Down and Dirty: 5 Tips for Proper Trail Running Etiquette

Make sure you do nothing to alienate the trails—or the people running them.

Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.

Make sure you do nothing to alienate the trails—or the people running them.

It was a great day for a run. Stunning blue-sky vistas, bugling elk, a singletrack trail blanketed in golden leaves, getting bumped from behind by a lady who decided to up her speed while singing and listening to “Ice Ice Baby” —“OOH, THIS IS MY FAVORITE SONG!”

What?! I was immediately indignant—at the pass, her taste in music and the fact that, even though she was using headphones, the decibels were still at a level certain to cause hearing loss for her and others. The upside, at least for me, was how enjoyable it was to reciprocate the pass—without the shoulder check—when she stopped to take a picture. Put aside the value judgments, a pass is a pass!

The wilds can be a wonderful place to escape from life, to-do lists, playlists and cell service, but not everybody feels that way. As more people head to the hills, it will bring more people who like to run uninhibitedly and others who feel the need to talk on the phone, answer emails, listen to Katy Perry and put selfies on Facebook less than a mile from the trailhead. I’ll admit to being somewhat of a purist when it comes to trail running, but to each their own. Luckily there’s room for all of us.

The five tips that follow are common-sense ways to share the trail, even with those who insist on listening to Vanilla Ice.

Temper the Tunes

Listening to music on a run is a personal choice. But, when it comes to running on trails, especially singletrack and at races, being able to hear what’s going on around you is critical. When it comes to wildlife of the animal, mountain biker, or trail runner variety, you don’t want to be surprised. How you make that happen is up to you. A couple suggestions are to turn down the noise, run wearing only one earpiece or, just maybe, leave the headphones at home.

Pass Politely

Personal space can be hard to come by on a tight trail and the need to pass other runners is inevitable. Some races require those being passed to make room, while at others it’s more of a free-for-all. If you want to pass, say something. Don’t just breathe down someone’s back, or else they might stay in your way on purpose—I’ve been on both sides of this equation and neither is pretty! That said, three basic words—“On your left!”—might make the difference between a successful pass execution and an accidental shoulder check. If the person being passed kindly offers to step off the trail, don’t say, “I’m going wait until after you pull me up this hill.” That’s an automatic branch in the face.

Pack Out Your Trash

If you pack it in on a trail run, you pack it out, right? But, chances are, a stray wrapper or two may have fallen from your pack or pocket and you never noticed. So, if you come across a random wrapper, pick it up. It will help keep the trail pristine for the next person or woodland critter. Plus, it might just give you a bit of good trail karma. The Himalayan Run & Trek, a five-day stage race in India, even gives an award (a real gold medal the year I participated) to the person who picks up the most trash. If this means we never answer the age-old question about whether or not a solo trail runner makes a noise when they fall after slipping on a banana peel, then so be it.

Help Others In Need

It’s a fact. No matter how much we focus on lifting our feet, looking at where we want to go instead of what we want to avoid and rolling or somersaulting through a fall, the occasional trail trip, stumble or face plant is going to happen. And, if Murphy’s Law is in full effect, it will be as far from a trailhead or aid station as possible. Trail runners can be a stubborn and stoic bunch, but most are good-hearted and have a respect for the trail environment and others who are out enjoying it. If you see someone who might be hurt or need, help, make sure they’re OK, but in a non-hovering trail runner sort of way, of course.

Be Trail Aware

Every now and then, we are lucky enough to be on a run where every turn reveals a new National Geographic-worthy vista waiting to be put on Instagram. That might mean you stop without warning to snap a few pics. Or maybe you need shed a layer, catch your breath or dig your favorite gel from your pack. That’s great, but pay attention to where you are, and who and what’s around you. Especially in a race or on gnarly terrain—instead of simply halting in the middle of a trail and creating an inadvertent five-person pile-up, step to the side. This is easier to do in some places along a trail than others, and that’s the point. Trail running is a constant balance of enjoying where you are while paying attention to what’s ahead.