Mignon McLaughin said:
A car is useless in New York, and essential everywhere else. The same with good manners.
This reminds me that I wanted to say a word or two about trail etiquette. Especially so after a recent hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back, where it is evident not everyone is familiar with the proper ways to behave on a trail and some remedial educational effort appears to be required. What follows are a few of my eclectic views on trail etiquette.
Sure, the signs at the Grand Canyon trailheads are designed to scare the bejesus out of you, and maybe you can ignore some of that, but most trailhead signs are there to explain the regulations of the place you are about to visit. I know it sometimes feels like the regulations are arbitrary and petty, but the folks who make the regulations genuinely care about the land under their control and try to make the best decisions they can about the place. If the sign says no open fires, please carry a stove with an on/off switch. If the sign says camp 200 feet away from a lake, please do that, even though there is a perfectly fine place right on the shore of the lake that has been used for the last 50 years, probably by you and your father, years ago. Times are changing, and what we did years ago cannot be done now without degrading the place for our children and grandchildren. There are just too many of us and we have a much larger impact on our wild areas.
It is important to know when to yield to someone else on a trail. Bicyclists, because they presumably can start and stop without a great deal of effort, yield to hikers and horses. Both bicyclists and hikers yield to horses, presumably because horses are much bigger and harder to move. I’ve noticed hikers, given enough time to find a place to step off the trail, will almost always give way to bicyclists as a courtesy. Not required, but it goes a long way toward staying on friendly terms with one another. Note to bicyclists: giving notice to hikers with an “Oh, shit!” as you barrel down on them from behind on blind curves, while appreciated, doesn’t endear you to them.
To yield to horses, bicyclists should step off their bicycles, and then they and hikers should move off the trail to the downhill side of the horse. As you do, make some noise by speaking in a slightly louder than normal voice to the riders. “Good morning, great day, isn’t it,” will do. The point is to let the horses know you are human. Sometimes, when clad in lycra and with water bottles and other assorted gear dangling every which way from your pack, they can’t tell.
Slower hikers (and, often, group hikers) should yield to faster hikers by stepping off the trail and allowing the faster hiker to pass. Sometimes you yo-yo with another hiker as one stops to take a picture or rest or, well, you know. Consider this (the yo-yoing, I mean) an opportunity to exchange some pleasantries or possibly make a new friend. Faster hikers approaching slower hikers from behind should be considerate. “Hey, dude!,” shouted loudly, probably isn’t the best strategy, unless you are prepared to give CPR for a couple of hours in the wilderness. A clearing of the throat or a tap of a hiking pole on a rock, or even a very quiet “Good morning,” are better ideas.
Look, we aren’t monks doing walking meditation here, and it is fine to carry on a conversation with someone while you walk if you can do it reasonably quietly and without disturbing others. But, the same rules that apply at family holiday dinners should apply on the trail, especially if others are within earshot. No cell phones and no talk of politics or religion. Save your witnessing for somewhere other than the South Kaibab Trail, where 50 people can hear your conversation. Here (as in wilderness, generally) God can speak for herself.
4) Stay On the Switchback Trail
I’m convinced we could completely eliminate all short-cutting of trail switchbacks if we could just sentence each offender to a weekend of trail building with a volunteer group. Build a trail, love a trail. Spend some time on a trail crew and see how much love and work goes into maintaining a good trail and short-cutting switchbacks will seem like tripping your grandmother to you, I guarantee it. Federal agencies have almost no money to maintain trails anymore. It is almost always done by volunteers. Trails will close and be abandoned unless volunteers do the work of maintaining them. Volunteer with a trail crew and be a beacon of light instead of a destructive force in the backcountry. I know it seems like a fun challenge to crash down through the brush, but you might just as well set fire to the place. The erosion-caused destruction of the trail will be the same.
Spending time in wilderness is like being in a sacred place for many people. We use it to get away from the noise and clutter of our everyday lives. Please don’t bring the noise and clutter with you. We know you are excited to be here. We’re excited, too. But, that is no reason to yell and shout at your buddies on the trail behind you. I’m pretty sure they know where you are and are hanging back deliberately. Would you shout and scream in one of the great Cathedrals in Europe? No, I didn’t think so. So, please don’t do it here. This is the closest some of us get to church in our entire lives.
I’m not even going to mention that you should pack out what you pack in. “Everyone knows that,” as the commercial says. But, did you know that includes stuff you didn’t pack in yourself? Stuff that other people may have dropped accidentally? We need people in the wilderness you are willing to step up to the plate and be stewards of the place, caretakers, responsible members in a society of wilderness users. All of us have accidentally left things behind. Picking up after someone else restores our own personal karma in the wilderness. Picking things up, keeping things in shape, making things better is how we pay it forward on the trails and express our appreciation to the Universe for allowing us to be out here instead of sitting behind a computer somewhere else. It is an expression of gratitude. It makes the world work a whole lot better than it would otherwise.
7) Be Friendly
When you meet someone on a trail you are expected to make eye contact and acknowledge them. You don’t have to speak to them if you don’t want to. Although, on lightly traveled trails, exchanging information and taking a short break is not uncommon. Sometimes a simple smile is all that’s needed or required. I like to give at least a short greeting. One of my favorite memories of a trip to Patagonia is of sitting at a rest break drinking some water. Two women approached. In Patagonia, the standard greeting is “Buenos dias,” no matter which language is your native language. I noticed these two women were speaking to each other in German, so as they passed me I said “Guten Tag.” Ten feet beyond me, my greeting finally registered, and the younger woman turned back to give me a smile I’m sure I’ll remember to my grave. I’m just saying, you never know what a simple greeting might lead to and you should never pass up the chance to find out.