Hiking trails are a gateway to good physical and mental health for both you and your dog. A few hours spent immersed in nature can cleanse the spirit and strengthen your bond with your canine companion. But it’s important to recognize that anyone who enjoys backcountry trails has a responsibility to those trails and to other trail users. Outdoor experts Dan Nelson and The Mountaineers Books (publisher of the Best Hikes with Dogs series) remind us that we must be sensitive to the environment and pay attention to other trail users to preserve the tranquility of the wild lands.
As a hiker, you are responsible for your own actions. As a dog owner, you have an additional responsibility: your dog’s actions. When you encounter other trail users, whether hikers, climbers, trail runners, bicyclists, or horse riders, the only hard-and-fast rule is to observe common sense and simple courtesy.
Tips for Backpacking with Dogs
With that “Golden Rule of Trail Etiquette” firmly in mind, here are other techniques to ensure smooth encounters on the trail:
- Hikers who take their dogs on the trails should have their dogs on a leash—or under very strict voice command—at all times. Strict voice command means the dog immediately heels when told, stays at heel and refrains from barking.
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- When dog owners meet any other trail users, dog and owner must yield the right-of-way, stepping well clear of the trail to allow the other users to pass without worrying about “getting sniffed.”
- When meeting horses on the trail, the dog owner must first yield the trail but also must make sure the dog stays calm, does not bark and makes no move toward the horse. Horses can be easily spooked by strange dogs, and it is the dog owner’s responsibility to keep his or her animal quiet and under firm control. Move well off the trail (downhill from the trail when possible) and stay off the trail, with your dog held close to your side, until the horses pass well beyond you.
If the terrain makes stepping to the downhill side of the trail difficult or dangerous, move to the uphill side of the trail, but crouch down a bit so you do not tower over the horses’ heads. Also, do not stand behind trees or brush where horses cannot see you until they get close, when your sudden appearance could startle trail animals. Rather, stay in clear view and talk in a normal voice to the riders. This calms the horses.
- In general, the hiker moving uphill has the right-of-way. There are two general reasons for this. First, on steep ascents, hikers may be watching the trail before them and not notice the approach of descending hikers until they are face-to-face. More importantly, it is easier for descending hikers to break their stride and step off the trail than it is for those who have fallen into a good, climbing plod. If, however, the hiker who is ascending is in need of a rest, he or she may choose to step off the trail and yield the right-of-way to the downhill hikers, but this is the decision of the climbers alone.
- When hikers meet other user groups, the hikers should move off the trail. This is because hikers are generally the most mobile and flexible users; it is easier for hikers to step off the trail than for bicyclists to lift their bikes or for horse riders to steer their animals off-trail.
- Hikers and dogs should stick to the trails and practice minimum impact. Don’t cut switchbacks, take shortcuts or make new trails. If your destination is off-trail, leave the trail in as direct a manner as possible. That is, move away from the trail in a line perpendicular to the trail. Once well clear of the trail, adjust your route to your destination.
- Obey the rules specific to the trail you are visiting. Many trails are closed to certain types of use, including hiking with dogs or riding horses.
- Avoid disturbing wildlife, especially in winter and in calving or nesting areas. Observe from a distance—even if you cannot get the picture you want from a distance, resist the urge to move close. This not only keeps you safer but also prevents the animal from having to exert itself unnecessarily fleeing from you.
- Leave all natural creatures, objects and features as you found them for others to enjoy. Never roll rocks off trails or cliffs—you never know who or what is below you.
These are just a few of the ways hikers with dogs can maintain a safe and harmonious trail environment. You don’t need to make these rules fit every situation, just be friendly and courteous to other people on the trail. If they have questions about your dog, try to be informative and helpful. Many of the folks unfamiliar with dogs on trails will be reassured about the friendliness and trail-worthiness of your dog if they see the animal wearing a pack or reflective vest of some sort. (Indeed, I often encountered people on the trail who were enchanted by the fact that Parka carried her own gear.) If they have dogs, they’ll often ask advice on training dogs to carry a pack; if they are non-dog owners, they’ll at least smile and give her a pat.
Those of us who love to hike with our dogs must be the epitome of respectful and responsible trail users. When other hikers encounter dogs and their people behaving responsibly, they will come away with a positive experience. In this way, we also help ourselves by preventing actions that could lead to additional trail closures or restrictions for dog hikers.
In short, hikers can usually avoid problems with other trail users by always practicing the Golden Rule of Trail Etiquette: Common sense and courtesy are the order of the day.