Trail etiquette 101: A primer on when to yield to other trail users.

Imagine you are riding your mountain bike up a steep technical climb, when you see 3 horses coming down the trail towards you. Do you know what to do?

What if you are running up your favorite single-track trail, and 6 mountain bikes are coming down towards you?

Keep in mind that guidelines will vary by location, but generally the following can be applied to get you thinking in the right direction:
Hikers, runners and bikers should always yield to horses.
Bikers should yield to hikers and runners
Downhill traffic should yield to uphill traffic.
When approaching others from behind, a friendly greeting does wonders to let others know you are coming and common courtesy will always go a long way!

From the North America Skills & Ethics Booklet: “Groups leading or riding livestock have the right-of-way on trails. Hikers and bicyclists should move to the downhill side and talk quietly to the riders as they pass, since horses and other pack stock frighten easily.”

Moving to the downhill side, when letting horses by, reduces your size and appearance. My initial instinct was to stay on the uphill side of such large animals, but once I understood that it makes them less likely to spook, it made a lot more sense to move downhill. If you find yourself in an awkward or unsafe situation it is always best to communicate with the lead rider to ask them what they prefer, as they know their animals the best.

So far it seems pretty easy. Everyone yields to horses, bikers yield to hikers, and downhill yields to uphill.

Now let’s try a couple gray areas. What if a downhill hiker meets an uphill cyclist. The guidelines would say the biker yields, but personally I know it is a lot easier for me to stop and start hiking than it is when riding, so I generally step off the trail when hiking or running. I suppose the cyclist should never have an expectation that the hiker will let you pass, but it might happen out of courtesy.

Another example, an uphill runner meets a group of 12 hiking down the trail. Downhill traffic should yield, but as a solo runner, I would always step off the trail, as I figure the impact of one person doing so is far less than 12 doing so.

When yielding to other traffic, remember to always look for safe and durable surfaces to step onto. And finally, the International Mountain Biking Association recommends when riding single track to come to a complete stop and then side step off the trail, as opposed to just riding off the side of trail, and thereby widening it.

Happy Trails!