A Runner’s Guide to Trail Etiquette

Trail running season is in full swing and the West Coast is finally beginning to dry out after the wettest winter in over a decade. After years of drought and wildfires, this winter’s flooding caused excessive damage from mudslides and erosion. There were daily reports of road closures along major highways and even emergency evacuations because of the risk of dams breaking.

This was the wettest winter I’ve ever experienced as a runner (cue the laughter from the other Saltines) and I sloshed my way through some very wet and muddy runs. Trails turned into creeks of running water, already rutted trails turned into giant mud pits, and “runs” turned into a fun combination of slip and slide and full body mud baths.

As a trail user, I like to *think* that I follow proper trail etiquette rules. But, after an incident in which I was called out on Strava for breaking park rules after a rainstorm, I realized that, perhaps, living in seasonless, dry, Northern California, I’ve grown used to running wherever and whenever I feel like it, unaware of official or unofficial rules of trail stewardship. Now that the weather has turned glorious and the trails beckon, I thought it would be a good time to brush up on my own knowledge of trail etiquette.

Practice Leave No Trace

Anyone who has spent a couple nights in the wilderness has heard of Leave No Trace. It means literally what it says: leave nature exactly as you found it. That means, don’t litter, don’t use soap in lakes or streams, don’t veer off the trail and trample over delicate flowers, do pick up your dog poop, don’t create fire pits or break tree branches, and *gasp* bury your own poop at least six inches deep and pack out your toilet paper.

I’m certain that any runner who says they’ve never been in dire need of a restroom on a run is lying, and how many of us regularly carry TP in our pockets? But (and I’m lecturing myself as much as I am to anyone else), *pure* trail stewardship might require us to do just that. For those who venture far from any civilization, you might want to carry toilet paper in a sealed disguised plastic baggie or even pack one of these handy NASA developed wag bags. This might seem a bit extreme for most of us, so hopefully you only have to go number one. If you do have to pee, be sure to stay at least 200 yards away from water.

Avoid Mud

Trail runners like to blame mountain bikers for muddy rutted trails. Their tracks are long and thin and once they’ve created ruts in the mud that harden in the summertime, they quickly become easy ankle twisting hazards. But the truth is that runners cause just as much harm, not to mention horseback riders and grazing animals like cattle. After a big rainstorm, trails can turn into giant mudpits, and a couple of feet can stomp out just as much rutting as anything else. Some runners and bikers will choose to wake up early and visit trails when they are still frozen and covered in ice, lessening the impact of making ruts in the mud. Again, none of us is perfect, so if you must run through the mud, at least follow the next rule…

Go Through, Not Around

A big cause of trail destruction is when users try to avoid puddles or aforementioned mud pits by going around and trampling the grass along the side of the trail. Unfortunately, this leads to an unnecessary widening of the trail, and can lead to the degradation of a trail if it was built along a hillside. Best use is to run single file, don’t cut switchbacks, and don’t be afraid of a little mud.

Safety First

Some basic rules of trail etiquette and safety also include leaving any gates as you found them (usually cattle gates are closed, but if they’re open, leave them open), be careful around livestock, don’t use earbuds so you can stay alert for noises of other users or animals, and pay attention to any trail closure signs. Report things like downed trees to park staff, and follow the right of way rules! Bikes yield to pedestrians, and everyone yields to horses. Ask the horseback rider how they want you to proceed, and usually they want you to move downhill slightly off trail (but watch out for poison oak and snakes!).

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All of this said, what’s a trail runner to do in an unusual winter like the one we just had? First, don’t mind your chastising friends. Being outdoors makes us happier and healthier, for our minds as well as our bodies. If you, like me, have felt like you’ve caused some unintentional damage to your favorite trails, perhaps you can atone by volunteering to repair them in the future with an organized trail building crew. Or, you can forgive yourself and follow trail etiquette rules the best you can.

Are you guilty of not following all the trail etiquette rules?

A teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area who loves trail running, backpacking and cycling. Having grown up in the Sierra Nevada foothills, I secretly aspire to run Western States 100 someday. Realizing it might not be as crazy as it sounds (maybe it is), I am currently training for my next ultra.

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2 comments

  1. Our local well-used trail got so messed up this soggy winter– trail widened in many spots from people going around downed trees and root-holes. Great reminders!