More than a year into the pandemic, and we’re still figuring out what the future holds for the world of travel. But one thing is certain: The great outdoors has never been as popular as it is right now. Many of us turned to national parks, forests, and just about any open space to deal with living through a once-in-a-lifetime global healthcare crisis. We’ve purchased bikes, we’ve learned how to ski, and we’ve stomped along hiking trails in record numbers. So now is as good a time as any to discuss hiking etiquette.
Trails all over the country are seeing foot traffic like never before. Among the most popular have been the mountains of Colorado; in fact, Vail, which usually counts winter as its busiest season, saw such increased hiking action last year that locals were suggesting the implementation of a reservation system on trails. When it does get busy, it’s even more critical to be as mindful as you can be when you’re out on a hike—not just for everyone’s safety and enjoyment, but also for environmental preservation to ensure that we can walk, run, and ride these paths for generations to come.
Something to consider before you even get on the trail is to avoid driving there. Vail is encouraging commuting to trailheads with its latest initiative “Bus It to Hike It.” To address overcrowding and other safety concerns such as speeding and illegal parking, lots at some of Vail’s most popular trailheads will either be closed or have restricted capacity from now until August 2, 2021 (with the possibility of extension into autumn—or for it to be an annual policy). Vail has a pretty decent free bus system that can get you to various nearby hiking trails, which isn’t the case everywhere you go, but if you can avoid driving—whether through public transit or carpooling, it will free up space at trailheads and mean you don’t need to worry about finding parking.
But it’s once you’re on the trails that the real work begins. According to Donny Shefchik, a senior guide and field director at Paragon Guides in Vail, whether you’re a first-timer or an experienced outdoor enthusiast, the guiding principle for being in nature is to be respectful of where you are. “Our being there creates an impact,” Shefchik says. “What decisions can we make to minimize that impact? How do we follow that classic saying ‘leave no trace’?”
With more people out hiking, parks and forests are at greater risk of being negatively impacted by human behavior. Avoiding littering and not picking native plants to take home might sound like simple and obvious rules to follow, but during peak seasons, these seemingly basic principles become even more critical. And there are less obvious points of etiquette that we need to heed.
These days, you’re almost guaranteed to run into more people than usual while out on a hike. When you cross paths with someone else, avoid walking off the designated trail. If you want to give someone space to walk ahead of you, step off but stay there. Once they pass, you can get back on the trail and continue on your way. Walking off the trail can lead to braiding, which kills vegetation and adds to trail maintenance costs.
REI Experiences sales and marketing manager Annemarie Kruse, who has guided in Arizona for nearly a decade, adds that if you find yourself at a point where someone is hiking in the opposite direction, remember that the party going uphill should be allowed to pass first. “They have the right of way over downhill hikers as they are ‘working harder.’ Many new hikers are not aware that there are right-of-way standards on trails,” she explains.
If you’re looking to take a break—to rest or eat, Shefchik suggests looking for a place where you won’t impact vegetation, like a rock outcropping or under a large tree. “Because of the shade, not much grows on the ground around that tree, or find a fallen log—a sitting log as I call it—on which to catch your breath.”
Shefchik adds that an uptick in humans hiking means a similar surge in the number of dogs. He urges dog owners to make sure they can control their pets before taking them out. Just like you shouldn’t be running around off the trail, your dog shouldn’t really be roaming around on its own, potentially trampling on whatever is sprouting there. But you also don’t want your dog to potentially charge after other people or other dogs or wildlife. “If you want to take out all of the ways in which a dog could disturb the ecosystem of where you’re hiking, that dog should either be very well-trained or on a leash,” Shefchik says. And remember, in some hiking sites, there are leash laws to follow.
Of course, there’s also the issue of picking up after your dog. Kruse says she’s noticed more and more hikers leaving dog poop bags on the trail with the intention of coming back around for them on their way out. Don’t do that. Even leaving that trash there for half an hour could have serious consequences. “Many dog owners think it’s OK to leave a plastic bag full of poo on the trail to pick up later, [but it’s not],” she says. “This can attract animals and litters the landscape, impacting other users and the environment. Plus, more often than not, the bags are never retrieved.”
Kruse has also noted more people playing music loudly as they go about their hikes. That’s wildly inconsiderate, considering other people usually take to nature to de-stress. “The soundscape is as much a part of that as the landscape,” she says, adding that she’s frequently encountered people playing their music on speakers rather than headphones. “However, loud music and other loud noises can be disruptive not only to other hikers but to wildlife as well.” So you shouldn’t be screaming or speaking at a volume better suited for the football match.
The number one thing to remember when you’re out on a hike, whether that’s a mountain trail or along the ocean, is that you’re in a special and important place that should be protected and kept as authentically natural as possible—and this mindset should inform the way you behave.