Hiking Etiquette – Guide To The Trails

For any newbie starting out with hiking, one of the most overlooked thoughts is the etiquette for hiking. New hikers might worry most about shoes. Maybe they will worry about the distance. Both of these are valid thoughts. However, hiking etiquette and knowledge of the outdoors is as important and some of these lessons you can only learn from others on the trail with experience or a lot of experience yourself.
Hiking is one of the most popular activities at Ontario Parks and a hike is a great way to explore the park. As a highly experienced hiker with numerous Ontario, Quebec, other Canadian Trails, USA and France trails of various levels under my belt, I’ve seen it all on the trails. Maybe not all, but I’ve seen a lot. Trash, noise pollution, feces, groups making problems for others. None of those examples are the kinds of things we like to see on the trails.
Coming from a place of privilege, that is I grew up in nature – I understand how to respect the outdoors and others in the space because it was taught to me from a young age. I recognize that not everyone has that luxury and therefore does not know how to conduct themselves in our parks or conservation areas. Fortunately, Ontario has over 330 Provincial Parks and 2,000 km of trails for residents to get out, learn and experience nature.
Six Mile Lake Provincial Park Hiking Trails

Hiking Etiquette On The Trails

As you prepare for your first or next outdoor adventure, here are some tips to keep in mind. I’ve put together a little bit of hiking trail etiquette that might come in handy (and I do expect a challenge here and there on some of these).

Interested in some of the best family-friendly hiking trails in Southern Ontario? You’ll want to read this.

Safety First On The Trails

Whether or not you know a certain trail because you’ve hiked it many times or it’s your first time out there, keep your personal safety at the forefront.

Always plan ahead for your hike. I, for one, have been one to not follow my own advice and have been caught incredibly uncomfortable with wrong clothing, wet shoes and too far out with no snacks and in a field past dark. While I am fortunate enough to never have been in a situation where I required rescue by the Ontario Provincial Police or other search and rescue operations, I very well could have been. Ways to avoid that situation are by planning ahead and that includes:

  1. Checking the weather forecast in advance.
  2. Checking what time sunset is that day as it changes daily.
  3. Choosing a trail, calculating the distance and how many hours of sunlight you have so you don’t get caught out in the dark.
  4. Wearing the right hiking shoes or boots for the terrain. Please no flip-flops or sandals on the trails for your own good!
  5. Packing spare clothing such as a sweater or breathable pants in a backpack for temperature variants.
  6. Packing spare underwear and socks.
  7. Leaving a hiking plan or a location with someone who is not going with you. Even if you text a friend and tell them you’re hitting the trails, just leave a record of your whereabouts.
  8. Bring snacks that have a good amount of protein to keep you going.
  9. Download an app such as AllTrails.com to help you map your routes.

Six Mile Lake Living Edge Hiking Trail

Pack it in, Pack it out

Garbage is a big deal. I wish it was as easy as saying don’t litter. And you would think that people would know to not litter. But they still do. A lot.
I cannot stress this enough – what you bring onto the trail with you, take it back out. Pack it in, pack it out. Take everything out with you, all of your food wrappers, tissues, toilet paper, pop cans, beer bottles, dirty diapers and your dog’s poop. I mean, you wouldn’t leave all that garbage lying around in your living room, would you? Would you really?
Try to utilize reusable water bottles and pack bento-style lunches or snacks. Whatever wrappers have to be used, shove them in your backpack and take them home to dispose of.
Garbage at trail head, pack it in, pack it out

When Nature Calls…

Ready to hear about hiking bathroom etiquette? Some people poop like clockwork at the same time every day. They can set a timer by it. Some do not and therefore, plan a bathroom trip before you start your hike. If you can, plan ahead and look to see if the location you are heading to does have a facility to relieve yourself.
Here’s the thing, not every trail or park has washrooms or port-a-potties or thunderboxes that can be utilized. If you have to pee, squat and drip dry ladies. Don’t leave tissue in the bushes. If you insist on wiping with a tissue, either bury that tissue with a stick or pack it out with you. Going number two off the trail isn’t always a great option out there. Your fecal matter can damage sensitive habitats and honestly, it’s gross for park staff to have to clean up or for fellow visitors to stumble across. If you have an emergency pooh, dig yourself a six to eight inches deep hole far away from the trails and water and then cover up that hole when you’re done. And please, pack out your toilet paper. Yep, take it with you, those sheets or squares that you wiped with.

The thunderbox. The poop box. Better than no poop box when back country camping.

Your Dog Should Be On A Leash

Sorry, but not sorry, if you’re bringing your dog on a hike and you’re in a public area, please keep them on a leash at all times. The exception to this rule is when you are in a designated leash-free area.

I might not like your dog and while you want to pin that on me as a “me problem” and not a “you or your dog problem”. I do tend to like most dogs, but my daughter is terrified. No amount of assurance that your dog is friendly is going to change the trauma of her childhood. And she’s not the only kid out there who has had a bad experience with dogs. Not every hiker is going to appreciate your super awesome dog. Not only that, dogs could potentially disrupt and accidentally harass the area wildlife and that’s illegal in Ontario Parks.

Did you know that an unleashed dog could accidentally lead a bear down the path towards you? Would you like your dog to encounter a skunk or porcupine while out galavanting?

Honestly, bad and ill pre-prepared pet owners have ruined it for everyone. Too much poop mid-trail. Sure, for every bad dog owner, there are a thousand fantastic dog owners. No doubt. But, carry the dog waste out with you too. They poop, you scoop and carry it all the way back with you.

Man wearing rainboots hiking with his dog on a leash

Respect Other Hikers

In the past couple of years, Ontario Park’s Trails have become super popular. This means we have to share the space with more people than ever. Be sure you research the trail before you set out. Some trails are multi-use and you will encounter cyclists or horses. If you’re on a bike, ring your bell if you hear or see hikers on the trail. Hikers should move to the side of the trail to allow the cyclists to pass.

Many hikers are looking for a true-to-nature experience and want to quietly observe the wildlife and take in the surroundings. If you can pass by them quietly, not trample loudly through the brush and keep your voice down, that would be appreciated. Move to the right like you would in traffic. If you’re on a single-lane trail where someone cannot pass without falling into the bush, try to be respectful. In a group of hikers? Allow the solo hiker to pass.

If you must listen to music during your hike, try to use headphones. Music played through a speaker as you hike, even to motivate your kids to get moving can be very disruptive to both flora and fauna as well as your fellow hikers. Hearing “Cotton Eyed Joe” on the hiking trail being played by a mom trying to convince her kids to get moving is the last thing any hiker wants to encounter. And I say this as a fellow Mom. Just don’t, okay? That song has too many other meanings in the Urban Dictionary to be wholesome. Bribe them with ice cream instead. Ice cream can be purchased at the Park Store. Follow me for more Parenting 101 Lessons!

kids at Forks of The Credit Provincial Park best hiking trails for families in Southern Ontario

Stay On The Trail

All too often, shortcuts through unmarked or unbroken landscapes have negative, long-lasting impacts. While it’s super exciting to traverse over land you feel like no one has ever walked over before, going off-trail could harm some sensitive plants in the area.

Or you could get lost and not find the trail again or be able to easily retrace your steps.

Or you could walk into poison ivy if you don’t know about the rule of three (leaves of three, leave it be!).

And there is always the possibility of going through tall grass and having a tick land on you. Ticks, while small, are bugs with big impacts that could leave you seriously ill for the rest of your life.

Best hiking etiquette advice out there? Stay. On. The. Trail.

Six Mile Lake Provincial Park Living Edge Trail Boardwalk hiking etiquette

Don’t Feed The Animals

See that adorable little chipmunk who’s on the trail and checking you out. So cute, right? Little Chippie looks like he wants a snack. Well, don’t feed Little Chippie human food! You’ll teach Little Chippie unnatural animal behaviours, you could make Little Chippie sick.

Also, you could attract bears.

Chipmunk in Algonquin Provincial Park

Leave Nature In Nature

Rocks belong where you find them. On the beach, on the road, on the trail, you get the picture. I know that as a mom, I have rocks that somehow belong inside my house and rocks that belong outside my house.

It’s just a rock, what’s the harm? Well, nature isn’t done with them yet.

And those painted rocks? No. Don’t paint rocks and take them to the parks to leave. Yes, they’re cute and little Johnny worked hard on it. However, many paints are a plastic coating and that plastic coating on the rock in the parks adds another source of plastic for the ecosystems to absorb. Sure, there is eco-friendly paint out there little Johnny may have used and maybe he brings a smile to the face of other hikers. Not all hikers are going to love the artwork. The wilderness is that – it’s meant to be raw and untouched. That cute little pink, painted rock sticks out like a sore thumb.

Nature is meant to be enjoyed by all, but seriously, leave it how you found it. Take only photos, leave no trace.

Hope these hiking etiquette tips help anyone with any questions. And if you have anything you would like to add, please do so in the comments!
Happy trails!
Tips and tricks for the hiking trail, hiking etiquette, hiking trail etiquette in Ontario Provincial Parks

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  • All of these are great hiking tips! Especially with the influx of new hikers over the past year, I hope they take heed of the tried and true hiking etiquette that we seasoned hikers follow, not just for fellow hikers but for the precious nature we all love to seek and enjoy!

  • I also love to hike in the Washington DC area and it is so discouraging to see people leave trash on the paths. These are great rules!

  • Great tips! And all are so important. I hate seeing litter on the trails, and usually try to pick some up and put it with my own as I go. Also as a slower hiker I am very aware of other people on the trail and often let people pass – they don’t want to get stuck behind me for long or I’ll really slow them down

  • I think a lot of people need to read this guide, because the amount of garbage I see on trails is ridiculous – either take it home with you or find a garbage bin! Lots of great tips here!

    • I think education is so key. Now that the outdoors have been “discovered”… the newbies who recently left the insides of their houses are now out there have to learn how to conduct themselves.

  • I LOVE THIS POST!! I mean when nature calls you gotta go! I’ll be honest, I’m not one to go in nature but now I know to dig a hole and cover it up if ever nature calls and I can’t avoid it 😛 Thanks for sharing!!

  • This is such a valuable and useful post. I wish more people would think like you. Litter is always a problem, no matter where one goes and we encounter it often in South Africa. As for some common sense when people go hiking – well, sometimes there just seems to be a lack of it. Thanks for writing this!

  • Love this guide! As an avid hiker I think it’s so important that people understand that nature belongs in nature, not in their home. And same with litter – if it comes with you it should leave with you.

  • Agree with all your hiking etiquette tips. Especially with the dogs on a leash, I’m terrified of dogs. So on a hike and sudden loose dog, scares the hell out of me. Next to that when passing other persons, keep them short on the leash.

  • Thanks for sharing this post. As a fellow hiker, I see a lot more rubbish on the trails and that’s so heartbreaking. If people could carry their food and drinks with them why can’t they carry home their empty wrappers, bottles etc? We started carrying additional bin bags with us and collect what we find along the trail. Hopefully posts like this will educate others about how to behave in the outdoors.

  • Yes! YES! 100 times YES! And I love the picture of you on the outdoor toilet! I wish I could hand this post out to all the people I pass on the trail who don’t have a clue! So many people (dog owners especially) don’t think the rules apply to them!