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Trail Etiquette 101

Learn about who has the right of way, what to do when hiking in large groups, navigating multi-use trails with mountain bikers and more. 

When we venture out on trail, we want to have a great time and share the same experience with other dirt dwellers. Sometimes this is a trail runner, hiker, mountain biker, or someone on horseback.

So, what’s the proper trail etiquette when you encounter another person on the trail? 

Let's start here.

I am a trail runner, mountain biker, and hiker which means I’ve experienced trail encounters and good/bad etiquette from ALL angles.

In ANY situation/encounter with other trail-goers, ask yourself…

What is the easiest and safety thing for everyone and what makes the most sense (even if it doesn’t follow the traditional “rules”)?

When everyone leads with being considerate, it usually shakes out.

Here are some basics to get the ball rolling.

1. Be friendly (even a simple smile will do). Say thank you. COMMUNICATE. Throw up a peace sign. Wave. Be polite. It makes EVERYONE’s days better.

2. Like in a car, pass on the left.

3. If you are being passed, be mindful of where you step to move out of the way if you need to step off trail. The goal is to minimize our literal footprint on the vegetation and soil lining the trail.

Learning about and abiding by the 7 Leave No Trace Principles is SUPER important.

4. Make eye contact with people you pass. This is actually a safety precaution and good practice because it allows you to know who you are one the trail with.

5. If you are going to wear headphones, please only wear one. This is REALLY important for your safety because you won’t be able to hear people or riders looking to pass you AND you won’t be able to hear wildlife.

Example of Passing Phrases

Need to pass someone? No sweat! Here are some phrases you can use. 

Be sure to give the person ahead of you ample time to hear you and move to the side.

1. Morning! On your left.

2. Hi! May I please pass on your left?

3. Afternoon! Rider up on your left!

4. Afternoon! Hiker up on your left!!

The goal is to avoid scaring the person/group, so it’s important to communicate ahead of time and not when you are right on their heels.

I always like to indicate a direction. Notice how in the phrases they all included “left”?

This tells the person/group which side you are passing on.

Mountain Biker vs Hiker/Runner

At the trailhead, there is usually a sign that explains the trail etiquette on that multi-use trail.

There may even be a rule about direction of travel; hikers/runners go clockwise and mountain bikers go counterclockwise (this is an example).

Technically, hikers/runners have the right-of-way to mountain bikers. (I hope this has been updated.)

In my opinion, this makes NO sense because it’s much easier for a hiker/runner to step to the side versus a mountain biker who is moving much faster and they would need to essentially dismount from their bike.

This is where the rules are gray because (going back to the what’s easiest/safety motto), the hiker/runner should yield to the mountain biker.

If you are exploring a multi-use trail system, know that you are signing up to be exploring alongside other hikers/runners and mountain bikers (and maybe horses too), so you can’t be mad – unless they are assholes. 🙂

🤘 Note to Mountain Bikers: If you are coming around a blind corner or about to start a downhill section on a multi-use trail, PLEASE ANNOUNCE IT.

I don’t even care what you say or you can even ring a bell. Just make sure your presence is known.

I will usually say, “Rider up!”

And yes, hikers/runners should still be vigilant. 

Hiker/Runner vs Each Other

Hikers/runners heading UPHILL have the right-of-way.

It is usually easier for a downhiller to stop and step aside as the uphill-goer works against gravity with a smaller field of vision.

Someone coming uphill may stop to take a break and let the downhill goer pass.


It’s the easiest and safest way to ensure everyone knows what to do.

Hiker/Runner vs Horse

Hikers/runners (and mountain bikers) yield to horses for obvious reasons.

The frequency you encounter a horse is probably low, but it’s important to know.

The goal is not to frighten the horse, so if you’re approaching from behind, calmly announce yourself and ask permission to pass.

If you are approaching from the front, step to the side of the trail to let them pass.

Hiking in Large Groups

The more the merrier! I love seeing  groups out hiking, BUT there are actually specific protocols for large groups to ensure the impact on the trail is minimized along with ensuring the group is respectful of other people on the trial.

Check the park rules first (their website) and see if they have a group size limitation/regulation.

If your group size exceed what’s allowed, you may need to split your party in two and start at staggered times.

Hike in a single file line as much as you can!

Be considerate of people looking to pass your group and be sure to communicate to your group (whoever is in the front) that everyone needs to side step and allow the other people to pass.

Final Thoughts

Do your best to keep your head up and be aware of your surroundings. This is helpful for all parties! I will say this again, communication and common sense can go a very long way to ensure everyone’s safety. 🙂

Meet the author

Bethany Taylor

I’m a PNW-based outdoor educator, adventure athlete, highly-caffeinated creative, all-women adventure trip host, safety advocate, and obsessed dog mom. I am here to help you chase more stoke-filled days outdoors with confidence through education and empowerment.

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