog some non-leash time, find an open and empty field and go throw a stick. 

  1. Stay on Designated Trails 

At its root, this falls under the LNT mindset, but it’s important enough to go over separately. Specific trails are carved out for a reason. It could be due to natural water runoff, steer hikers clear of dangerous or protected areas, avoid potential high falls, local animal protection, and much more. 

River to River Trail Blaze

If there are signs that say “Stay on Trails”, you should do it. No need to be a rebel and bushwhack new pathways. Go where you are allowed to and no farther.

I’m sure you’ve heard of the countless stories of hikers getting lost and never returning home. I don’t need to list them but you can see why it’s so pivotal. At the very least, think about your safety and security.


The Don’ts of Hiking Trail Etiquette

Ok, now let’s go over things you should 100% avoid doing at all costs. These are things that may seem harmless, or excusable, but are most definitely not. They are never welcome and If you do any of these, people are going to be very unhappy. I see a lot of newbie hikers break 1 or 2 and think nothing of it. Well, I’m here to explain why that’s a bad idea.

  1. Play Loud Music

One of my biggest pet peeves, and I’m sure I’m not alone, is walking in the middle of nowhere and suddenly hearing music blasting out of some shmoe’s backpack as they appear from around a corner. It’s so annoying to get kicked out of the meditative state of a peaceful walk and forced into listening to some horrible mumble rap song, even for a brief moment.

Don’t do this! It’s incredibly rude and selfish. If you must listen to music, grab a set of headphones and keep it to yourself. Nobody is going to think your music is cool anyway, so don’t share. You’ll never get a “Whoa love that tune bro, keep it blasting!”, ever.

  1. Hog the Trail

Whether alone or walking in a group, be cognizant of others using the trail. This includes mountain bikers, runners, equestrians, etc. If the trail is wider than a few body lengths, move to one side or the other when you see oncoming traffic. Arguably, it’s best to stay to the right at all times so there’s always room for others to pass you from behind.

Shawnee National Forest Group Hiking

Doing so will ensure the safety of everyone involved. It’ll let them know that you are aware of them and you won’t impede their progress. If you’re hiking in a group, try and stay in a single file line, or pairs at the most. There’s nothing more infuriating than constantly dodging groups of inexperienced hikers walking shoulder to shoulder across a wide path. 

  1. Deface Natural Features

This can also fall under LNT principles, but it’s such a no-no that I have to talk about it. Whatever you do, don’t unnecessarily carve or mark trees, boulders, or anything else along the trails. It’s completely juvenile and offensive, plus it’s ugly. Why bash the beauty of nature? I simply don’t understand the reasoning. 

All you’re doing is telling the rest of the world how big of a jerk you are, so keep that pen or knife in your pocket and to yourself. Nobody cares if “Johnny loves Susie” or how well you can draw a peace sign. Leave the artwork at home. If you must be artistic, bring a notebook or sketchpad with you and let nature inspire you in that way. Countless hidden gems are waiting to be discovered. 


Final Thoughts

When you break it all down, it’s just about being polite. It’s doing what you know you should be doing when nobody is watching. If the little voice inside your head says “Hey, don’t do that!”, you should listen to it. It’s pretty straightforward. 

Not only will you feel better about yourself, you’ll let others know that you care about them and their experiences. We’re all in on this together and when one steps out of line, others will feel it. 

Well, I hope you learned something today about being an excellent voyager among the grass and dirt. Remember what you put into something is what you get out of it. As long as you stay sensible, you’ll be sure to have a great time. 

Happy trails and happy hiking!

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Thanks again for checking out another one of my articles and until next time, I’ll see you on the trail!

James Ryan

James Ryan is a seasoned hiker and adventurer who loves to travel and experience new things. An extrovert and creative at heart, James is most definitely a “People Person”. He started his blog – the james guide in the hopes of sharing his knowledge and expertise. Look him up and give him a shout today! 

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