I’m not usually one for rules or norms, and I’m certainly not one to tell you that you need to do something a certain way.

After all, trail running is all about freedom.

The freedom to run through the woods, wear whatever the heck you want, and refuel with whichever drink you so desire.

At the same time, I’m a big on treating people and nature with the respect they deserve.

And when it comes to respect, a little trail running etiquette can go a long way.

I know, I know…it’s a sport! With any competition comes rivalry and inherent selfishness. And yeah, I also know that road running etiquette is a little different.

That’s the reason I feel the need to write this post. Not because of a sudden increase in trail running mischief, but as a gentle reminder that we’re all in this together.

Here’s the thing, when you’re running on remote trails, etiquette is not only a good way to keep the community happy, it’s important for the safety and sustainability of your fellow runners and trails.

Not sure if you’re being a good trail runner? Don’t worry. Below I’ve listed out the complete guide to trail running etiquette.

With the jackass in mind.

General Trail Running Etiquette

We’ll start with general etiquette to keep yourself and other runners safe and happy, and the trails in good condition.

1) Safety Before Ego

Trail running is all about pushing your limits and living on the edge. It’s about adventure and excitement.

But safety should always be the #1 priority. Stupid, ego driven outings or detours not only put yourself in danger, but put your running partners and fellow trail lovers, and the safety rescuers who have to go find you, in danger.

Pay attention to weather. Don’t bite off more than you can chew without an escape plan. Be mindful of the challenges of the trail.

2) Pack Out What You Hauled In

I’ll never forget that for the last 20ish miles of the 2013 Massanutten Mountain Trails 100, my pacer and I kept seeing wadded up paper towels thrown to the side of the trail. Then, with about 2 miles to go, a runner just up ahead reached into his pack, grabbed a paper towel, blew his nose, and threw it to the ground.

I looked at my pacer,

Me: Did he just…?
Pacer: Yeah, I think so. Let’s catch him.

We caught up and as we passed, my pacer said,

Pacer: Hey man, please don’t throw your trash on the side of the trail, we’ve seen it for the past several hours.
Runner: Whatever, dude. They’re biodegradable.

It’s an argument I hear from runners, hikers, and trail users all the time. On the surface it seems reasonable enough, but what does biodegradable really mean? Let’s take a look at how long it takes a few common biodegradable products to actually decompose:

  • Paper Towels: 4 weeks
  • Banana/Orange Peel: 3-5 weeks
  • Toilet Paper: 3 weeks (exposed to the elements, much quicker if buried)

That’s right, that dude’s biodegradable paper towels littered the last 20 miles of the trail for the next 4 weeks. A real jackass move.

And this is just biodegradable stuff. Your energy gel packets or bar wrappers? Those will stick around for years.

During a road race it’s common to grab a cup from a water station and continue running before you throw it down, or just hurl your empty Gu somewhere near-ish a trashcan. On the trails that kind of behavior isn’t commonplace.

If you can carry it in, you can carry it out.

Tip: If you’re worried about the sticky residue leftover from a used gel, keep a pocket in your pack, shorts, or belt just for used packets. That way you can avoid the gooey mess that comes from fishing through used packets when hunting for new ones.

3) Share, Be Alert, Don’t Startle

The other half of staying safe on the trail is knowing how to share it. As much as we don’t always like it, trail runners share the dirt with other runners, hikers, bikers, and horses. Not to mention the wildlife that call it home.

The first rule in sharing is to be alert. That means keep music down low, or avoid it all together if the trails are busy.

When you do encounter someone on the trail, here’s what to do:

  • Mountain Bikers: Runners should yield to the biker. I know, I hate this rule just as much as the next guy, but it’s easier for us to stop and move off trail. Ed. Note: After posting the original article, I’m hearing from others that bikers yield to all. Bottom line, be alert and don’t assume anyone knows anything. What rule do you follow? Share in the comments.
  • Hikers: Hikers should generally yield to runners. That being said, many hikers have never encountered a trail runner and look like a deer in headlights. Don’t assume they know what to do, and be prepared to stop. Also, now’s probably the time to say that the best response to “You’re going to kill yourself!” or “That’s going to destroy your knees!” is no response at all.
  • Horses: Many horse trails are popular for running. Always yield to the horse. Startling an animal that size is a bad idea for the horse, the rider, and yourself.
  • Other Runners: When you’re coming up behind another runner, always alert them before a pass. “On your left!” is all you need. If you’re running towards each other and there is no room to pass, the uphill runner (who’s running downhill) yields to the downhill runner (who’s running uphill).
  • Wildlife: The etiquette for when you encounter wildlife? Live and let live. Most wildlife doesn’t want to see you anymore than you want to see it. But just in case something does happen, here’s what to do for a black or grizzly bear, coyote, Rattlesnake, moose, mountain lion, and shark (you know, just in case).

4) Stay on Trail

From what I understand, this one is less-true for our Euro friends, but trails are built a certain way for a reason. A good trail designer will navigate the trail to help prevent erosion and avoid sensitive habitats. By going off trail, you’re causing damage to the surrounding area.

Short-cuts can be tempting, but that doesn’t make them right.

5) Be Friendly

There’s something beautiful about sharing the great outdoors with fellow outdoor lovers. Be friendly to those you pass on the trail.

A big aspect of trail running is the community. Continue to build it and welcome in new friends, even if it’s just with a wave or nod.

Trail Racing Etiquette

Now we get into race day etiquette, even though it’s a competition…

6) Thank the Volunteers

This one should go without saying, but it needs to be said anyway. Those people cutting up mini PB&J sandwiches, mixing up your HEED, and keeping the fire going? Yeah, they’re volunteers.

And they may have had to hike in several miles, get up before you did, and stand out in the rain/cold/heat, just to do that volunteering. All with no glory or finishers prize.

I know you’re tired and hurting, but in the trail running community, we thank the volunteers. There’s no grab a cup on the run. Pause and say thank you.

7) Help A Racer in Need

One of the best parts about a trail race is how remote you may run, and how spread out the field can become. During an ultra, it could be miles before you see another racer.

Because of that ruggedness, we’re faced with dangers most road racers couldn’t fathom. So if you see a runner in need, even if they’re still moving, always put the runner before the race.

  • Are they in trouble? Find out what’s wrong and alert a volunteer.
  • Are they experiencing a terrible bonk and you have a little extra nutrition? The least you can do is offer it up.

It’s a race, and that’s not to be downplayed, but it’s also fellow runners enjoying the trails. Unless you’re battling for the podium, reaching out to a runner in need will have little impact on your day.

8) Support Other Runners

Anyone out running the trails is a badass. Don’t forget that.

It’s cool (even encouraged) to wear your finishers shirt from a big race or sport a 100 mile belt buckle during the pre-race brief, but never belittle another runner’s accomplishments.

We’re all out there to face our down demons and do something awesome. That’s what matters.

9) Resist the Temptation to Out Sprint (Ultra)

I’m putting ultra here, because if it’s a shorter distance trail race, this one goes out the window.

Unless you’re competing for a top spot or significant symbolic time, chances are:

  1. You don’t really care about your finish time,
  2. You have no idea what place you’re in, and
  3. You’ve been out there long enough that you shouldn’t have any sprint left to give.

There’s nothing sweeter than a big kick the last few miles to finish strong, and passing people those last few miles will make you feel like Superman. But I hate to see a runner sprint past an unsuspecting runner in the finishers shoot…after having been on the course for 7+ hours.

Does that one spot or 10 seconds really matter?

10) Embrace the Challenges

New to trail racing? Listen up! Chances are your race will have one (or maybe all) of the following things:

  1. Mud, lots of unexpected mud
  2. Extra miles. Maybe even a few extra miles.
  3. Poor markings. I know, it sucks and shouldn’t be a norm, but you might miss a turn or go off course.
  4. Congested singletrack for the first miles.

Yup, that’s what you should expect. And now that you’re read it here, you can’t be surprised when one of these happens.

Instead of getting angry or frustrated, embrace it.

You didn’t sign up for something easy, you signed up for an epic adventure. Quit your complaining and show the trail who’s boss.

Don’t Be A Jackass

Alright, Rock Creek Runner cotillion is now adjourned. You can go back to causing mischief and disappointing your mothers.

But next time you’re on the trail and about to do something rash, take a moment to think through these lessons. Please?

No one wants to be that jackass people groan about once the run is over.

Author Doug Hay is the founder of Rock Creek Runner, host of the Trail Talk podcast, and fanatical about everything trail running -- beards, plaid shirts, bruised toenails, and all. He and his wife live and run in beautiful Black Mountain, NC.

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22 thoughts on “The Jackass’ Guide to Trail Running Etiquette

  1. I’d add one note about dealing with horses: If you’re approaching from behind one, slow down and from a good distance (maybe 30 feet?) either call to pass on the left or ask whether it’s okay to pass–and if you do get the okay to pass, try to put some space around the horse. Most of the horses on Rock Creek trails are blase about the various types of things they’ll encounter on the trails, but a youngster or one having a bad day can kick out if startled, and nobody wants that. If you’re on remote trails, this advice goes double, because those horses may not be used to runners; listen to the rider and keep everyone safe.

    I’ve ridden and run in Rock Creek for years, and it’s a rare treat to see how well people share the trails here. Thanks for keeping it awesome.

    1. Thanks for the note about sharing with horses. Safety and being alert when you encounter a horse on the trail is super important! Great advice! I’m to hear things are generally going smoothly in RCP.

  2. Most races with an uphill / downhill section with runners going both directions will adhere to the opposite. Runners going downhill have the right of way and runners going uphill should yield. I thought that was the safer option for all times as well?

    1. In hiking, the person hiking down the decline always yields to the person hiking up the incline primarily to not break the rhythm of the person that is doing more work and also because hikers tend to look down to see where they are stepping so the person hiking down has the better field of vision. I assume this rule applies to running as well, but all bets may be off in a race.

      1. I agree with Tim: The guy going down has less stability and control and needs longer distance to come to a halt. Uphill guy always yields…

  3. I like to startle the crap out of people wearing headphones with the volume turned way up! It just really makes me laugh…like why would you wear headphones on a trail when you could just listen to the sounds of nature. Headphones….belong in the gym.

    1. Because people like to listen to music in nice surroundings perhaps? Kind of just makes you sound mean. Just because something isn’t to your taste doesn’t mean other people won’t like it.
      Obviously if people are being ignorant or dangerous caused by not paying attention when wearing headphones then that’s a different matter.

  4. Thanks for this. I’m new to trail running, so this is really helpful for me. I have to say though, I’m a bit surprised that, as a fellow vegan, in a post that’s all about respect you would disrespect donkeys by perpetuating the stereotype that they are foolish or stupid. I’m not trying to get all vegan police on you here; it’s just that I know you from the No Meat Athlete podcast, so coming from that context this post took me by surprise.

    1. Hey Wendy, Thanks for reading and listening to NMA Radio! I’m glad you found the tips here useful.

      Originally I planned to use “asshole” instead of “jackass”, but decided that was a little too crude for this site. The point I’m trying to make is not to be a jerk, and aside from the photo, I think that’s pretty clear. I don’t think it implies that you shouldn’t act like a donkey.

      Honestly, I chose that photo because I think it’s funny and eye catching. We vegans can joke around too, right?

      1. Sure, it’s definitely healthy to keep a sense of humour. I’ve just become more aware lately of the kind of language I use that refers to animals. It’s one of those things that’s so ingrained in us by our culture that we seldom stop to think about what it means, and yet the words we use definitely do shape the way we and others think about animals (and everything else). So I make an effort to replace some of the more derogatory idioms, like saying “chop two carrots with one knife” instead of “kill two birds with one stone”. For me personally, “jackass” is one of those words I would think twice about using.

        1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and speaking up, Wendy. I definitely appreciate where you’re coming from. See you on the trails!
          – Doug

  5. I would also encourage trail users to volunteer for trail maintenance or trail building, or at the very least donate to the organizations that do all of the upkeep for the trails you are using. I love the fact that many ultras now require runners to submit proof of volunteer hours.

    In terms of the uphill vs downhill yield, while the downhill guy has the momentum and speed, the uphill guy (especially the mountain biker) will want to keep his momentum otherwise he will be off the bike and pushing. I always think safety first but respect all trail users and everyone appreciates the yield. In the local trails outside of Calgary, signage indicates that bikes yield to runners/hikers and everyone yields to the horses.

  6. Please do not expect anyone to yield to you just because you want to make everything into a race. Hikers DO NOT have to yield to you just because you are running. Be polite to slower hikers and pass them politely when you can, don’t expect them to leap out of your way because you don’t want to slow down for anything. Pro tip: when out in the world, you have to react and respond to things, and slowing down for other people is one of them. And for the love of Pete, stop letting your dog just trail behind you and tangle with other people’s dogs or bikes or legs or what have you while you just run in past, fruitlessly calling over your shoulder rather than interrupt your precious workout.

    Runners are one of the worst user groups to share trails with. No one cares about your workout but you, so get over yourself and be polite on the trails.

    1. Hey Tyler, I’m sorry to hear that you have such a bad impression of trail runners!

      The trail running community that I know volunteers thousands of hours to maintain and build trail networks all over the world, they raise funds to support wild lands, and encourage and support all trail users regardless of whether they are runners or not. And we most certainly aren’t so self-centered as to think that everyone cares about our runs. We’re out there to have fun and enjoy ourselves just like everyone else.

      As for your other points we can agree on a few things. If we (and by we I mean all trail users, runners, hikers, bikers, and horseback riders alike) are doing it right, then no one should have to leap off the trail. That’s the point of trail etiquette — to ensure that all users have a safe, clean, and protected area to enjoy nature.

      And when it comes to dogs, unfortunately many dog owners think it’s alright to leave their dog off leash. That’s an annoyance I deal with daily. But to blame solely runners for that is misguided.

      Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you on the trail,

      Doug

      1. Actually it is all right to let your dogs off leash in many areas, including Pisgah National Forest, where I live and run. My dog is better behaved and trained than many people I encounter on the trails. I like the more technical trails, and it’s safer not to be tethered together. I know several people who run with dogs without bothering anyone. I hate that you’ve had such bad experiences that you lump us all together, and I guess I’m lucky that where I run we don’t have that problem. I have had a few run ins with “bad” dogs, but also with “bad” trail runners, mountain bikers, etc. and I wouldn’t make a blanket statement about them. This is a great post (a sorely needed one!) with useful information, but I had to mention this since you are talking to new trail runners and it’s not accurate to tell them that people who run with their dogs off leash are an annoyance. That’s not true everywhere. But anyway, thanks for opening up the discussion on trail etiquette, it needs to be put out there more often.

        1. Hey Pisgah Runner, Thanks for reading and sharing your experience. Before I go any further, let me say that I’m speaking as a non-dog owner who doesn’t feel comfortable around many stranger dogs due to experiences in the past.

          I think it completely depends on the scenario. If you’re deep down a trail in Pisgah, where there aren’t many people, letting the dog off leash is completely acceptable, and you’re right that it’s probably safer for both of you. It’s when you’re on popular trails that I believe keeping them on leash is important. Even if your dog is super well behaved, I don’t know that, so if it comes running up to me I’m going to react. As a courtesy, I’d rather you keep the down on leash.

          You’re exactly right that in some places there aren’t set rules. This is just my opinion as a trail user. But I should note that in many places there are rules. Rock Creek Park — for which this blog was named after — has strict leash laws that are often ignored and I regularly hear of very unfortunate situations. In our area of WNC, Montreat, Mt. Mitchell SP, Dupont SF, and Great Smoky NP, all have leash laws. Pisgah doesn’t, I assume mostly because of bear hunting.

          All that said, I have a few regular running partners who always bring their dog, and after we get off the beaten path let the dog run free with no problems. I just encourage all dog owners to be smart, courteous, and aware of the situation.

          Thanks again for reading and commenting. I want to share other opinions as well!

    2. Completely agree about your point regarding yield. Every trail etiquette book I’ve ever read, as well as trail guides at parks, say that downhill yield to uphill no matter what speed you’re going.

      Encouraging trail runners with incorrect information just creates more animosity among trail users and thereby creates potentially dangerous situations….think trail runner expecting the right of way running down the Angel’s Landing trail in Zion ( yes, I’ve seen it).

  7. It would be great if all trail runners could just run right into a brick wall. They ruin every natural area around my city. It’s pretty damn unnerving to be in the middle of a forest and have hear someone running at you from behind. I wish it was only allowed in designated areas like smoking.

    1. Interesting that you’d post such a comment on a trail running blog. You don’t mention in what way trail runners ruin the natural areas around your city, but I am a very active hiker and frequently see other hikers doing more damage to trails and natural areas than I’ve ever seen a trail runner do (littering, cutting corners, throwing rocks, drinking/smoking/tagging, etc). If you feel the area is ruined just because you find it unnerving to hear someone running behind you then the problem lies with you. The best remedy might be for you to give it a try yourself. It’s great exercise, you can cover a lot more ground by running, and the connection with nature is amazing.

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