The Hiker's Code

Jan 29, 2021

Brush up on trail etiquette in time for hiking season

Whether you're planning to hike in Utah's national parks or just trekking up a local trail, keep in mind that only you can prevent forest fires. And erosion. And human poop on the side of the trail. Conserving Utah’s exceptional wildness is up to us, so follow (and preach) these few tips to keep things pristine.

Pandemic Etiquette

The great outdoors has become a refuge from the pandemic and from the stifling indoors. More people than ever are on the trails trying to keep their spirits up. Help us keep hiking a safe activity by following local CDC guidelines. Wear your face underwear in busy places, don’t share water bottles, stay six feet apart, and hike in small groups. Avoid places like the Navajo Nation, which has been particularly hard hit (It is currently closed to tourism). Small towns like Moab rely on tourism but they don’t have the resources to support an influx of sick locals. Please wear masks when stopping for gas and wash or sanitize your hands often. Check for updates on park and trail closures before you go. And last, of all, stay flexible on your trip dates in case you need to change plans. Don’t worry! Utah is beautiful all year-round.

Stay on the Trail

Let’s start with the fundamentals. Footfalls have an obvious cumulative effect, and trails minimize the damage to vegetable and mineral alike. Stay in the middle of the trail and hike single-file if you’re in a group. You know that crusty black stuff that looks like dead moss on southern Utah’s red, sandy soil? It’s actually slow-growing cyanobacteria that helps stop erosion. Don’t squish it.

Biological Soil Crust - Don't step on it!

Pets in the Parks

In general, pets are only allowed in parking lots, in your car (a bad idea in the desert heat), in most campgrounds and within 50 feet of the road — on a six-foot leash at all times.

Why so restrictive? Your dog may chase or scare wild animals, or leave a predator scent that lingers and disturbs the behavior of native species. It could trample vegetation off the trail. It doesn't know not to pee or poop near protected watersheds. Also, some national park visitors just aren’t dog people.

Some parks are more lenient than others, so call ahead for specific pet policies. Or just find a kennel in town to board your pup while you take yourself for a walk.

Right-of-Way

When hiking, in general, down-hillers yield to up-hillers, hikers yield to horses and bikers.

Littering: Don't Do It of Course

Don’t waste Utah, you guys. (Remember that cool guy with the car and the dog in those commercials? Man, he hated litter.) This includes orange peels, sunflower seeds and the like. And it’s still your fault if the wind blows your plastic water bottle down a cliff. Bonus points for picking up lesser hikers’ litter.

P.S. Dog poop bags left on the side of the trail for you to pick up later? Also litter. Take it with you. (Sorry, not sorry.)

Hold It Right There

Speaking of not letting things get away from you, do your best to avoid trailside potty breaks. A-plus hikers always use the toilets at the trailhead so they don’t get caught with their pants down, but if emergency strikes:

  1. Peeing a few paces from the trail is forgivable.
  2. Bring a plastic bag (a WAG bag is specifically designed for this purpose) in case you have a problem that’s more… substantial. If you’re in a canyon or near a water source, pack your parcel out; otherwise, you still need to tote your TP but you can bury your BM in a 6-inch cat hole. Lucky you.

Sensitive wilderness areas may have more stringent rules so do your homework. (Fun conversation-starter with the ranger at the visitor center!)

Graffiti

Oh, golly sakes alive… [shakes head, pinches the bridge of nose] Do you really need to be reminded not to carve your stupid, boring initials into signage, bathroom stalls, or — horror of horrors — actual sandstone in an actual national park? You don’t, right? Okay, good. And just so we are all on the same page: Graffiti includes carving into trees and rocks or even writing with mud on rock walls.

Removing graffiti from sandstone walls in Arches National Park - Photo courtesy of NPS

Can't Be Too Cairnful

This one’s tricky because cairns — those little stacks of rocks you sometimes see marking an otherwise vague section of a trail — are a nice, unobtrusive way to keep hikers on track. But if they start showing up every ten steps, they suddenly become… what? non-unobtrusive? Resist your decorator impulse and let the rangers handle the wayfinding.

Leave What You Find

Are you noticing a theme? Just don’t mess stuff up. Leave no trace. “Leave only footprints, take only photographs,” etc. Your kid’s gonna want to take that rad stick/rock/leaf/rattlesnake he found with him in the car. It’s a great time to teach him the deeper joy of sacrificing some small pleasure for the greater good. Kids love sublimation!

National Parking

Finding a parking spot at the most popular trails can be tough, especially in the high season, but don’t park where you’re not supposed to. If it’s full, come back later. Do yourself (and the world) a favor and carpool or use the convenient shuttles in Zion and Bryce Canyon. Most of Utah’s parks are very bike-able, too.

Obey Posted Signs

Arches National Park - Park Avenue Trail - Photo courtesy of NPS

Because most of them are giving you great pointers about how to not die or how to not ruin something that took eons to make.

Tattle on Cheaters

Who ever said being a tattle-tale was a bad thing? That’s crazy. What deserves your loyalty: the delicate Jurassic rock formation, or the clown climbing on it? Make a note of dangerous or destructive behavior and tell a ranger. Snitch with pride, you goody two shoes boots.

Set an Example for the Kids

Teach your kid to jab a stick into a wasps nest and you've taught them a valuable lifelong lesson: don’t mess with nature. But maybe there’s a better, less painful way to get the message across? Show your kids how to respect nature by teaching them the (real) rules and follow them yourself. As always, they notice what you do more than what you say. Once your kids are on board, feel free to start publicly shaming your unsustainable friends. “Uh, don’t know if you know this, but that’s actually cyanobacteria…”

Dress for Success

This is more about savvy than etiquette, but be 30% more prepared than you think you need to be — always bring proper shoes, water, layers, a hat, water, sunscreen, water, snacks, and sunscreen. Don’t be the one hiking Angels Landing in flip flops.

Know Before You Go

Do a little research before you head out, especially before hiking the backcountry. Bring a GPS or download maps on your phone. Check the weather. Grab a water filter. Be honest with yourself about your capabilities. If you come prepared and you get into a bad situation, that's fine! By all means call for help. But don’t strain local rescue resources by being negligent. Helicopter rescues aren’t cheap and you may end up footing the bill.

Respect the Locals

Speaking of straining local resources, there’s a reason why restaurants in Moab have signs in their bathrooms that say “Don’t wash your hair in the sink.” Gross, people! Utah’s towns and cities have a love-hate relationship with tourism. It makes for a nice economy but resentment builds when tourists are disrespectful of local property and space. Mend this relationship by respecting signs, fees, rules and the locals themselves. And FYI, showers can be rented at the KOA.

You Are Average!

The last, biggest rule of being a good steward of Utah’s parks and trails is believing that all the rules apply to you. Even the silly ones about not feeding bears. The national parks are exceptional. You are not.

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