Trail Etiquette For Kids

Trail Etiquette For Kids

When we take kids on the trail, not only are we raising the next generation of outdoor enthusiasts, we are raising nature protectors and defenders. Taking the time to teach kids trail etiquette for kids will give everyone the best outdoor experience and create an environment of sustainability.

Kids are always watching and copying what we are modeling for them. They don’t need a huge checklist of rules, they need positive encouragement to follow the trail etiquette as we set examples for them! My number one tip for teaching kids the rules of the trails is to clearly let them know the expectations ahead of time. Once you’re on the trail you can gently remind them as various situations arise.

Two kids in hiking on a rocky trail with a dad carrying a baby in a backpack practicing trail etiquette for kids
Practicing Trail Etiquette!

I think anyone who has spent time on trails has seen or experienced less-than-ideal hiking etiquette. We saw this firsthand at Yellowstone when people were not following hiking rules and stepping off the boardwalks near the hydrothermal pools.

Disregarding these specific rules is not only damaging to the environment, but can be lethal to the hiker. Teaching kids from the very youngest age will avoid damaging fragile ecosystems and make getting outdoors more inviting for everyone.

A mom and two kids looking at hot springs from a boardwalk at Yellowstone National Park
At Yellowstone staying on the path can be a matter of life and death!

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Stay On The Trail

Plan Ahead

Planning ahead allows you to know what trails are open. Be sure to follow posted signs and trail closed signs. Often signs will be pictures so even young kids can start to recognize hiking signs and symbols. Take the time to stop and read signs with kids at the beginning of trails so they know the name of the trail you are starting, the distance, and any rules specific to that trail.

A sign for Hague Lake giving instruction for trail use.
Even kids who can’t read yet will be able to understand the rules of the trail from the images!

Keep Feet On The Path

Always stay on the trail (with exceptions of letting groups pass, taking a rest, and going to the bathroom). Stepping off of the trail damages fragile plants, contributes to erosion, and makes it more difficult for people coming behind you to determine where the trail boundaries are.

Kids really thrive when given freedom within boundaries! I’ve been amazed at how quickly even an 18-month old can be directed to stay within a boundary.

Hike Single File

Hike single file if you are traveling with a group. Typically (unless I’m hiking alone with the kids) I like to have one adult in the front, the kids in the middle, and one adult in the back.

If you are hiking on a wider nature trail or in a more urban area, just make sure to take up half the trail or less.

No Cutting Switchbacks

Do not cut switchbacks, even if it looks like others have done it. This can be SO tempting for kids – especially going downhill – to want to take a shortcut! Remind them that taking shortcuts erodes the trail and makes it harder for people to enjoy the area in the future.

Point out places that rangers have blocked these types of trails with sticks or logs. Kids will start to notice these types of things so quickly!

Exceptions

When you are taking a rest, step off the trail so others can easily pass by. Try to find a rocky or wide area without vegetation take rest breaks if possible to reduce trampling living plants and insect homes.

Going to the bathroom should be done at least 200 feet off the trail and away from water sources. Bury solid waste and pack out toilet paper.

A boy wearing a red shirt and blue hat sitting on a rock
Oliver taking a rest on a rocky spot off the trail

Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace is an organization that helps educate and provide researched-based answers for protecting natural lands. They focus on 7 principles of leaving no trace including: planning ahead/preparing, traveling on durable surfaces, disposing of waste properly, leaving what you find, minimizing campfire risk, respecting wildlife, and being considerate of others.

The Leave No Trace organization also has various trainings and workshops available on their website including Leave No Trace for Every Kid. They are a fantastic resource for learning more about conservation and minimizing our impact on the environment as we spend time outdoors.

Their website has a wealth of detailed information, answering many specific questions about specific areas, but here are a few things to keep in mind when hiking with kids:

Pack Out ALL Food/Trash

Pack out all food including the tiniest crumbs, apple cores, etc. It might be tempting to leave biodegradable things like banana peels or squished goldfish crackers next to the trail, but these can take a long time to decompose. They are also not part of the native species’ normal diets and can make them sick. Leaving fruit or vegetable cores can also introduce non-native seeds to the area.

We love using these recyclable bags for our sandwiches and we can put our leftover crumbs in the bag when we are done eating to pack home with us and dispose of appropriately. When you are getting up from a rest break, take a moment to check the area you were eating for any clues that you could have left that you had been there to pick them up.

Along these same lines, never feed or approach wildlife. It is dangerous to both humans and animals.

Don’t Pick Plants

This is another extremely temping thing for kids (and adults!) especially when it seems like there are endless wildflowers blooming. Its helpful to ask kids to imagine what the trail would look like if every single person that walked by picked the plants along the edge of where they are walking – what would it look like then?

There are so many other wonderful ways to remember what we see on the trail. Our kids have brought these little cameras with to take pictures of things they want to remember from the hike. If you want to stay away from technology on the trail, a waterproof nature journal can be used to sketch or write what they see. If you are new to nature journaling, this post about Nature Journaling for Kids is a great place to start!

A child in a blue hat and vest pointing at wildflowers
Admiring the flowers instead of picking them!

Right of Way Rules When Hiking

General Rules of Hiking

  • Downhill hikers yield to uphill: Downhill hikers should step to the side to allow uphill hikers focused on their climb to continue going uphill.
  • Bicyclists should yield to both hikers and horses.
  • Everyone should yield to horses because they are the most difficult to navigate off the trail and be spooked.

Passing When Hiking

  • If you approach someone from behind, say hello and let them know you would like to pass
  • If you are single or in a small group, it may make more sense to step off and let a large group pass rather than making a very large group step off the trail – use common sense in these situations!

Obviously having a group of slow-moving toddlers can create exceptions to these rules, but spending a day on the trail gives you many opportunities to discuss and practice these general rules!

A mom and two kids in red hats hiking on a rocky path
Practicing single-file hiking on a narrow part of the trail

Noise Etiquette While Hiking

Electronics Use When Hiking

Everyone goes into nature for different reasons, but it usually doesn’t involve electronic sounds/music. Turn your cell phone on silent and leave kids’ electronics at home. If listening to music while hiking is relaxing for you, using one ear pod so you can still hear other hikers is a great option!

Voices When Hiking

Friendly conversation is one of the best parts of hiking with kids. They are so great at observing things and asking questions! Normal conversation levels can also alert animals in the area to stay away from being too close to the trail. Shouting or yelling should be avoided unless it is an emergency though because it can disturb both wildlife and others having a peaceful hike.

Trail Etiquette Hiking With Dogs

We’re a family that doesn’t have a dog (yet!) and our kids have been shy of dogs in the past. Last summer they went on a backpacking trip with their dad and were neighbor campsites to a pair of the most wonderful dogs! They came back talking nonstop about River and Twig and how they would love to get a dog just like that. It would have been a completely different experience if the owners had not followed trail etiquette with dogs!

Two kids in winter coats standing in front of a snow bank next to two small dogs
Making friends with trail dogs River and Twig!

Research Ahead About Dog Regulations for Hiking

Again, be familiar with the rules for the area. Some trails do not allow pets, and many allow them only on leash. Even if your dog is friendly, make sure to follow the leash rules to ensure a safe, positive day for everyone.

Dogs should be well-trained on recall before being let off leash so they can be kept on a leash when encountering another dog.

Pack out solid dog waste!

For more information about taking dogs out on adventures, check out this article with a roundup of how to adventure with a dog!

Teach Kids About Dogs

Even if your family doesn’t have a dog, if you are headed to an area where dogs will be hiking, let kids know always to ask permission before petting someone’s dog.

If you are a dog owner, make sure kids are comfortable being approached by a dog before allowing yours to approach them. Some kids have had bad experiences with dogs and would prefer to stay away.

Biking Etiquette

Right of Way

Hikers and walkers have the right of way over bikes. Pass on the left! We installed bells on our kids’ bikes so they can politely let people know they are passing. We also taught them to say “on your left!” loudly and clearly when they are going to pass.

New Bikers

Biking with brand new bikers can be like herding cats (we’ve had our share of swerving kids learning how to steer and stop) but the more they practice, the better they are at learning the rules of the trail!

We also teach our kids to alert us when they are going to stop or pull over on their bikes because we have had more than one rear-ending situation on our bikes when they decide to stop suddenly without warning!

Practicing in an empty parking lot can be a good way to learn the rules of passing and staying on the correct side of the road when starting out. Be aware of what trails you are choosing when deciding the skill level of your bikers!

If you have a new rider, this article about Teaching a Child to Pedal a Bike is a great place to start!

This road was closed to cars, so it was a great chance to practice staying on our wide side of the path!

Hiking Etiquette for Kids Reminders

Don’t Throw Rocks

Never throw rocks off cliffs or down trails – rocks can be lethal if a hiker below is hit on the head!

Leave rock cairns (stacks of rocks) alone. Don’t knock them over and don’t build new ones as they are often used as trail markers. We were at the top of Table Mountain in North Cascades National Park a few years ago and witnessed someone knocking over a bunch of cairns and it was heartbreaking to see. We made sure to explain to our kids why that never should be done.

If you are hiking and see cairns that you are not sure should be there, it is always best to check with a ranger before taking them down. If in doubt, leave what you find alone!

Be Friendly!

Say “Hello!” as you encounter others on the trail! Not only does it create a friendly, welcoming atmosphere for everyone, but it can be a helpful safety measure if someone is being looked for later on.

Pass on important trail information (for example: if there is a large animal ahead, a muddy patch, or a particularly buggy area) to hikers you meet!

Waiting for Others

When you come to a fork on the trail make sure your whole hiking party is caught up before continuing on.

Unless there is a safety reason, like getting back to the car before dark, I usually like to put the slowest hikers toward the front of the group. I’ve been the person before who is left in the dust and by the time you catch up to the front person everyone else has taken their rest already and is ready to move on. I’ve been on hikes where the back person ends up in tears because of this!

Practice Makes Perfect!

Most of these trail etiquette rules boil down to just treating others and nature with respect and the way you would want to be treated! This is not an exhaustive list for kids to memorize, but rather a set of principles to always be modeling on the trail.

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Trail Etiquette For Kids

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  • Kara and her husband Seth are a Pacific Northwest family of 5. They enjoy camping, hiking, mountain biking, and getting outside in all kinds of PNW weather. They enjoy homeschooling, visiting National Parks, and growing some of their own food! You can follow along on their adventures on Instagram @karalswanson.

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