There’s such a thing as trail etiquette

By Marjorie “Slim” Woodruff

The uppermost switchback on the Bright Angel Trail in Grand Canyon National Park is eight feet wide. Yet the last time I hiked out, I was stymied by a group of young hikers walking down shoulder to shoulder, tapping on their phones. 

Even when I said, “Ahem, excuse me,” I was unceremoniously nudged out of the way — not on the cliff side, but still.

It shouldn’t need mentioning, but while walking on a rocky trail where one may fall to one’s death, it is best not to be watching one’s phone. And in case you were wondering, uphill has the right of way.

I am often told that people coming downhill should have the right of way because they might lose control and can’t easily stop. Well, on a shared trail, one should not be losing control, and certainly not on a trail where a fall could lead to dying, as above. 

Uphill has the right of way because it is harder to stop and restart while climbing. Yes, some hikers want to stop and rest and that is their prerogative, but if I have my uphill mojo going, I don’t want to stop.

Downhill hikers also have a much wider field of vision.  Climbing up, I usually see only my feet, particularly if I’m wearing a sunhat. Since most injuries occur on the way down a trail, it might behoove one to slow down and pay attention in any case.

Nor does this apply only to hikers. On a four-wheel drive road, the driver coming down must pull over for the driver coming up. 

In mountain biking, uphill has the right of way as well, partly because if the uphill rider has to stop, they will likely be walking up the rest of the hill.

Standing at the top of a steep hill and yelling “Clear!” before bombing down is not sufficient. Perhaps that is why more and more trails around Arizona have signs posted warning riders that if they cannot comply with the rules, the routes will be closed to bikes. 

Mountain bikes are supposed to yield to hikers, but since I know how hard it is to stop and start on a bike, I usually step out of the way anyway. 

Yet all trail users must yield to horses. I have met horses that freak out upon seeing a piece of blowing paper, so I cannot imagine how they would react to a fast-moving bike.

Regarding those annoying downhill hikers and runners who say they “need” the right of way, I have not done the study, but I would bet they never yield no matter which direction they are heading.  They have important things to do and places to go, and maybe a phone to check.

As absorbing as it is to walk hand-in-hand with your sweetie, or arms linked with your BFF, you probably would not force people off the sidewalk into traffic just to keep your bestie right there. So why, on a trail, would you force other hikers to give way?

Faster hikers overtaking another party should politely make their presence known. A curt “on your left” as you elbow them out of the way does not suffice. Neither does stepping on their heels until they finally acknowledge you. 

Speaking for myself, I often fall into a reverie while hiking, and I do not always notice someone dogging my footsteps. So please say something.

I’ve been startled more than once by a runner brushing against me as they sped past, sometimes on a trail narrow enough that had I stepped (or tripped!) to the side, I would have knocked the runner off the cliff. 

People are allowed to periodically pause on their treks. I was berated recently because I was standing with my pack facing the trail. I was informed hotly by an approaching runner that he had to slow down to pass me, and next time would I please move out of the way? I did not realize I was upsetting his Best Time Ever. 

More and more it seems, we needs must share our wilderness with all sorts of users.

Yes, we all get hot and sweaty and cold and tired and exhausted and hungry and thirsty, but we can still be polite. To paraphrase the immortal Robert A. Heinlein, politeness is what characterizes a civilization.  

Marjorie “Slim” Woodruff is a contributor to Writers on the Range,, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. She is an educator in the Grand Canyon.

Bright Angel Trail, NPS/Ty Karlovetz

This column was published in the following newspapers:

09/04/2023 Vail Daily Vail CO
09/05/2023 Fort Morgan Times Fort Morgan CO
09/05/2023 Boulder Daily Camera Boulder CO
09/05/2023 Denver Post Denver CO
09/05/2023 Portland Tribune portland or
09/05/2023 Beaverton Valley Times Beaverton OR
09/05/2023 Sherwood Gazette Portland OR
09/05/2023 Columbia County Spotlight Scappose OR
09/05/2023 Valley Times News Portland OR
09/05/2023 Woodburn Independent Woodburn OR
09/05/2023 Sandy Post Sandy Post OR
09/05/2023 Estacada News Estacada OR
09/05/2023 The Newberg Graphic Newberg OR
09/05/2023 Central Oregonian Prineville OR
09/05/2023 The Outlook (Gresham) Gresham OR
09/06/2023 Moscow-Pullmand Daily News Moscow-Pullman ID
09/06/2023 Greeley Tribune Greeley CO
09/06/2023 Aspen Daily News Aspen CO
09/06/2023 Grand Junction Daily Sentinel Grand Junction CO
09/06/2023 Whitehall Ledger Whitehall MT
09/06/2023 Wallowa County Chieftain Enterprise OR
09/06/2023 Craig Daily Press Craig co
09/05/2023 Hillsboro Times News Hillsboros OR
09/07/2023 Moab Times Independent Moab UT
09/10/2023 Tahoe Daily Tribune South Lake Tahoe CA
09/09/2023 Yahoo sunnyvale ca
09/09/2023 Carlsbad Current-Argus Carsbad NM
09/12/2023 Wenatchee World Wenatchee WA
09/10/2023 Canyon Courier Courier Co
09/07/2023 Taos News Taos NM
09/09/2023 Sierra Sun North Lake Tahoe CA
09/10/2023 Tucson Star Tucson AZ
09/08/2023 Laramie Boomerang Laramie WY
09/08/2023 Wyoming Tribune Eagle Cheyenne WY
09/06/2023 Hungry Horse News Columbia Falls MT
09/09/2023 Idaho Mountain Express Ketchum ID
09/09/2023 Sierra Nevada Ally Carson City NV
09/08/2023 Durango Telegraph Durango CO
09/07/2023 Methow Valley News Twisp WA
09/05/2023 Sterling Journal-Advocate Sterling CO
09/11/2023 Colorado Free Press Denver CO
09/13/2023 Three Forks Voice Three Forks MT
09/12/2023 The Golden Transcript Golden Co
09/12/2023 Arvada Press Arvada Co
09/12/2023 Clear Creek Current Idaho Springs Co
09/12/2023 Jeffco Transcript Jefferson County CO
09/12/2023 Canyon Courier Courier Co
09/08/2023 Limon Leader Limon CO
09/07/2023 Daily Interlake Kalispell MT
09/08/2023 Alamogordo Daily News Alamogordo NM
09/12/2023 Judith Basin Press Judith Basin County MT
09/15/2023 Sierra Vista Herald Sierra Vista AZ
09/16/2023 Pueblo Chieftain Pueblo CO
09/18/2023 Del Norte Triplicate Crescent City CA
09/19/2023 Bandon Western World Bandon OR
09/17/2023 Lake Powell Chronicle Page AZ
09/21/2023 Pagosa Springs Sun Pagosa Springs CO
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Another good post – “Summer is the season of inferior sledding” – Inuit proverb
10 months ago

[…] There’s such a thing as trail etiquette […]

10 months ago

Cyclists should always have a noisemaker on their bikes. Going downhill, it should ALWAYS be making noise.

The bikes I meet coming down the trail when I’m going up couldn’t stop and yield the right of way unless they hit a large tree. I assume I will have to jump out of the way with little or no notice.

Trail Runner
10 months ago

This is quite possibly one of the most annoying articles I’ve ever read about hiking. How about just pay attention to your surroundings while you are out hiking and be cool about it. Pay attention and stay out of the way when you are stopped. If someone comes up on you from behind, they didn’t arrive there by teleportation, they are moving faster then you, so be kind and let them pass. If someone is coming at you and they are moving fast, it’s ok to be nice to them and let them pass. We are all just people out enjoying the outdoors. Sometimes you let someone else pass – sometimes they let you pass. Many times you can easily both pass on the trail.

Brian Long
10 months ago

I love any discussion on trail etiquette. Thanks for this piece. I have often heard the notion that uphill hikers are given the right of way because it takes more effort for them to start and stop again. While that may be occasionally true, it is not strong enough to award them the right of way. Plenty of uphill hikers are more than happy to take a breather to allow downhill traffic or those overtaking to proceed.

In the modern dynamic on the trail, it is more about who cannot have the right of way – which user group would abuse that and cause injury? It is certainly not uphill hikers (or slow uphill cyclists). The downhill biker must have the responsibility to yield because if they were allowed the assumption of primacy it would result in wrecks – lots. No one (hikers included) should be a bully out there. Happy trails!

Ed Abbey's godson
10 months ago
Reply to  Brian Long

I can’t imagine what it must be like to hike with you.

Wendy Ormont
10 months ago

I agree that this a really annoying article. The author looks at her feet going up and the people descending have a wider view? I would say the people going downhill are also looking at their feet picking their best and safest footholds. Gravity is not on their side and they should be given the right of way to ensure everyone’s safety. By saying people going downhill should not be unsteady, is she saying only young athletic people should be on the trails? She doesn’t like when a faster walker wants to pass by her on the trail yet she wants to preserve her mojo as she streaks uphill? The trails are for everyone according to their abilities as long as they can do so safely.

Steve Redmen
10 months ago

My experience shows that other hikers are outraged at me when I give them a heads up before passing them. I’ll holler “COMMING THROUGH, PASSING ON LEFT OR RIGHT.” 80% of the time its useless, as they have earbuds/headphones or the like firmly cutting off all sound around them. In addition to many who are glued to their phone. Like zombies , dead to their surroundings. But not so dead that they will jump with fear as you pass them, even after making an attempt to warn them. Then the anger comes flowing as they yell at you about not owning the road or trail. Sometimes a polite “coming through” evokes anger itself. Causing them to take the whole path. After all, I dont own the road. They do!

10 months ago

In the past 40 years, I’ve hiked and biked my way around the majority of the trails around Lake Tahoe: TRT, PCT and others. I have experienced friendly and aware trail users and also rude and selfish trail users. We are a mixed bag of humans coming from all walks of life, so everyone has a different perspective on his and hers trail behaviors. We are out in nature enjoying the sights and sounds but still need to be cognizant of other recreators! There are some simple rules to abide by but sometimes the terrain doesn’t allow for a quick yield or a change of pace. Although zoning out with cell phones and/or earbuds is not an entitlement, but a major Mother Nature Sin!!

10 months ago

I disagree that a vehicle going up a hill has the right of way over one coming down. A vehicle going up is far easier to back up (down the hill) to get out of the way than one coming down is to back up (up the hill) to get out of the way. This was explained (and demonstrated and experienced) to me early and often in my hiking career. Way smoother and efficient to enable the downhill vehicle to pass.

And, Slim, you left out the most annoying trail behavior of all: a hiker carrying a boombox and playing music loud enough to hear in the next zip code!

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