Backpacking Trail Etiquette

If you think etiquette is something that’s only practiced at the dinner table, think again. Backpacking comes with its own etiquette and set of common courtesy rules, so don’t be a jerk and keep reading to learn how to be the nicest backpacker ever. 

First things first, who has the right of way on the trail? Spoiler alert: it isn’t always you. Hikers traveling uphill get the right of way, since they can’t see as well going uphill as you can while going downhill. If you’re hiking in a group, don’t take up the whole trail- walk in a single file line, like in elementary school (minus the safety rope). And if you’re hiking alone and see a group coming, give them the right of way and a friendly hiker smile and wave. If someone is riding on a mountain bike, this is when you have the right of way! Bikes are faster and easier to maneuver, so they can move out of your way easier. But if you see a horse (because apparently, some people ride horses on the trails?), get out of the way, unless you want to run away from a charging horse.  

Now that we got that out of the way (no pun intended), we can talk about the golden rule of backpacking: treat people, trails, the environment, and wildlife how you want to be treated. In other words, just be cool. Nobody wants to share the trail with a jerk, so here are some basic rules of etiquette every backpacker should follow: 

  1. Leave the trail for the hikers and get off the trail for resting. When you do go off the trails for some shut-eye, be conscious of the ecosystems around you. How would you feel if someone stomped on your home? You wouldn’t like that, and neither do the wildlife living there.  
  2. Be friendly. You learned how to say hello and be nice in kindergarten, and those lessons don’t disappear on the trail. If you’re passing by a hiker, say hi, unless you want to have an awkward encounter.  
  3. Give others some space, man. At this point, we already learned how to social distance like pros, so let’s carry those same principles over here. You don’t want to be all up in someone’s business while they’re hiking or resting, so respect their space and privacy.  
  4. BYOS - Bring your own stuff. There’s nothing worse than someone who’s unprepared and trying to bum a bunch of things off of you, so avoid being that person and BYOS. Food, water, fire starters, shelter, first aid kit - bring all of it for yourself.  
  5. Be quiet. If you want to bring your speaker or a radio because you want to blast your favorite tunes all night, think again. Not only will other campers be annoyed with you, but you’ll also be disturbing the wildlife. Also, keep your voice down late at night or early in the morning.  
  6. Practice nighttime etiquette. In addition to keeping quiet, don’t shine your headlamps or flashlights onto other people’s campsites or tents. Keep your devices on red light mode. Bring some earplugs if you’re a light sleeper and you’re camping by someone who didn’t read this blog and is breaking all the etiquette rules.  

One of the most important principles that every backpacker should follow are the “Leave No Trace” principles. They’re all basically common sense, but we’ll list them out for you anyway.  

  1. Do your research and prepare. Since every place is different, you’ll want to research the rules and regulations of each trail and prepare for all kinds of weather and emergencies. Imagine how you would feel if you got lost off the trail in a thunderstorm- you’ll want to avoid that by researching and preparing.
  2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces. You could ruin ecosystems and disturb wildlife if you set up camp anywhere other than somewhere durable. In case you don’t know what constitutes a durable surface, it’s any groomed campsites, rocks, gravel, dry grass, and snow. Keep your campsite as small as possible too, to avoid disturbing wildlife any further. 
  3. Dispose of waste properly. Have you ever lived with a roommate who never washed their dishes or cleaned up after themselves? That’s how the animals view you when you leave your trash on your campsite. Don’t be that roommate, pick up after yourself. 
  4. Leave what you find. You know what they say, “Take pictures, leave footprints.” Learn that phrase and live it.  
  5. Minimize campfire impacts. In other words, leave no trace of a fire. And in the words of Smokey the Bear, only you can prevent forest fires. Keep your campfire small and under control and put your fire out completely and scatter the ashes before leaving the area.  
  6. Respect wildlife. Going back to the terrible roommate scenario, be respectful of the wildlife you might encounter. You’re technically a guest in their house, so act like it. Enough said.  
  7. Be considerate of others. This final principle is self-explanatory, and something you (hopefully) learned as a child. Just don’t be rude!  

We really should have titled this blog, “How to not be a jerk while backpacking,” but we’re trying to be nice here, because we want to teach you how to be nice, too. See, we’re all learning. Keep these etiquette rules and tips in mind on your next adventure and you’re sure to have a great time and receive some approving looks from other hikers.