Remember that we are a community, a group of people that love and respect the outdoors. Whether you prefer to drive a vehicle, ride a bike, ride a horse, or hike on foot, we are all outdoor enthusiasts. As such we need to maintain a level of respect and understanding for one another and nature to allow us to continue to enjoy our passion for our outdoor recreational activities. This brings me to proper trail etiquette. Below are fifteen tips that provide some guidance on how we can conduct ourselves and interact with nature and others on the trail to preserve our recreational activities and the environment.
1. Know the rules: Understand the rules of the group or club you are traveling with and know the rules of the area or trail you are traveling to. Laws differ from place to place. Consider who owns the land you will be traveling on and any rules, fees, and permits required. Whether the land is private, state, or federal, please talk to whoever owns or manages it. Forest rangers and park services are more than happy to help any questions or concerns you may have.
2. Be considerate of others: Leave the ego and jackassery behind. I don’t care if you are with friends or strangers, try to avoid any behavior that would reflect poorly on offroaders if viewed from a third party. If you can help someone else on the trail and can spare the time and effort to do so then please do. I’m a big fan of the paying it forward concept, and I’ve always found the benefits of helping someone is shared. It can make you feel better, and it can help improve others image of offroaders. So next time you see that dirtbike or hiker on the trail looking like they need some assistance, offer it! Lending a hand, some tools, a bit of gas, or even a bottle of water can go a long way towards helping us connect as a community.
3. Police your brass and your trash: Not only should you bring out everything that you brought in, but you should make sure you leave every place cleaner than when you found it. Bring a trash bag with you and pickup anything you may find on the trail. If you don’t want to carry trash inside your vehicle there are several manufacturers such as Trasharoo that make trash bags specifically designed to hang off your spare tire or roof rack. If you are a smoker please make sure to keep and dispose of your cigarette butts in the trash and not out of the window. It’s not just about littering but it’s also about preventing forest fires. Human waste? Put it in a waste and garbage bag (WAG). The famous Rubicon trail in California has actually had portions of it closed due to sanitation and human waste problems.
4. Tread lightly: This goes hand in hand with packing out what you packed in but I want to focus more on how and where you drive your rig. Read the local signs, make sure your vehicle is permitted on that particular trail and you are equipped for the difficulty level it is rated at. Do not deviate from marked trails and never forge your own trail. This is not only illegal in many places but can have disastrous results for the environment and our image. If you see an area that is marked as protected due to a particular species of wildlife do not enter that area for any reason, even on foot. Cross streams at designated points, don’t drive over vegetation, and don’t widen the trail by going around an obstacle. Go through an obstacle unless there is a designated bypass trail. Respecting signs and barriers has already been mentioned but I want to emphasize not to destroy, go through, or go around barriers. Some trails do have gates you are permitted to pass through, just make sure to leave them how you found them. If you enjoy recreational shooting, bring your own targets and refrain from shooting signs, buildings, or trees.
5. Yield right of way: Hikers, Bikers, Horses, Motorcycles, ATVs, UTVs, and other passenger vehicles. As the bigger, less maneuverable, and often slower vehicle, you should let others go before you. Please move aside if it is safe and possible to do so. If there are horses or other animals make sure to turn off your vehicle and turn the music down so you don’t spook or scare the animal unnecessarily. If you come upon another group of passenger vehicles it will be a judgement call on what group will have the easiest time moving aside. Generally the smaller group will move aside and allow the other group to pass but this can often be dictated by the terrain. If you are on a hill, the vehicle moving up hill will have the right of way. The group moving up hill has the right of way because they often have a reduced field of view. There have been steep climbs where all I see is my hood and the sky…. There are other factors that add to this such as the uphill vehicle needing to maintain momentum to make the climb and it can be difficult for them to back down the hill, the point being yield to vehicle traveling uphill.
6. Move aside when taking a break: If you are stopped or resting you don’t want to obstruct the trail. Please move aside so if another group comes along they can pass. When choosing a spot to pull over, keep the tread lightly concept in mind and common sense should dictate not to park on a curve, blind spot, or in immediate proximity of an obstacle.
7. Be mindful of the vehicle in front of you: I know you are eager to conquer the next obstacle or want to watch the line of the person in front of you but this doesn’t require you to ride their bumper. Give them space, especially on hills and obstacles. It happens all too often when someone needs to back up and take another line that they can’t because the next vehicle is too close and then the chaos starts and several vehicles have to coordinate backing up through trails and obstacles to give someone room to maneuver. A little extra room can also help protect you from getting a stray rock through the windshield, save you from breathing in as much dust, or even keep you out of the way of a rollover or dislodged bolder that has decided to tumble down a hill.
8. Maintain visual contact of the vehicle behind you: Getting lost on the trail is bad. If you come to an intersection make sure the vehicle behind sees you and knows which direction you are going. If you go through an obstacle or difficult section of the trail don’t pull too far ahead. If the vehicle behind you gets stuck it’s much easier to assist on the spot than to assume they are going to make it only to have to figure out how to turn around or go back to assist them later if they need it. This becomes increasingly important if you do not have the ability to communicate with the vehicle by radio or cellular phone.
9. Potty breaks: If stopped in a linear formation the general rule of thumb is girls to the left and boys to the right. If you need a little more privacy you can also increase you the distance between vehicles before stopping. Just make sure to communicate what is happening so when the vehicle ahead of you loses sight of you they don’t come back down the trail looking for you in a couple of minutes to find you in a peculiar position. Please pack out any solid waste or if it is legal to do so then bury it far from the trail and any natural water sources.
10. Non-verbal communication: This is something I’ve found dirtbike’s to be great at and Jeeps to be terrible at. When you are passing another group you can signal how many vehicles are still behind you on the trail with simple hand signals. Holding up one finger means there is one vehicle behind you in your group, two means two vehicles behind you, so on and so forth. Five fingers means there is at least five vehicles behind you (so multiple vehicles may pass you holding up five fingers) and a closed fist indicates you are the last vehicle in your group.
11. Stay sober on the trail: It’s not about legality or the chances of getting caught, it’s simply unsafe. Wheeling can be dangerous and drinking and wheeling is even more dangerous. If something goes wrong and you have alcohol in your system then it’s no longer an “accident”, you screwed up. Your campsite is the place to enjoy a few drinks, not the trail.
12. Campsite courtesy: Simple things like driving slowly through camps, keeping down dust, and avoiding noise pollution. Believe it or not some places you can be issued a citation for being too loud. I like to party as much as the next guy but let’s be courteous of other campers. This means if you are camping near other groups avoid slamming car doors or running engines early in the morning or late at night. Be conscious of running generators and the volume of your music. Some people actually go outdoors to enjoy the sound of nature and not your disagreeable choice in music.
13. Monitor your vocabulary: I’ve found most people are good about watching their language with children or strangers around. As soon as people get on the radio though their filters seem to disappear even though anyone could be listening, including those same children. If you use CB, HAM, or some form of handheld radio then please be mindful of your language.
14. Know your limits: Don’t be bullied or peer pressured into attempting an obstacle you are not comfortable with as it can lead to potentially disastrous situations. No one knows your skill level or your vehicles capabilities better than you, so take that bypass if you need to. Likewise, know when you should stop attempting to make an obstacle. It can be a safety issue where you are starting to get heavier with the skinny pedal and the chances of breakage are increasing or it can just be a simple courtesy issue where you are holding up the line. Everyone has to get pulled or winched at some point, don’t let it hurt your pride.
15. Help others, leave no one: We are a community and we sometimes need to rely on each other. If you’ve encountered someone stopped on the side of the trail ask if they are ok or if they need any assistance. If someone in your group breaks down, or gets stuck, do not abandon them. It doesn’t matter whether you consider them a friend or if they’re part of your club or not, if they are in your group on the trail then you do not separate. The group needs to stay together until the problem is solved. Be patient and prepared, even if others are not. One day the shoe could be on the other foot.
Most of this may have struck you as common sense but sometimes things need to be said and even repeated: Obey the rules, be courteous to others, stay on marked trails, leave every trail cleaner than you found it, and stay safe. The last thing I have to add is make sure you and your rig are prepared to wheel before you get to the trail. We will go further into depth on what you need to be prepared in an upcoming article.