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Take Care of the Trails with Proper Trail Running Etiquette

A woman runs on a trail through the woods

Trail running is one of our favorite ways to get outside.

Many trails are quiet and less populated than paved routes around the neighborhood, and they provide a good physical and mental workout. But, like running safely on the road, there are some rules you should follow to have a good run on a trail.

“There are few things that you should know about trail etiquette, protecting the wild spaces that we run in and just being out on the trail in general,” says Darcy Piceu, a HOKA ONE ONE-sponsored ultrarunner from Boulder, Colorado.

Here’s some common trail running etiquette and trail conservation techniques that all runners should abide by.

A trail runner wears a Nathan hydration pack

Yield to uphill runners and hikers

Common trail etiquette says you runners and hikers moving uphill have the right-of-way.

Running or hiking uphill limits your vision—you are probably looking more at your feet or the trail then up toward the top of the incline—while running downhill gives you more panoramic views of the trail and what’s ahead. So, people heading up might not see you if you’re coming down, especially at speed.

Leave No Trace

“Leave no trace” is a common refrain for trail runners and backpackers, and it means that we shouldn’t leave any trace of ourselves when we go outside, whether that’s in the backcountry or the neighborhood park.

The rule means you pack out whatever you pack in, including food wrappers and food scraps (yes, that means banana peels and apple cores), toiletries, and anything else that you brought with you. It also means that you shouldn’t take anything from the area, like rocks or flowers.

Leave No Trace, the nonprofit of the same name, has seven Leave No Trace principles to abide by when you go outdoors:

  • Plan ahead and prepare
  • Travel and camp on durable surfaces
  • Dispose of waste properly
  • Leave what you find
  • Minimize campfire impacts
  • Respect wildlife
  • Be considerate of other visitors

The principals help ensure that outdoor recreation spaces stay wild, remain safe and are preserved for future generations.

Stay on the Trail

Don’t dodge the mud.

Mud is a part of trail running, and your trail running shoes were made to get dirty. So, if you encounter a muddy spot on the trail, run through it instead of around it, Piceu says.

“Get muddy,” Piceu says. “Don’t be afraid to go through the mud puddles and not try to step around them so that you’re creating new trails.”

Trails through the wilderness are a necessary part of trail running, hiking and mountain biking, but we don’t want to make them any wider than they have to be. If too many people step off the trail in the same spot to get around a puddle, it crushes grasses and other vegetation and begins to widen that section.

Over time, a well-kept section of single track could turn into a scar of dirt and mud instead of remaining natural.

Respect Wildlife

A man carries an amphipod handheld water bottle while trail running through the woods

When you go outside, especially deep into the woods or in the mountains, you enter the natural habitats of other animals, and you should treat it like it’s theirs.

The first thing you do when you spot a wild animal is to avoid it; never try to get close to an animal to feed it or to take pictures. Back away slowly if you see a wild animal in the distance

Many animals, like bears, will avoid you if they know you’re coming, but it’s sometimes impossible to anticipate where an animal will be.

If you find yourself face-to-face with a bear unexpectedly, it is probably just as surprised as you are. The National Park Service’s bear encounter guidelines recommend different actions for different types of bear encounters, but you should always pay attention to the bear’s reaction.

If you rounded a corner and surprised the bear, the NPS says you should read its reaction and then slowly back away if you can.

“If the bear clacks its teeth, sticks out its lips, huffs, woofs, or slaps the ground with its paws, it is warning you that you are too close and are making it nervous,” according to the NPS. “Heed this warning and slowly back away. Do not drop to the ground and ‘play dead.’ Do not run, shout, or make sudden movements: you don't want to startle the bear.”

Don’t try to run or climb a tree. Either action might trigger a chase response from the bear, and you likely won’t be able to run away or climb a tree faster than a bear.

You can help alert bears and other wildlife that you’re on the trail by making noise while you’re running. If you’re in bear country, you can wear small bells or chat with a running partner so bears will hear you before they see you. That way, they have time to make a decision about where to go before you show up around the next corner.

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