Hiking Etiquette For Beginners — What Are The Rules of Hiking?

14 min read

So you're giving this hiking thing some serious consideration. You've read about all the benefits of hiking. The trails are just screaming your name. Great! But before you go, make sure you're demonstrating proper hiking etiquette.

Do you remember your first day of school? It's confusing. There are so many new people, different faces, and different rules. Most people wouldn't just barge in and pretend they run the show. And if you did, it probably didn't go well.

The same goes for hiking. If you're new, it's your first day of school among new people. It's wise to be polite to others less if you get labeled a trouble-maker and ruin the experience for everyone else.

Hiking, in theory, sounds like a pretty simple activity. You load up a pack, lace up your boots, and put your feet to the earth. There's nothing to it, right?

Well, not exactly.

Here's the thing: when you participate in hiking, you're plunging yourself into a community of several different types of people. Folks of different backgrounds, heritage, and different levels of fitness, to name a few. However, there's always one thing that is ubiquitous among hikers: a demonstration of hiking etiquette.

Remember: you're the new kid in class. Make sure you're following the rules.

Related Article: 10 Essential Hiking Tips For Beginners

Mind Your Manners, New Hiker!

It's almost guaranteed you've heard that a few times growing up. If you didn't, that can be either good or bad, but I'll reserve my judgment.

Whether you're conquering your first beginner trail, or taking on a more challenging trek, it's important to mind your manners and understand basic hiking etiquette. Practicing proper etiquette when hiking won't only help you have a safer and more enjoyable experience, it will also help other fellow hikers, too. It's reciprocal.

For every type of sport or physical activity, there are a set of unwritten rules. It's a mutual understanding participants have without explicitly stating it.

If it's boxing, you'd better not try knocking your sparring partner's head off.

When you're hooping on the court (playing basketball), you'd better not be throwing elbows or pushing.

Playing a friendly game of football? Don't even think about sacking an opposing player into the shadow realm.

It's no different when you're hiking. There are some things you should always practice, and things you should never do.

Let's explore the must-know hiking etiquette for beginners a bit more.

What Is Hiking Etiquette?

Hiking etiquette is a fundamental practice for every hiker, regardless of experience level. It's a sign of respect to your fellow hiker. It's a set of unwritten but well-understood rules.

Proper hiking etiquette can be broken down into a few rules:

Why Hiking Etiquette is Important

Hiking involves being in isolated areas with complete strangers. Fellow hikers often view each other (or they should, at least) as allies and friends.

Demonstrating proper hiking etiquette is important because, when you're plucked from the chaos of regular life and dropped into the isolation of nature, your fellow hikers are all you have.

That person you're passing on a trail might be able to help you at some point. They might even, in a dangerous situation, save your life.

Treat other hikers kindly and respect the rules.

Hiking Etiquette: The Common Rules

We have the breakdown of proper hiking etiquette above. Now let's look at those rules a little more and see why they're important.

Uphill Hikers Have Right Of Way

Hiking downhill, while requiring energy and stability, is far easier than traveling uphill. Every now and then you will come across a hiker who is heading upward. If you're traveling downhill and are on a stable surface, move over for a second and let the uphill traveler pass by. This allows a hiker heading uphill to keep their momentum and pace.

Hikers and trekkers who are heading to the peak of a hill or mountain are literally fighting an uphill battle. They need as much energy as possible. Hikers heading uphill also want to keep a certain pace. Breaking the pace can ruin their momentum (starting over from a dead stop is tough) and break their pace. Plus, it's just flat-out annoying.

Keep Your Dog Leashed

hiking etiquette - keep dogs leashed

Notice how this point is underlined? That's because it's one that particularly drives me nuts. Needless to say, I've been on several hikes where I've encountered unleashed dogs. They're usually always friendly, but I don't immediately know that.

When this happens, there are two thoughts that go through my head. These thoughts likely cross the minds of other hikers, too:

  1. Is it friendly?
  2. What are the dog's intentions?

Though the majority of dogs on a hike are friendly, your fellow hiker doesn't know that.

Coming across a loose and wandering dog can cause anxiety in hikers and even force them into unsafe conditions when dealing with an energetic pooch on a narrow trail.

This rule isn't just for other hikers, though. Your dog's safety is important. Dogs are very curious, especially when they're set free in an open setting. Your dog might end up eating dangerous plants, coming across dangerous critters like rattlesnakes, or sliding down a hillside.

For these reasons, always make sure your dog is leashed. Giving a little slack on the leash is fine if there aren't any nearby hikers or visible threats, but be sure to shorten it up when a hiker approaches.

Don't Share Your Music

Though it's not recommended, hiking with a pair of headphones in is okay.

When you're blasting your favorite jam around other hikers, though, it's rude and inconsiderate of the other hikers.

Most people go hiking to get away from noise pollution and to disconnect from our technology-infused world. Blasting music from a cell phone or portable speaker completely breaks this experience and feels no different than having a car pull up next to you at a light with subwoofers pumping and tweeters ice-picking your eardrums.

Aside from other humans, wildlife may be disturbed or agitated by the frequencies of blaring audio. We disrupt wildlife enough as it is, we don't need to bring a concert hall to their home, too.

Be Friendly

Most hikers aren't in a crabby mood. This can be because of the mood-boosting effects of hiking and the pleasantries of the outdoors. Aside from the obvious reasons, most hikers are generally polite because they understand hiking etiquette.

When you come across fellow hikers, it's okay to say hello. Even if you're an introvert (like me), saying hello to others on a hike is a nice way to greet your fellow human.

If you're extremely shy, a quick pull of a smile and a simple raise of a hand is nice, too.

We often come across unpleasant people in our regular lives. Hiking is our getaway from it.

It doesn't hurt to ask the hiker how they're doing, what to expect on the trail ahead of you, or to just give them a friendly heads up about something they may need to no further along.

Remember: communication is important, even among strangers. You may even end up making a great, new friend, all from a simple greeting.

Stay on The Trail

You've got so far to go on your hike. Luckily, you know a killer shortcut!

Please stick to the trail. Taking shortcuts and wandering off can lead to problems like stumbling upon animals who aren't too fond of your presence. If you're going through brush, you also run the risk of coming into contact with poison oak. You also run the risk of damaging and disturbing wildlife, too.

Most trails will have limited if at all, access to restrooms or changing areas. It would be quite unsettling for another hiker to be approached in the midst of changing or making their business off the trail.

A scenario we never want to think about, but often do, is getting lost. If you're a new hiker, getting lost can be terrifying. It's an unlikely yet real possibility for new hikers, especially on trails lacking markings.

Don't Litter

So you trekked through the hills and come upon the waterfalls you wanted to see. You whip out your phone or camera to take a quick snapshot and notice beer cans floating in the water and trash littered everywhere. How beautiful.

This is another simple hiking rule that people still manage to ignore, and it's maddening.

Leaving garbage on a trail isn't just unpleasant to look at, it harms wildlife and costs tons of money to clean up—money some towns can't afford.

Always pack an extra bag with you for garbage. Don't discard liquids into creeks. You wouldn't want someone coming into your home and dumping trash on the floor, don't do it on the trail.

Yield To Cyclists

Cycling through a trail is awesome: the fresh air graces your skin;  the thrill of shredding through the terrain and getting in that killer workout. Suddenly, you see a hiker, and ... they don't move. Now you've got to slow down or stop and start all over again.

While most cyclists won't be blasting through a trail at high rates of speed, that doesn't mean they're less prone to injury or injuring you.

Just like any vehicle, if you happen to approach a cyclist, try and move to the edge of the trail and allow them to pass. This prevents the risk of collision, or the cyclist from having to navigate around you a the last minute, which can cause a wipeout.

Yield To Horses

Horses are beautiful and very strong creatures. They love getting out and taking a stroll through natural paths.

Although most horses are pretty calm, they spook very easily. This puts both you and the rider in danger. Horses are huge and extremely muscular. Spooking a horse puts it into fight or flight mode and, trust me, you'll lose the fight every time.

They are big, solid blocks of muscle that will have no problem discarding their rider or mowing you down if they feel threatened.

What to do:

  • Move over toward the downside of the hill
  • Quietly greet the rider
  • Allow the horse to pass
  • Never approach or attempt to pet the horse
  • Relax: Don't appear excitable or make sudden movements
  • Don't move to an elevated path above the horse: they might view you as a predator.

Stay To The Right of Wide Trails

Just like city traffic, always stick to the proper side of the road.

If you're traveling on a wide trail, always stick to the right. Don't wander off to the left or take up the center of the trail. This is annoying and dangerous for horses and cyclists, and also forces other hikers to change their direction, breaking their pace or putting them at risk of tripping over tricky terrain.

Don't Disturb Wildlife

It's easy to be captivated by the beautiful wildlife you'll see when hiking.

You might come across snakes, deer, cougars, or even see plants you don't normally see. It's easy to want to get a closer look and take an awesome photo for your audience on social media. Please don't. Leave it be.

It's okay to admire the glorious vistas of nature. It's easy to be captivated by natural wonders and rarities. However, disturbing wildlife can bring serious consequences like injury or disruption of an ecosystem.

Always respect wildlife. They were there first. Keep your distance from animals and don't go flipping over rocks or pushing through plants.

What to do:

  • Keep your distance from wild animals
  • Don't pick leaves or disturb natural placements
  • Though unlikely, if you see a wild cat, keep your distance and back down
  • If you come across a venomous snake, back off and move on

Pass On The Left

Coming upon a slower or less-experienced hiker is pretty common, even if you're new.

Common courtesy is to pass slower traffic on the left, just as you would in a vehicle. It may be easy to think you can squeeze by on the right, but it's going to disturb the hiker and be an annoyance, especially if you're following the rule of sticking to the right of wider paths.

What to do:

  • Don't try and squeeze by the hiker on the right
  • Always look ahead for oncoming hikers, cyclists, or horses
  • Respect their space: pass with a respectable amount of space between the two of you

Announce Overtaking

Do you know what's annoying? Trying to enjoy a peaceful hike through nature only to have it disturbed by someone blasting by you unannounced. Do you know what's dangerous? Moving to your left or changing crossing a path only to be slammed into by another hiker or cyclist.

This blunder happens quite often. More often than it should, really.

If you come upon a slower hiker or cyclist and decide to pass on the left, give a quiet but audible greeting that you're passing on the left. You'll commonly hear cyclists announce their presence and intent to overtake with "on your left". This is the avoid a collision. It's also a good practice to not disturb or startle hikers or horses.

Another good rule for hikers is to always check your surroundings before you decide to go astray. Turn your head and shoulders to the left before moving over.

What to do:

  • Audibly and quietly (don't shout) inform the hiker or rider that you'll be passing
  • Pass on the left
  • Allow a generous amount of room between you and the party being passed

Hike In Single-File

When you're hiking in a group it can be a natural instinct to spread out so you can hear one another. This isn't a good idea for several reasons.

First, when you spread out, even on wide trails, the outside hikers run the risk of tripping over debris or animals on the edge of the path. Second, it causes a gigantic roadblock for oncoming traffic.

When you're hiking in large groups, be sure to stay single-file and organized.

Keep Conversation Volume Low

Most of us go for a trek, hike, or hill walk to enjoy the serenity of the outdoors. We don't go to listen to another hiker's gossip or personal stories.

You don't need to remain silent when hiking but do be considerate of other hikers. If you have a sailor mouth like me, be sure to keep your volume low—your fellow outdoors people and their children don't need to have their experience disrupted by vulgarities.

Aside from other trail-goers, speaking at loud volumes can disturb nearby wildlife. Respect the peace and keep conversations at a respectable volume.

Read and Respect The Rules Of The Trail

hiking etiquette - follow trail rules

Have you ever gone over to someone's home and seen shoes outside the door? Maybe there are signs posted around your office that explicitly state proper office etiquette. This applies to trails, too.

Several state parks and hiking trails will have signs posted to remind hikers of the trail's rules. Don't think you're an exception just because the rules sound like common sense. They're posted for a reason.

Trail rules are also posted to alert people of goings-on that they might not be aware of. For example, you might not know that certain trails are at risk of landslides, or that it's snake and mountain lion season.

Always read the rules carefully and don't break them.

Hiking Etiquette For Beginners: Practice Makes Perfect

There are a lot of etiquette rules in this list. And, as a result, you're not going to remember all of them at first glance. As with anything, practice makes perfect.

The simple rule of thumb for beginner hiking etiquette is to do it onto others as you'd have them onto you. Yes, it's an ancient saying, but it's repeated for a reason.

Always respect your fellow hikers and wildlife. Be courteous and kind. And don't break the rules of the trail.

Enjoy your hiking experience and make it enjoyable for others, too!