How Not to Annoy the Person Behind You: Trail Etiquette on the Pacific Crest Trail
By Kimberlie Anne Dame
What we expect from other hikers is as varied as the age range and nationalities of the people who’ve put up six months of their lives to fulfill the dream of a thru-hike. Some want a party. Others expect a quiet pristine wilderness. While it’s not anyone’s responsibility to guess what a fellow hiker desires and fulfill those expectations, there are some bare minimum gestures of goodwill we can adopt to support a feeling of camaraderie amongst fellow hikers. “Hike Your Own Hike” shouldn’t turn into “It’s My Trail”. Here are some common areas of confusion about trail etiquette:
- I know littering is a big fat no-no, but clarify “litter”. I mean, we’re all pooping out there, right?
Not litter: Trail mail (notes hung up in branches for other hikers behind you), beer/soda/fruit/candy left for hikers by trail angels, organic food stuffs discarded, lost expensive things put out on the trail for the owner to find, a lawn chair or outright sofa with plastic gallons of water next to it, well buried poop.
Litter: Unburied poop, toilet paper, cigarette butts, old maps, candy wrappers, dead socks, etc.
**Note: There is nothing uncivil about asking a day hiker/car camper if they would be willing to carry out a small bag of trash for you. It IS uncivil to dump trash into outhouses, in trail register boxes, or at water caches.
- It’s pure ecstasy to have been hiking in the hot desert all day and encounter a small stream. It’s a perfect and natural opportunity to dive in and clean my body, socks, and gear.
I’m positive there is some happy gaited ultra-lighter behind you who isn’t filtering his water, and though you may be secretly seething in hatred towards him because you’re carrying twice the weight he is, don’t poison his only water supply with your armpit dung and sock worms. It’s just mean. Sneak some rocks in his pack instead if the need for vengeance becomes unbearable.
- But organic stuff isn’t “litter”, right?
Nope it isn’t. But if you dump your leftover food, dirty pot water, fruit peels, etc. at the campsite, you, and your fellow campers, are sure to be kept up all night with the sound of mice, raccoons, and even bears exploring your packs and campsite Dump it far far away in the bush to avoid attracting nighttime wildlife visits to you, your companions, and anyone using the campsite after you. I got in the habit of eating my dinner and cleaning my pot in a totally un-camp-able area at least a few miles from where I was going to sleep.
“Not Litter” – only because it’s a hysterical trail marker – use your best trail judgment
It isn’t camping without a fire. My favorite trail memories occurred around the campfire.
It’s simply not worth burning down the forest for. See those miles and miles of burn areas you’ve had to walk through? That’s what it will look like for the next year’s hikers if you insist on a campfire. Enjoy fires at campgrounds and trail angel houses. You can always gather around someone’s headlamp set on “blink” out in the wild if necessary.
Shortly into any thru-hike, you figure out who the party is. And if you’re not into staying up all night after a 30 -mile day, you run like hell if they pull into your camping area. Personally, I loved The Party. But I loved The Party at Hikertown, at Casa de Luna, at the campground at the end of the frog-sex detour. I didn’t want to wee-haaa it deep in the wilderness. And yes, I resented the folk that did. Being loud is obnoxious to anyone who is not drunk, unless you’re genuinely funny, in which case the amusement is nice, but we still don’t want to camp near you.
- I worked all winter long on this awesome playlist!
Earbuds, baby. Use your earbuds. (and don’t step on any rattlers while they’re in)
- I am soooo unprepared for this…
Being “needy” on the trail happens to everyone at some point or another. You may run out of food, need a bandaid, get lost, have an emotional breakdown, etc. I needed a full-on 10 hour babysit in the Sierras awaiting helicopter rescue. That’s needy. But extended and predictable neediness is a drain on other hikers. Get off-trail, get some advice, gear up, make some money, do what you gotta do, and then get back on. Hikers love to help other people, but don’t expect anyone to “carry” you the whole way. Help yourself! On the other end, over-helpfulness can be a drag too. Someone hell bent on critiquing your gear choices, your pace, or the integrity of your hike quickly becomes unwelcome company.
- I showed up at a so-called “reliable water-cache” and it was empty! What jerks!
At most water caches there is a trail register where you can leave your most gracious expressions of thanks to the trail angels who left the water for you. Because of the high volume of hikers this year on the PCT, a full three times more than the previous year, many trail angels simply couldn’t afford to keep the water caches reliably stocked. Some hikers left really angry comments in those trail registers aimed at those “irresponsible” trail angels. Infuriating. Trail angels, regular folk who help out long distance hikers for no good reason other than that they want to, are not responsible for your hike anymore than your mother is. They are good people who help when they can, and nothing but abject worship should be directed towards them. They don’t charge you. They don’t even expect a Christmas card from you. But they do frequently offer water, shelter, a shower, a washing machine, a post office box, beer, food, and a place for your damn campfire. Be grateful. Give them money. Send them a Christmas card.
- I found this unlabeled white powder in a hiker box at Kennedy Meadows.
Don’t leave unlabeled white powders in hiker boxes. Is it cocaine? Powdered milk? Laundry detergent? You know someone will have to taste it to find out. Strangely, these always end up exploding all over the other items in the hiker box. Only mildly annoying, but if you think of it at the time, don’t do it.
- Hiker chicks are beautiful! What happens on the trail stays on the trail, right?
Nothing wrong with a little “trail tail”, but, my fellow hikers, please do not pester or stalk an unenthusiastic female hiker. This is a genuinely creepy and frightening experience for some women. If they brush you off, be brushed off. Don’t wait in trail towns for them or show up at their tent in the middle of the night. I met a young woman in Kennedy Meadows who was facing having to quit her thru-hike because of this. Yikes.
- I love to end my day with a fat hand-rolled cigarette.
Non-smokers detest the smell of cigarette smoke. Period. Sometimes even smokers detest the smell of cigarette smoke. It’s kind to just move way out of whiff’s way when you light up. And also please don’t set the forest on fire. Use actual water to extinguish it, not just snub it out.
Trail etiquette seems to be mostly a matter of common sense, but when you’re not used to life out in the woods, there are simply some things you don’t think to think of. It’s a different world and a different culture. New hikers can be placidly guided by the veteran hikers before their behaviors make them bitterly hated by the on-trail community. We all want to have an amazing time and it’s very easy to do so on the trail. And beautifully, we can all be on each other’s team to make it happen.
Kimberlie Anne Dame is a long distance wanderer, blogger and writer currently living in Sedona, Arizona. In 2012 she attempted a thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail which was rudely interrupted in the High Sierra by a subarachnoid haemorrhage, resulting in a hasty evacuation by the emergency services. Her recovery is near complete, just in time for her next attempt in 2013.
“All Who Wander”, the book of her PCT thru-hike account will hopefully be released in the fall of 2013 after she finishes the trail.
Her excellent blog – The New Nomads is HERE