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A Guide To Trail Etiquette In The Age Of Coronavirus

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As more and more people are looking outside for exercise and recreation, trails across the country are becoming increasingly crowded. Trails near Los Angeles, Chicago and the Bay Area have closed in response to crowds so large that social distancing becomes all but impossible. 

Other governments, like ones close to our home office in Colorado, have issued warnings that if trail users continue to neglect the rules of the off-road, additional trails will be closed. In an effort to stem the tide of bad trail manners and keep trail access open, trail runners are urging one another to be polite and follow directions.  

Remember that running is a privilege and should be treated as such, and that environmental considerations are as important as ever. Whether you’re a trail veteran or are a first-timer in need of a primer, here’s a guide to trail etiquette and stewardship in the age of coronavirus. 

Safety First

The coronavirus pandemic is an issue of life and death for many people, and your behavior should reflect that, on and off the trail. Make sure you’re keeping your trail runs chill and avoid as much risk as possible. Now is not the time to go for a technical, off-the-map ridge scramble or sustain an injury. Healthcare systems are already stretched in many areas, and trail runners should not add to that burden. Stick to runs that are within your regular routine. 

Follow all CDC social-distancing guidelines, and do not run in groups. If you see people not complying with social distancing, kindly explain what it is, and that continued trail use depends on everyone doing their best to respect those guidelines. It’s possible that people not complying are simply unaware and could be new trail users, so practice compassion and kindness. 

“If you need to recreate and you love our outdoors do it in communities close to your home,” said Colorado Governor Jared Polis in response to his stay at home order. “This pandemic is not a vacation.”

Don’t go out if you feel sick or have been in contact with those who have. Stay as close to home as possible, because the farther you travel, the more potential you have to spread the virus. 

“If you need to recreate and you love our outdoors do it in communities close to your home,” said Colorado Governor Jared Polis in response to his stay at home order. “This pandemic is not a vacation.”

Know Before You Go

Plan ahead, even if you’re going to an area you’ve run in 100 times. Make sure your activity complies with local guidance, such as shelter in place or lockdown orders, and that it’s close enough you can get there with minimal travel. Check your local public land management’s website to be sure the trails are open, and what closures might be in place. If parks are closed, don’t go. Be sure that trail conditions are good, as running on muddy trails can cause erosion. 

Make sure that your workout plans fit the time and terrain you’re aiming for, and don’t try to throw down a sick tempo run uphill through prime-time Boulder trail traffic. Avoid crowded trailheads, and use this as an opportunity to spread out to less popular spaces. 

Pack It Out

Even if your local parks and trailheads are open, be aware that services might be limited due to coronavirus. You might need to use the bathroom ahead of time, and be prepared to pack out trash. At all times, comply with Leave No Trace principles. 

Right Of Way

As more people take to the trails, it’s key that runners stay aware of their surroundings. If you listen to music, leave one ear open or the volume low enough that you can hear what’s happening around you. Politely give people warning if you’re going to pass them, and let them know which side you’ll be passing on. 

Mountain bikers should yield to all pedestrians, and pedestrians should yield to equestrians (them’s the rules!). Typically, hikers should yield to trail runners and downhill traffic should typically yield to uphill traffic (the thinking here is that it’s less cumbersome to stop moving downhill than it is to pause while you’re hustling up).

No Touching

On singletrack, it can be tough to give everyone the six feet of social distance that they need, so make sure you give people plenty of warning that you need to pass them. If you’re being passed on a slope, move the uphill side of the trail to avoid stepping on the “critical edge,” which is the downhill part of the trail that’s prone to erosion and can narrow over time. 

Since most singletrack is less than six feet wide, you might have to step off the trail slightly to allow others to pass (avoid running off-trail, as that will make it harder to prevent environmental damage than simply stepping off) and avoid stepping on delicate plants or soil. Stable rocks, if you can find them, are a safe bet. If you feel that trails are too crowded to pass safely, consider running at a different time or in a different place. 

Remember, you can’t catch the coronavirus from a smile, and it’s important to be friendly and wave as we share the trails. We’re in this together, let’s support each other out on the trails. 

It might feel like there’s suddenly a lot more folks occupying your home turf, but it bears remembering that we are the crowds. Being a runner, or a frequent trail user does not give you any additional privilege compared to a first-time user. Rather, it gives you the tools and responsibility to practice good communication and trail stewardship. Trails are shared spaces, and everyone should feel welcome for safe, outdoor activity. 

Remember, you can’t catch the coronavirus from a smile, and it’s important to be friendly and wave as we share the trails. We’re in this together, let’s support each other out on the trails. 

Zoë Rom is Assistant Editor at Trail Runner , host of the DNF Podcast and a trail running coachShe enjoys podcasts and pizza.