Whether you’re new to off-roading or you’re an old pro with the pinstripes on your rig to prove it, familiarity with trail etiquette and good manners never goes amiss.
What, you may ask, is “trail etiquette”? Basically, trail etiquette consists of common sense guidelines and expectations for safe and courteous conduct on the trail. When we all put our best trail manners forward and behave respectfully and responsibly towards each other and the trails we love to enjoy, it makes for some great times off-roading.
Before I get into the nitty gritty of specific trail etiquette guidelines, I’d like to point out that they are just that—guidelines. There is no definitive “Ms. Manners Guide to Trail Etiquette” handbook, but there are many widely accepted “rules of the road” that are well-known and followed by seasoned off-roaders.
With that being said, I’ve chosen 15 of the most common and widely accepted guidelines to share with you. Some folks may have a longer or shorter list than what’s below, but I chose these specific tips and behaviors because Brad (that's the husband) and I think they’re the most important when it comes to being respectful of the trail and everyone you’re sharing it with.
And, in case you missed it, we recently shared these 15 tips in a video on the TrailRecon YouTube channel and I’ll post the link below.
Without further ado, and in no particular order, here our top 15 list of trail etiquette guidelines.
#1: Always Keep the Rig Behind You in Your Sights
When you’re traveling with more than one vehicle (which is always a great idea from a safety standpoint), it’s important to keep the person behind you in your rearview mirror. By checking to make sure the person following you is in sight, you’ll notice when they’re not there, and that's kind of important in case they had a break down, missed a turn, or stopped unexpectedly for any other reason, like an emergency.
This guideline also comes into play at intersections. You’ll want to make sure to slow down or even stop if necessary to make sure the vehicle behind you sees you making that turn and follows. Visibility on the trail can be limited due to foliage, terrain, dust, or all of the above and continually monitoring your rearview mirror ensures your group stays together and no one gets lost, which just might help you avoid turning your off-road adventure into a search and rescue mission.
#2: The Vehicle Going Uphill Has the Right of Way
There seems to be a bit of confusion about this guideline, but when you have two vehicles coming from opposite directions on an incline, the rule of thumb is that the vehicle traveling uphill has the right of way.
Why? Because if they have to stop to let the vehicle coming downhill go by, they lose their momentum and it’s a lot harder to get it back when you’re fighting gravity.
Now having said that, to every “rule” (or “guideline”) there is an exception and it’s always good to use some common sense.
If the vehicle going uphill is next to a large area where they can easily pull over, if the trail is narrow where the descending vehicle is coming from, or any other number of different situations based on the terrain and number of vehicles involved, it may make sense to give way to the vehicle (or vehicles) coming downhill.
When in doubt, get out and talk about it.
#3: Stay on the Trail
This really should go without saying, but please stay on the trail. When you head off the trail you damage plants and wildlife habitats, or you could end up widening the trail, all of which are not good things.
This is not only bad for our environment and beautiful backcountry, it can also lead to trails getting closed down. And we don’t want that to happen. We all want to keep our trails open so we can continue to enjoy them. So please, be kind to nature and keep your tires on the approved path.
Something else to consider: if you’re thinking about going off the trail because you're struggling with a gatekeeper (an obstacle) and you want to go around it because it's too difficult, keep in mind there are most likely several more similar obstacles further along the trail. There’s a reason it’s called a “gatekeeper” and if you aren’t ready to conquer that first one, you likely aren’t ready for the rest of them. Instead of going off the trail, it’s probably best to come back another day when you are ready to show that obstacle who’s boss.
#4: Use Your Radio Responsibly
Whether you’re using a *CB, ham, or GMRS radio, good communication on the trail is an extremely valuable and potentially life-saving tool.
Being able to communicate with your convoy or other vehicles on the trail allows you to alert others to potential obstacles, inform folks of any changes in routes or plans, or even let your friends know you broke something and need help. All of this information is important to convey when you’re off-roading, which is why practicing good radio etiquette and radioing responsibly is so important.
It might be fun to spend 10 minutes verbally sparring over who has the best (or worst) rig in your group, salivating as you discuss what’s on the menu tonight, or waxing philosophical on the meaning of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in California when the Oakland A's played the San Francisco Giants in the World Series, but you're really just clogging up the air waves and preventing important messages from being shared.
Oh…and please keep it family friendly and G-rated. There are plenty of families with young kiddos on the trails these days and little ears aren't ready for colorful language.
* CB = citizen's band.
Ham = amateur radio (we have no idea where the name "ham" came from...if you know, leave a comment below!)
GMRS = general mobile radio service
#5: Give Way to Larger Groups
When it’s just me and Brad out on the trail and and we encounter a larger group of three or more vehicles, it’s easier for us to pull our one or two rigs off to the side and let the larger convoy go by.
And, when fewer vehicles have to pull over, it's less impactful to the flora and fauna on the side of the trail. In fact, any time you need to pull off to the side of the trail to let folks pass, make sure to choose a spot that’s as plant-free as possible to minimize your impact.
Also, be on the lookout for areas where there’s dry grass and other foliage because the heat from your vehicle could start a fire, and that’s the last thing you want to do.
#6: Stop To Assist / Leave No One Behind
Okay, this is kind of a two-for-one guideline but stopping to assist someone in trouble pairs nicely with not leaving anyone behind on the trail. Things break on the trail and it’s really not a matter of “if,” but “when.” We’ve all been there so if you’re driving by someone with their hood up and their head down in the engine bay, or if one of their tires looks too aired down, it’s always appreciated if you stop and ask if they need any help.
And…if whatever is broken can’t be fixed, offer to help them get to the end of the trail where they can (hopefully) get cell service and a tow truck.
One of the best things about the off-road community is people’s willingness to lend a helping hand.
#7: Boys to the Left, Girls to the Right
We aren't entirely sure how this rule came about, but we've always followed the "girls to the right, boys to the left" rule when stopping on the trail for a "nature call." When you’re traveling with a group, it’s always good to have a plan in place for bathroom breaks and by designating one location for the gals and another for the guys, it allows everyone to have a modicum of privacy when taking care of business.
Speaking of privacy, more and more people are capturing their off-road adventures on camera and with drones. If anyone in your group is flying a drone, please ask them to refrain during comfort breaks…no one wants to make that kind of a guest appearance in someone’s video.
#8: Two Tries and Move On
One of the reasons we love getting out on the trail to see what our rigs are capable of doing and tackling some challenging obstacles. That’s all well and good until you can’t. So, if you have a line of other vehicles behind you waiting to get through, it's probably time to move on.
If you’ve given the obstacle two solid goes and you aren't getting past it, just ask for help. Really. It's okay. Whether you need a spotter or someone to winch you through, there’s no shame in asking for assistance—and everyone waiting their turn behind you will be eternally grateful.
#9: Yield to Motorcycles
Not only are motorcycles faster than you, they’re much more nimble on the trail, especially in narrow and tight places. That's why it’s safer for everyone if you pull your rig off to the side of the trail and let them zip on by.
And motorcyclists, if you’re reading this, it would be awesome if you could give us a bit of space too and maybe slow down a little for us four-wheeled vehicles so you don’t dust us out.
#10: Communicate Numbers with Hand Signals
If you’re traveling with a group and you’re passing other vehicles, it’s customary to signal with your fingers how many vehicles are behind you. If there are three vehicles behind you, hold up three fingers. If you’re the last vehicle, hold up a fist to indicate you’re it and no one else is behind you.
The reason for this is oncoming traffic may not have visibility of what’s behind you and it lets them know if they should navigate the trail more cautiously since they’re sharing it with more vehicles, especially when going around corners and on narrow trails.
And don’t forget to wave and say hello! Just make sure they know you’re being friendly and not indicating you have a mile-long caravan behind you.
#11: Leave Gates How You Found Them
When it comes to gates, the rule of thumb is to leave them how you found them. If it was open, leave it open. Closed? Shut it after you get through it.
However…there are always those pesky exceptions and you should always check the gate for a sign. On occasion, there will be instructions about whether the gate should be open or closed. Unfortunately, not everyone reads the signage on gates and someone may have left a gate open that should be closed.
One of the reasons you may encounter gates on the trail is because ranchers can get permits to graze their animals on public lands and the gates are a way of controlling the flow of animals and where they’re grazing.
Another reason for a gate? The road beyond the gate leads to private property. So, if the gate is locked or the sign says “no trespassing,” don’t go through or around it—find another way. The last thing you want is a fine for trespassing!
#12: Keep Your Distance
When you’re traveling with other vehicles, especially in low visibility conditions, it’s important to maintain a safe distance between the vehicles to ensure there is plenty of room for maneuverability and sudden stops.
Here are a few examples of why it’s important to keep some distance between vehicles on the trail:
- If the rig in front of you needs to stop suddenly and you’re too close, you just might end up rear-ending them and, while that might make your adventure memorable, it likely won't make it a great day on the trail.
- If you’re working your way around an obstacle, you may need to back up for better tire placement…something that can be hard to do (or impossible) with another vehicle is directly behind you.
- If you're on an incline, you should always give the vehicle in front of you space to crest the hill because they may roll back as they’re working their way over the top, especially if they have a manual transmission.
#13: Don’t Stop in the Middle of the Trail or on Blind Corners
When we’re out on the trail, we all love to stop and take a few moments to soak in the scenery or snap a few photos, but always pull off to the side of the road and away from blind corners before doing so. This not only gives other vehicles on the trail room to get around you, it’s also safer. If a vehicle is coming around a corner and they can’t see you stopped in the middle of the road (it's called a "blind" corner for a reason), well, that’s an accident waiting to happen.
Something else to keep in mind when you are pulling off to the side is to be mindful that you do so in a way that doesn't damage the surrounding foliage. And if the trail is too narrow to safely pull over, just keep going until you find a spot where there’s room for another vehicle to pass without damaging the environment.
#14: Slow Down Around Hikers, Campers, and Horses
Sometimes, it’s fun to pick up the pace a little bit and enjoy some open stretches of trail, but it’s always good to be mindful that off-roaders aren’t the only ones out there using the trail. Often, we’re sharing the space with hikers, campers, and horses (oh my!), and it’s always good to be courteous to others.
For example, a family enjoying their lunch doesn’t want to garnish their meal with sand and gravel.
And hikers are probably exerting themselves, breathing harder than usual, and the last thing they want is a breath of fresh dust.
There are also horses on many trails. These beautiful creatures can get spooked by vehicles, which could lead to someone getting hurt. When it comes to horses, what’s even better than slowing down is to stop and turn off your engine until they pass you by or until the person on horseback waves you through or signals for you to keep moving.
A little courtesy and kindness to others goes a long way and makes everyone's day that much better.
#15: Leave It Better than You Found It
The vast majority of us like to hit the trail and head for the backcountry so we can enjoy the natural beauty we find off the grid in the wilderness. And there is nothing worse than sitting down to enjoy lunch on the side of a mountain only to look down and find someone’s trash next to you. Broken bottles, tattered food wrappers, and soiled paper towels (or worse...toilet paper) can be total mood killers.
That’s why it’s important to leave things better than you found them and not only pack out your trash, but pick up any litter you see. And I get it, it’s not fun to clean up after others but, if no one else does and more people keep littering, pretty soon the places we love may resemble a dump and who wants that? Not me and probably not you.
I’m not saying to do a trail clean up every time you hit the dirt, but if there’s trash where you stopped and you’re already packing away your own rubbish, just grab any litter you seeing laying around and add it to your collection—just make sure to wear some gloves or use a paper towel so you aren’t touching it directly because personal safety is important too.
The Well-Behaved Off-Roader / Happy Trails / Happy Off-Roaders and Overlanders
I know a lot of these trail etiquette tips may seem like common sense, but if you’ve never been taught, well, you don’t know what you don’t know…until you do!
The trails we so love to enjoy belong to all of us—they aren’t mine or yours, they’re ours—and the well-behaved off-roader understands that good conduct on the trail is what keeps them open for years to come and ensures we all get to enjoy them as safely as possible while having a great time in the great outdoors.
In the video below, we talk about 15 trail etiquette tips that, when put into practice, ensures everyone has a great (and safe) day on the trail!