The Golden Rules of Running on Trails

Living in the small, high-altitude town of Nederland, CO, I’m lucky to have hundreds of miles of world-class trails steps from my front door. With the town’s remoteness and its harsh alpine weather in the colder months, I usually have the trail system to myself. I’m often able to run for hours without seeing another soul (well, aside from the odd bobcat, moose or herd of elk).

But come Autumn weekends, visitors inevitably intrude. I don’t blame them. Despite the harsh winters, I live in this little mountain town for a reason. Nonetheless, I get protective when people trek up to Ned. I find myself scolding teenagers who park on the grass, wag my finger at mountain bikers who take their bikes off the single track and reprimand families who leave behind packaging from their mid-hike snacks.

Yes, it’s a “get off my lawn” mentality. All I need is a robe and a bad haircut to fit the part of a cranky old neighbor worried about people messing with their property.

Don’t get me wrong. I love that people are taking to the hills. The more people who enjoy the outdoors, the more likely they’ll be protected. However, it rubs me the wrong way when our trails are disrespected.

Here are a few rules of trail etiquette you should know before heading out for your hike, bike or trail run.

Who Has Right of Way?

Since mountain bikes are considered more maneuverable than hikers and runners, bikers are generally expected to yield to hikers on the trail. However, because those mountain bikes are often moving considerably faster, 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. But when in doubt, the hiker or runner has the right of way. To play it safe, a biker should never expect a hiker to yield.

The official rule is that people going uphill have the right of way. 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 will let others come downhill while they take a breather, but that’s the uphill hiker’s call. When a trail runner’s zooming downhill, it can be difficult for them to stop their momentum. Again, it’s the uphill goers right of way in the rule book; however, it may be safest to yield to runners bombing down the mountain.

As the largest, slowest-to-maneuver and least-predictable creatures on the trail, horses get the right of way from hikers, runners and mountain bikers. Give equestrians 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.

If you’re about to pass someone from behind, a simple “hello” is often the best way to announce your presence. When passing, always stay on the trail to reduce erosion.

Stay on The Trail

Staying on the trail is about more than not getting lost. When we keep to designated routes, we’re using trail work structures like rock steps, wood or rock staircases and bog bridges. One of the main goals of this trail work is to keep visitors on the path, so they don’t widen the route and damage the wilderness around it. Land managers harden the surface of the trail by packing it down so it can handle lots of use. Keep your eyes open for trail structures the next time you’re out.

Leave No Trace of Your Body’s Waste

If nature calls when you’re out in the woods and you pop a squat, get at least 200 feet off the trail for the sake of other users and your privacy.

Use a stick or your shoe heel to get into the topsoil but not below—six to eight inches is ideal. Pooping into a six-to-eight-inch deep hole avoids the “fecal plume” that results from above-ground waste washing downslope in the rain. In addition to the smell, the microorganisms in waste can pollute groundwater and make animals and people sick. If you have toilet paper, pack the used TP in a ziplock bag and dispose of it after your run. Otherwise, bury it deep enough so it doesn’t end up on the surface and become a nasty discovery for the next person on the trail.

Leave The Trail Better Than You Found it

Whatever you carry in, carry out. Carry fuel wrappers with you to dispose of after the run, hike or bike. After you stop for a snack, take a final glance to make sure you have everything. The old saying “pack it in, pack it out” is as true today as it was 50 years ago.