Finding Common Ground on the Trails

However you choose to get outside, here’s a guide to sharing the trails.

The verdict is in: Trails are seeing more traffic, and it’s expected to stay that way.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, outdoor recreation has boomed. About 7.1 million more Americans participated in some form of outdoor recreation in 2020 than the previous year, according to a report commissioned by the Outdoor Foundation. Most of those new or returning participants said they planned to stick with their outdoor activities in 2021 and beyond.

Time spent in nature is a proven boost to both mental and physical health, and outdoor advocates say more users are embracing those benefits on the trails. But busier trails also can have drawbacks. Trail organizations have noticed more conflicts among trail users, as well as more damage to sensitive landscapes.

With these impacts in mind, a coalition of outdoor advocacy groups came together this year to kick off Trails Are Common Ground, a national campaign to make trails friendlier and more inclusive. The idea was sparked by the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), but conversations quickly expanded from there.

“The question to ask is, ‘Who am I going to encounter, and what am I going to do when I encounter them? What we want to instill on trails is to start with kindness…”

-David Wiens, executive director of the International Mountain Bicycling Association

“When we first started, we were specifically looking at just singletrack trails,” said David Wiens, IMBA’s executive director. “We were seeing our organization building trails around the country and then seeing dog walkers heading up a jump trail. We realized there was a need for more trail access for everyone, and the goal became to make everyone’s experience better.”

More than 20 organizations had a seat at the table when the campaign launched over the summer. The groups represented hikers, runners, mountain bikers, hunters, anglers, adaptive users, equestrians and motorized users. Advocacy groups like Latino Outdoors and NavajoYES also participated.

Underrepresented trail users

Alfredo Gonzalez Velez, a Latino Outdoors volunteer who serves as an outings leader in the Bay Area, took on a role in the campaign as an advocate for underrepresented trail users. “Our members don’t always have access to a lot of open space,” said Gonzalez Velez. “A lot of our recreation comes from urban trails.” For instance, places that you might access from public transportation, he said. Perspectives like this helped broaden the campaign’s scope, to focus not simply on remote singletrack but trails of all kinds.

A main feature of the campaign is to educate new and seasoned users about trail etiquette, no matter how they travel across the land. These guidelines aren’t new; many groups have promoted them for years. Instead, it’s a way to highlight them and help demystify concepts that can be foreign for newcomers—such as who has the right of way on a trail, when to announce your presence and how to pass slower users.

“The question to ask is, ‘Who am I going to encounter, and what am I going to do when I encounter them?’” said Wiens. “What we want to instill on trails is to start with kindness, then move to awareness, and the third piece is knowledge.”

Tips are a starting point

The campaign doesn’t cover all situations. These tips are just starting point, said Wiens. In many cases, a trail system may have local regulations (often posted at trailheads or trail junctions) that may be more specific than the guidelines from Trails are Common Ground. Such regulations might specify which trails are only for mountain bikers traveling downhill or are equestrian trails or trails that are open to different users at certain times.

In addition, many organizations involved in the campaign have more detailed trail etiquette guidelines specific to the activity they support. And as winter sets in, it’s worth noting that trail etiquette plays a role in winter sports like cross-country skiing, fat-biking and snowshoeing, too. And before you head out, consider these guidelines on how to recreate responsibly.

Here are some of the main takeaways from the Trails Are Common Ground etiquette guidelines.

Hiking

  • Yield to equestrians, and others, when appropriate. Use your best judgment when navigating tight trail spaces. Sometimes it simply makes sense for the person in the easiest position to move aside, to do so, regardless of their method of travel and whether they have the right of way. Be cognizant of what users with a disability might need.
  • Come prepared to stay hydrated and ready for unexpected weather changes. Make sure you can find your way back to the trailhead before dusk.
  • Reduce your impact on the trail. Don’t trample on delicate plants. Pack out everything you brought with you. Hike with care.
  • More hiking and backpacking etiquette tips.

Mountain Biking

  • Yield to foot traffic, equestrians and others when appropriate. If you’re riding downhill, also yield to uphill cyclists. Be cognizant of what users with a disability might need.
  • Ride in control at all times, slowing down for blind corners. Only ride open trails. Not all trails are open to mountain bikes, and not all mountain bike trails are open to e-bikes. Be an ambassador for the sport.
  • Announce your presence with a bell or your voice when approaching other trail users from behind. Be patient. Pass others, or let others pass you, with kindness.
  • More mountain biking etiquette tips.

Trail Running

  • Yield to equestrians and other users when appropriate. Be cognizant of what users with a disability might need.
  • Generally speaking, downhill runners yield to uphill runners. However, it may be safer for an uphill runner to yield to a faster-moving downhill runner. Be flexible.
  • Announce your presence. Pass others, or let others pass you, with kindness.
  • More trail running etiquette tips.

Equestrian

  • While other users should yield to equestrians, be prepared to yield if needed to enhance everyone’s safety. Be cognizant of what users with a disability might need.
  • Pass slowly, as horses can be intimidating to others.
  • Request that other trail users move to the downhill side of the trail far enough for your horse to pass.
  • More equestrian travel tips.

Motorized Travel

  • Yield to all non-motorized users. Downhill motorized traffic should yield to uphill motorized traffic.
  • Travel responsibly and respect the rights of other users. Avoid sensitive areas. Do your part to maintain trail access. 
  • More motorized travel tips.

All photos courtesy of Trails Are Common Ground.

Editor’s note: REI Co-op awarded the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) a $75,000 grant in 2020. It also awarded $29,500 to the Washington Trails Association, $20,000 to the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance and $25,000 to Latino Outdoors—all of which are members of the Trails Are Common Ground coalition. 

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