Do Trails Have Rules?

On the trail etiquette 

New to the trail or just need a refresh on the rules?

There are no real written rules for hiking except specific rules or laws for the land your trail crosses. Mostly those are the same no matter whether you are in a city park or National Forest. It is important to read the trailhead information and all signs along the way. Some hikers that are just starting out cannot comprehend just how many other people use the trails. Try your best to not catch yourself saying, "Well, I am sure they don't mean me." Of course, if everyone thinks that way, then things tend to get out of hand. Be the better person and make good choices out there!

Here is a list of rules that most trails have:

  • Pack it in / Pack it out - This is very simple to follow. If you brought something on the hike, then make sure you bring it back with you. This pertains to litter mostly, including packaging, toilet paper, dog waste, and in some areas even human waste. There are not enough paid employees to pick up after all of the people in the woods, especially the high traffic trails. For a reference, there is an estimated 50,000 people that visit the Big Four Ice Caves on the Mountain Loop Highway every year. Just think how much junk they could be leaving behind.
  • Don't Cut the Switchbacks - Trails take a lot of resources in order to stay in top notch shape. Cutting the switch back to possibly make your hike shorter will deteriorate the integrity of the original trail. A small action like this, done over and over, is the problem. Just like littering, if just one person did it every year, it would not be bad, but you would not be the only one. Help by becoming the solution!
  • Stay on Designated Trails - This is for the same reason as the switchbacks, but also includes viewpoints or water access points. Heavy off trail exploring in one spot creates a more permanent path that encourages others to use. This can be a problem when considering safety. If it is a viewpoint, then less experienced hikers or kids, could easily fall off of a cliff that isn't exactly visible. One wrong step could be your last. 
  • Keep Dogs on Leash - This is a rule that can be easily ignored by newer hikers. Some dog lovers might not be able to think of any logical reasons for it. One reason is the safety for your own dog. There is no telling when you may encounter a wild animal that your dog could rile up unintentionally. Also, other dogs on the path may be less trained than yours. Another big reason to keep dogs on a leash is keeping other hikers happy and not scared. You may think with all your heart, that your dog is nice, but others don't know that and may not care, forcing them to feel like they need to fend off an oncoming dog with its owners unseen around a corner. Consider small children experiencing the outdoors that may have a fear of dogs. They may not want to go hiking after being scared by a  charging dog, even if the dog was just trying to be friendly. Remember to familiarize yourself with the wilderness or land you are taking a pet to insure you are following the proper requirements. Here is a great reference to more dog etiquette! 
  • Maximum Group size - This is another rule that is hard to conceive until you are on the wrong side of it. Imagine yourself 100 feet from the top of the mountain and you can just make out the crest, but there is no room because of an extremely large group. This is a bigger problem when there is a lookout building. Also think about walking down the trail and yielding to an excessively large party of people that have probably spread out quite a bit. This is fairly annoying and can be harder with kids or dogs. This rule is also in place to help in finding a spot to camp on a backpacking trip when most designated areas only accommodate for a bunch of smaller groups. Check with those who manage the land you will be on in order to get the correct information for your outing.
  • Don't Feed Wild Animals - This seems fairly obvious. Meaning ALL wildlife. Birds will overrun popular areas because they know they will be fed. Think about too many birds - it can be very bad. Just dropping food near lakes or potential campsites can attract mice or other small animals. Also, do not feed larger animals; consider that your food may not be good for them to eat at all and could cause health issues. Much worse than having spots over populated with rodents and birds, I think bears and wolves would be worse.
  • Camp and Relieve Yourself 200 Feet from Water - One of the worst things that can happen to a good water source is someone evacuating their bowels and bladder too close. Try your best to not ruin the fragile areas around lakes and streams. There is usually a rule in place for this reason at high traffic camp locations because of meadows that grow back too slowly and for overuse in general. 
  • Yield to the Uphill Hikers - You might be cruising downhill, and think that because of your speed, uphill climbers should be the ones to yield. They are spending extra energy and it is hard on them to break momentum. It is best to stop at switchbacks or find a safe alternative.
  • Hikers Yield to Horseback - Horses can be easily spooked by hikers and dogs. Because they can't see above themselves very well, it is best to clear away from the trail on a downside slope or low spot of some sort. Not all people on horseback are experienced riders.
  • Be Friendly - Most hikers on the trail are very nice. Say hello and join the team!
  • Be Respectful to Others - Hikers tend to be in the wilderness to escape the urban life. Being loud or aggressive is not fun for anyone. 
  • Bury Your Poop - Besides keeping away from water, most trails will expect you to make a cat hole about eight inches deep to hold your feces and toilet paper. Some wilderness goers argue that hikers should pack out the toilet paper which is a great added standard. There are some trails that require you to pack out your poop, no questions. This applies to dogs on most trails.
  • Fire - The general rule is no fires above 4000 feet. Some trails or wildernesses have a different rule. Take a second to think whether or not you really need one to begin with. So many backpackers have hiked for years and have never lit a fire on the trail. It is important to always check the rules in the area you will be entering for the correct requirements.

Here is a great reference that covers in more depth:

By Rudy Giecek


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