Last week I wrote a column about dogs in the back country and the need to keep them leashed while on the trail. This led to the issue of trail etiquette in general, a topic I have decided to address.
I’m trying to think of an Adirondack subject that annoys me more than behavior on trails and it isn’t coming to me. My experience of various hikers on trails is one of the primary motivators in my ongoing quest to actively dislike the majority of humanity. Trail etiquette is more important than most people think and it less followed than most people think as well. Not only that, in my experience there is surprisingly little understanding about what proper trail etiquette is.
I’m going to lay out my own views on Adirondack trail etiquette – that is, taking into consideration the unique nature of our back country terrain. I’ll also limit my concerns to foot trails only, not those used by horses, mountain bikes or motorized vehicles. A couple of my positions go against what is considered to be conventional trail wisdom. I’ll elaborate on those in some detail.
I suppose the initial order of business is to make a case for why trail etiquette is important in the first place. Based upon observed behavior on trails I could easily conclude that many people don’t think it is. But the truth is that it is very important. For one thing, the wilderness experiences had by the vast majority of back country visitors are really wilderness trail experiences. A poor experience on the trail is a poor experience in the woods. For another, much of the Adirondack ground is quite fragile, with thin soils that invite erosion. Then there is the fact that Adirondack trails are tougher going than trails in many other places. Proper footfalls are a matter of safety every bit as much as they are a matter of environmental responsibility.
There are some trail etiquette baselines that are obvious and straightforward. I’ll list those rules assuming there is no need for elaboration or debate:
- Avoid trail erosion by walking in the middle of trails, not on the edges
- Rock hop when possible, especially above 4,000 feet
- Never step on vegetation
- No littering. Pack out what you pack in
- Silence electronic devices and/or use headphones
- Minimize noise; consider your voice level
- Leash your dog
- Greet hikers
- If passing from behind say something
- Wear snow shoes if snow depth is six inches or more (DEC says eight inches, but I find that invites people to round up to a foot; six inches is enough)
- Stay out of ski tracks
Based upon most of these standards I find peoples’ trail behavior to be generally polite and considerate of the forest. Most hikers are quiet, careful not to litter and communicative when passing or greeting. I do see and pack out litter here and there but it is obvious that most of it is inadvertent; in more than fifty years of hiking I have never once seen someone deliberately litter (which is good because honest to god if I did see it one of us would be dead shortly thereafter). The Adirondacks are certainly more litter-free than most wilderness areas I’ve visited.
However, there is a glaring exception which gives rise to my previously stated animus. The rules that have to do with where people place their feet largely get ignored. That’s especially sad because of the lasting impact footfalls have. I don’t know if it is a ridiculous aversion to dirt (a growing cultural phenomenon, the home products industry having convinced us we need to flood ourselves with anti-bacterial this and disinfectant that, as though sterility is healthy). But hikers of every stripe, including plenty who should know better, regularly go to the edges of a trail to avoid mud. Or, they might go off trail altogether – not to bushwhack, an activity I highly endorse, but to trample vegetation in some impromptu herd path that avoids a puddle or branch. This kind of behavior I find unforgivable.
I have advocated for big signs at trail heads that address the stupidity of trail erosion with appropriately aggressive language but short of that I don’t know what to do to make people hew to the middle. I invite creative reader suggestions; my own ideas tend toward the illegal.
Next are a few rules that one might think are obvious, but the devil is in the details.
- Yield appropriately when being passed
- Don’t block the trail
- Take care of your bathroom business properly
As for yielding, people need to defeat the need to wholesale clear out of the trail altogether, trampling and uprooting underbrush unnecessarily. Most any trail will have plenty of spots to discreetly make room. So what if you are passed by in close proximity? Get over it. Stay on the trail.
As for not blocking the trail, when you stop, do it so that there is a route past you. I’m constantly amazed by how little this is done; people can be so dim that way. If you can’t find a good place on the trail to rest, then move well off of it where your impact will be dispersed and not likely repeated by others. Try to find a rock upon which to rest your keister instead of some poor plant or patch of moss that will just make a badly-situated wet stain anyhow.
Now with respect to bathroom matters I get to be a math geek for a moment. I won’t even dignify discussing people who can’t be bothered to bury their business and TP in a cat hole of proper depth. But distance matters too: the rule of thumb should be to do your business at least 150 feet away from the trail, the same magic number found in numerous DEC regulations. Privacy is one reason. Sparing others from smell is another. But the best reason is that the odds anyone will accidentally stumble upon your waste become vanishingly small. That’s because the total area available for your “use” increases exponentially with every foot of distance you put between yourself and the trail. At 20 feet of distance you have around 1,200 square feet to work with, not all that much considering other hikers who may traipse around out there. At 150 feet you have fifty times as much area.
How many people go at least 150 feet before relieving themselves? Almost nobody. Why? It’s too far.
According to the American College of Sports Medicine the average human stride is about 5 feet and takes 1.25 seconds. That means traveling 150 feet on level ground takes a little over 30 seconds. Let’s double it because, after all, it’s the Adirondack forest. So it’s too far to go 150 feet because that will take a whole two minutes round trip. This in the context of toiling miles over torturously uneven ground with 25 to 50 pounds on your back. Sheesh.
Finally there are two rules about yielding for which I claim the conventional wisdom is wrong. On both counts the characteristics of Adirondack trails come into play.
The first is the general principle that larger groups should yield to smaller groups or to solo hikers. This is an oft-repeated rule, based I suppose upon common notions of courtesy. But it is no friend to Adirondack flora. My version is the reverse: smaller groups or solo hikers should always yield to larger groups. Smaller groups can more easily find a way to yield without committing a heinous act of erosion or trampling. Asking a large group to get out of the way is asking for some good, solid trail damage.
Last but not least is the one rule of trail etiquette over which I’ve actually gotten into semi-heated arguments. The standard rule for hiking on slopes (though not universal by any means) is that the party going downhill should yield to the party going uphill. The rationale is that going uphill takes more effort and has hikers relying upon a steady rhythm that is better if not broken. My opinion, especially given how treacherous Adirondack trails can be, is once again the reverse – and I must say it is emphatically so. Going downhill is more difficult, more dangerous and harder to control. Downhill rhythm is much more important than uphill rhythm. Given these facts, hikers ascending should always yield to hikers descending. Period. Argue the point if you like.
Taken as a whole, all of this amounts to a rules-based stand-in for two simple concepts that would just about fix the problem: one, be thoughtful, self-aware and courteous to current and future trail users; and two, do whatever you need to do to not harm any vegetation. It ought to be that simple. But that’s why my dislike of much of humanity is all too often rewarded: for some reason it apparently isn’t.
Your thoughts on trail etiquette?
Photo: Ridge trail at Lost Brook Tract, a trail you would not want to erode.