Etiquette Rules Of Trail Running

Trail runners are a pretty laid-back crew, which means that trail running etiquette isn’t necessarily about hard-and-fast rules.

Photo: Lisa Jhung;Charlie Layton

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Trail runners are a pretty laid-back crew, which means that trail running etiquette isn’t necessarily about hard-and-fast rules. It’s mainly about good manners and courtesy. This excerpt from veteran trail runner Lisa Jhung’s new book Trailhead: The Dirt on All Things Trail Running offers handy rules of thumb on how to be a good trail citizen.

etiquette \’et-i-kit, -ket\ n. 1. The practices and forms prescribed by social convention or by authority. 2. A code of ethical behavior that makes the trail (and the world) a better place.

Two Golden Rules of the Trail

  1. Be courteous. The most important thing for all trail users to remember is to be courteous. A smile and a friendly attitude go a long way in keeping everyone’s trail experience positive.
  1. Follow the rules. In some instances, there are actual written rules. Some trail signs let users know who’s allowed: horses, bikes, foot travelers, or some combination of these. Some signs alert users to one-way trails—most common at Nordic centers (open to runners in the dry months), and mountain bike centers.

Some trails are open only to bikes on certain days of the week and only to foot travel and/or equestrians on other days. It is important for safety and courtesy to follow all trail signs.

Right of Way

Runners aren’t the only ones who use trails. Mountain bikers, equestrians, hikers, rock climbers, and birders are all trail users. Some trails are wide enough for multiple trail users to pass one another, but others may be too narrow. Singletrack, by definition, is only wide enough for a single user, and so when two parties meet on a singletrack trail, one must yield to the other.

Rule of Thumb: “Yield” means pull over to the side of the trail to let another pass. When yielding, it is polite to alert the other party that they’ve been yielded to and can proceed freely by saying something like You’re good.

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Understanding the Needs of Others

Posted rules or not, putting yourself in the shoes of people you encounter on the trail and understanding their needs and their thinking can help you distinguish who should yield to whom.

Other trail runners. Encountering fellow trail runners while running can be a beautiful thing. You nod cheerfully to one another, say a simple Hi, and pass by knowing you’re part of the same tribe.

Hikers. Trails are filled with hikers of many stripes. Casual hikers may be friends having a serious talk: And then he said, “You’re turning into your mother!Oh, no, he didn’t! Or speed hikers wearing sweat-wicking performance apparel and a determined look on their faces. Or contemplative journalers: I need to get to my rock. And then there are families with small children, doing their best to share nature and keep meltdowns at bay. These hikers are entitled to the trail as much as you are and aren’t necessarily paying attention to you running, so let courtesy and common sense prevail.

Old couples holding hands. Older couples holding hands on trails should always have the right of way. Pass with care.

Up-to-somethings. Groups of young adults sometimes congregate on trails to smoke, drink, make out, or all of the above. Pass with care. And if you see your neighbor’s kid, make a mental note as you pass by.

Dog walkers. Depending on the trail and the dog owner, canines may or may not be on a leash. Be friendly when you pass by, and consider lowering a hand for the dog to sniff.

Birders/naturalists. Folks on the trail with binoculars, walking slowly while looking up, may be birders spotting warblers. Similar folks looking down may be naturalists hunting for mushrooms. Either will be busy identifying flora and fauna and may be unprepared to jump out of your way. Don’t sneak up on them. Announce yourself with a friendly hello. (Or if you can screech like a low-swooping red-tailed hawk, try that.)

Equestrians. Horses are allowed on some of the same trails as runners. Take care not to spook a horse. Speak gently to it, and yield to the horse and rider, passing with care when there’s room. Step to the downhill side of the trail or off to the side. Continue talking calmly as the animal passes by.

Mountain bikers. Mountain bikers sometimes get a bad rap for allegedly ripping around corners and charging down trails, scaring other trail users. But courteous mountain bikers don’t cause problems; jerk mountain bikers (or runners or equestrians) do. While rules give foot traffic the right of way, let’s face it: It’s easier for you to move to the side of a trail than it is for them. Be courteous and consider giving them the right of way so they don’t eat it.

Wheeled, motorized mechanisms. All-terrain vehicles, dirt bikes, and snowmobiles frequent certain trails. They’re big, fast, and— thankfully—noisy, so you can get out of the way when you hear one. This is one of many good reasons to not wear headphones on a trail run.

Adapted with permission of VeloPress from Trailhead: The Dirt on All Things Trail Running by Lisa Jhung with illustrations by Charlie Layton. For more, visit

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