Trail Etiquette: Sharing the trails


By: Cary Smith

Trail etiquette-we all preach it but can we all honestly say we practice it? It is a topic worth reviewing as our trails slowly dry out. Due to the late snowfall in our area, many of the higher trails won’t melt out for quite some time. This means there will be a higher concentration of trail users on the open trails. I didn’t write the book on trail etiquette, but I’ve read plenty on the topic, and I’ve seen first hand what seems to work and what doesn’t. Here’s my take on how we can all get along.

Don’t use the trails when they’re muddy. Duh. This seems easy enough but it is hard to turn back when there’s ten muddy meters, then it’s dusty, then another ten meters of mud. Don’t just blast through these sections. Your tires, feet or hooves will do enough damage to keep people cursing your name the rest of the summer. WALK gently on the edge of the trail, carrying your bike, trying to avoid widening the trail or traipsing through the foliage. After one or two of these sections, common sense should tell you to turn around and find another trail or another day. And please don’t ride a horse when it’s wet, especially on popular multi-use trails. It can ruin everyone else’s experience for years to come.

When meeting other trail users in a head-to-head situation, the mantra is cyclists yield to runners/hikers, runners/hikers yield to horses. This is a good general rule. I feel it is the responsibility of the cyclist to make an obvious effort to slow down early enough to show the other user that they are seen and that the cyclist is able to stop, put a foot down and move to the side of the trail. If the other user is on foot, and is comfortable with the situation, it is often easier for them to step aside and let the cyclist by using verbal communication or hand gestures. Cyclists should, under no circumstance, assume the runner/hiker will yield the space until given the green light. Horses, by definition, are an entirely different animal. There needs to be ample communication between the horse rider and the other trail user. Horses can be unpredictable so it is in the best interest of the other user to pass cautiously in front of the horse after voicing your intention. Ask the horse rider if it is OK to remain on your bike as you pass, since that may be likely to spook a horse. Being on the top of the “yielding triangle” doesn’t give horses carte blanche, however. These riders need to be acutely aware of the popularity of the trail they are on and expect to see high speed cyclists if in a well-traveled area. If they’re not comfortable with the potential for encounters, horse riders should avoid popular trails.

When two cyclists meet head-to-head, it is the responsibility of the cyclist traveling downhill to yield. End of story. Proper etiquette dictates that you come to a full stop and put your foot on the ground. If the climbing cyclist is comfortable being passed then that can be communicated. It doesn’t matter if you’re going “up” a trail and meet another cyclist on a downhill section. If your front wheel is lower than your rear, you’re the downhill traffic and must yield. Just because the uphill traffic looks experienced and you’re sure you can blow right past, slow down, make eye contact and get the OK to keep descending. Give it the “Grandma” test. If your Grandma wouldn’t be comfortable with you passing at that speed, then slow down and prepare to stop.

When approaching another user from the rear, slow down and give a warning as early as possible. I think a bell is the best way to initiate contact, followed by a friendly greeting. Once everyone is aware of the situation, it is up to the two of you to figure out the best way to overtake.

This brings me to headphones. In an ideal world, everyone would be listening to nature, or maybe their dry chain, squeaky brakes and labored breathing. In the real world, everyone is listening to their favorite jam. Consider using one earbud so you can hear what’s happening around you, whether it’s someone trying to pass or a moose trying to keep you from stealing her calf. If someone has been trying to get your attention and they’re finally right on your rear and yell at the top of their lungs, scaring the daylights out of you, remember it’s your fault and, even though you feel wronged, you should apologize for being so oblivious.

There will always be extenuating circumstances, but if we all try to do the right thing, everyone will have a better experience and it will limit trail-use separations or closures.