Monday, September 9, 2019

Respect the Sport: Teaching Kids Hiking Etiquette

Hiking is a sport of passion and love of nature.  Just like in every sport, there are rules that help make the sport more pleasant and enjoyable for all.  These rules are extremely important when enjoying the outdoors because provide a common approach for enjoying the outdoors while respecting, nature, the animals, the other hikers and the future of the sport.  

Most organized hiking trails will have specific rules (e.g. dogs on leashes, exiting the trails before dusk, etc.) and you should be aware and follow these rules.  But there are also the unwritten rules about how to behave on the trails to respect the sport.  As parents, we have a unique opportunity to both teach our children about the joys of hiking while teaching them about the etiquette of hiking so that they respect the sport.  

Teaching children proper hiking etiquette helps them to become 'good hiking citizens' while on the trails, which in turn will help them develop a better appreciation of sport.

Hiking etiquette should be taught on the trails to increase children's respect for the sport. 

Garbage in is garbage out

There is perhaps nothing more disgusting on the trail than coming across garbage left behind by hikers.  Garbage, such as wrappers, tissue, and plastic water bottles are not only an eye sore, but also not good for the wild life.  You can teach children to keep the trail clean by carrying out your trash in a resealable bags and to collect garbage you find on the trail. If taught by parents, children will enjoy helping the environment so make it part of their responsibility to leave the trail clean.

Leave no trace

On longer hikes, there may be designated areas clearly marked as "privy" for when nature calls, but many do not.  Unfortunately, when hiking with children, nature calls at all different times (even if you make sure they all go to the washroom before starting the trail!).  There are several considerations that need to be considered when nature calls: make sure you are off the trail and away from a water source by at least 200 meters; dig a hole that is at least 6-8 inches deep; carry biodegradable toilet paper; bury all waste and biodegradable material (If you have non-biodegradable materials, such as feminine products, toilet paper or wipes, they must be carried out with you).  For non-biodegradable products, carry a reusable, waterproof pouch to seal these items and then put them in your pack to carry out.  Unfortunately, many do not follow these steps, and instead litter the trails and create make shift toilets just off the trail.  

See the article from Backpacker about the problem of overcrowding and toilet paper in the Adirondacks.

Give the right of way

With the overcrowding of hiking enthusiasts on some trails, it is not uncommon that you will pass by other hiking parties while on the trail.  When passing by other hikers, it is important to give the right of way for those who are on the accent.  It is much harder going up than down, so move off to the side to allow the climbers continue accenting without losing momentum.  While children's legs are more like rubber and may find it much easier to stop and get going again, it is important to teach them the importance of giving the right of way to those ascending so that they have good manners on the trail.  

Take a break off trail

Another frustration on the trail is when you pass by a group of hikers having taking their break on the trail, which forces you do go off trail to avoid them.  If children (or their parents) need a break, look for a spot that will accommodate your break off the trail (e.g. on an offshoot of the trail, a rock, an open area, etc), that allows you to take a break without obstructing the trail for others.  

Stay to the trail    

Along a trail, there may be obstacles (e.g. fallen trees, mud or puddles, etc) that can present challenges and it may seem easier to just go around the obstacles by creating a new path.  But creating your own path should always be avoided, so to minimize your impact on the land. With proper hiking boots, there should be no problem with staying on the marked trails.  Children also enjoy overcoming the obstacles, so teach them to stay on the trail and to minimize their foot impact.  In more technical parts, you may need to assist them, but this teaches them to stay on the trail and to respect the fragile ecosystem.  Widening the trail or creating your own unique path may be easier for you and the children, but can comprise the sustainability of the trail. 

Single track, single file

Unless you are hiking on an old logging road, most trails will be designated as single track.  Single track trails are designed to minimize the foot impact of hiking by following a narrow path through the forest.  Teach children to hike in a single file instead of beside you.  We usually have one parent in the lead position to detect any animals or obstacles on the trail, while the other parent is in the rear position to ensure that no child gets left behind!  

Take a pic, not a souvenir

Trails provide a wide range of interesting plants, animals and rocks that capture the attention of all hikers.  Children, in particular love to find new treasures along the trail.  But it is important to take a picture of these found treasures rather than disturb them or remove them so that all can enjoy the amazing setting of the outdoors.  A neat looking rock, a pretty flower, or a new found friend (such as a toad or caterpillar) may be tempting to bring home as souvenirs, but it's important to teach  children the art of enjoying while not taking.  Teach children to look but not touch animals found along the trail so that they do not disturb the animals (and because this is not a zoo). Picking the vegetation will disturb the regrowth of new plants and will interfere with the seeding process of removing pollen for pollinators.  Rocks are particularly fun to collect, however, even removing a small rock effects the trail.  Erosion, plant stability, and important bacteria (more specific to caves) and micro-organisms are all effected with each rock removed.  Take a picture of the item of interest, catalog it and leave it there for others to enjoy.

Don't feed the animals

Please do not feed the wild animals.  While many animals are shy and stay away, others are curious and will become less afraid of humans if they are fed along the trail.  Although children may like to feed squirrels or chipmunks, this can have a negative impact on these animals as it decreases their instincts to forage for their own food and become reliant on human food.   When backpacking, ensure food is stored in a bear proof canister and that your campsite is clean with no remnants of food left behind.  The children can help cleaning and checking the campsite before leaving.  Animals that become reliant on human food can become a nuisance and may have to be relocated or worse.  There is enough food in the wild for them and the food they eat will be much healthier than your bag of salted peanuts.

Hike at a respectable volume

While there may be times when raising your voice may be beneficial to scare away animals, hiking should be a quiet enjoyment.  Other hikers have come to trails to escape the sounds of the city and prefer to hear the pleasant sounds of birds chirping, trees blowing in the wind, or just the peaceful silence of the forest.  Leave the bluetooth speaker at home and teach children to use their 'hiking voice".  

Obey the pet rules for the trail

Hiking is a great sport for your family, including your pets.  But you need to obey the pet rules for the trail.  There are some trails that do not allow dogs on the trail, while others require dogs to be on a leash.  Not obeying these rules provides the wrong message to children, as they see their parents breaking the rules and not respecting the sport.  Letting your dog run off leash creates a number of issues that can be avoided, including animal encounters and startling or scaring other hikers.  While every pet owner claims to have a 'friendly dog', they seem to forget that not everybody is as comfortable around dogs.  Also remember to clean up after your pet.  Pet waste, even if off trail, should be packed out.

Share the peak  

Reaching the peak can be the highlight of the hike.  The peak can be a perfect spot to have lunch and to enjoy the cool crisp air and the amazing views.  But often times, you are sharing the peak with other hikers.  Pick a spot on the peak that will not disturb other and that does not occupy the place for the best views and pictures.  Ideally, once you reach the top, take your pictures, enjoy the view and then move to another section of the peak so that others may do the same.  Also, while on the top of the mountain, teach your children to respect others on the top.  Teach children to use their 'hiking voices' and to be mindful of others.  Given that the peak may have endangered plant life, it is also important that children stay on the rocks and not run around.

Greet others as you want to be greeted  

Hiking provides the opportunity to 'get back to nature' and to reconnect.  The sport of hiking has its own unique culture that embraces nature and connection.  Most hikers share a passion for the outdoors and are eager to share their love of hiking with others.  Unlike the city, where you can pass by thousands of people without making eye contact, seeing like-minded hikers on the trail provides a sense of community and connection.  Although we usually teach children not to talk to strangers, we should be teaching children to say hello to others and converse in small greetings.  This teaches children to feel part of a larger community of people who share a similar passion in hiking.  

Share information with others 

There may be times when you pass other hikers who need some information from you (e.g. the time, information about the trail ahead, tips for places to take a break).  Sharing this information with fellow hikers is an etiquette that is fairly common and appreciated.  Sharing information with other hikers can give others a heads up potential obstacles or warning to help them be better prepared for the trail ahead.  Teaching children about information sharing allows them to become good citizens while on the trail and a better appreciation of the community of hikers.

Turn off the ringer 

In this day and age, almost everyone has a cell phone.  Phones can be extremely useful on the trail as cameras, light source and GPS devices.  However, turn the ringer off.  No one wants to hear a cell phone on the trail.  The sounds of nature fill the silence.  The sound of a text coming in, a tweet and phone call are a disturbance to other hikers.  Let people know that you will be hiking so you will not be able to answer their phone calls.  Blocking time from talking on the phone prevents disturbing others on the trail and provides you time to engage with your children while hiking. 


While there are certain rules for trails that you must follow, other unwritten rules of hiking can be just as important.  Parents need to teach children about hiking etiquette so that they can fully appreciate the benefits of hiking.  

Teaching children these unwritten rules allows them to become part of the culture of hiking and not a nuisance on the trail.  It is about respecting the sport, nature and other hikers.  


  1. Thanks! We took a break during the pandemic but we really miss doing this and we have been thinking about getting back to it....and so we so much appreciate your encouragement!