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Published on March 15, 2021

8 Unspoken Rules of Hiking During the Pandemic

Let’s do our part to share and preserve our trails

Unspoken rules of hiking during the COVID19 pandemic

Photo by Holly Mandarich on Unsplash

This is a guest post by Sarah R., an energy & environment professional based in Washington, D.C. For more on these topics, please follow her on Twitter!

The coronavirus lockdown has changed so much about how we live our lives. This is especially true when looking for recreational activities that are safe, enjoyable, and widely available. Most health officials have indicated that outdoor activities are some of the safest options given the effects of wind and sunlight on viral particles. As a result, many people have taken to exploring their local hiking trails or camping out in the wilderness for the first time.

For new and regular hikers alike, it’s essential to be aware of the unspoken rules of the trail. Between individual health concerns and soaring stress levels, recognizing and adhering to hiking etiquette is more important than ever to keep the trails enjoyable for everyone.

Here’s what you need to know before setting out to hike, camp or backpack

1. Pack appropriately

When hiking, every season has its own special considerations. In the summer months, sunburn, dehydration, and heat exhaustion are big concerns. Whereas in winter, staying warm will be top of mind. In some areas with high elevations or unique geographic features, conditions may change drastically and quickly.

To make sure you’re prepared, REI recommends packing the 10 essentials on any hike: navigation, headlamp, sun protection, first aid kit, knife, fire, shelter, extra food, extra water, and extra clothes. In the video below, REI’s Miranda Webster explains what goes into her day pack.

Source: REI Co-op

2. Be considerate and friendly

Being considerate of others is critical, especially now with sky-rocketing levels of stress and diminishing reserves of patience. People come out to hike for different reasons, so think about how your actions may affect others on the trail.

Besides being considerate, being friendly sends a positive signal to others around you. Most trails are shared spaces and I personally find it strange when people don’t make eye contact or say hello. Others you encounter may share important details about trail conditions or potential dangers ahead, so building an immediate rapport by being friendly can be helpful.

3. Leave No Trace

This means leaving the trail how you found it…or better. Plan to pack out anything you packed in, including your trash, uneaten food, gear — and yes, your dog’s poop bags too. You could even pick up a few pieces of trash you see along the way.

Leave No Trace also means staying on trail when hiking to avoid disrupting nearby plant life and habitats. In addition, you should leave natural elements and cultural artifacts where you found them. Every hiker I know lives by this rule when they’re on the trail, not just because it’s a rule, but because we treasure these trails and seek to preserve them.

4. Yield right of way on steep trails

When you’re hiking downhill, you should always give the right of way to the hikers climbing up the hill. Put simply, you have gravity on your side when you’re going downhill and thus should yield to the person trying to maintain their momentum. The upward bound hiker may stop and let you pass while they take a breather, but it’s their call.

5. Step off the trail for breaks

It’s considerate to step off the trail when taking a break. Other hikers shouldn’t have to step over you or your gear to get past you. This is more important than ever during the pandemic, given the need to maintain six feet of social distance.

6. Follow outdoor bathroom etiquette

One major exception to staying on trail is when you need to take a bathroom break. In this case, try to find a spot 200 feet from any trail, campsite or water source. It’s key to avoid doing your business near sources of water as hikers may drink from that same source downstream.

For candid advice on using the bathroom outdoors (especially “number two”), I highly recommend this video by REI.

Source: REI Co-op

7. Don’t play music or talk loudly

It seems like a simple enough courtesy, but I encounter someone openly blaring music on almost every hike. I still vividly remember hiking the trail up to Machu Picchu on a beautiful rainy afternoon behind someone blasting Taylor Swift on their speaker. I tried taking a break to let the hiker get ahead of me and when that didn’t work, I tried passing her to put some distance between us. Nevertheless, between her breaks and mine we kept crossing paths. This episode distracted me from an experience I had been planning for months.

The same goes for talking loudly on the trail. Besides impacting other hikers’ experiences, having situational awareness could save your life. Being attuned to your surroundings means that you’re more likely to hear a rattlesnake warning or rockfall, for example.

8. Bring a mask and use it

Hiking a few days ago, I was glad to see many people wearing masks when passing others on the trail. It was a hot and humid day and I was the only person on the trail for large segments, so I didn’t wear my mask the entire time. But I put my mask back on as I approached anyone else and left it on until I cleared them. When in doubt, just wear your mask.

Trails may change but the rules stay the same

These unspoken rules of hiking are rooted in personal safety, consideration for others, and conserving the very spaces we are now enjoying. While the setting may change, the rules remain largely the same — with a few special considerations for Covid-19 times.

Now that you know the dos and don’ts as well as any seasoned hiker, I hope you find an awesome trail and enjoy the journey. Hiking is a special pursuit and I’m heartened to know more people are finding their way to it.

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