Trail Etiquette: Who Has the Right of Way?

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Although I’m sure most hikers out there enjoy their fair share of peace and solitude on the trail, odds are you’ll eventually end up sharing the trail with others.

But don’t worry—whether you’re sharing the outdoors with mountain bikers, equestrians or fellow hikers, there are general guidelines for how to share that tiny trail space with others.

Hikers vs. Bikers

Since mountain bikes are considered more maneuverable than hikers’ legs, bikers are generally expected to yield to hikers on the trail. However, because those mountain bikes are often moving considerably faster than said legs, it’s usually easier for hikers to yield the right of way—especially if a mountain biker is huffing and puffing up a tough incline. A biker should never expect a hiker to yield, though.

Because mountain bikers move faster, hikers should also be aware of their surroundings on shared trails. Conscientious mountain bikers will call out as they come down steep slopes or blind switchbacks, and should also let you know if there are other bikers following them.

Hikers vs. Horses

As the largest, slowest-to-maneuver and (usually) least-predictable creatures on the trail, horses get the right of way from both hikers and mountain bikers. If you’re sharing the trail with equestrians, give them as wide a berth as possible and make sure not to make abrupt movements as they pass and talk calmly when approaching to avoid startling the animal.

Trail Etiquette

Equestrians passing on a fire road in Griffith Park, Los Angeles.

If you’re on a narrow trail and horses (or mules) are passing, get off the trail on the downhill side as they trot by. Horses are more likely to run uphill than downhill when spooked, and you definitely don’t want to be in the path of a spooked horse.

Hikers vs. Hikers

It seems that many hikers—even experienced ones—may not know or always remember this, but hikers going uphill have the right of way. This is because in general hikers heading up an incline have a smaller field of vision and may also be in that “hiking rhythm” zone and not in the mood to break their pace. Often an uphill hiker may let others come downhill while they take a breather, but remember that’s the uphill hiker’s call.

If you’re about to pass another hiker from behind, a simple “hello” is often the best way to announce your presence. Remember, many of us can zone out on those long, steep inclines! When passing, always stay on the trail to reduce erosion.

Trail Etiquette

A group hikes single-file in the Fiery Furnace in Arches National Park to reduce erosion.

Trail etiquette is even more important when you’re hiking in a group. Always hike single-file, never taking up more than half the trail space, and stay on the trail itself. Over time, those off-trail boot prints can badly erode switchbacks and destroy drainage diversions. When a group meets a single hiker, it’s generally preferable for the single hiker to yield and step safely to the side.

Trail Etiquette

A mountain marathon group breaking almost all the rules.

Remember, when in doubt, just treat other hikers, bikers and equestrians the same way you’d treat the trail itself—with respect. Then get back to enjoying that solitude.

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