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A First-Time Hiker’s Guide to Trail Etiquette

A man and woman hiking in the woods around sunrise.

From preparing for your first big hike to understanding the hiker’s right-of-way, following proper trail etiquette on your first adventure will ensure you (and everyone else on a trail) have an enjoyable experience.

Hiking can give you a new appreciation of the great outdoors, especially if you’re used to an urban setting. If you’re more familiar with the right-of-way rules for vehicles, and your knowledge of etiquette is limited to the polite distance to stand behind someone using the ATM, we’re here to help!

Plan Ahead

Planning and preparing for your day is one of the seven principles of Leave No Trace, and it’s a vital way to set yourself up for success on a trail.

Taking the right gear, planning for emergencies and weather, and, of course, packing food and water, are all essential things to consider. If you’re new to hiking, you can check out our list of guidelines to help you prepare for your first day hike.

Pack It In, Pack It Out

Anything you bring on the trail, you have a duty to take back out again. This applies to everything, including apple cores and banana peels. It might seem counterintuitive to have to pack out organic material, since, after all, it will decompose. However, you might be surprised to learn just how long that takes. Apple cores take months to decompose, while banana and orange peels can take years.

Inspect any campsite or location and leave it cleaner than you found it. If every hiker or camper left behind a piece of trash, trails and campsites would be absolute wrecks. If everyone took one piece of trash, in addition to their packed-in materials, though, the trails would always be pristine.

Keep in mind that the beautiful surroundings are a home to wildlife, plants, and mountains, and it was that way years before you came along. To preserve our wildlands so we can continue to enjoy them, we have a responsibility to clean up after ourselves.

Properly Dispose of Human Waste

The often uncomfortable topic of using the bathroom when there isn’t one on a trail is a concern for many new hikers. If you have to pee, make sure you do so at least 200 feet away from any natural water sources. You can gauge this by counting about 80-100 steps.

It’s always a good idea to bring some biodegradable toilet paper with you. You can reroll it so it’s more compact and save some space in your pack. Put your used TP in a small, sealable plastic bag so you can take it back with you, and dispose of it at home.

If the urge for number two strikes, make sure you are (again) at least 200 feet away from any water sources. Then, use a camping trowel (aka poop shovel) to dig a hole that’s about 7-inches deep by 4-inches wide hole.

Bury your waste and toilet paper with the same dirt you dug up and disguise the hole when finished. Clean your hands with biodegradable soap or hand sanitizer.

Some trails with higher traffic have strict rules about this, so be sure to read up before you start your journey.

Leave Behind What You Find

While it’s vital that you don’t litter along the trails you hike, it’s also essential you do your best to leave what you find (unless it’s someone else’s trash of course). Rocks, plants, and other natural objects should remain untouched.

We know it’s tempting to take mementos. However, even if you just take a rock or a bit of moss, multiply that by the thousands of people who hike a popular trail—it really adds up.

Respect Wildlife

A deer standing among wildflowers, curiously looking at the photographer.
Ondrej Prosicky/Shutterstock

Wildlife encounters are exhilarating, but do yourself (and the animal) a favor by enjoying them from a distance.

Never feed or approach animals on a hike. also, if you have your pet with you, make sure he or she is on a leash to avoid any dangerous encounters.

Obey Campsite and Trail Regulations

Sometimes, we unintentionally harm the outdoors due to a lack of knowledge. Before you head to any outdoor setting, whether it be a state or national park, be sure you know the rules.

If you ever hike in the Southwest region of the U.S., for example, you’ll encounter areas off the trails that have a different kind of dirt. This dirt is an incredibly important, but delicate, biological mass that makes up the “soil crust” in that region. Any damage to it can take decades to centuries to repair.

Some areas also have endangered species that need our help to keep them safe, so you must be well-informed before going out on a new trail. Keep in mind that some trails have strict rules to which you should abide to ensure the preservation of the surroundings.

Consider the Impact of Campfires

Campfires are a quintessential backpacking and camping experience, but they can be pretty destructive, too. For hot meals, we recommend you use outdoor cooking gear, like a lightweight backpacking stove and fuel canister.

Before you ever start a fire, use designated fire rings wherever fires are permitted, and keep it small, using only sticks you find on the ground. Also, make sure your fire is entirely out before you leave a site.

Know the Right of Way

Understanding who has the right of way will help you get along with everyone else hiking that trail. Hikers going uphill have the right of way, although, often, they’ll stop and let people come down first, for a quick breather.

If you’re sharing a trail with a horseback rider, they have the right of way, as it’s easier for you to move out of the way. Mountain bikers should yield to hikers and horseback riders, but sometimes, it’s easier for a hiker to move out of the way, as a biker will be moving faster.

There’s so much to learn when you’re new to hiking. However, as long as you use your best judgement, and you’re courteous to others and respectful of nature, you’ll be just fine.

Emilee Unterkoefler Emilee Unterkoefler
Emilee Unterkoefler is a freelance food writer, hiking enthusiast, and mama with over ten years of experience working in the food industry. Read Full Bio »
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