Throngs of people are discovering the great outdoors, thanks to COVID-19 dictating that we spread out from one another and ditch enclosed spaces for fresh air. And one of the most popular new outdoor activities is day hiking, which went up 8.4 percentage points during April, May and June 2020 versus the same period in 2019, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. (Several state parks also have reported big increases in visitors this year over last year.) But rangers and others are noticing an alarming trend as hordes of inexperienced trekkers descend upon America's parks and trails: Overused paths, a soaring increase in litter and graffiti, and a spike in search-and-rescue calls.
Since it's likely that many first-time hikers will continue to enjoy wandering through the woods even after the coronavirus is vanquished, it's important to learn the proper hiking etiquette and safety rules. For just as with any sport or activity, hiking involves certain accepted practices. Here are some of the main ones to know:
1. Take Out Your Own Garbage
One of the biggest surprises for people new to the outdoors is that many parks and trails have no facilities; i.e., no restrooms or garbage cans. That means you're supposed to carry back out whatever you bring in, whether that's food wrappers, tissues or a dirty diaper. You're even supposed to ferry out poop (your own or your pet's), unless you bury it 200 feet (61 meters) from the trail or any water source. And don't think you can toss biodegradable items into the woods. Seemingly innocuous trash such as apple cores and banana peels can be harmful to some wild animals if ingested. Luckily, it's easy to pack out trash with minimal mess by carrying some zip-top bags.
2. Don't Move Things Around
This means no taking home pretty rocks or flowers or creating rock cairns. Any time you move or remove something, you may inadvertently destroy an animal's home or a fragile ecosystem, or contribute to erosion. Leaving things alone also applies to wildlife, so don't try to pet a deer or creep up to a bear in the hopes of getting a great photo. Enjoy them from a safe distance.
3. Be Considerate of Your Fellow Hikers
Many of these accepted hiking practices we've been talking about fall under the seven Leave No Trace principles, one of which is to be courteous to others.
Since hikers tend to head into the outdoors to enjoy all of the natural sights, sounds and smells, don't blast music, talk loudly on your phone or bring along an uncontrolled pet. Creating any kind of graffiti is verboten, too. Being a courteous hiker also helps the resident wildlife, which may need undisturbed spaces and enough quiet to hear the sounds of nature for their communication and survival.
If you want to pass a hiker in front of you, it's courteous to give them a friendly greeting and let them know you want to overtake.
4. Know When to Stay On and Step Off the Trail
Hiking trails are created with specific purposes in mind, which may include preventing erosion and protecting fragile plant and animal communities. So stay on the trail as much as possible. There are a few exceptions, such as leaving the trail to "use the restroom." It's also considered proper to step off the trail if you want to rest or have a snack, as this clears it for others.
One important practice involves hill etiquette. When hiking downhill, you should always step aside for those hiking uphill, as they're expending more energy. If you're on a multiuse trail, bicyclists yield to hikers. And hikers always yield to horses or pack animals.
5. Don't Underestimate the Trail
While it can be an incredible experience to stroll along a hiking trail and drink in stunning vistas, waterfalls, wildlife and more, nature can be dangerous. In a 10-week period during the summer of 2020, rangers in Michigan's rugged Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park fielded 30 emergency calls, compared to just six during all of 2019. Most of these calls were for overexertion, heat exhaustion or lower-leg injuries from improper footwear. Rangers believe most callers were inexperienced hikers who had overestimated their abilities and underestimated the trail.
To avoid having to place such a call yourself, make sure to look at trail maps, including the topography, before heading out. Ask rangers any questions about the local weather, gear or trail difficulty. And carry the "10 essentials," a packing list created several decades ago. The essentials include extra food, water and clothing; a navigation device; fire source; knife; first-aid kit; headlamp; sun protection; and some kind of shelter or shield from the elements, such as a light emergency bivvy (outdoor sleeping bag). These items will prove essential if you have an accident or become lost and need to spend the night in the woods — which can happen.