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.
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:
- You don’t really care about your finish time,
- You have no idea what place you’re in, and
- 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:
- Mud, lots of unexpected mud
- Extra miles. Maybe even a few extra miles.
- Poor markings. I know, it sucks and shouldn’t be a norm, but you might miss a turn or go off course.
- 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.