Hiking Right of Way

If you enjoy hiking on somewhat remote, “single-file” trails, you may have met other hikers coming from the opposite direction and wondered whether any hiking rules and trail etiquette dictate which of you should step aside and yield. While there isn’t a formal manual for proper hiking behavior, there are a few hiking rules and guidelines that will make your hiking experience more enjoyable for you and other hikers.

General Trail Etiquette When Passing Others

When meeting someone on a narrow trail where passage may be difficult, it’s never a bad idea to call out and greet the oncoming hikers in advance. Indicate whether you intend to pass first or start a conversation to make that determination. A friendly call out to those you meet is always a good idea regardless of trail conditions, as it assures them of your goodwill and may create an opportunity to exchange important trail information.

High Cliff or Mountain Trails

When hikers meet on a narrow cliff or mountain trail, safety becomes the biggest concern. Such trails are often steeply inclined, and in such situations, the “uphill or downhill rule” should determine who passes first.

When walking uphill on a narrow, cliff-bordered trail, you will usually be working harder than when you’re going downhill on the same trail. You’ll probably be somewhat tired, and you’ll be focused mostly on the ground just in front of you, picking the best spots for your next steps. In addition, your awareness of activity farther along the trail will be less than someone coming down the hill, who’ll be looking downward into a broader field of vision.

For these reasons, it’s most appropriate for downhill hikers on narrow, cliffs or mountain trails to yield to those coming up the hill. Downhill hikers on a trail bordered by steep cliffs or drop-offs should assess the situation early and move to a trailside area that allows the uphill hiker to be farthest away from the drop-off. The downhiller may need to move back up the hill a short distance to find such an area.

Muddy Trails and Water Crossings

When meeting other hikers on narrow, muddy trails, a good idea is to decide who passes first based on the location of the muck. You’ll generally find yourself walking on the right side of a trail when passing another hiker. If you approach an area where the path is muddier on your right side, you will need to move to the left, and the oncoming hiker should yield. Likewise, you should yield if the trail is less muddy on your right side. If both sides of the trail are equally muddy, then the best approach is to call out to the oncoming hikers and decide who will pass first.

The same hiking rule and trail etiquette applies when hikers pass at water crossings. If your right side of the trail contains more water, the oncoming hiker should yield and allow you to pass. Conversely, you should yield if the water is greater on your left side. If the entire trail is covered with water, a call out and discussion is a good idea.

Rocky Areas

Rocky areas on a trail are often best handled in a manner similar to muddy and water-covered areas. You should yield and allow oncoming hikers to proceed if your side of the trail is more passable. If the entire trail is equally rocky, then a brief discussion should decide who passes first.

Always Offer Information You May Know

If you’re on a narrow trail that’s familiar to you, and you meet other hikers, you may know which side of a rocky path is more stable or which part of a muddy trail is less boggy. Always be courteous and offer such information to oncoming hikers before you meet. You may be able to make their hike less arduous and save them from discovering bad things the hard way.

Always Be the Courteous Hiker

If there’s ever a doubt about hiking rules, trail etiquette, and who has the right-of-way when hiking uphill or downhill, err on the side of giving way to others. You can rarely go wrong by letting others pass first, and you never know when you may meet again out on the trail. You’ll also end your day feeling better about your hiking experience if you know you’ve done all you can to make the path easier for others.

So, go and enjoy the great outdoors, and remember that trail courtesy is contagious!