Trail Etiquette 101
There is a reason the trail dwellers of the world are drawn back out into nature, time and again, despite the bug bites, blisters, and often lack of plumbing. For me? Being on the trail is freedom, freedom from everything we place so much unnecessary value on every day; the freedom from our Instagram feeds that make our own lives seem a little less extraordinary, freedom from the pressure we put on our appearances, freedom from all the noise that clouds our minds and souls. Because the truth is, on the trail, NOBODY CARES.
The world seems to be getting a little smaller every day, places that were once hidden gems are now popping up on the internet all over the world. More and more people are getting out there and exploring because well, everything is becoming more and more accessible. This will not change, but what we can do is ensure that those who do use the trail, new and old, do their part to keep the true spirit of the outdoors alive and well, and continue to make it enjoyable for everyone.
Know the Right of Way – Is this even a thing? Yes, yes it is. There are exceptions to this, since trail conditions vary and you’ll ultimately choose the safest option, but the general rule is that the hikers going uphill have the right of way. If you need to take a break, find a location with an adequate amount of space to safely step aside and allow other hikers to continue unobstructed. When you decide to continue, keep right and pass on the left, kindly letting those in front of you know when you are passing. If there are mountain bikers on the trail, they should give hikers the right of way, however; bikers are usually going very quickly downhill or struggling to get uphill and it may be easier (more often than not) for hikers to yield to bikers.
Hike Single File – This ensures space on the trail for others to pass from behind, and ensures the safety of the hikers coming down. This also reduces the likelihood of you and your group members fumbling over one another while trying to find proper footing on the trail.
Pack out What you Pack In – I cannot emphasize this one enough, NEVER leave anything on the trails. This includes food scraps, wrappers, cans, absolutely every kind of trash. For the sake of being thorough, if you’re not sure why this is important, let me tell you. Aside from the obvious detrimental effects of litter on the planet and wildlife, trash is just downright unsightly, and it’s enough to turn a pristine environment into another human dumping ground. Nobody goes out into nature and thinks to themselves “I hope I get to see a lot of trash today”. As for the food scraps, you may be thinking, “well it’s all biodegradable, right?”, sure, but reserve that kind of thinking for your compost piles at home. By leaving around food scraps you inadvertently introduce wildlife to human foods, or foods not naturally found in the surrounding ecosystem. By doing so, you can disrupt the wildlife’s natural behaviour, make them sick, and make them more likely to approach humans. This puts everyone at risk, especially when it comes to bigger, more dangerous animals like bears.
What to Do – Bring your own trash receptacle. Nothing fancy, just a plastic or reusable bag of your choice to store your garbage in until proper means of disposal are available. In addition, knowing that you’ll likely need to carry all your garbage with you for the duration of you hike, be mindful of what you pack. Some tips include:
- Choose the Right Container: there are a ton of options out there for reusable food bags and foldable containers. They pack small, are lightweight, and produce absolutely no trash
- Meal Prep: This may take a lot of preparation, but on those multi-day hikes, this will certainly save you from excess garbage
- Avoid Bones: Big one here is chicken, and the solution is simple. Instead of a drumstick or wing, choose chicken breast. There will be no waste when you’re done.
- Consolidate your Snacks: Open all your snacks before your hike while you’re still at home, then pack them together in one or two reusable food bags. This will save you the extra litter from multiple packages.
- Pre-cut your Fruits and Veggies: Fruit is usually the worse of the two, from apples cores to banana peels. Cutting up your fruits and veggies ahead of time and putting them into reusable food bags or plastic containers will ensure no waste.
- Avoid Bulky Items: This includes pretty much anything in a can or bottle that isn’t your primary water bottle. Unlike wrappers and some food scraps, these are always bulky and a drag to lug around with you.
- Unavoidable Waste: AKA human waste. There’s no way around it, at one point or another, you’re going to have to answer nature’s call somewhere in the woods. Only advice I have here is to pack special biodegradable toilet paper that breaks down quickly and do your business a good distance off the trail
Be Mindful of the Noise – This may or may not offend some people. But I’m not sure I’ve met anybody on the trail who enjoys listening to other people’s noise, unless of course, you’re the one making the noise. This doesn’t include talking, laughing or even singing amongst yourselves at a normal decibel, but does include the screaming, hollering, loud obnoxious banter you can hear from a mile away for most of your hike. Realistically, on a quieter hike, you may hear somebody else’s noise for a few minutes before it dissipates into the wilderness, but that is not the kind of noise we are talking about here. Remember that there are all kinds of people on the trail such as birdwatchers, photographers, or simply ordinary people trying to escape their already noisy lives. Simply read the situation, if the trail is busy, and there are lots of other hikers within ear shot, it’s probably best to keep the screaming to a minimum. You may be thinking, “why not let people enjoy the trail the way they want to?”, and I totally agree, until the manner in which you enjoy the trail makes it hard for anybody else to enjoy it as well.
Now on to the issue of music. Personally, I love listening to music on the trail. On a long day, especially if flying solo, music really helps me focus, push through some of the more challenging ascents, and find a good rhythm. Now, I only ever listen to my music though headphones, but some people prefer to use a small speaker. This is where the conflict arises. Your walking through the woods, and suddenly, you’re distracted by the blaring sound of Skrillex from a distance (no offence to the fans out there), now you have two choices, run up the mountain to gain some distance (and hopefully, some silence), or jam out because you love Skrillex. I’ve found myself in both situations, either someone’s music is painfully irritating, or something I’m happy to listen to until we’ve parted ways, it depends on the music and it depends on the setting. General rule of thumb, if you want to play your music through a speaker, it shouldn’t be so loud that other people can’t escape it, and more importantly, it shouldn’t disturb the wildlife. This is the great thing about headphones people, you bother NOBODY by wearing them.
Obey the Rules!
- Fire Bans: We’ve all been there. Campfire’s are arguably the best part of camping, on and off the trail, so when you pull up to the trailhead or campground and you notice in bold “FIRE BAN IN EFFECT” your heart sinks a little. However, there is no good reason to start a fire during a fire ban. We are from Alberta and British Columbia, and know first-hand the devastation of forest fires. This year was the worst on record, with 1,250,383 hectares burned across our provinces. These wildfires have steep environmental and financial ramifications, people also lose their homes, and vulnerable populations are put at serious risk in the smog that can spread for hundreds of kilometers. Do not start a fire during a fire ban, point blank, no exceptions. When there is no fire ban, act responsibly, never leave a fire unattended, even hot embers can spark a flame.
- Trail Markers: People love to cut the trail, and it seems innocent enough, until everyone else starts doing it to. This is especially problematic on trails with dense forest and vegetation, where the ecosystems are fragile and easily destroyed by human traffic. Sticking to the trail won’t kill you, and you’ll be doing the environment a favour. If that isn’t reason enough, those off-trail footprints can eventually erode the areas surrounding the trails, destroy drainage diversions, and ruin the natural beauty that lures us to the trail in the first place.
- Food Storage: In addition to what was already discussed above, a multi-day hike will involve special food storage. Many well-established trails and campgrounds offer bear caches at a safe distance from camp to keep food in while you sleep, or while not in use during the day (your trash should go in there as well as it also carries the smell of food). Under no circumstances should you be storing food in your tent or near your campground where any wildlife is present. As I also mentioned above, the smell of food or food scraps may attract wildlife, and you are putting yourself and other hikers/campers at risk by failing to store food items and trash properly. If no bear cache is available, there may be designated bear poles to hang your items. For these types of systems, you will need a bear bag or bear canister and may or may not also need a decent amount of rope to hang it. Do your research beforehand on specific trail requirements and look at what is/is not provided.
Prepare for your Hike – Last, but not least. What does this have to do with trail etiquette? Simply put, how well you prepare, or don’t prepare, ultimately affects everyone when something goes horribly wrong. People don’t take this one seriously enough, and I have NO IDEA WHY. Reality is, even experienced hikers and mountaineers get into accidents, no one is exempt from doing the proper research and preparation before heading out for a hike, and yes, this goes for ALL hikes. Even an established trail, with lots of trail markers, people, and parks staff, can pose some type of risk without any preparation at all. Some things to consider before going on a hike include:
- Do you have the proper footwear and equipment? A proper pair of shoes or boots, as well as hiking poles in some cases, can save you from a nasty fall or sprained ankle.
- How long will this hike take? Consider the time of year, how many hours of daylight do you have? When will you have to start your hike to avoid nightfall? If hiking in the dark, do you have the proper equipment and means to navigate without daylight?
- Do you have enough water and food for the duration of your hike?
- Will you have cellphone service in case of emergency? What is your back-up plan?
- Are you familiar with your route? Does it involve any technical aspects that require special experience (i.e. route finding, scrambling, technical climbing)? For multi-day hikes, do you know where you’re setting up camp?
- What are the trail conditions? Is there snow? Ice? Heavy rainfall that can cause the trail to become unstable?
- Do you have the proper clothing? Exposure is a real thing, either in the heat or in the cold, and in the mountains especially, weather conditions and temperatures can fluctuate significantly.
Take away message – Whether you’re new to the trail or a professional mountaineer, set an example for those around you, be an advocate for our environment and keep our parks clean and healthy for generations to come. Be safe and happy adventuring!