Trail Etiquette 101: From Right-of-Way to Dealing with Wildlife

Trail Etiquette 101: From Right-of-Way to Dealing with Wildlife

Hiking provides endless opportunities for anyone who wants to enjoy the great outdoors. As with any situation, there are also numerous etiquette rules to follow when hiking. These solve countless purposes.

Etiquette rules help create a friendly environment along the trail as you meet other hikers. They also help preserve our parks for generations to come. Our national parks are presently under siege by climate change, pollution, and other factors contributing to their decline. Following proper etiquette helps to counteract these issues.

It also helps to keep you safe. If proper protocol isn’t followed, a casual hiking trip can turn deadly when encountering local wildlife. Discover how to keep yourself safe and make the most of your trip with this hiking etiquette guide.

Step 1: Right-Of-Way

Many of the rules of the right-of-way can be intuited. Some parks will give specific yield signs, but in the absence of these, the following tips will be helpful.

When hiking, those going uphill should yield to those going down. After all, the uphill climb is the more difficult one to make. Bicyclists should also yield or slow to a stop to allow hikers to pass when necessary. This is preferable to biking off-trail, which may harm local wildlife and trample plants. 

However, both hikers and bicyclists should yield to pack animals they see on the trail. Animals of all sizes can potentially become spooked and react poorly. Animals, such as ducklings, can be in extreme danger if they are separated from their parents while fleeing humans. Giving animals ample space is a way to avoid confrontation or distraction of any kind. 

Step 2: Announce Yourself

This piece of advice goes for both humans and animals you may encounter on the trail. This serves to both create a sense of camaraderie but also to warn people of your approach. If you are jogging past someone from behind, they may react in fear at the sound of an unseen approach. Call out the direction you’ll be passing them and give ample space to not disturb their trek. 

Step 3: Respect the Trail. Respect the Wildlife.

If people were able to move totally freely about a hiking path, it would result in everything becoming matted down. Plants would be trampled, dens and nests destroyed, and preservation efforts thwarted. Trails exist to create spaces to travel and explore an environment while protecting the habitat of local wildlife. Respect wildlife by staying on the trail as much as possible.

When you go off-trail, keep a close eye on how you walk. Avoid stepping directly on plants as much as possible, and be on the lookout for anything that looks consciously created. This may be a sign of local wildlife appropriating foliage for their own purposes. 

You should also avoid disturbing or stacking any rocks you see. Historically, cairns, or rock stacks, hold a variety of meanings, including as markers for burial sites. Building a cairn can interfere with any insects or plants utilizing the rocks and can lead fellow hikers astray. 

Step 4: Leave No Trace (And Pick Up Others’)

Much of what we bring with us is not biodegradable. Plastics and other synthetic materials stay in our environment long after their initial creation, making clearing them essential. Try to focus on bringing sustainable items with you and a bag for the trash you do produce. Also, take care to remove any trash you encounter while walking.

Park conservation efforts can only do so much. It is as much on hikers to be good stewards of their space as it is for park employees to be preservers of it. 

Step 5: Gadgets Off

You should carry some tech with you whenever you go out. However, a hike is a perfect time to truly disconnect from the confines of the digital age. Turn your phone to silent, and listen to the gentle hum of nature without the whirr of machines. 

The quiet of nature paints everything new. If you enjoy meditation, consider bringing this practice to the outdoors. Doing so in a natural environment can actually improve the results it already gives to users. Embrace nature fully, and use this time as a way to break out of the confines of your daily life.

Step 6: Know Your Area

Hiking is a time to pack all your gear, grab a few good friends, and enjoy the great outdoors. Yet, your enjoyment should never lead to blissful unawareness of the area surrounding you. If the trail is muddy, you may need to adjust your route or pace to stay safe. 

You should also be closely aware of any hazards in the area. Bears, mountain lions, and more pose hazards to hikers caught unawares. Knowing how to deal with these scenarios is one of the most essential safety tips when hiking. 

Step 7: Dealing With Bear Country

You’re going on a hike on a day like any other. All of a sudden, you come across a bear in the wilderness. This is one of the most fraught situations a hiker can encounter, especially if they don’t know how to act. Dealing with bear country requires vigilance and the ability to improvise to a variety of changing circumstances.

Safely hiking where you may encounter bears requires a staunch list of dos and don’t. We will start with the dos. 

Do make a lot of noise, especially when near loud places. Bears may prowl like large bodies of running water. Bears are most dangerous to humans when they are surprised. Making noise prevents you from sneaking up on them, allowing them to be prepared for your presence.
    Be sure to travel in packs. Groups of people are easier to hear and smell and deter attacks. There is strength in numbers.
      Don’t go trail running. Increasing your speed increases the chance you find a bear before it can notice you. You may also want to avoid hiking at daybreak, dusk, and night-time, as bears are most active here.
        Bring a bear bag if you are camping overnight. Bear bags are rip-proof and scent-proof containers meant to be tied hanging to trees. This will protect your food and yourself from the presence of foraging animals.
          Avoid cubs. This is the most important detail in dealing with bear country. If you accidentally walk upon a group of cubs and an adult mother bear, walk away while maintaining visuals. Do not look a bear directly in the eyes, as it may perceive this as aggressive behavior. 

            Step 8: Dealing with Bear Attacks

            Bears attack. This is rare, and fatal attacks are even more incredibly rare, but they do occur. If you’ve encountered a bear, tried backing up, and it begins to charge, get ready for a fight.

            Bears, particularly grizzly bears, may begin with a bluff charge before showing true aggression. During a bluff charge, its head will be up, and it will try to look as big as possible. This is a power move, not an attempt to strike, so do not buy into it. Instead, speak in calming tones and back up.

            A bear may have its head down and appear to instead be preparing to use its teeth and claws. This is an attack, and the way you proceed should depend on the type of bear it is. If it is a black bear, fight back by focusing on its head.

            You can use bear spray, rocks, or even your fists to fight off a bear. The goal is not to outfight it but to make yourself too much of a nuisance to be worth it.

            If a grizzly bear or brown tries to attack, play dead and cover your neck and head. It should leave you alone. If it does, wait a few minutes until you are sure the bear has left the area. If it doesn’t, fight back using whatever methods you can.

            Fighting off a bear is the last step after all other routes at pacification have been exhausted. Immediately get yourself to safety, and report all bear attacks to a park ranger. This may suggest future risks to other hikers.

            Step 9: Hit the Trail

            Once you’ve done all the prep work needed to actualize your next great hike, there's only one step left to take: Find your trail, stay hydrated, and get going. 

            The best part about going out on a trail is the countless activities you can do once you’re there. For a leisurely day of exploration, you can of course hike. You can go cycling, climbing, or kayaking if you’re in an area that allows for it. You may even choose to embark upon a multi-day trip, camping out under the stars at night. No matter how you choose to adventure, you’ll be able to hike safely with these trail etiquette tips. 


            Parks Group's Report Finds 96 Percent Of National Parks Are Plagued By Air Pollution I National Parks Conservation Association

            Hiking Etiquette I US National Park Service

            What Are Rock Cairns? | Live Science

            Hiking in Bear Country | US National Park Service

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