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Hiking etiquette and ethics: the 10 commandments of conscientious hiking

hiking right of way sign
Is your hiking etiquette up to scratch? (Image credit: Simon McGill)

Few recreational activities have quite so low an impact on the environment, wildlife habitats, and other humans as hiking. But as the ranks of both occasional and frequent hikers swell worldwide, ensuring we go about getting in our time on the trails in as ethical, conscientious, and sustainable a manner as possible is becoming more imperative than ever.

Hiking etiquette and ethics might not be the first thing on most hikers’ minds when they’re planning for an adventure or taking to the trails, we know. However, making just a few small tweaks to the way you go about getting your trail time could make a big difference to those around you, the environment, and the flora and fauna that call your upcoming stomping ground “home.”

Below, we outline ten best practices to follow to ensure your days on the trails and at camp are as considerate and ethically sound as they are enjoyable, covering everything from the principles of self-reliance and basic hiking etiquette right through to how to choose the best tent, best hiking boots, and all the rest of your gear without unwittingly contributing to unethical employment and production practices.  

Hiking etiquette and ethics: 10 tips for more mindful and mannerly backcountry travel  

1. Know before you go

Benjamin Franklin once said that by “failing to plan, you’re planning to fail.” While old Ben might have been talking about matters of state, the same holds true for conscientious hiking. 

“Failure” on a hiking trip in ethical and conscientious terms can take many forms. The most frequently cited, however, stem mostly from a lack of pre-trip preparation and failure to inform yourself adequately before leaving home.

Some things you can do to ensure you’re ready to do your trail time conscientiously include the following: 

  • Research your route before you leave to make sure you’re not biting off more than you can chew, thus reducing the risk of having to seek help from (and thus endangering) other hikers or rescue services 
  • Familiarize yourself with local or park regulations as regards camping, trail use, and bringing pets along for the trip 
  • Brush up on frequently on the basics, such as how to read a map, how to use a compass, and how to leave no trace 
  • Pack all hiking essentials (waterproof jacket, waterproof pants, water, food, illumination, warm clothing, first aid kit, navigation aids) so you can be entirely self-sufficient 
  • Learn of any fragile habitats or wildlife areas in which you must take extra care or should avoid 
  • Find a safe and considerate place to park your vehicle 

map and compass

It's best to brush up on your skills with these to avoid having to be rescued (Image credit: Gary Ombler (Getty))

2. Do no harm

Often the slogan "leave no trace" leaves room for creative interpretation. It isn’t too difficult, after all, to leave no visible trace to the average human eye but still negatively impact wild habitats and their non-human residents. 

Some simple, seemingly innocuous acts that might do so – and which you should avoid – include:

  • Shifting rocks (either voluntarily or accidentally when walking off-trail)
  • Wild camping in areas where you might disturb wildlife and damage fragile terrain or microecosystems 
  • Hiking off-trail (see #10) 
  • Urinating or defecating near water sources 
  • Burying trash
  • Making excessive noise (a disturbance to human and non-humans in the area alike) 

3. Buy ethically

 

As the number of trail-goers has risen worldwide, so too has the number of brands producing goods to keep them clothed, fed, hydrated, sheltered, and otherwise equipped.

As is the case with all consumer products, however, the sourcing, employment, and production practices of many outdoor brands leave a lot to be desired from an ethical and environmental viewpoint. 

We’d be loath to pose as cheerleaders or touts for specific brands by praising their merits over others. Instead, we merely suggest putting in a little bit of research before heading to the checkout or hitting the ‘buy’ button.

Some things to look out for are brands that:

  • Use recyclable, organic, and/or ethically sourced materials 
  • Give back to humanitarian, social, or environmental causes 
  • Have a sound and ethical supply and production chain 
  • Pay everyone in those chains a decent, living wage 
  • Use products and materials that are Bluesign approved or Fair Trade Certified

4. Travel ethically 

Few of us are lucky enough to live within a short commuting distance of good hiking trails. For most of us, this means putting in the mileage in our vehicles in order to get in our trail time. In doing so, however, we can, alas, quickly rack up a sizable carbon footprint. 

Whenever possible, try to travel to your trailheads on public transport or car-share with other hikers. While busses are maybe the lowest-impact option, you’ll be hard-pressed to find one to take you all the way to your trailhead and car sharing at least means the net carbon footprint for the trip will be divided between as many others as you manage to squeeze into the vehicle. 

A bus in the mountains

Buses: sometimes the most eco-friendly way to get to your trailheads (Image credit: Navinpeep (Getty))

5. Go local 

Many of the communities within and surrounding popular hiking destinations are sustained almost exclusively by revenue brought by outsiders visiting the area to go hiking or participate in other outdoor activities. 

To do your bit to help the communities in areas where you’re doing your hiking, try to buy or source everything locally, from your supplies for the trip to your guide and your post-hike dinner and drinks in the local watering hole.

6. Be aware of the wildlife 

Any time we head into the backcountry, we share our environment with countless, usually unseen, others. Following a few simple hiking etiquette and ethics rules of thumb will help to ensure we don’t inadvertently bring them to harm. 

Don’t feed animals. There are several reasons why feeding animals should be avoided. Most notably because it: 

  • Puts you at risk of an attack 
  • Habituates animals to human food, making them more likely to seek it out in future 
  • Causes animals to lose their natural fear, leaving them more vulnerable to hunters, vehicular fatality, and disease spread amongst unnaturally dense populations that have concentrated near human settlements to enjoy freebie feeds 
  • Fosters expectation and dependency: providing an artificial food supply can result in animals producing larger families that they are then unable to sustain, which can result in starvation if that supply, for any reason, is no longer available 

Don’t steal their food. It’s always a pleasure to come across wild eats (berries, mushrooms, nuts, seeds, and even fruits) when out on our hikes. However, what might give us a few minutes’ satisfaction might well be a vital food source upon which the area’s critters rely for sustenance.

Keep your pets leashed. When hiking or trail running with your dog, observe local regulations regarding the use of a leash and be mindful that your pup is more likely to spook wildlife than you are. Also, other hikers with a fear of dogs or allergies may have chosen to hike there assuming they’ll be spared close encounters with canines.  

marmots

Marmots eying up a hiker's sandwich and s'mores  (Image credit: Yann Guichaoua)

7. Be self-reliant

On the face of it, being self-reliant while getting your wander on in the backcountry might not appear to be a matter of conscientiousness or related to hiking etiquette. However, being unable to take care of ourselves might result in others (whether volunteers, rescue services, or fellow hikers) being summoned to come to our aid, thereby exposing them to risks they would otherwise have avoided. 

The main components required for self-reliance when hiking are summed up in the ‘Ten Essentials of Hiking’, a simple list of each of the must-have items or groups of items that every hiker should carry and/or be competent in using before taking on any trail:

  • Navigation (map, compass, GPS device) 
  • Shelter (tent, emergency bivvy, or tarp) 
  • Fuel/Nutrition (trail snacks and freeze-dried meals
  • Hydration (adequate H2O) 
  • Insulation (adequate clothing)
  • Sun protection (sun hat, sunscreen)
  • Fire (matches, lighter, or ferrocerium fire starter)
  • Illumination (headlamps)
  • First-aid kit
  • Multitool

8. Be respectful of other trail-goers

Having a trail entirely to ourselves is a rarity even in the world’s most unfrequented hiking areas. To ensure we don’t detract from the experience of other trail-goes, it’s a good policy to: 

  • Avoid making excess noise (shouting only in the case of an emergency and using headphones to listen to music, if you must!)
  • Yield the right of way (see 9)
  • Let other hikers pass if moving slowly and if you can do so safely
  • Leave plenty of room for other hikers to pass when taking rest breaks
  • Camp a respectful distance from other campers unless space is limited or invited to join camps

 9. Give way to ascenders and horses  

Hiking trails are rarely used by hikers alone. When you encounter other trail users, here’s what to do:

Horses. When meeting equestrians on the trail:  

  • Give them a wide berth
  • Don’t make any sudden movements or loud noises that might startle the horses 
  • Shift onto the lower side of the trail to let them pass if possible (horses typically bolt uphill as opposed to downhill when spooked) 

 

Bikers. The unwritten hiking etiquette rule when hikers encounter bikers on the trail is that bikers should yield the right of way. Why? Because mountain bikes are considered more maneuverable than the limbs of walkers, it’s assumed that it will be easier for bikers to stop or change direction. 

However, because bikers tend to be moving faster and are more likely to lose control if forced to stop or divert course suddenly, common sense dictates that in some cases the interests of both hiker and biker will be best served by the hiker yielding the right of way.

Cyclists on a hiking trail

Fast-moving cyclists on a hiking trail: a grey area in hiking etiquette (Image credit: Cristoph Oberschneider (Getty))

Other Hikers. The age-old rule of thumb in this oft-encountered scenario is that hikers heading downhill should yield the right of way. This is because uphikers have a smaller field of vision and are usually less aware of their surroundings than those on the descent. They will also find it harder to regain their rhythm after stopping.

While many an uphill hiker will gladly yield the right of way to downward-bound hikers in order to catch their breath and take a rest, the downhiker should always be prepared to step aside and let the uphiker pass.

10. Stick to the trails 

This hiking etiquette instruction is often hard to stomach for those who hike as a means of getting “off the beaten path,” the free spirits, or those who simply don’t get the usual kicks plodding along behind a slow-moving herd of fellow trail-goers. Nonetheless, it’s one of the most important rules to abide by if you intend on doing your hiking in a way that respects wild environments and their non-human inhabitants. 

hikers on a mountain trail

For various reasons, it's always a good reason to stick to the trail (Image credit: Cavan Images (Getty))

Heading off-trail should be avoided for several reasons, most notably because it:

  • Increases the chances of encounters with animals, which are used to humans sticking to established trails 
  • Can cause damage to trees, sprouts, mosses, fungi, and other delicate plant life
  • Contributes to erosion
  • Increase flood risk by compressing the topsoil so it no longer soaks up rainwater and diverting existing drainage channels
  • Increases the risk of becoming lost (see #7)
  • Makes you more likely to sustain an injury and more difficult to find for rescuers or other hikers
  • Encourages the copycat effect - where you go, other hikers are more likely to follow, thereby compounding damage and potentially leading less experienced hikers into terrain they are less capable of negotiating
  • Increases the risk of dislodging rocks that can either strike hikers on established trails below or become impediments on the trail itself