What is proper trail etiquette? An expert lays out the do’s and don’ts of hiking

What is proper trail etiquette? An expert lays out the do’s and don’ts of hiking

Every trail has rules, and often there are signs not just at the trailhead but also along the trail to remind hikers of what to do and what not to do to respect the environment.

However, some of the guidelines for hiking seem to get overlooked time and time again, either out of lack of knowledge or intentionally.

Fletcher Jacobs, State Trail Programs Manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, answered a few questions about trail etiquette based on the most commonly violated rules.

Q: Why is it important to stay on the trail?

“As land management agencies, we create these trails to manage where folks go,” Jacobs said. “Every time you decide to cut off the trail, you are potentially trampling vegetation, causing disturbance of habitat or causing erosion.”

He noted that people might step around or off the trail for all kinds of reasons — muddy conditions, ice or snow on the trail, the call of Mother Nature, to take a shortcut — but if everyone does it repeatedly, it can alter the intended trail.

“Say the trail was created to be two to three feet wide, and that decision was made because of the landscape itself. If enough people start making their own trails, then it might become a six-foot trail and lead to greater erosion.”

That erosion of the trail can end up in the local water system and impact wildlife.

Q: What’s the big deal if someone relieves themselves right off the trail?

“Mother Nature will call no matter where we are,” he said. “The best course of action is to use any available facilities at the trailhead, as these were created to have impact in one place.”

That said, the urge may strike miles from the nearest toilet, so Jacobs recommends going 200 feet or 70 steps from water sources and the trail. “It’s tricky, because you’re trying to keep on the trail,” he said. “Be sensitive and thoughtful about stepping off the trail at any point.”

He suggests finding a rock type of surface or pine needles, not tundra or vegetation areas. “If you gotta go, you gotta go, but minimize impact,” Jacobs said.

Q: What’s the harm in feeding the wildlife?

“Folks love to get outside and see the wildlife, whether they live here or are visiting here,” Jacobs said. “But in no circumstance should you get so close you could touch or feed wildlife. Not only can this harm animals, it can also lead to behavior changes and cause danger to future visitors. These are wild animals, and we cannot predict their behavior, so it’s a safety issue.”

This includes not leaving remnants of food — such as orange peels or sunflower seed shells — as you snack on the trail. “When you are in the wild, it’s really thinking about having all of your food sources under control,” he said. “You have to think about how can you minimize and store food properly and not tempt wild animals.”

Jacobs pointed out the seven principles of the Leave No Trace philosophy, which are: plan ahead and prepare; travel and camp on durable surfaces; dispose of waste properly; leave what you find; minimize campfire impacts; respect wildlife; and be considerate of other visitors.

Q: If a dog is friendly, why does it have to be on a leash?

“I always tell people, ‘You might have the friendliest dog in the world, but that doesn’t mean everybody else loves your dog,’ ” he said. “It’s just a courtesy for our friends who are not dog lovers to keep your dog on a leash. Also, dogs are animals that can get out and get excited by their surroundings, so they have that impact on the land and plants when they go off-trail. I’ve seen situations where the dog goes right up to a wild animal, and it can end very badly for the dog, especially if it’s a moose or a bear.”

Every trail, wilderness area, park or open space has its own rules about whether or not dogs can be there, enter a waterway, be off-leash or on, so check the regulations ahead of time, Jacobs said.

Q: Isn’t a biodegradable bag of dog waste going to erode anyway, so it’s OK to leave it on the trail? 

As one open space agency reminded hikers in a campaign, “There’s no poop fairy.”

When it comes to dog waste, even in a compostable or biodegradable bag, it’s trash that needs to be packed out just like an energy bar wrapper or tin can.

“Dog waste does not belong there,”  Jacobs said of open space and wilderness areas. “Also, dog poop can be disruptive to native fauna. Dogs are not native wildlife here, and wild animals rely on scent. That bag of waste will have its own scent.”

Q: Who has the right of way: hikers going uphill or downhill?

“Hikers going uphill have the right of way,” he said.

Perhaps more important, though, is to have good communication with fellow hikers. “Always stay on the trail, communicate by asking if you can pass, saying hi, ask how they are doing,”  Jacobs said.

Q: What is one thing you want hikers to know?

“People think a few deer ran back and forth and now there is a trail,” he said with a laugh. “It takes a lot of work to build a trail. A lot of resources go into building a trail, to designing a trail, to keep impact to wildlife to a minimum, and make it a fun experience for hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians.”

He adds that many, many volunteers are involved in not only building trails but also maintaining them over the years. “There are always opportunities for volunteers to help out,” he said.

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