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Trail Tips

Your Guide to Responsible Trail Use

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If you’re new to running on trails, it’s easy to view them as softer, hillier extensions of the pavement. It’s all just running, right?

Well, not quite. Trail running offers an escape to beautiful, wild places—but also implies a responsibility to keep those places pristine and respect the experiences of other visitors. Here are a few tips to help you become an upstanding citizen of the trails.

Accept Responsibility

Before heading into the hills, learn about the trail, gather appropriate gear (which will depend upon the length and remoteness of your run) and prepare to take care of yourself. When you’re running in backcountry areas for hours on end, things can go wrong—not only could you be in danger, but other people may shoulder the burden of bailing you out.

“There’s personal responsibility when you’re going out on a trail run or participating in a trail race,” says Liza Howard, a top ultrarunner and wilderness-medicine instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School. “That has always been part of the trail-running ethic.”

Respect Other Users

People before PRs. Gunning for a Strava record doesn’t give you priority over other people on the trail. “Even I get bothered by obnoxious runners who think they own the trail,” says Andrew Skurka, a renowned thru-hiker who competes in ultramarathons.

Recognize that everyone has the right to move at the pace they choose. Give ample warning when overtaking hikers, and don’t squeeze past in narrow or sketchy spots.

Know who has right of way. Basic traffic rules keep things moving smoothly and safely on the trails. When going downhill, yield to those coming up. Always yield to equestrians, staying on the trail’s downhill side (spooked horses bolt uphill). Mountain bikers should yield to you, though, in practice, it can be easier to let them whiz by.

Be a good dog … owner. Dogs can leave their mark on the outdoors, in more ways than one. Responsible dog owners obey the rules, which differ from trail to trail. Are dogs allowed on the trail? Do they need to stay on leash? Should you pack out or bury their waste?

Keep off-leash dogs in sight and under voice control to keep them from stressing wildlife—or other trail users who don’t like being slobbered on, barked at or attacked.

Minimize phone use. Use your phone if you need to; just don’t let it intrude on those who come seeking a quiet experience. “Not everybody wants to hear your conversation at the top of Longs Peak [in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain Naitonal Park],” says Ben Lawhon, education director at the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics.

Keep one ear open. If listening to music, leave one earbud out so you can hear wildlife and other trail users. Avoid playing music from open speakers.


Protect the Environment

Stay on the trail. Run straight through muddy and snowy stretches of trail, and don’t cut switchbacks. Skirting mucky patches or taking shortcuts widens the tread, hastens erosion and scars the landscape with unauthorized “social trails.”

That can be avoided with a bit of planning. “Not having the right equipment oftentimes can be a pathway to increasing impact,” says Lawhon. Know which trails get muddy and wear trail shoes with aggressive lugs, or simply seek out dry trails.

Poop responsibly. We’ve all been there—one hour into an adventure and suddenly regretting that pre-run espresso. Just make sure you do your business in a responsible way. Get 200 feet away from any trails, campsites or bodies of water; dig a hole six to eight inches deep; and pack out used TP.

Howard recommends bringing toilet paper and hand wipes in a Ziploc bag; wrap used TP in a wipe if you don’t want it to be visible. If digging with a stick or your heel sounds arduous, consider carrying an ultralight trowel or a tent snow stake, Lawhon says.

Don’t litter. Pack out all trash—including biodegradable peels and cores—and pick up whatever refuse you see along the way. This goes for organized events, too. It may be acceptable to litter at road marathons, but a trail race will expect that you carry your trash and dispose of it at aid stations.

Don’t take stuff. That rock or flower belongs where you found it, however cool it looks.

Honor land-management restrictions. Seasonal closures and other rules might keep you temporarily off your favorite trail, but they’re in place for good reasons, like protecting wildlife populations or reducing erosion.

Give back. Trails don’t just happen. Pitch in with a local organization that builds and maintains trails, removes invasive plants or otherwise works to preserve the health of natural spaces.

Volunteering also builds valuable ties to land managers and to other trail-user groups, like mountain bikers and equestrians. “We’re not all moving at the same speed, but we all have a stake in trails,” says Lawhon. “To the extent that we can all get along and share these resources, it’s going to benefit all of us in the long run.”