Hiking trail etiquette
The rules to the trail are largely unwritten, and trail users are expected to know them going in. Failing to understand them ahead of time can result in ‘faux-pas’ on your part that may range from embarrassing to outright dangerous or even fatal. It’s best for everyone to be aware of the rules of the road before hand so that everyone can meet oncoming people and challenges with tact, grace, predictability, and safety. Let’s run through them, and it might be advisable to print out this list and take it with you, or even to review it before hitting the trail.
- Yield when appropriate
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that you should never play chicken with a semi truck. By that same logic, you may wish to protect yourself on the trail and keep in mind the fact that running groups, bikers, ATVs, dogs, and horses can mow you down no matter how much signage is put up.
The rule of the trail is that the more agile object yields. Bikes yield to people, and everything yields to horses. Bikes can stop and go quickly and are understood to be highly predictable and controllable.
EVERYTHING yields to horses. It’s not just because horses are bigger (some ATVs can get to be a good size), but because some horses are panicky around motors and bikes. And even people. The default mentality of horses (carried over from millennia of evolution) is that everything is trying to eat them. Their immediate response is to run away. On the trail, anything that you can do to keep from posing a threat to them is highly appreciated to their riders.
- Sharing is caring
Try to maintain a safe distance between you and other hikers, especially on hills. Nobody wants to break your fall if you trip and come tumbling down, and you don’t want to offer that service to anyone else either, for your own safety! Comfort, privacy, personal space, and connection with nature are all concerns as well that encourage distance between hiking groups. Stay to the right of trails and move off the trail (if there’s room) when resting. Make sure that you choose a durable rest area like a rock or patch of dirt or snow instead of a nice fluffy grass or flower patch. That patch might look tempting, but it won’t survive your intrusion.
Another unwritten rule of the trail is that hikers going uphill have the right of way. They’re working harder and are likely to want to keep their stride and momentum. They’ll let you know if they prefer to rest and let you pass; if this happens, they should be allowed to make the call.
Letting other hikers know that you’re there can be critical. The danger of spooking them can be a small fright (if they’re hiking) or severe injury (if they’re riding a horse or bike). If you’re a shy type, a simple “Howdy!” or “Hi!” should suffice. You may notice that seasoned hikers are awkwardly chatty, but they’re talkative for good reason! If you’re able to muster more conversation, it’s often a good idea to strike up a chat with an oncoming hiker or a slower person that you overtake. That individual might just be the last person who has seen you, knows your whereabouts, and can direct search parties to you if you get lost or hurt yourself on the trail. Making sure that you’re memorable isn’t just friendly; it’s smart!
When you’re overtaking other hikers, signalling that you’re passing is commonly done by calling out “left!” Not only does this term (much like the golfer’s “FORE!”) let people know that you’re there, but you’re avoiding trail crowding by telling them the direction that you’re taking to approach. If you’re riding a bike, a quick ring of your bell (or honk of your horn) serves the same purpose and will let people know that you’re coming.
- Minimizing impact
Contrary to the above advice, we’ll next suggest that you be quiet while you hike! It is tempting to hear the hills come alive with the sound of your echoes, but unless you’re seriously concerned about bear encounters then it is wise to keep the noise pollution to a minimum. Keep conversations short and voices down. Also, ringers off please! You’ll be glad that you unplugged for a few hours.
Unnecessary markers are also a form of visual pollution that can clog up trails. Notches on trees or (shudder!) initials carved in trees may seem romantic but are damaging. Piles of rocks (cairns) are unneeded for navigation and come to serve no purpose other than an egotistical “I was here!” when the forest becomes littered with them. Any type of marker focuses traffic in an undesirable way, as high traffic areas are more prone to trail scars.
Almost as bad as cairn builders are cairn topplers. Some hikers feel that they are doing the woods a service by clearing them of human-made objects. However, it is very likely that the (disrespectful) person who built the cairn will build another if that one is toppled. Additionally, cairns are sometimes employed in burial practices of small animals and family pets – as much as they should not be built, they should equally not be destroyed.
Remember that slack line, hammock, tent, tarp, and horse tying ropes all damage trees. It is important to stake wires to the ground, or to use appropriate padding on all ropes.
- Stay on the trail
It may be quite tempting to investigate every glade and beautiful rock outcropping that nature has to offer. However, human shoes and handprints leave their mark on nature, crushing it. The rules aren’t in place just for you, but are put there with everyone in mind; what would happen if everyone wandered off the path and though the woods, stomping all over the forest? Some ecosystems bounce right back from a small amount of traffic, but some are very sensitive (like the Taiga) to even a single off-path trek. Other regions (even though they might bounce back from a few wanderers) would be devastated if a high number of people ignored this rule. Not only do footprints crush vegetation in some areas, but they also contribute to erosion.
The trail may wind past or through territory belonging to private owners. It is important to respect the privacy of people who might be living along the trails, as well as the wellbeing of the land itself on or adjacent to the trail. Permissions for other people to hike through farmland can be (and sometimes are!) withdrawn, and if complaints are made about trail users by private citizens, it is possible that trails use will be restricted.
- Perceived danger
It’s not unrealistic that you could encounter a person or situation that makes you feel unsafe. If so, it’s a good time to bring out that cellphone that you remembered to bring along. It’s also advisable to pretend that you’re with a larger, hiking group, and many groups will be glad to have you hike with them for the trail or the day if you feel unsafe (no commitment required!). It’s always a good idea to ask for help if you get lost or if you need any supplies – other hikers are likely happy to share their water, sunscreen, first aid supplies, etc. if you run into trouble. Even the best-prepared are still caught unaware, and seasoned hikers are often not judgemental of trail hazards.
- Leave no trace
It should go without saying that littering is terrible anywhere, and arguably especially so on the trail where it spoils views of untouched nature. Also, there are no street sweepers to clean up dropped cans and wrappers in the wild, and the shiny objects may be taken up by animals to locations where they may continue to pollute for eons before they completely decompose. The rule to follow is: if you pack it in, pack it out.
Remember not to make fires or fire circles in the wild. Please use picnic areas and grills if provided. Fire scars remain for years and may become very numerous if allowed to be created unchecked.
Use only provided toilet facilities, if possible. If not possible, the “bush” procedure is to dig a hole 6 inches deep, at least 200 ft away from any open water.
Pets are best left at home since they are likely to disturb wildlife with their scents and noises. If you do end up bringing them, remember to keep them on a leash so that they do not disturb other hikers or animals. You should always clean up after your pets, and they should never be allowed to void near water sources that they might contaminate. This same rule goes for horses! They should never be tied within 20 feet of open water.
A good final note is to remember not to take anything with you from the trail. Many wonders await you: fossils, flowers, rocks, seed pods, neat bugs, and many more! Take a picture and leave the amazing scenery for the next person to enjoy.
The STA is also holding a photo contest for the month of June! For more details, visit http://sasktrails.ca/give-us-your-best-shot!/ and use #sasktrailsphotocontest to enter. You can find our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/sasktrails/ .