A Quick Primer to Social Etiquette on the Trail

"Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness. All other travel is mere dust and hotels and baggage and chatter."

That's what John Muir, who more or less invented American hiking, wrote to his wife, Louisa, in July 1888. Which is all well and good if you're a 19th century nature lover with a transcendentalist bent and a sparsely populated continent to make your own. Muir's prescriptions for a perfect day on the trail tend toward the austere. The writer John Tallmadge reports that he would head out with "only a tin cup, a handful of tea, a loaf of bread, and a copy of Emerson."

But what if you're a tad less reverential about the whole experience? What if you don't mind a certain amount of baggage and chatter? What if, like many of us, you're a casual hiker who just enjoys the chance to spend the occasional day or weekend walking in the woods?

Well, even then there are some pieces of practical etiquette to bear in mind. They might not live up to Muir's ideals for meditative communion, but they can help make for a more pleasant excursion.

Who's Company?

First of all, those of us who are a little more socially-minded than Muir (who sometimes lived for months at a time in complete solitude) often like to have some companionship on the trail. But it pays to think carefully about who you ask along. As one of my friends notes, "Your first hike with someone is sort of like a first date." Even somebody you know well in the office or at the bar can turn out to be a different person when you're heading up a mountain.

For one thing, as in dating, there's the issue of basic physical compatibility. It doesn't really matter whether you and your hiking partners are fast walkers or slow walkers, in prime fitness or somewhat less so. But it does matter how similar you are on all those counts. A mismatched hiking team will lead to a lot of impatient waiting for the swifter parties, and some uncomfortable huffing and puffing for those struggling to keep up. (By the way, you can't necessarily tell this kind of thing just from looking at someone. I know heavyset hikers who can keep a brisk pace, and leaner ones who like to dawdle.)

Even harder to know ahead of time is what kind of hiker somebody is. There are those who are relentlessly goal-driven, aiming to make the day's destination—whether it's a summit or a campsite—as quickly as possible, and those more inclined to enjoy the journey. Subsets of the latter include your bird enthusiasts, who are likely to pause at every new call they hear; flora specialists, prone to close inspection and appreciation of every little batch of wildflowers; and your dung interpreters, who can enthuse for several minutes over any pile of scat you might happen across. And of course there are the shutterbugs, who will want to stop for photos of any or all of the above, plus whatever vistas the trail grants. (Since acquiring my iPhone with its surprisingly fine camera, I admit I find myself sometimes in the latter category—to my hiking friends' periodic irritation.)

Then there is the whole issue of conversation. Monkish Muir types are not a good match for the more talkative class of hiker. If the goal is to get away from the rest of the world for a day or two, you may not want to spend the time rehashing the past week's office gossip. On the other hand, a long hike can provide an opportunity for friends to catch up with each other's lives, or to trade more philosophical thoughts on life, love, and other existential concerns. The terrain often dictates the flow of discussion anyway: A slope of any respectable grade will necessarily limit the amount of oxygen left over for chatter, at least on the uphill.

Social Do's and Don'ts

Even if you're a solo hiker, you're still likely to run into other people along the way. And while trail manners are loose and rough, there are still some important guidelines.

A.) Always say hi. This doesn't even have to be a verbal greeting, but some form of nod or eye contact or smile or other kind of friendly exchange is pretty much de rigueur. This shows an acknowledgment that you share a bond of sorts, by virtue of being out here on the same trail rather than at home in front of the TV or at the mall or wherever else you could be. More primally, it is a quick way of signaling that you are just another regular guy out for a nice walk, and not a creepy stalker or aspiring serial killer.

B.) On a narrow trail where one party or another has to give way, it's best for anyone headed downhill to step aside for anyone headed uphill, so as not to interrupt their momentum. But other considerations come into play, too. If you see someone approaching and you are at a spot with an easy step-aside space, it's best to just pull over when you can rather than force an awkward scramble. And if you are part of a large and/or slow moving party and you hear a smaller or faster group coming up behind you, it's courteous to let them pass. Likewise, if you're part of the group coming up from behind, it's good to make a little noise of some kind to politely announce your presence, rather than simply trying to bull your way through.

C.) Sometimes the functions of the human excretory system require pit stops of one kind or another. These are an accepted part of the hiking experience (and the well prepared hiker will be equipped with necessary accoutrements, including a spade). But it is considerate to get a decent distance off the trail before doing so, or at least to select a spot where you can be reasonably sure nobody is going to walk right up on you. And when one of your own party pauses for a pee, it's best to continue on down the trail at least a few yards. Even in nature, privacy has its place. (On a somewhat related note, the passing of gas when you are less than a few yards ahead of the hiker behind you is a little gauche. Be conscious of the downwind range.)

Moreover, if none of the above work out well—if, despite your efforts, you end up on a hike with someone who drives you crazy, or if the path you've chosen is unexpectedly bogged down with inconsiderate trail hogs—it is worth keeping in mind some other words of Muir's: "In God's wildness lies the hope of the world." That includes your overly talkative, too-slow, dung-dawdling, flatulent trailmates.