Trail Etiquette: Trail Types & Conditions

If you missed Part 1 of Trail Etiquette, click to catch up! The beauty of a trail network is that it’s always available, and can be used year-round for different activities. A few conditions are worth noting and planning for. Good etiquette – or good manners – help keep the trails and your fellow users in good shape and spirits!

Trail Types:

Switchbacks exist for a reason: to make a gradual, manageable approach up a slope in a way that has minimal erosion and maxim accessibility. Do not cut switchbacks! Even though the trail is a bit longer when you do all the zig-zagging, cutting switchbacks breaks down trail integrity, increases erosion, and can damage the plants and ecosystems on the trail sides.  You’re already out there enjoying the trail, stay on it!

Use-specific trails: in areas with booming mountain biking cultures, some trails in their systems are designated as bike only, or pedestrian only. Respect these signs, as a hiker on a downhill trail could be seriously injured by a cyclist who is not expecting to see a hiker in their path ahead. Also, look out for directionality: trails can be uphill or downhill only. Respect these designations for your safety and those of other trail users. If you’re lost or get turned around on the trail network, step to the side of the trail while you consult your app or map and get yourself back on track.

In general, cyclists yield to pedestrian and horse traffic; in areas specifically designed for mountain biking, these guidelines may be different. Be sure to check before you hit the trail!

Trail Conditions:

Muddy trails are common in winter and spring months. If you know the trail is going to be muddy or sloppy, the best protocol is to stay off it until the trail has dried. Skip the mud for a week, and explore a paved trail instead. Running on muddy trails, or worse, running next to a muddy trail (trampling the side bank) causes serious trail damage. The rutting and widening of trails used during muddy times causes serious maintenance issues for the rest of the year!

Headphones/music: Many of us enjoy an energizing beat, a podcast, or a rambling tune while we are on the trail; others enjoy the silence and sounds of nature. For your safety and others, be sure that if you are wearing headphones, your volume allows you to hear other trail users (people & wildlife!) and their greetings without resorting to yelling. Portable speakers are very popular; be aware that while you may enjoy the sounds from your pocket, other trail users may not; use your common sense when you set your volume, and be aware of others’ reactions if you are jamming out at a place where others are enjoying the silence.

COVID-era precautions: Many of us are enjoying our trails as our other recreational opportunities are closed. While on the trail social distancing reigns supreme. Stay aware of other users on the trail, and be aware of where you can step to the side to let other users pass. Social distancing and mask wearing is critical, especially at places where people congregate, like trailheads or scenic overlooks. Remember to communicate clearly in verbal and using acceptable body language in these instances; our normal smiles aren’t visible!

A friendly wave to let a hiker pass or in thanks goes a long way to smooth trail interactions when many of us are rather incognito in hats, glasses and masks.  If you are not wearing a mask, be respectful of those who are, knowing that they may be elderly, have children, or be immunocompromised. If you are not mask wearing, step at least 6 feet to the side of the trail to let the masked group pass. In all instances, use strong verbal cues to let a group know you are coming up from behind, or if they are not aware of your presence.

In all instances, the best trail etiquette is to stay aware of your surroundings, and do your best to communicate clearly. Good manners and courtesy go a long way to ensuring everyone has a great time on the trail.