Trail Etiquette 101

This is written for hikers, bikers and equestrians.  We all like to get out there to enjoy doing our thing on the beautiful trails in Orange County.  We are privileged to have the kinds of trails that we do, and with privilege comes responsibility:  to the parks that provide us with these trails, to the animals and plants who were there before we were and whose presence forms a part of our own enjoyment, and to each other because we need to share these trails in peace. Although parts of this article are geared to specific users, please read all of them as they may help to make us more aware of others’ concerns.

Let’s start with some basic user responsibilities that we all share.  We all need to be attentive of our surroundings.  This means we pay attention to the trail we’re on:  we don’t cut the corners of switchbacks, we don’t sneak into a closed park after a heavy rain when our presence could damage the trails, and we don’t create new trails just for the hell of it.  Attentiveness also means that we keep our eyes and ears open to what’s going on around us, and particularly to the presence of other users.  We look ahead to see who may be in our path. We ditch the earbuds or keep the volume down to where we can hear other sounds around us.  And, speaking of sounds as noise, no one else likes to hear our favorite music roaring as much as we do, so don’t annoy others with it!  Finally, as with driving a car, we know who has the right of way, and yield to that person without making a stink about it.

Now to the particulars…

Hikers.  This category also includes runners and birdwatchers, anyone who travels on his own two feet.  In terms of right of way, you are smack in the middle:  while you have the right of way over bikes, you must yield to horses.  (And if anyone doesn’t believe me, just look at the right of way signs with Yield Sign in Whiting Ranch Parktriangular diagrams that dot our parks.)  Since only a few of our parks see a significant number of equestrians, you may feel that the law is on your side.  Just don’t let it go to your head—or be an ass about it.  This means that if you’re on a singletrack and realize that a biker or runner is coming up behind you (or is approaching from the front), the thing to do is to look for a spot where you can step aside to let them pass.  No, you are not required to jump off the trail or into the shrubbery—and no one should expect you to.  You allow bikers to pass you because it’s the friendly and civil thing to do.  Similarly, if you’re hiking in a group and are on a wide trail, don’t spread yourselves out across it in a way that impedes other traffic.  Though you may have the right of way, that’s no excuse to behave like a jerk.  And suppose you do encounter a horse?  If it’s a wide trail, you can probably just move to your side and keep walking as it passes you (runners, slow down!).  If you’re on a narrow trail, look for a wider spot and plant yourself on the horse’s downhill side.  Yes, I said “downhill”.  Horses are prey animals, and if you think you feel uncomfortable being downhill from a 1000-lb horse, just think how that horse will feel if you perch yourself above it on a rock!  Don’t flap your arms, make sudden movements, or start shouting around horses; do keep talking to your companions and let the horse see that you pose no threat.

Bikers.  You’re at the bottom of the pecking order regarding right of way.  There’s a good reason for this:  you are riding a moving piece of metal, over which you have—or should have—full control, and if you happen to collide with another trail user (or with another biker) you can cause considerable damage.  For that exact same reason, the heaviest burden of responsibility for what happens on the trails is on your shoulders.  This may seem unfair, but it’s true and will remain true for as long as the trails are shared by different kinds of users.  When it comes to attentiveness, the first thing that you must pay attention to is your own speed.  And, yes, we do understand; for many mountain bikers, speed is what provides the thrill of riding.  By itself, this is not reprehensible.  But the fact remains:  a 10-mph speed limit exists in all our parks, intended to protect the safety of all trail users.  Although, as everyone knows, it is largely unenforced and probably unenforceable, you must moderate your speed based on trail conditions.  If you cannot see that far ahead because of curves, blind crests, or vegetation, you must slow down enough to be able to stop quickly if another user should suddenly appear in your path.  And while it’s good to carry a bell and ring it to let others know you’re coming, that bell does not give you a right of way!  If you’re riding in a group, don’t behave like jerks and spread out across the trail like a cavalry charge.  Of course, if you see a horse ahead, immediately slow down!  If the trail is wide, you can probably pass, moving gently; make sure that both rider and horse know you’re coming, and follow any instructions that the rider gives you.  If you’re on a narrow trail, follow the rider’s instructions for sure, but if you’re overtaking the horse, it may be best to just take a deep breath at the outset and consign yourself to yielding until it becomes easier to pass.

Equestrians.  You have the right of way over everybody else.  You also know, or should, that you are riding a sentient animal with its own character and quirks, so you may be a little more attentive to your surroundings than other trail users. Good for you, but don’t get cocky!  As you ride out, anticipate what other kinds of trail users you are apt to encounter.  Before you decide to canter, make certain you can see whoever may be ahead of you.  When you meet a hiker or a biker and they seem uncertain about how they should react to you, tell them nicely what to do.  Take the initiative if the situation seems the least uncertain; it’s your horse, after all, and you can imagine its most likely responses.  If it’s a new horse and/or it has a nervous personality, you should try to get it used to some of the things it may encounter on the trail in more controlled (by you!) circumstances.  And on the trail don’t merely hog your right of way.  If other users need to pass you, you can look for ways to make that easier for them to do while they are trying not to spook your horse.  

Ok, that’s it for now.  I’m sure there are other things that can be added—and maybe they will be over time—but this is basic 101.  If we can all resolve to be attentive to the safety and comfort of the other users with whom we share our lovely trails, we should be ok.  Please spread the word.