Hiking is a beloved activity in many places around the world and can be enjoyed by all ages, given a certain level of fitness. The problem is that hiking trails these days are being inundated by assholes, which in this case is a designation made for the users of shared outdoor spaces who betray the unspoken contract between all users of the outdoors. Not only are these assholes unpleasant to other hikers, they put the sustainability of trails at risk in the future and can affect ecosystems and wildlife for generations to come.
Recently in Colorado, the Hanging Lake Trail has received an unusual amount of attention because of the amount of abuse it has taken from hikers disobeying signs and defacing natural rocks. These are asshole hikers. The infamous @trailtrashco, an instagram vigilante shaming hikers who abuse the outdoors (read the 303 Magazine article here) is purely dedicated to calling out assholes like those on the trails. The unspoken contract has always been fairly simple but since it seems to be necessary, it has been written out in many places. 303 decided to outline the contract in five short sections, explained below.
Personal safety is an essential aspect of avoiding the “asshole hiker” designation. If each hiker takes on his or her own responsibility in preparing for a hike, the chances of endangering themselves or others is greatly reduced. This especially includes saving valuable time and resources from rescue crews who often volunteer for the positions and put their lives at risk to save people in the backcountry. Even if a situation does not warrant a rescue crew, someone who is unprepared may have to rely on other hikers, putting unnecessary and unexpected strain on their journey and supplies.
Staying safe is primarily about being prepared. Hiking is a fun activity, but it is also one to participate in with an understanding of the possible risks. Especially in Colorado, packing for various weather, conditions and situations should always be part of the adventure and adequate footwear is a must. An ideal daypack for a half or full day hike should consist of: a rain coat, hat, lighter or matches, compass (or fully charged phone with a compass app), plenty of water, tissues, a basic first aid kit with some kind of water filtration, snacks, sunscreen or sunglasses and a flashlight. These items might feel cumbersome — especially when a hike goes uneventfully — but in the event that something goes wrong, these items are usually the bottom line for survival.
Leave No Trace
Leave No Trace ideals are all about minimizing the impact a hiker has on the environment. @trailtrashco, the vigilante Instagrammer, consistently posts photos of assholes leaving trash on the trail — and it usually is in the form of dog poop in plastic bags. The main principles of Leave No Trace revolve around keeping the ecosystem healthy and in balance while maintaining the public space for the future. Part of the joy of hiking is escaping the impacts humans have on their surroundings, and that can only be enjoyed if humans are not negatively impacting the trails, open spaces and other wilderness areas. To ensure minimal impact, hikers need to always follow these guidelines:
- Leave what you find. Even though rocks, flowers, pinecones and other items on hikes might seem like perfect souvenirs, those items belong in their natural environments.
- Pack it in, pack it out. Anything that’s brought into wilderness areas needs to be taken back out. That especially means wrappers, water bottles, cigarette butts, beer cans and dog poop. Dog owners have extra responsibilities while hiking with their furry companions (see 303’s article about dog hiking etiquette here.)
- Know where to pee. Though we pee in clean water at home in our toilets, in the backcountry any water source should be avoided by 200 feet while urinating. Keep this in mind for any furry companions as well.
- Look but don’t touch. A common phrase in Leave No Trace literature is “take only pictures.” This encapsulates the idea that hikers do not need to make their own personal mark upon a place to prove they’ve been there. For instance, in many aspen tree groves in the mountains of Colorado, one can see the carved initials and markings of asshole hikers. Don’t be like those hikers.
Respect the Wildlife
Don’t feed the wildlife. Don’t touch the wildlife. Don’t aggravate the wildlife. Just don’t f*** with the wildlife. Hiking is not a trip to the zoo, and even then, animals deserve respect. Out on a hike in the wilderness, wildlife are more at home than a typical hiker, which also means that hikers are more often than not trespassing on wildlife territory. Some animals display warning signs — like rattlesnakes vibrating their tails before striking — while others may not display much aggression until the last minute — like moose who charge out of fear of sudden noise or movement.
The more popular trails are destined to have less animals, especially large animals, but lesser traveled trails should be used with more caution. In many places, hiking at dawn and dusk should be met with even more caution because that is often the time for predatory animals to be out and about. Know what kind of animals might be encountered on a hike and know what kind of tactics are best to avoid them and avoid confrontation.
Respecting wildlife is a double responsibility for dog owners, who must keep tabs on their dogs interactions with wildlife as well as their own. Keeping a dog on leash, even if it is a long leash, is better than letting it off leash. Not only does it keep the owner closer to protect the dog, it keeps the dog closer to warn the owner of any unusual activity.
Respect Other Hikers
Asshole hikers are notorious for disrespecting other trail users. In order to have the best time and help others have a good time, hikers are encouraged to conduct themselves in ways that will not take away from other people’s experience. There are some basic guidelines that apply to any public shared space — like trying to keep your voice down when sharing the trail, not playing loud music and keeping it PG rated.
Some of the other etiquette tips are more particular. When hiking inclines, the person hiking downhill should yield to anyone coming uphill, unless the people coming uphill are wanting a break. When taking a break, move your belongings and yourself off the trail without putting yourself in danger — i.e. not stepping down a steep hill side. If someone is hiking faster than you from behind, stop and let them pass. If you are hiking faster than another person, do not try to take shortcuts or maneuver ahead of them without asking. This kind of behavior can have unintended consequences — like dislodging rocks or debris that can hit other people on the trail or abusing the structure of the trail itself.
Know the Trail
Before setting out on any hike, do some simple Google searching about the trail and the area around it. These kinds of searches can bring up information regarding wildlife danger, weather patterns, possible closures and other important tidbits regarding the hike. These are invaluable when looking to hike less-traveled routes, as they will usually explain areas where trail markers are sparse or a detour has been made that may go unnoticed otherwise. There are numerous sites and forums for hikers, like AllTrails and ProTrails, which have all the information about a given trail, as well as user reviews, photos and suggestions.
Knowing a trail before hiking it will prevent many hikers from being surprised about terrain or getting lost. In this day and age, not many hikers seem to be carrying around topographical maps, so at the very least looking before going will help with orientation. During the hike, know the trail refers, pay attention to all posted signs, follow the trail markers and have awareness to natural landmarks along the way.
Even though hiking can often feel like an activity that is separate from other people, the actions of every hiker affect the environment, wildlife and other hikers tremendously. Enjoying the activity comes hand-in-hand with understanding the possible risks and the recommended etiquette to participate.
Think you have what it takes to not be an asshole while hiking? Check out our list of 101 Of the Most Beautiful Hikes in Colorado.