Mean Runners Suck: How Not to Be a Jerk on the Trail

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etiquette 'et-i-kit, -ket n. 1. The practices and forms prescribed by social convention or by authority. 2. A code of ethical behavior that makes the trail (and the world) a better place.

Trail runners are a pretty laid-back crew, which means that trail running etiquette isn’t necessarily about hard-and-fast rules. It’s mainly about good manners and courtesy. This excerpt from veteran trail runner Lisa Jhung’s new book Trailhead: The Dirt on All Things Trail Running offers handy rules of thumb on how to be a good trail citizen.

Understanding the Needs of Others on the Trail

Runners aren’t the only ones who use trails. Mountain bikers, equestrians, hikers, rock climbers, and birders are all trail users. Some trails are wide enough for multiple trail users to pass one another, but others may be too narrow. Singletrack, by definition, is only wide enough for a single user, and so when two parties meet on a singletrack trail, one must yield to the other. “Yield” means pull over to the side of the trail to let another pass. When yielding, it is polite to alert the other party that they’ve been yielded to and can proceed freely by saying something like, "You’re good."  

Posted rules or not, putting yourself in the shoes of people you encounter on the trail and understanding their needs and their thinking can help you distinguish who should yield to whom.

Other trail runners: Encountering fellow trail runners while running can be a beautiful thing. You nod cheerfully to one another, say a simple, "Hi," and pass by knowing you’re part of the same tribe.

Hikers: Trails are filled with hikers of many stripes. Casual hikers may be friends having a serious talk: "And then he said, 'You’re turning into your mother!'" "Oh, no, he didn’t!" Or speed hikers wearing sweat-wicking performance apparel and a determined look on their faces. Or contemplative journalers: "I need to get to my rock." And then there are families with small children, doing their best to share nature and keep meltdowns at bay. These hikers are entitled to the trail as much as you are and aren’t necessarily paying attention to you running, so let courtesy and common sense prevail.

Old couples holding hands: Older couples holding hands on trails should always have the right of way. Pass with care.   

Up-to-somethings: Groups of young adults sometimes congregate on trails to smoke, drink, make out, or all of the above. Pass with care. And if you see your neighbor’s kid, make a mental note as you pass by.

Dog walkers: Depending on the trail and the dog owner, canines may or may not be on a leash. Be friendly when you pass by, and consider lowering a hand for the dog to sniff.

Birders/naturalists: Folks on the trail with binoculars, walking slowly while looking up, may be birders spotting warblers. Similar folks looking down may be naturalists hunting for mushrooms. Either will be busy identifying flora and fauna and may be unprepared to jump out of your way. Don’t sneak up on them. Announce yourself with a friendly, "hello." (Or if you can screech like a low-swooping red-tailed hawk, try that.)

Equestrians: Horses are allowed on some of the same trails as runners. Take care not to spook a horse. Speak gently to it, and yield to the horse and rider, passing with care when there’s room. Step to the downhill side of the trail or off to the side. Continue talking calmly as the animal passes by.

Mountain bikers: Mountain bikers sometimes get a bad rap for allegedly ripping around corners and charging down trails, scaring other trail users. But courteous mountain bikers don’t cause problems; jerk mountain bikers (or runners or equestrians) do. While rules give foot traffic the right of way, let’s face it: It’s easier for you to move to the side of a trail than it is for them. Be courteous and consider giving them the right of way so they don’t eat it.

Wheeled, motorized mechanisms: All-terrain vehicles, dirt bikes, and snowmobiles frequent certain trails. They’re big, fast, and— thankfully—noisy, so you can get out of the way when you hear one. This is one of many good reasons to not wear headphones on a trail run.   

Factors That Influence Who Should Yield to Whom

Since who has the right of way isn’t always cut-and-dried, consider the following factors.

Momentum: Whoever relies on momentum and needs it to continue moving forward, and would have a hard time starting up again, should have the right of way. Examples include uphill mountain bikers, exhausted runners, and hikers doing all they can to keep one foot moving in front of the other.

Stopability: If a trail user would have a hard time stopping safely, consider yielding if only so he or she doesn’t cream you on the trail and hurt both of you. Such users include runners sprinting downhill with windmill arms, yelling, "Ahhhh!" mountain bikers charging downhill fast, and older people or children hiking downhill.

Exertion level: If someone appears to be exerting him or herself more than you—for example, you’re on a casual run and they’re doing speed work or running at tempo or huffing and puffing more than you—then the one exerting more effort should have the right of way. (Note: That this doesn’t necessarily mean the one who’s going faster.)

Fear level: Take note of trail users who jump to the side of the trail. Be nice to them; they might be fragile. Horses might fall into this category, and so might other trail users in particular moods. Never sneak up on anyone. You may get a swift kick to the head, a frightened animal and rider, and an unsafe situation all around.

Jerkiness: Sometimes trail users, whether on foot, bike, or motorized vehicle, act like jerks. Despite guidelines, these folks will assume that they get the right of way and that what they’re doing on the trail is more important than what you’re doing. If you don’t give them the right of way, they’ll take it anyway. Don’t let it ruin your day; step aside and take secret pleasure in knowing you are not a jerk.   

How to Pass Safely

At some point, you will pass—and be passed by—other trail users. Here’s how to do it nicely.

Pass from Behind

  • When approaching someone you want to pass, make a few subtle noises as you near them. For example, sniff or cough (or screech) a couple times. If this doesn’t alert the person, or if the person doesn’t give you room to pass, say, "Hi there," or some other pleasantry.
  • If they still don’t move over so you can pass safely, say, "Sorry, can I squeeze through?" or "On your left." Don’t forget to say thank you as you pass by.

Pass Head-On

  • Passing someone when you’re facing each other is easier than passing from behind because you can see each other coming. Edge to the side of the trail, continuing to run as you make room for him or her to get by.
  • If the trail is narrow—or if it’s an equestrian, a pack of bikers, or a motorized vehicle—move completely off the trail until the other party passes by.

Be Passed

  • If you hear someone coming up behind you who you suspect wants to pass, look back to see how far away that person is and move to the side as you continue running. If the trail is narrow, consider hopping off the trail for a moment so they can pass. If the passer tucks in behind you instead of passing, say something like, "Let me know if you want to get by me."
  • When being passed, smile and be pleasant to show you are A-OK with the fact that someone faster just passed you (even if your ego is bruised).

Rule of Thumb: If you’re running side by side with a friend as another trail user approaches, move to single-file formation so the other person can pass. 

The Bottom Line: Two Golden Rules of the Trail

Be courteous. A smile and a friendly attitude go a long way in keeping everyone’s trail experience positive.

Follow the rules. In some instances, there are actual written rules. Some trail signs let users know who’s allowed: horses, bikes, foot travelers, or some combination of these. Some signs alert users to one-way trails—most common at Nordic centers (open to runners in the dry months) and mountain bike centers. Some trails are open only to bikes on certain days of the week and only to foot travel and/or equestrians on other days. It is important for safety and courtesy to follow all trail signs.

Adapted with permission of VeloPress from ‘Trailhead: The Dirt on All Things Trail Running’ by Lisa Jhung with illustrations by Charlie Layton. For more, visit velopress.com/trail.