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As PA Trails Month comes to an end, we’re reminded that trails are communal spaces – shared not only with other people, but with furry friends, bugs, and plants. Keeping this in mind, it’s important to know how to interact, not interact, and be safe when it comes time for a hike. The more manners exhibited on a trail, the closer a community can become, and the more enjoyable hikes can be! Learn some important gestures and etiquette to keep in mind when wandering the great outdoors and some safety tips that are key to protecting one another.
Trail etiquette is not exactly like table manners, but some gestures definitely carry over. (Hint: Burping generally not welcome in either case.) Hiking paths include a diverse set of users – from bicyclists and hikers to horseback riders and dog walkers, so it’s important to know how to interact, how to be respectful, and how to navigate around one another, without causing conflict, or worse, potential physical danger. The U.S. Forest Service has a detailed guide do’s and don’ts if you’re looking for more info.
Do exhibit a friendly tone when speaking to passersby. This kind gesture covers two sets of manners. One – it’s safer to let nearby hikers know someone is coming from behind them or crossing paths with them. Alarming fellow hikers is not only scary for them but poses a threat to you as well. A “hello,” “excuse me,” or “how are ya?” goes a long way. Why? Because, two – it’s just common courtesy. A trail is almost like a community in and of itself, so extending kindness to your “neighbors” is the right thing to do!
Do know the rules of the road. Some aspects of this fall into safety matters, but others are just plain decency. Trail signs are there for a reason and they let you know if you’re going the right way or possibly causing a traffic jam. What should you remember? Hikers going uphill have “right of way.” If you’re descending a hill, let those climbing hikers go ahead first – their knees are working overtime! If you’re on a bicycle, know that you must yield to hikers and horses. Doing otherwise could possibly cause a major collision on those earthen highways.
Don’t cause a disruption. One of the main reasons some people love hiking so much is that all-natural white noise that comes with escaping busy streets and overpopulated areas. The wind through the trees, the birds calling, the water flowing. It’s music to the ears! That’s why it is so important to keep your personal noise pollution to a minimum, even if you’re with a larger group. Loud yelling, conversating, and music playing, can be jarring, and even startling to other hikers – especially to those who hike as a form of meditation or contemplation. They’d much rather listen to their own thoughts than your Spotify playlist!
Don’t litter. Sure, this may sound obvious, but you’d be surprised. When snacking or unwrapping an item on a trail, to some it would seem easier to dispose of by just throwing it to the ground. That litter not only affects the nature surrounding it, but it becomes a danger to other hikers and wildlife. Hikers can miss it and trip, slip, or fall, while wildlife may confuse plastic for a nice treat and choke. Plus, it just looks bad. Keep your trash in a pocket or bag until you reach the next garbage can. They’re there for a reason. Remember what Woodsy Owl said, “Give a hoot, don’t pollute!” (Okay, maybe you’re not old enough to remember Woodsy.)
Hand in hand with trail etiquette, trail safety ensures that hikers, bikers, and all others walking the park paths are protected, out of harm, and enjoying all that nature has to offer. And again, similarly to etiquette, there are different types of safety – safety for yourself, for others, and for the living beings who call those trails home. Not knowing the important precautions beforehand, or being unprepared, can turn a hiking-trip-heaven into a real nightmare. The Philadelphia Inquirer gives an in-depth look at some of the more PA-specific dangers to be aware of when walking a path.
Do learn trail markers and blazes. These tree and sign markings help hikers stay safely on a given path and keep them from straying into unknown territory. These markers signify the types of paths there are, the shape of those paths, and your own location on the path at any given time. Red, yellow, blue, and orange are the common colors you will see on markers, indicating what kind of trail you’re on (shared-use, foot travel, ski-use, and so on). The formations/shapes of the square markers often indicate the direction you’re going, whether you’re ending the trail, starting it, turning soon, continuing straight, reaching the parking lot, etc. Having a good sense of knowledge on these markers can keep you from going in circles – and nobody likes getting dizzy.
Do wear bright colors, particularly orange, during hunting season. Naturally, smaller local parks don’t usually require this type of preparation, but larger parks that have more than just playgrounds and trails could require this kind of attire. Fluorescent colors make you easily identifiable as a person and can establish your safety during open season. (Just FYI: Most wildlife doesn’t wear orange vests.)
Do read up on bear and snake safety. The park trails are more of a wild animal’s habitat than ours. It’s their home, so there’s always a chance you may cross paths with one. Knowing what to do in these scenarios is not only important, it could be the difference between life and death in more dire cases.
Many snakes do not bite out of nowhere, and out of those that do, many are not venomous. Despite that, if spotting a snake on a trail, the smartest thing to do is wait for it to pass. Snakes will pretty much only get defensive if you go toward them, try to touch them, or make a fuss.
As for bears, the most common bear in PA is the black bear. And although there have been only a few attacks in the state in the last few years, different bears react in different ways to safety precautions. Though, the two most important things to remember are to remain calm and do NOT run. Establishing yourself as a human and not a threat, nor a meal, is first and foremost. The National Park Service describes some of the best tactics for avoiding a bear and specifically, bear attacks. https://www.nps.gov/subjects/bears/safety.htm
Don’t disturb the wildlife. It’s an important step to not only keep yourself safe, but the animals you may encounter. It can’t be said enough. These trails are part of their home – and we certainly wouldn’t like it if someone came into our home and poked us or shoved cameras in our faces. There’s an array of animals found in nature. Scaring or touching them could not only harm you, but severely harm the animals. They may be cute, but we should let them be cute in peace.
Don’t forget the essentials! Lastly, if you want to keep safe on a trail, you’ll need to pack smart. Online resources have tons of helpful lists to refer to when it comes to your backpack inventory. Water, of course, but also food, sprays, first-aid equipment, and more! (PS: Don’t forget the Twinkies. Yum!)
The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources is also focusing on trail safety this month and features some insightful articles on their website for learning and preparing. Trail walking, running, and biking becomes more fun when you know what to do and what not to do. Building a friendly community, earning a sense of inner calm and peace, and keeping nature and yourself safe are all integral building blocks of walking any path, but especially the famous path of life.
Looking to try out these tips in person? Check out our new and improved Park Finder! https://www.goodforpa.com/park-finder/
The PA Route 6 Alliance also features a trail-finding tool on their site, so you can put those good manners into action!
See you on the trails!