For all you newbies (I say this with a ton of affection and a big high five) out there -- here is your code of ethics to follow on your next adventure. And for all you experts out there -- you should also pay attention because you are the people that others look to for proper outdoor decorum.
I hope this guide helps to raise awareness and decrease frustrations when we are out enjoying our beautiful outdoor spaces together. Please feel free to chime in with your thoughts -- etiquette is a big discussion, after all.
Outdoor Etiquette from A to Z
A is for Access
With over 650 million acres of federal public land available, not to mention State Parks and Forests, we have a huge number of places to explore. Access restrictions are in place to preserve fragile ecosystems, endangered species, cultural rights, private property, and many other reasons. By following the rules and working with land agencies to maintain access privileges, we can continue to have a diverse and extensive network of places available to us.
B is for Bathing
Bathing, cooking, and cleaning should be done at least 200 feet away from all water sources. Bring along a dromedary or other form of water storage to lug your water up to camp and take care of business there.
C is for Community
Invite new people to join you on your adventures. I am a firm believer that experiences are better when shared. Be friendly to the camper(s) one site over, smile and say hello as you pass another hiker, and do your part to make sure the trails and campgrounds are always cleaner when you leave them.
D is for Dogs
Sorry dog lovers, many land agencies can be pretty tough to manage with your canine friend in tow. Please respect the rules, whether that means dogs aren't allowed on trail or that they must be leashed. Also, please be mindful that even though your dog is "friendly", that doesn't mean that the person it's running up to want his friendly tongue all over them.
E is for Equestrians
I'll get to right-of-way in a little bit, but I wanted to call out horses separately. If you see horses approaching on the trail, please step off-trail on the downhill side (as long as it's safe) to let them pass. Say hello to the riders to make your presence known to the horses. Don't try to touch them and don't hide behind a bush as they go by, it could spook them. Just remember -- everyone yields to horses or other stock animals.
F is for Fires
Be aware of any fire restrictions before going into the backcountry and be prepared with the proper cooking stoves. Don't try to "get away" with having a fire if a burn ban is in place -- this one of the rules I see broken most often, and I give anyone I see doing this a stern talking-to. Always tend your fire, don't allow it to get too big, and be mindful of the impacts you could be causing. I totally get that campfires are a nostalgic part of the evening and a great node for social activity, but please act responsibly and make sure they are totally out before going to sleep.
G is for Group Size
I am often in the backcountry with over a dozen people. Large groups provide the opportunity to educate a lot of people on outdoor competency, etiquette, and soft skills. However, large groups can also mean noise, less accountability to pick up after themselves, and bottlenecks on the trail. If you are part of a large group please be mindful of the other people around you. Quiet down early in the evening, let smaller groups and solo hikers pass, and hike in single file to avoid creating braided social trails.
H is for Humility and I is for Individual Abilities
These two go hand in hand. Be aware of your individual abilities and avoid getting in over your head. Prepare yourself by slowly increasing the difficulty of your activity. Learn as you go from more experienced friends, guides, books, and Outdoor Blueprint articles ;) Learn when it's time to turn back and how to safely manage risk.
J is for Jam Box
Leave it at home. If you must separate yourself from the environment, use headphones so that other people aren't impacted by your music choices. If you're at camp I personally am okay with people playing music at low levels. Low in this case means others can't hear it outside of your campsite. If you want to blast the tunes, find some deserted BLM land and have at it.
K is for Kids
As a parent, support kids having fun and exploring the natural world by creating clear boundaries. Be mindful of the campers who are still sleeping next door when those kiddos wake up at 6AM and want to get started. As a camper near kids, harness the excitement that they bring and enjoy having such vibrant and energetic neighbors. Remember that kids are going to be kids, and give the parents a break! If you want peace and quiet, I'd recommend hiking into the backcountry.
L is for Littering
It's probably the most commonly remembered Leave No Trace principle -- Pack It In, Pack It Out. It doesn't matter if it's a plastic bag, zip tie, apple core, or peanut shell. Please, just pack it out. Bonus points will be awarded for disposing of your waste in an even more responsible fashion, by recycling and composting, when you get back to the front country. Don't let it blow away, don't crush it into the ground, and do try and pick up anything you find. Leave it cleaner than you found it!
M is for Markers
Most trails are marked using signs, cairns, or blazes on rocks and trees. I find this to be one of the more controversial issues. Some people I travel with kick over cairns and spitefully say, "people should know how to navigate!" Others build cairns every quarter mile because, "it helps people avoid getting lost." Please just leave them be. Don't add and don't remove. Leave it to the trail crews and rangers to decide what level of markers are appropriate for that trail.
N is for Navigation
Bring a good map and compass for the areas you are going to be traveling in. Also, know how to read a topographic map and practice your route finding. Leave a detailed itinerary with a reliable person back at home, including where you are going, who is going with you, what time you are expecting to return, what time they should notify someone if you haven't returned (be conservative), and who to contact. Learn how to stay found.
O is for Off Trail
When you are taking breaks, make sure to step off the trail to give other users plenty of room to pass (make sure your backpacks are off the trail too!). Bonus points for finding a durable surface to stop so that you are minimizing your off-trail impacts. Don't cut switchbacks, avoid social trails created for shortcuts, and stay on the trail even if it's muddy and wet.
P is for Proximity
When you are setting up camp, be aware of how close you are to other people. There are few hard and fast rules on this one, but I like to think about it in context of how dense with other people the space is. If you are staying at a campground and it's almost full, then there is no issue with setting up in the site next door to someone else. However, if you are backcountry camping and have only seen one group all day, don't set up right next door. Travel another quarter mile or so and give them some space (assuming there are no designated sites). Also be aware of how close you are to riparian zones, and stay at least 200 feet away if possible.
Q is for Quiet
Adhere to campground quiet times and keep a good awareness of how your noise levels may be impacting nearby campers. If you are planning on having a late night rowdy party that's fine, but go somewhere that supports that kind of experience (which might mean not going to the nicest campground). If a group is being too loud nextdoor, please give them a friendly reminder. Most people are respectful and responsive.
R is for Right-Of-Way
Say it with me, "uphill hikers have the right-of-way." When you are hiking uphill there is a rhythm that propels you forward. Downhill hikers should ALWAYS yield the right-of-way unless the uphill hiker waves them through. I will now preemptively respond to those who would argue with this...
- Question - "But isn't it safer for uphill hikers to yield because when you're going downhill you're less in control?" Answer - "No. Why are you out of control when you're going downhill? Downhill hikers can often see farther ahead and can anticipate good spots to allow the uphill hiker to pass. Slow down and stay in control."
- Question - "But when you're hiking uphill you want to stop and take a break so why should the downhill hiker stop?" Answer - "That's for the uphill hiker to decide. They might be in a really good rhythm of ascent and stopping would throw off their groove. Downhill hikers can always get momentum back quickly."
- Question - "Well I've been hiking for 142 years and have always yielded to the downhill hiker, why would I change now?" Answer - "First of all, nice work hiking for 142 years, very impressive! Second, it might mean a slight paradigm shift for you. I would encourage you to adopt this approach since it is the most widely accepted (and I firmly believe that it works the best)."
Now let's take about mountain bikers. Technically, bikers have to yield to hikers. That being said, I think it's often an easy courtesy to allow the biker to ride by and that goes a long way to help build a healthy outdoor community. Bikers, on the other hand, should be very mindful of their speed around hikers. Even though hikers often will allow you to go by, it should not be your expectation.
And remember, everyone yields to horses.
S is for Style
The two biggest signs of an outdoor expert are a streamlined backpack and a tidy campsite. Keep the junk show at bay by doing the work first and the play second. Bombproof your stuff to make sure nothing gets lost and trash doesn't blow away. Make sure that your food is stored properly to avoid unpleasant encounters with wildlife.
T is for Toilet Paper
One of the reasons we go into the wilderness is to experience a clean environment. Seeing toilet paper lining the edges of campgrounds and trails is both gross and ugly. The best practice is to pack out any toilet paper you use. This can easily be accomplished by bringing a quart sized ziploc bag, or if you need to go #2 put a paper sandwich bag inside a ziplock so that you don't need to see the used toilet paper. Better yet, learn to use natural materials and it's not an issue at all. If you do decide to leave your toilet paper, PLEASE bury it in a cathole 6 inches deep to hopefully prevent it from becoming exposed and trashing the area.
U is for Uninvited
While it's really nice to build an outdoor community and be friendly with your fellow explorers, remember that most people aren't out there to hang out with other people. Do not help yourself to another group's space or resources. This one tends to happen a lot at campgrounds where people invite themselves over to a campfire.
V is for Vandalism
It can come in the form of spray paint, carved names in rock or trees, defaced petroglyphs, removing artifacts from the park, and many other ways. Leave it as you found it, unless you are removing trash, in which case leave it cleaner than you found it. Vandalism has a permanent impact on beautiful places. Even when it can be cleaned up, the parks don't always have the resources to take care of it. If you see someone vandalising try to explain how their actions are impacting others for generations, and/or report them.
W is for Wildlife
Don't feed the wildlife. This can lead to being bitten, scratched, or attacked. Animals that are conditioned to humans learn to associate them with food. This can lead to very dangerous situations for both humans and animals. Practice proper food storage and keep a clean campsite.
X is for eXtra Gear
Good outdoor etiquette also means taking care of yourself so that others don't have too. Even on an easy day hike, make sure to bring along your essentials bag and any extra gear that you might need to keep yourself safe and warm. Don't rely on other people being able or around to help if a situation arises.
Y is for Yelling
Either stay together as a group, or have a plan on where and when you are going to meet up again. Attempting to communicate by yelling to each other over long distances is both annoying and also sends up red flags that your group is/might soon be in trouble.
Z is for Zealot
Be conscious of other people's style of travel and life in the outdoors. There are a huge variety of user groups, ages, experiences, and abilities that we encounter while adventuring. Because of this, you are bound to disagree with how others do things at times. As long as they are abiding by good land use ethics and agency laws, then leave the rest be. Educating others who don't want to listen on a "better way" of doing things is pretty much impossible.
These are the "rules" that I've found widely acceptable and that I agree with. I think the most important thing is to remember to be friendly and respectful to your fellow travelers, and always follow Leave No Trace principles and the local land agencies laws.
What does good outdoor etiquette mean to you? Leave a comment below and let me know.