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5 Trail Etiquette Rules

Categories: Hiking Tips & Tutorials, Map Tutorial


by Alison Myers, Youth Outreach Intern

With recreational trails springing-up all over communities, many people are taking an initiative to get active. This has also created more interest in the hiking and backpacking community as more people are getting outdoors.

Every so often it’s a good idea to put out a reminder of these trail etiquette rules so newbies can learn to share the trail without feeling foolish, and for longtime hikers to brush up their knowledge.

Some segments of the North Country National Scenic Trail (NCNST) are open to activities additional to hiking (bikes, horses, cross country skiing) so it’s always best to check with the local land manager before you head out. These rules apply to all trails, not just the NCNST, and many are common sense.

5 Trail Etiquette Rules

1. Practice Leave No Trace

A young boy smells a flower
A young hiker practices Leave No Trace by smelling the flower and leaving it along the Trail rather than picking it. Photo by Eugene B.

The Leave No Trace principle can be observed in a number of different ways. The first and easiest way is to take out what you take with you. Food wrappers, drink bottles, and gum are all dangerous and can kill an animal of any size. Don’t be that guy!

I recall a sad video of a hummingbird stuck to the ground by a discarded piece of gum, frantically struggling to get free. Other items can cause animals to choke, become immobile, or when eaten they will not digest and cause death.

Another great way to observe the “Leave No Trace” rule is by staying on designated trail paths. Oftentimes people avoid a soggy area by traversing around it or on the edges of the trail, which in turn widens or creates new pathways. It is bad for sustainability because it can also damage vital plants, loosen rocks, and promote erosion. Make sure to wear footwear that can handle some muck and have fun traipsing through it!

Large groups of hikers can trample an area and cause erosion problems on trails. If hiking in a group it’s best to stay single file for all of the same reasons as the previous point. Large numbers also tend to create noise pollution and leave a bigger impact than smaller groups. Hiking in smaller groups (less than 10) can help lessen all impact in multiple ways.

Trail Use Yield Sign
Trail use sign in Fort Custer Recreation Area. Photo by Robin Hummel Clark

2. Yield to Horses, Hikers, then Bikers

The concept is that bikes are fast and can stop-and-go easily, so they let everything else have the right of way.

As a large prey animal that is always on the lookout, horses are unpredictable and sometimes scare easily, so everyone gives them the right of way.

When allowing a horse and rider to pass, stand quietly aside and ask politely if you are in a good place. Always ask permission to overtake because getting kicked, stepped on, or bitten by a horse is not pleasant!

Be sure to check the signs whenever you enter a section of the Trail. Some land managers have their own rules, such as Fort Custer Recreation Area in Michigan, where all trail users yield to dog sleds.


3. Yield to Uphill Traffic, Travel on the Right and Pass on the Left

Superior Hiking Trail in Minnesota.
Photo by Kim F. taken along the Superior Hiking Trail in MN.

Usually, uphill travelers are focused on getting to the top of the hill and taking time out to stop makes the trip harder. Although, sometimes it’s a welcome break. The person traveling uphill makes that decision, so be friendly and ask permission to continue or stand aside and wait for them to pass you.

A simple call out “May I/we pass on your left?” is sufficient for getting permission to pass someone going the same direction.

4. Pet Procedure


While on the North Country Trail all dogs must be on a leash (it’s also a law in many states). It’s not necessarily your dog you should be worried about, but other people who may not know how to behave around dogs. Even the friendliest of dogs can bite someone who exhibits fear.

And please, don’t let your dog do its business on the trail – it’s just as easy to go a few hundred feet away, pack it up in a baggie and carry it out. Nobody likes to get back into the car and play the “What’s that smell and where’s it coming from?” game.

(I wish I didn’t have to say it but this rule applies to humans too!) Here is a great article about relieving yourself in the woods.

5. Be Aware

Group hike in Ohio

When going into the woods (especially alone) one should be aware of their surroundings and other people. Chances are you will encounter other people on the trail. There are many scenarios that being friendly might help to save your life or someone else’s.

Turn off (or silence) your cell phone and save the drone for somewhere else. Technology is welcome in the backcountry as long as it doesn’t detract from other people’s experience. Be empathetic to the fact that other people have the same rights of enjoying the outdoors as you do.

If you pay close enough attention you might even see wild animals. You put yourself in extreme danger if you are listening to music through your earbuds and not paying attention. You should familiarize yourself with the types of animals common to the area and how to react/stay safe. Animal attacks can happen for many reasons including: hunger, fear, territory, anger/aggression, or protecting their young.

Practice common sense, be polite, be informed, be respectful, and be someone that sets an example for others!