Trail Etiquette: How to Be Kind on Your Next Park Visit

An individual walks along the Gorge Trail at Sharon Woods in spring.

When it comes to trail use, there are some things to educate yourself on to ensure you are as prepared as you can be. Being an informed trail user is key to making sure you have an enjoyable time when hitting up the great outdoors.

We’ve created this overview of basic trail etiquette that will help you prepare for your trip beforehand. Some of these points will focus mainly on unpaved trails, however, many of these can be carried over to paved trails.

Questions to answer before you go:
  • Did I let someone know where I am going?
  • How long is the trail? Am I confident I can hike/ride the trail?
  • Is this an official trail? (Hint: Stay on designated trails!)
  • Did I pack enough snacks/food and water for the trip?
  • Does the trail allow pets? Is there a leash requirement? (Check out our Trails page to see which trails allow leashed pets.)
  • How have the recent weather conditions been?
  • Does the trail close due to condition or season?
  • Know before you go – Not sure if the weather has affected a trail or if a trail is closed for the season? Visit the Great Parks Alerts & Updates page for the most recent trail information.
Responsible trail use:

Be Friendly: This doesn’t require much explanation or effort. A simple smile or “hey” can go a long way. Be respectful of your fellow trail users; keep your distance when you can. Pack a face covering to use on narrow trails or during peak times.

Two individuals ride their mountain bikes on the mountain bike trail at Mitchell Memorial Forest.
Following right-of-way etiquette lets everyone enjoy trails.

Right of Way (ROW): If you are on a shared-use trail and encounter another user, a hierarchy has been established to determine the right of way. Bikers should yield to hikers and horseback riders, and bikers and hikers should yield to horseback riders. If both users are within the same user group (hiker to hiker), generally the ROW is given to the user travelling uphill. In a real-world situation, it may be easier for a hiker to step slightly off trail to give the biker the ability to pass without having to stop and dismount.

Special note: When yielding to horses, step to the downhill side of the trail, announce yourself to help put the horse at ease and ask the rider for specific instructions on how to safely let you or them pass. Do not make sudden movements and do not hide behind vegetation or a rock, as the horse may spook at the idea of something hiding. If you are uncomfortable with being near a horse, it’s OK to walk away from the trail to avoid a close encounter. Just be sure to establish a line of communication with the rider so they’re aware of your location.

Also remember that if the trail is wide enough, pass on the left, travel on the right. Same as on a roadway.

An individual recycles their water bottle in a recycling bin.
Trash and recycling bins are typically found at each trailhead.

Pack it in, pack it out! Anything you bring with you – snack wrappers, drink containers, etc. – will weigh less and be smaller on the way out. Be sure to leave no trace after you have left the trail and pack out pet waste too. Maybe even bring a small bag that you can clean up a few extra pieces you might find laying around! Leaving no trace also means not vandalizing trees, benches or signs as well.

Tunes on the trail: I know music can help with exercise, but remember, these are public trails. If you must take a phone call, try to keep the speakerphone off. Listening to music? Keep your speaker or headphones at a low enough volume that others cannot hear it from an extended distance, and make sure you are able to hear others if they need to communicate with you, such as “passing on your left” notice. We are all out here for an enjoyable time and your music may not create that atmosphere for someone else.

A dog is walked on its leash on a nature trail.

Pets: Please obey the rules and requirements. No dogs allowed? Find another trail for you and your pup. Leash law? Keep your pet on a leash with the other end of said leash in your hand. I know, your dog is friendly, so is mine, but that does not mean someone else or another dog is OK with that friendliness.

Stay on the trail when open, and off if closed: (Ahem, soapbox) Venturing off trail may be exciting, however, there can be lasting impacts to the habitat and potential problems for less-experienced users. If a “user trail” or unofficial trail has been created by people continually using it, some guests may be unaware they are off the official trail and could become disoriented or lost. This comes back to the idea of making sure you are on an official trail, research maps and download apps. Walking around a puddle or mud spot can result in widening the trail, or worse, creating a braided trail that increases damage to surrounding vegetation. Prepare for the potential conditions you may encounter on the trail due to previous and current weather conditions. Did it rain or snow recently? Be prepared for wet or icy conditions and more importantly, if conditions are too poor, be prepared to turn around and find another trail.

Volunteers work on improving the Mountain Bike Trail at Mitchell Memorial Forest in 2019.
Volunteers work on improving the Mountain Bike Trail at Mitchell Memorial Forest in 2019.

This brings me to my final point. It is becoming more and more common (and has been for some time) for trails to close due to condition or season. While it may be frustrating, there are good reasons. Many closures are in place to mitigate resource damage that can occur more easily during times of poor conditions. For example, natural surface trails are more susceptible to damage after a rain event or during times of freeze/thaw conditions. Trails suffer most due to two elements: water and use. While we do our best to keep water off and people on the trail, we have to understand that we cannot beat Mother Nature. The best we can do is work with current conditions and try to dry out the trails as soon as possible with proper trail design and the hard work from trail stewards. Using a trail when the tread (surface you travel on) is in poor condition will increase erosion and surely lead to longer drying times. This goes for all user groups – hikers, bikers, horse riders etc.

While you may not notice the effects immediately, over time they are quite evident and mostly to those who are tasked with the responsibility of maintaining these trails. A quick hike or ride on a less than ideal trail can result in hours of work for a volunteer or employee whose time could be better spent elsewhere improving the trail.

Hopefully you were able to gain some insight into general trail etiquette and learned something new. Following some of these guidelines will help improve the experience for everyone on the trails while also helping keep the trails in the best shape for as long as possible. Remember to thank a volunteer or employee next time you see them out on a trail!

Bryan Howell
Trail Specialist