Trail Etiquette in the Age of Me

We’ve all been there. We’re out on the trail doing our thing, all peaceful and one with nature, when suddenly one of “them” appears and ruins our day with loud noises or dangerous behavior. We have to jump out of the way or scream to call off the dog or otherwise deal with someone else’s nonsense. Anger flairs. Words are exchanged. The moment is ruined, and you fume about it for at least a week.

Sharing is Caring, Courtesy of Rails to Trails

You may think that the solution for this is that everyone just obeys the rules, and that would certainly help, but the real solution lies in the attitude and ethic we bring to the trail. No collection of rules is going to make jerks into decent human beings, or make trail sharing perfect and peaceful at all times. Sharing is a complicated and somewhat unnatural process that requires grace and, at times, super-human tolerance.

The Metaphor of Carry-On Luggage

It’s not hard to see how futile even basic rule-making can be for trails. Just board any commercial airplane going anywhere, anytime, and see how many people listen to the written and broadcast exhortation to “Please, put your second carry on under the seat.” Subsequent behavior is always the same:

  • Deferential Decent People. 10% of people will go further and put both bags under their seat or in the seat-back pouch, because they want to make as much room as possible for others (or they just want all their stuff nearby).
  • Decent People. 70% of people will do exactly that, no more or less, and that’s just fine. It’s not like it’s hard. Why not?
  • Confused Decent People. 5% will do the wrong thing because they have no idea what’s going on. Maybe they’ve never been on a plane before and they’re overwhelmed, or they don’t speak the language, or they’re differently-abled. Easily confused with assholes.
  • Assholes: 10% of people will ignore the request and put both bags in the overhead compartment, often sideways, no matter how crowded the flight is. If confronted, they’ll grumpily do the right thing or defiantly tell you “it’s their right.” Usually, they’ll just sit there quietly as others are forced to have their bags checked.
  • Psychopaths: 5% will put their bags, coat, and every other damn thing they can find in the overhead and then close the bin when half empty so no one jacks with their personal space.

These same people hike, run, mountain bike, ride horses and ATVs, have pets, carry guns and so on. It’s always the same; a minority go out of their way to make space for others, most just try to be reasonable about it, a few others are clueless, and then there are a bunch of assholes and psychos who ruin it for the rest.

What this tells us is that sharing is never going to work all the time. With full 20% of people who are ignorant or jerks, at least one interaction in five is going to be problematic if the trail is crowded and narrow. It’s actually kind of miraculous that we haven’t all killed each other yet.

The Compromise of Sharing Trails

Sharing is not a personally optimized environment. Sharing means everyone who shares has to give up a little something to make space for others on the trail. This may vary somewhat by who writes the rules, and whether they were the original “owners” or not, but in general the goal should be that everyone gives a little to create a safe and viable shared space.

So, for instance, the second a trail is shared with hikers and mountain bikers, mountain bikers should no longer haul ass around blind corners and expect runners to jump out of the way. That’s not sharing; that’s assault. It would be no different if a horse galloped around a blind corner and knocked you off your mountain bike and then trampled on your unconscious body. Both are funny, but neither is sharing.

Likewise, if you’re hiking on a shared trail with mountain bikes, it’s not going to be as peaceful. Objects will move past you faster than you might like. They’ll make more noise and they’ll leave more tracks in the dirt and mud. That’s they’re nature; they’re not doing it to bother you. The only question is, how do we optimize the rules and our perspective to make sharing as tolerable as can be reasonably expected given human nature? The answer starts with us.

Rule #1: Embrace the Suck

What can you do to increase your own positive attitude and approach to an inevitably sub-optimal, shared environment?

I don’t mean this frivolously. I just mean that sharing is fundamentally going to cause issues, no matter what, and that’s just the way it is.

When I’m hiking on a single-track trail, I get frustrated by downhill mountain bikers on the same trail no matter how hard I try not to; it’s just annoying to feel constantly threatened by fast-moving metal objects and their inconsistently competent riders.

When I’m blazing downhill on that same track on my mountain bike, I hate having to slam on the brakes at every blind corner and nearly run myself off the trail for hikers who have no clue how easy it is to topple a mountain bike. Do you have any idea how easily you can kill me with those trekking poles?

And that’s if everyone is behaving perfectly and respectfully given the rules of the trail. The problem in this case is not them, it’s me. It’s the attitude I bring to a situation that is intrinsically imperfect.

We all do this to some extent, and the only thing we can do is work on our personal attitude. Try to put yourselves in their shoes. Try to understand their perspective. then take a deep breath and move on. It’s usually not worth holding onto the anger and irritation, because it will just build with each subsequent interaction until you might as well be driving in rush hour traffic.

Rule #2: Be Deferential

What can you do to ensure minimal interference in other people’s enjoyment of a shared space, while still enjoying that space yourself?

I realize that the concept of deference is both baffling and Un-American. While the guidelines and etiquette I’m discussing here are nominally universal, my target audience is mostly US trail users. And in the US, deference is what we think weak people and socialists do. So, a quick bit of background…

What the Heck Is Deference?

If you’ve ever been to large Japanese cities, you’ll notice that they have evolved socially to make like tolerable in highly crowded conditions. They usually move to the side (left) on escalators so you can pass. It’s like in Europe where drivers actually stay out of the fast lane unless they’re passing. In parts of Greece, they’ll actually drive on the shoulder to make sure they’re not in the way. Those are deferential acts and traditions; they are moving out of the way by default, to make way for others, not because they’re asked, but because that’s what they believe is “right.” This is not a sign of weakness, but of courtesy.

Japanese Escalator Etiquette, Courtesy of Triple Lights

And while this is a gross generalization, it also makes social interactions far more pleasant than what happens in the USA. Here, there are always people who won’t get out of the way on escalators or fast lanes, no matter how much you grunt, honk, or flash your lights. It’s their right to be there. They own that space because they’re in it, and the more you want them out of the way, the more they’ll try to block you to assert this right. This is the opposite of deference, where dominance is the “right” and deference is a sign of weakness and capitulation.

Why Deference Matters 

Take all that philosophical blather and then apply it to shared-use trails, and you’ll immediately see how things can easily go wrong. Not only are we sharing trails with other people doing the same thing in the same direction (like all driving cars down a freeway), we’re sharing trails with people doing different things in different directions at different speeds and we’re doing so in a culture that sees deference as an unconscionable sacrifice of rights. The only way to make this work is to proactively make way for others, and hope they’ll do the same for us.

Rule #3: Follow Trail Rules & Universal Guidelines

It’s up to you know the the rules of the trail you’re on, and to default to nearly universal norms if you’re not sure.

You can pretty much assume these rules are the same, always, everywhere, no matter what you’re doing on shared trails, unless otherwise stated on signs at the trailhead:

Leave No Trace

Learn the Seven Principles of Leave No Trace (LNT), and do your best to  follow them, including:

  • Disposing of Waste Properly
  • Leaving What You Find
  • Respecting Wildlife
  • Being Considerate of Other Visitors

There’s a lot more to all of this, of course, but if you spend five minutes on the LNT website, you’ll learn all the basics.

Follow the Rules of the Trail

We’ve all run into people who think they’re particular behavior is exempt from the rules: the dog owners who don’t leash their dogs because their dogs are just so well behaved; the litterers who think orange peels are part of the natural environment; the hikers who blast music even when the signs clearly say that headphones are required, you know, because their music is totally awesome. To keep things simple, just assume that you are not the exception, that your behavior is not so adorable that it’s beyond reproach, and follow the same rules as everyone else.

Rule #4: Yield!!!

What can you do to ensure maximum safety for others in a shared space, while still enjoying that space yourself?

Many shared-use trails will have posted yield signs, either at the trail head or elsewhere. What you’ll find is that they (almost) all follow the same overall order-of-yielding unless the trail has preferred vs. non-preferred users. Here, for instance, is a common courtesy sign for trails with hikers, bikers and horse riders:

In other words, bikers should yield to hikers, and both hikers and bikers should yield to horses. On other trails that allow motorized users, you may instead see a trail like this. Motorbikes yield to hikers and cyclists, but everyone still yields to horses:

There are many, many variants of this, especially when pack animals use the trail (as with mules in the Grand Canyon), but they all (almost all) follow the same overall hierarchy or protocol. This is important because even when the sign is not clearly displayed, this universal protocol for yielding still applies unless otherwise posted.

The Universal / Standard Yielding Protocol

The yielding protocol is always in the same order, with everyone yielding to everyone above. This hierarchy assumes a generically shared trail, not purpose-built trails with occasional other users.

  1. Natural Hazards Always Win. This may seem obvious, but you absolutely must yield to nature when in nature. Bears on the trail have right of way not because they can kill you, but because if you spook them they may kill somebody else. Snakes on the trail have right of way because they can’t read and it’s not cool to kill stuff because it’s illiterate. Make space for nature or go hike / ride in the local mall.
  2. Rangers. No they’re not paid to put up with your BS. Some aren’t paid at all. Your atavistic problems with authority don’t give you the right to be a jerk to underpaid protectors of the natural world.
  3. Pack Animals (if allowed on trail). On trails such as the corridor Grand Canyon trails, clear rules are posted for basically getting out of the way of the mules. On others, as in the Sierras, there may not be any trail postings, but the rules are the same; stop, step to the inside of the trail, and wait for them to pass. If you’re trying to pass them, quietly let the leader know you’re there and ask for guidance.
  4. Other Prey Animals (if allowed on trail). This one can be a little challenging, as you’re dealing with the personalities of riders and horses, both of which might be calm and courteous or skittish and aggressive. Regardless, do you what you can to approach quietly and slowly (yield), stopping only if that’s requested or the only obvious safe option.
  5. Anyone (non-motorized) going uphill. If you’re on a distinct climb or descent, people or animals moving downhill should always yield or people or animals moving uphill…if there’s a need (insufficient passing room). This is very subjective, but try to think of in terms of effort; if it’s much harder moving in one direction, the people moving in that direction have right-of-way.
  6. Hikers. People walkin’ without pets generally have right-of-way compared to runners, people with pets, etc.
  7. Runners. You have every bit as much right to the trail as everyone else, but no more. No one else is responsible for your FKT, PR or Strava times. You’re just a fast-moving hiker, and need to be respectful and courteous (and not scare the heck out of) other trail users.
  8. Anyone with Pets (Leashed or Not). Many trails allow for leashed pets, assuming you actually leash them and pick up after them. Regardless, it is your responsibility to yield to other users, keep your pets safely close to you and not clothes-line or trip people with leashes, and so on. Popular trends aside, pets are not people.

    People with Pets

  9. Cyclists / Mountain Bikers. Except on designated cycling or mountain-biking trails, cyclists and mountain-bikers always yield to hikers, runners, etc. This can be frustrating because they’re so slow and there are so many of them, but that’s the compromise. 99.99% of the time if you hit someone with your bike, it’s your fault. You probably don’t want to live with the guilt of that, or the liability…to yield and make sure people know you’re coming. A bicycle bell for blind corners is cheaper than emergency-room bills and bail.
  10. ATVs and Motorcycles. Motorized vehicles are more common on fire roads and designated ORV areas, but the same rules apply if you’re sharing a trail with hikers, runner, horses, etc.; you always yield to them, if only because you’re far faster, louder and more dangerous.
  11. Larger Vehicles. On dirt roads, trucks and 4WD cars should be deferential to motorcycles and so on, and consider slowing down so as not to leave them, literally, in your dust.
  12. Anyone or Anything Stopped (Except 1). In other words, if you’re going to stop, pull to the right or get off the trail. It’s not anyone else’s job to move around you when you’re taking a break or pictures for Instagram.

And that’s pretty much it. Most of it is common sense, and very little will put a damper on your outdoor activities if you just accept the compromises of shared spaces.

Wait, What About Winter Sports?

I ran out of words, but the same basic philosophy applies — even if there’s a lot more nuance when it comes to skating trails (for instance). Take the time to learn the local rules, and always yield to avalanches.

Winter Trail Etiquette

Groups are People Too

You may be surprised to know  that traveling in a group doesn’t give you any more rights or spacial allocation than traveling alone. What it does do is make you collectively responsible for making sure you’re not blocking the trail for everyone else.

Do you have any idea how much of a pain in the butt it is to have to wait for twenty people to walk / hike by, or get out of the way of ten oddly spaced mountain bikers who kindly yell “three back” each time? Well, it’s a pain. So, do what you can to minimize that pain for others? One thing is to walk or ride single-file whenever the trail is so narrow that passing is impossible otherwise. If you choose not to do this, then check behind yourself frequently to make sure you’re not holding anyone up.

Yielding Does Not Always Mean Stopping

If the trail is wide enough for you to pass without interference, then neither user may need to change behavior. A runner going downhill shouldn’t have to do anything other than stay right if a hiker coming uphill is also staying right. It might be nice to slow down for mutual comfort, but there is no need to stop or get out of the way unless the trail is too narrow for comfortable passing.

However, this is a judgement call. Yielding does mean slowing to a mutually comfortable passing speed if possible. Since this is subjective, there will be disagreement, but do your best to be safe and deferential, and you’ll minimize speed-related conflicts (and accidents).

Let Them Know You’re Coming

I’ll always slow downhill runs when passing hikers, and let them know I’m coming with a calm “On Your Left” so that (a) I don’t scare them and (b) they don’t step into my path on accident. If you hear this, just stay right — don’t turn into the middle of the trail and accidentally block the path. Don’t jump to the left. Just stay right.

Likewise, if I’m running or biking downhill in a group, I’ll let those I pass (on narrow trails) know how many others are behind me by saying “Three More Back” or “Five Back” or “Six More Coming.” Whatever’s clearest, so the uphill user knows what to expect. At the same time, I’ll call back to my group a “Runners Up” or “Hikers Ahead” warning so they know to slow down and be more careful.

Avoid Surprises on Blind Corners

The faster you move, the more you have an obligation to let others know you’re coming if they can’t see you in time to safely step to the side (or you won’t see them soon enough to safely slow down). Ring your bicycle-bell, call out, sing or do whatever moves you; but don’t expect hikers on the other side of a bush to be responsible for you.

Rule #5: It’s Not Your Land

You do not own the land, even if you’re a taxpayer on public land. We collectively own the land, though a legal instrument called the government, and you have no more right to “do whatever you want” than I do. Vandalism is vandalism. Theft is theft. If you want to go back to old timey free range cattle days where you can cut down barbed wire fences and shoot sheepherders at will, go for it. Send me a postcard. Those days are gone. Grow up.

If this is hard for you to grasp, buy some stock in a corporation, say, Monsanto. You know partially own some of Monsanto, just as you partially own some of Yosemite. Now, go trespass on Monsanto land, dump your trash on the HQ grounds, drive your motorcycle on their pretty bio-engineered lawn, and then enjoy your time in prison. Just because you “own’ the land doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want. It just means you’re allowed on the land if you follow the rules. Period.

Rule #6: Yes, It’s Vandalism

If you’re modifying the natural environment or trail for your personal expression or convenience, it’s vandalism. It’s not art. It’s an act of narcissistic destruction, destroys shared natural spaces, and often puts others in danger. Sure, there are exceptions; no one cares if you write your name in the sand at the beach, but they do care if you scratch your name in the cliff wall. Don’t stack rocks, carve your name or generally change the shared space to accommodate your narcissism. This shouldn’t be that hard to understand. Just don’t be this guy:

Can’t believe this even has to be said.

Cutting Trails is (also) Vandalism

It doesn’t matter if you’re an ultra-runner trying to make your FKT or a tired hiker who just wants to get back to the car. When you cut trail, you’re damaging the natural environment everyone else is trying to preserve and enjoy. You’re also increasing trail maintenance costs and may be putting others at risk. There are of course exceptions to this, but they are rare and they don’t really apply to any situation you’re likely to run into on most shared trails.

Rule #6: Enjoy the Trail

Resting Near Cottonwood Lakes

No matter how much time you spend exploring the Internet, Netflix or the back side of the moon, you’re never going to run into a group of dear quietly eating grass and just generally being. People go outside for all sorts of reasons, from exercise to love of nature to depression therapy, and all of them have the same right you do to enjoy our shared natural spaces with as little fear and disruption as possible. Just respect them as much as you would want them to respect you, and enjoy the trail.

Peace.

2 Comments

  1. Ryan January 19, 2019
  2. Eric January 19, 2019

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