List: Trail Etiquette

Don’t be that guy.

In the words of M*A*S*H’s Major Frank Burns, “It’s nice to be nice… to the nice.”

A lot of trail etiquette is the same we use everyday – treating others politely and taking care of our surroundings. Here’s a list of certain “rules” and tips for keeping proper trail etiquette on the Appalachian Trail, el Camino, other long trails, and in your local park. 

These are in no particular order, often don’t apply to one specific trail, and this list is sure to grow as I remember things. Please feel free to comment with any etiquette tips I may have missed. (And the picture has nothing to do with trail etiquette, except maybe to have a sense of humor!)

Another note: many of these tie into the seven Leave No Trace principles:

  1. Plan ahead and prepare
  2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces
  3. Dispose of waste properly
  4. Leave what you find
  5. Minimize campfire impacts
  6. Respect wildlife
  7. Be considerate of other visitors

Trail Etiquette:

  1. Uphill has right of way. If someone is coming uphill and then steps aside, you should step aside and motion for them to come on up. Sometimes they really need a break (uphill is hard!), but give them the option to continue.
  2. Walk single-file if there is traffic on trail. This isn’t just for people coming from the opposite direction; it’s also for the folks behind you. It’s frustrating for a faster hiker to come up behind a group two or three wide and have to figure out a way to get around. Usually I clear my throat or step on rocks loudly and people will move over. When they don’t notice (or don’t care), I walk right up to the best path through and say, “Excuse me, can I squeeze through here real quick?” and just keep walking.
  3. Listen to music on trail responsibly. People go outside to reconnect with nature, not to be amazed by your ability to nail all the words to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” If you want to listen to music, wear headphones. If there’s a few of you hiking together, and you want to listen to music or a podcast and no one else is around, go ahead. Whenever you start to see or hear others, though, turn it down very low or off. Whenever you stop for the night, whether at a shelter or camp, and there are others around, keep your music off or wear headphones.
  4. Pick up trash, even if it’s not yours. I know that it can be difficult in certain heavily-trafficked areas to pick up all the trash you see. It can be extra weight to carry out, or jam in an already brimming pack trash bag. But you can always pick up an extra piece or two of trash. If everyone picks up a small piece of trash they come across, the trail gets a lot cleaner. I was on a short weekend winter backpacking trip and we came across a trove of empty aluminum beer cans messing up what was an otherwise pristine and lovely place. There were eight of us. We all smashed and carried two or three cans, and the spot was back to being unpolluted. I have the pleasure of knowing a man that found A TIRE and carried it out. Seriously. You can pick up that Clif bar wrapper.

    This is Donner, being a total badass. (Photo cred: Raymond Myers)
  5. Don’t disparage other people’s gear. If you don’t have something nice to say, shut up. Making nice or neutral comments or asking questions about someone’s gear is fine.
    Good: “Is that one of those Hyperlite cuben fiber packs? How do you like it?”;”Those soles look like they’re holding up well.”
    Bad: “Yeah, I looked at (item you own), but it didn’t seem as good as/was more expensive than/some other reason (item I own).”
    Overall rule: don’t be a jerk.
  6.  Don’t have a trail mouth around kids. With a few exceptions, most people on trail have a bit of a potty mouth. It’s easy to let more formal and polite language slide when you are mainly focused on food, clothing, shelter, and not dying. And nearly every other piece of hiker trash is an adult. But there are some children, for a weekend trip or a section hike, and you need to watch your language. Sometimes parents will say it’s OK, but it’s best to assume that you need to curb the salty language for a bit.
  7. Don’t smoke in the shelter or near the shelter. I can’t believe I have to say this, but on more than one occasion, there were people who lit up right in front of the shelter. Have a smoke; I don’t care. But do it away from people’s gear and food and lungs. And for the love of all that is holy, DO NOT SMOKE INSIDE THE SHELTER. I remember on a particularly cold day in the Smokies (how á propos!) when Professor woke up to puffs of cigarette smoke being blown in his face by a hiker named Little Heater who didn’t even leave her sleeping bag! She was just smoking away on the platform. C’mon, guys…
  8. Keep your shelter space tidy. If you are the first person arriving at the shelter, sweep it. If there’s not a broom provided by a trail crew, just make sure sticks and other big pieces are cleared off the platform. When you roll out your mat and gear, don’t spread it all over the place. If the shelter ends up being mostly empty, then sprawl all you want. If/when you hang up your boots and socks, hang them away from people’s heads. They really stink, and it can be hard to sleep with that awful smell (worse than the normal awful smells).
    [PLEASE NOTE: If you see mouse droppings in the shelter, which is likely, cover your nose and mouth with a buff or handkerchief and sweep very gently to not stir up dust and particulates. Mice, rats, and chipmunks – and their droppings – may be carriers of the hantavirus. Rapidly evacuate to medical care if you experience a sudden onset of severe respiratory problems, like sharp chest pain or tightness, shortness of breath or other respiratory distress, sudden fatigue, etc.] 
  9. There’s always room for one more in the shelter. (Mostly, but especially if it’s raining.) If someone wants to stay in the shelter, and a space could be made for them if people scooted their mats closer together, then just do it. If there’s truly no room left in the shelter, politely let the hiker(s) know and follow it up with something nice, like, “But there are some great spots just to the left of that tree for a tent.”
  10. Share the table/bench/bar space. Finding a flat surface to set your stove on can be tricky, especially if the ground is particularly muddy. Meal prep can be difficult if you are doing more than boiling water, so be considerate of others when using those flat surfaces. Use them for cooking, then clean up your stuff before eating so that someone else can use that space. If there’s a table, sit down to eat, but if there are others waiting, clean your spot and move along when you are done. Sharing is caring.
  11. Don’t hang your bear bag over a good tent or hammock spot. Places to set up for the night are sometimes in short supply, and it’s really awkward to have to approach someone and ask them to go through the hassle of taking down their bag, finding a new tree, and throwing the line again.
  12. Don’t leave food in the shelter. It should be common sense, but sometimes people get lazy and don’t feel like hanging a bear bag. Fine, but stay in a tent if you’re going to do that. Leaving food in the shelter invites mice, raccoons, bears, and other animals to visit. You are putting other hikers in potential danger when you leave food in the shelter. Just don’t do it.
  13. Gather firewood if you are going to enjoy the fire. You might not be the one building the fire, but you should gather some wood and contribute it to the pile. Even if the fire is already going by the time you arrive, ask the person watching it if they think more wood is needed for the pile. Many hands make light work.
  14. Watch your own fire. If you start a fire, you watch it. You keep it going, and you make sure it is extinguished. Other may offer to watch it for a bit, but it is YOUR responsibility that the fire is totally put out. Do NOT go to sleep or wander off without the fire being properly extinguished.
  15. Hiker midnight is at 9 p.m. local time. At 9 p.m., there’s no more talking. Whisper if you must, but keep it short. If you want to talk more or aren’t tired (ha!), then go for a walk away from camp to chat. Also, there are no more bright headlamps after 9 p.m. Turn your headlamp to a red light setting, and make sure it is tilted down.
  16. If you are a loud snorer, stay in a tent or hammock. Don’t use the shelter. Everyone is tired, everyone needs rest. No one will rest well (except you) if they are forced awake by you sawing logs all night. Pitch your tent in a spot on the outskirts of the site, and let the others sleep in relative peace.
  17. Cough or make a noise when approaching a privy. Sometimes the doors don’t latch, and sometimes the smell is pretty awful (or it’s really dark inside) so people keep the doors open when they are inside. Make a noise when approaching to give someone a chance to let you know the privy is occupied. (It’s generally a good rule of thumb to not use the privy at all just because it smells awful by the time warm weather rolls around…)
  18. When you dig and cover a cathole, mark it with an upright stick. This is very handy in a more heavily visited area so that the next person doesn’t start digging in that same spot. Not pleasant.
  19. Don’t have a trail mouth in town. (See item #6.)
  20. Sit in the back or patio of a restaurant, and leave your pack outside. You’re hungry, you’ve found an open restaurant, and you’re happy. You are also incredibly, indescribably, smelly. You reek. Your pack reeks. Put your pack on the porch or side of the restaurant (remove your phone, wallet, etc.). When you go into the restaurant, sit – or ask to be seated – in the back or the area farthest from other patrons. Sitting on a patio is best.
  21. Shower when you hit town for an overnight stay. Yes, it’s fine to grab shower beers first (obviously), but then go to your hostel or motel and shower ASAP. Wait for your restaurant splurge and your resupply shopping until you are cleaner. You will still smell, you just won’t smell as bad. If you don’t have clean(ish) clothes that you reserve for town, try to do some laundry first if you are able.
  22. Keep your space in the hostel or motel room tidy. For hostels, spreading your gear out over your bunk is fine – just don’t take up common spaces or have your gear block someone from their bunk. Throw away your trash. If you are in a motel room, don’t leave it like you are some rock band on a bender. Leave the towels in a nice pile, things put back into place, and the trash picked up. If there’s four of you in a room (as often happens) and there’s too much resupply trash for the little hotel room garbage bin, I suggest putting as much trash as you can into the grocery store bags from your purchase, tying them, and placing them near the trash bin. Sometimes there are bigger trash cans in the hallways and breezeways, or even a dumpster. Just don’t leave your trash all over the room for the maid to clean up. You were raised better than that.






6 thoughts on “List: Trail Etiquette”

  1. Hey Firestarter, good article (saying something nice). I agree with most everything you have written here; I’ve compared myself to the Larry David of trails! However, I was recently hiking by myself in Alaska and was encouraged by locals to listen to music outloud. Why? Bears. Bears hate my taste in music.


    1. Ha! That’s a great point. I’ve never been hiking alone in grizzly country, so I defer to locals. It’s important to let wildlife – especially bears and mountain lions – know you are around. After my bear encounters (solo and with other hikers) I sing “Happy Birthday” and other songs pretty loudly for about 5-10 minutes as I continue down the trail!


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