Trail Etiquette: Who Has the Right of Way?

Rate this story:

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.

  • Jaime Reyes

    be nice even when others are not

  • “Always hike single-file, never taking up more than half the trail space, and stay on the trail itself.” Sounds nice on paper, unfortunately this is one of the least followed rules.

  • Hippie Long Stockings

    OMG It is about time someone has this posted. Thank you REI for that.

  • Samantha

    The greatest anxiety when taking horses on the trail is that a hiker or biker will do something unpredictable near the horses or approach too fast. If you have a dog that may run toward a horse, please in all that is holy, keep it leashed. Thank you for posting this!

    • REI

      Samantha, we agree. It is important to keep the trail friendly for everyone.

  • Viv001

    Thanks for this post. As a horse rider of some fairly reliable trail horses I do hold my breath a little every time horses are written about as if they are wild animals ready to ‘spook’ and kill anything in their path, and as if there is not a person (the rider) there.

    I appreciate that it is good advice to say that horses seem unpredictable, they really aren’t, but they do have different eyesight, senses, and perceptions of their surroundings. They’re sentient beings with their own feelings and thoughts, not machines. Think of them like taking a 500kg toddler out on the trails, mostly ok but sometimes they think they aren’t being heard, so they may throw themselves about a bit at inappropriate times.

    My advice, simply slow down (or stop) and ask the rider (yep, there’s a real live person just like you up there) whether they would prefer to pass you, or have you pass them while they stand still (same as you would for any fellow pedestrian on a narrow trail). If they’re rude, I apologise in advance. Unfortunately, riding a horse (or any other recreation) doesn’t change the person’s basic personality.

    Horses have excellent senses and a rider paying attention (who allows their horse some initiative) will know there is someone, or something ahead (or behind) and may actually stop and wait for whowhatever. Once stopped they’re usually quite happy to stay there and let you past regardless of the usual etiquette.

    Rather than being slowest to manoeuvre, horses are the largest to manoeuvre and reliant on a person (on top) to make decisions about the safest choice when in a narrow space. Yes, pass on the downhill. This is not just because horses ‘are more likely to run uphill’ its actually because if there is a downhill, the horse (who cannot directly see it’s own feet) may misjudge the slope, or just lose their balance sideways and fall down it! This is why riders will prefer to ride directly up or down a slope, not zig-zag down as a human naturally does to reduce the slope. Horses have excellent 4wd if going forward or backward – but nothing about them is built for going sideways, or having one set of feet on a different level from the other side. It can also depend on whether there is clear space, or nasty things that can stab and injure the horse’s lower legs. The rider has to judge all this before asking the horse to move.

    Do differentiate between riders on their own horses and trekkers. If you are passing a horse trekking outfit, many of the riders may have little or no control over the horse they are on. So, best to let the whole line past. Nervous or inexperienced riders will not make good decisions about trying to move a horse off the trail. Be kind. Imagine it’s you up there, wondering how you got talked into this ‘experience’.

    Stuff that may not be appreciated – flappy things, particularly anything that makes rustling sounds (like predators in the bushes) – raincoats, big hats. scarves… Just get them under control if it’s a windy day – clamp your arms to your sides or something. Anything that looks like a big stick – walking poles, surfboards, fishing rods etc – either lay them on the ground or stand them up directly beside your body so that the horse knows you aren’t about to use them.

    Dogs under control please – but that applies when meeting pedestrians and bikers too (and also applies if you are riding with your dog!). Under control means at your side, or even behind you. Yes, you too horse riders! Horse riders with dogs are so often the worst culprits at not controlling their dogs – apologies to all the hikers and cyclists who have already discovered this. Be particularly watchful of herding breeds once the horse(s) have passed. They are genetically programmed to chase, and often nip at heels. Even a horse that is not bothered, will happily resolve this training issue with a kick to the dog’s head (that can kill the dog). I have trained one of my horses to bite poorly controlled dogs, as this is less harmful to the dog than letting him kick as I have seen too many dogs killed in preventable incidents.

    • EdG

      And thanks for ensuring the horse doesn’t soil the middle of the trail on a hot day…

      At least the dogs tend to move off a few feet!

      • Lisa

        Owners should pick up and properly dispose of their dogs poop. And they should bring them on trails where they are not allowed. Repeatedly I see dog on wilderness trails, where they definitely aren’t allowed.

      • Viv001

        Assuming the rider knows the horse is having a poo… Many good trail horses will drop dung on the move without the rider every knowing. It’s digested (not very thoroughly) grass, it’s not going to hurt you.

        You’re in a country where there are plenty of large mammals out in the wilderness, there must be all sorts of poo out there. Just think of it as young soil, and take a concrete pill.

    • Brittany Caviness

      I had a hard time finishing this post just because there was so much there. I’ve been riding horses for over 20 years and recently started hiking. The one thing I can tell you that you seem to forget is that your horse may be predictable to you but not to the person on the ground. Let me direct your attention to the last paragraph in this article and remind you about the mutual respect required to share the trails with others appreciating it from a different aspect. Don’t forget to enjoy yourself no matter who you run into, they are only 10 seconds of your day!

  • miles_skank

    You left out an important category: hikers with pets. In my opinion, they can be the biggest problem on the trails, especially the ones that don’t put their pets on a leash, or let the leash stretch out too much. Most park trails have leash rules, but more than 50% of hikers with pets that I come across do not have them on a leash. Who told them that I’m interested in having their pet come up to me and smell/lick/rub against me? What if I’m allergic to their pet? Worst yet, what if I do something their pet doesn’t like and it decides to bite me? Most people with their pets not on a leash seem to think they have some magical control over their pet, but more often than not they’re all over the place.
    Please be respectful of other hikers/bikers/riders, and also be respectful of the law, AND HIKE WITH YOUR PETS ON A LEASH!
    Ok, I’m now off my soap box.

    • larryburke

      Animal enslaver! No wonder dogs want to bite you.

  • Commenter248

    This is kind of a pet peeve of mine. But at the end of the day its not worth letting it get to you.

  • FOSSrules

    Mountain bikers should never skid on trails lest they cause trail erosion. Mountain bikers should always maintain a safe speed so that they do not have to skid if they need to stop suddenly… say for a hiker. Mountain bikers should never cycle on a muddy trail (again, erosion), but should dismount and walk their bikes.

  • Vallie Atkinson

    I mountain bike, and hike and backpack. I always give way to horses, and give plenty of room at all times. Personally though, I would never expect a mountain biker to get off of their bike when I am hiking. Yeah, I know that IMBA says bikers yield to everyone. I think it is totally illogical to think a biker should stop, get off their bike, lift it off the trail, and remount and start again, when myself(or any other hiker) can simply take one step to the side, and one step back when they pass. I would feel like a total “A” hole making a rider do all that just because hikers decided that since mountain bikers came to the party last, they need to kiss butt. Any one using reason, and objective thought would come to the conclusion that hikers should yield.

    • Marci Cooke

      As a hiker, I also believe it is far easier for me to take a step aside and let the mountain biker pass. I would never want a biker going up an incline to stop for me. I also hike with a dog and have trained her to get off trail on my command. Dogs and bikes don’t mix.

    • Viv001

      I don’t believe ‘hikers’ made that etiquette. I believe (but am happy to be corrected) it is simply the general rule of wheels give way to heels, probably created around from the time when bikes and cars started to appear on roads and rights of way. I agree it doesn’t always make sense, but it does make sense in that speed must give way to lesser speed. Any alternative would result in bikes simply speeding past with ‘right of way’.

      I guess that’s when we have to all take a breath and ask – would I be so judgmental if we were both walking on an urban footpath (or in the office corridor)? There might be all kinds of reasons the hiker doesn’t want to, or can’t make way for a bike ( slightly impaired eyesight, hip replacement or minor disability that you can’t see, or even just lack of experience)

  • Vallie Atkinson

    I backpack and mountain bike. I always give lots of room to horses. When hiking, I always step aside for mountain bikers as well. It just makes logical sense! I can’t see making a mountain biker brake to a stop, put their foot down, dismount, lift the bike off the trail while finding room to get it out of the way, and then having to remount and restart. When I can take one step to the side, and one step back after they pass. I think you would have to be an arrogant person to make them yield. I know IMBA guidelines say for the biker to yield. But from a standpoint of objective reason it makes no sense at all. It is only because mountain bikers came to the game last, that hikers decided they needed to kiss their rears while on “their” trails.

  • azbob49

    You missed my pet peeve. As I am a fast hiker (at 65), I often overtake other hikers and many times they act like I’m not even there. What really gets my goat is when some person and group decide to end a break and step off in front of me just as I get to them. I often have to announce “passing on the left/rt” or something similar. I always step aside on the rare occasion when someone catches up with me.

No more articles