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How to Act Like a Trail Runner: A Primer on Trail Etiquette

Posted by on Jun 1, 2012 | 18 Comments

Lots of road runners seem to be making the jump to trail running. This is a great thing! Unfortunately many of these runners carry some bad road running habits over to the trails. Here’s a quick and dirty (pun intended) guide for new trail runners to help fit in:

1. Don’t be afraid of dirt. I’ve watched runners in squeaky-white sneakers tiptoe around a tiny mud puddle. I’ve seen new trail runners on the verge of vomiting when watching a veteran trail runner bomb through knee-deep mud. These are trails. We get dirty. It’s a badge of honor. Wear it with pride.

2. Don’t litter. Ever. Don’t toss that Gu packet on the ground. Throw your cup in the aid station waste basket. Don’t blow your nose and throw the tissue on the trail. Someone has to pick up after you, and it’s douchey to expect volunteers to clean up after your mess. It may be acceptable to toss your shit anywhere on the roads, but we live by a different code out here. Respect the environment.

3. If someone needs help, help them. If another runner is in obvious pain, lost, crying, or otherwise in distress, stop and help. I’ve watched the leaders of trail races stop to help others even if they lose their position. We take care of each other. It’s the decent human thing to do.

4. If taking a leak or dropping a deuce- get off the trail. This one needs no explanation.

5. Be courteous when passing or getting passed. When passing another runner on a single track, the passing runner should say something along the lines of “passing on the left”, then pass OFF THE TRAIL. The runner being passed, when hearing this, may step off to the right and allow the faster runner to pass. Only then is it acceptable for the passing runner to remain on the trail. If a runner approaches from behind, it’s courteous to acknowledge their presence and ask them if they’d like to pass. Also, always remember- those going faster always yield to those going slower. That means all runners yield to horses.

6. Thank volunteers. They’re giving their time to YOU. Be grateful. Say thanks. Give them a high-five. Joke around with them. Make them feel appreciated.

7. Don’t expect to be treated like a prima donna. You’re one of many runners running that particular race. Making unreasonable demands or expecting people to cater to your crazy-ass needs isn’t your divine right. In fact, it makes you look like an ass. And it ruins the day for those of us that want to have a good time.

8. Be humble. No matter what you do, someone has went longer or done it faster. It’s okay to be proud of your accomplishments, but don’t talk about them incessantly. Instead of starting a conversation by bragging about your accomplishments, ask others about theirs. You might learn something. The only time it’s acceptable to bring up your accomplishments is to put a bragging douche in their place. Even then, use it sparingly.

9. Smile. If you’re frowning, grimacing, or expressing any other negative emotion (aside from pain if it’s a long race), you’re doing it wrong. Cheer up little buckaroo… you’re surrounded by awesome people and breath-taking nature. Trail running is about camaraderie and mutual support. It’s about being a small part of something bigger than yourself. That’s what makes it special. You can make your contribution by kicking back, taking it easy, and going with the flow.

Have any more tips to add?


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  1. Rich Frantz
    June 6, 2012

    At the risk of seeming like a troll, why would anyone think they need to bag TP and take it out? It is designed to disintigrate when wet. If you are so “caring” of the environment that you would think you have to carry it out, then surely you are buying recycled, perfume and ink free TP right?

    Burying it with the poo, well off the trail, should be sufficient.

    And I did purposely leave out baby wipes, those are completely different fibers.

    That’s my position, I will go hide in the woods while everyone yells at me now.

    • Jason
      June 6, 2012

      Rich- from my understanding, TP lasts a very long time in arid climates. In relatively moist environments, I just bury the TP. In arid environments, I use nature’s TP. 😉

      • Rich Frantz
        June 6, 2012

        That could be, I had not thought of that as I only have a NY frame of reference. But still, it is “essentially” just wood pulp.

        While I am not too squeamish about using what nature provides, I react really bad to poison ivy (have bad case right now) and worry about finding my next least favorite allergen.

        Thankfully this is still academic to me, I’ve not yet had to use the TP I carry.

  2. How to Act Like a Trail Runner | Barefoot Running University | Jogger Tunes
    June 3, 2012

    […] article at BRU subtitled A Primer on Trail Etiquette. You may also like -Shades of Gray Starfish: How Barefoot Runners Need to Change | Barefoot […]

  3. krista
    June 2, 2012

    be thoughtful regarding snot rockets and people running close behind you especially if its a windy day.

  4. Kate Kift
    June 1, 2012

    Shouldn’t this just be running etiquette? Whether you are on the road or on a trail you should follow all of these..

    The only thing I may disagree with, is you can avoid the big mud holes do. I only say this because being only 5’2″ and about 110lbs, it’s surprising how much hard work it is to carry 5lb of mud on your shoes.

    Saying that, usually with every mud hole there is a creek about half a mile away, so you never have to run with mud on your shoes for very long 😉

  5. Rob Y
    June 1, 2012

    Or just use what’s at hand, sticks, leaves, pine cones, etc… That’s what I’ve been doing for over 20 years.

    • Rob Y
      June 1, 2012

      Oops, the above was supposed to be a response to what to use when poo while out in the woods on a run!

      Anyhow I’ll add another addendum. The biggest reason to not run around puddles, mud patches, etc… is that this destroys the trail by widening it. This is a form of trail erosion, don’t do it! Also don’t cut the switch backs. Lastly, try to be courteous and aware of your surroundings if you choose to run with earbuds. It makes it extremely annoying when you want to make a pass and the runner ahead of you is oblivious to what’s going on around them.

  6. Alex
    June 1, 2012

    An addendum to #5: Take out your earbuds. When I say “On your left”, I shouldn’t have to shout it.

    • Jesse
      June 1, 2012

      This one happened to me today. A guy had his volume really loud. I went to sneak around, and he got upset that I snuck up around him, yelling at me! Come on, man. not cool.

    • krista
      June 2, 2012

      or if you’re going to wear earbuds, only wear one so you can hear the other runners behind you.

  7. Andy
    June 1, 2012

    I’d also add… take a bit of time to soak in and appreciate the beauty of the nature that you’re running through. We’re out in the forests and mountains as opposed to city streets because those forsests and mountains are awesome. Why go there if you’re not going to take a bit of time to love it?

    Joshua… leaves are the best if you ask me, but if you bring TP or baby wipes, also bring a baggie to pack them out with you.

  8. Kevin
    June 1, 2012

    Since when is it “acceptable to toss your shit anywhere on the roads”? That’s nuts.

    Leave it better than you found it, always, everywhere.

    • Gabe
      June 3, 2012

      In some races, tossing your shirt (or any clothes) is not only acceptable, but encouraged.

      For example, in many cities in Australia it’s very cold during winter, and races start early. The organisers encourage runners to wear clothing to keep warm while the race starts and then toss it aside when the gun goes off.

      The volunteers then pick all the clothes up and donate them to charity. It’s a good thing.

      These clothes are in good condition, but are what you don’t use anymore.

  9. Joshua
    June 1, 2012

    do you bring TP when you take a deuce or just use leaves…?

    • HeatherW
      June 1, 2012

      Joshua – carry the TP in a baggie and pack it out.

      • Jesse
        June 1, 2012

        I pooped in a bag today. I figured if it’s not cool that a dog leaves a pile, them my mountain dew tacobell duece is probably going to harm the biosphere.

        • Adam Lawrence
          June 3, 2012

          A noble effort, indeed. Obviously, shit and piss (dog or human) on sidewalks detracts from the social good. But on dirt there isn’t anything more biodegradable, and one organism’s waste is another’s food (although you’re right that the detritus left behind by your body’s metabolisation of Taco Bell and Mountain Dew may be an ecological hazard). I always assume that if you’re not in a desert or at an altitude so high that there’s barely nothing alive, your waste does no harm (and maybe even some good) if you bury it off the trail, and it will very soon be indistinguishible from mud. But I’m probably just lazy.