An Introduction To Trail Ethics And Best Practices

A primer for ethical trail running.

By on July 7, 2016 | Comments

What does it take to preserve priceless art? A guarded, climate-controlled museum—a safe and protective harbor. Museum staff who are well educated about the artwork they care for, and passionate about sharing that knowledge with others—an art stewardship program. A long-term preservation plan to make certain the art pieces are maintained in perpetuity—future-forward vision.

It takes similar intention to care for our equally priceless natural world. Think of trails and the places they travel through as museum-quality art that requires the same type of care and attention as a Rembrandt painting. And think of us as trail stewards who are charged with helping to provide the natural world a safe and protected harbor now and into the future.

In this article, I aim to explain exactly how to do all this in a way that everyone will understand and appreciate, including new-to-the-sport trail runners. I am hopeful that this information will empower and inspire you to care about the places through which you run.

In defining the best ethical practices for trail running, I have opted to apply the Leave No Trace Seven Principles to our sport. Make sure to check out Leave No Trace, as it is a member-driven organization devoted to creating dos and don’ts that allow everyone to enjoy the outdoors while preserving the long-term health of the natural world. Here are the Leave No Trace Seven Principles:

  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
  2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly
  4. Leave What You Find
  5. Minimize Campfire Impacts
  6. Respect Wildlife
  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors

© 1999 by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics:

Six of the Leave No Trace Seven Principles, with the exception of the campfire principle, are relevant to single-day trail running. I use the principles as general jumping-off points for the balance of this article.

Prepare Ahead of Time

Last month, I wrote quite a bit about planning your route so that you don’t run into trouble once you are on the trails. Check that out if you are curious about finding a trail that suits your needs and ability level as that is the first step in planning ahead.

Beyond that, ask yourself a few additional questions:

  • What gear will be needed?
  • How much food/water will I need?
  • What is the weather forecast?
  • Am I in good condition to tackle the task at hand?
  • Are there any environmental sensitivities of which I need to be aware?
  • And–perhaps most important–what is the plan for bailing out in case of emergency?

Food and Water
Plan for what you need to take with you. The obvious thing to do is to have ample food and water. In order to plan for this, you need to be familiar with your abilities and how long you would expect a specific outing to take. Then you can aptly plan for food accordingly, what should amount to a couple hundred calories of snacks per hour.

What about water? I like to use a simple formula of estimating my water needs based upon how much I am sweating:

Light sweating: 16 ounces x A of hours = B ounces of water
Medium sweating: 24 ounces x A of hours = B ounces of water
Heavy sweating: 32 ounces x A of hours = B ounces of water

You may end up with way too much water but too much is a lot better than too little. As you become more familiar with your sweat rate in different conditions, you’ll be able adjust how much you bring on your trail runs.

I recently traveled to Flagstaff, Arizona for some trail-running fun. Being the beginning of monsoon season, the rain was unpredictable in its timing and ferocity. Even though I only used it once, I carried my waterproof jacket in my pack and wore a ball cap on every single run. If I was worried about getting cold, too, I would have carried a pair of gloves as well. The weather can also be extremely hot, which would change my packed gear to sunscreen, a ball cap, and some sun sleeves to protect my skin from sunburn.

The weather may also create hazards to mitigate. If you are running through a canyon in the desert, for example, you should definitely know what the weather outlook will be as even a light sprinkle can put you in danger of a flash flood. Similarly, I was running once on Kauai, Hawaii and on the way out crossed three streams. It started raining and on my way back the streams were roaring rivers and each crossing had to be very carefully navigated. Luckily I had my trekking poles and was able to secure my footing. A less-fortunate backpacker had fallen in and was swept down one of the rivers; she was being lifeflight-ed out as I crossed her path. Moral of the story, know the weather risks and plan for them.

Knowing What You Might Encounter
I live in the mountains of northern Utah and as such, come across approximately five types of animals in the wild that I need to use caution around: deer, moose, coyotes, mountain lions, and rattlesnakes. There are also chipmunks, squirrels, lizards, rabbits, and bears but coming across a Utah bear is pretty unlikely and the other critters are close to harmless. Knowing the five animals I may come into contact with that I need to be cautious of has allowed me to figure out the best way to interact with one should I happen upon one. I don’t want to have an irrational fear of encountering wildlife in the wild and I don’t want that fear to interfere with my enjoyment of the outdoors. Knowing what you may encounter and mitigating that risk in advance may help prevent that from happening.

In my late teens, I went for a trail run and kept hearing rustling in the bushes. I thought it was a squirrel until I started to notice that the rustling didn’t go away regardless of which way or where I ran. After ascending a set of switchbacks, I turned the corner to find a mountain lion perched on a six-foot boulder. I froze, it froze, and we stared at each other for a few seconds until my instinct kicked in. I made loud sounds and flapped my arms slowly as I backed away. I had previously learned from others experienced in the outdoors on what to do if I saw a mountain lion, which helped me end the tense interaction safely.

You may have boars, javelina, bears, snakes, alligators, or other major wildlife in your neck of the woods. In the event you do encounter beasts of the wild or poisonous plants, knowing how to quickly and safely deal with the situation will be your best defense. Learn before you go!

Bailing Out
On any outing, I think it is good to have a contingency plan. Things happen out there and when all else fails, you might have to bail out. What will you do if you can’t find where the trail continues or if you cross some wild animal that sets you off your planned path? Do you have contingencies in place for when things don’t go as planned? Consider crossing those bridges before you come to them. Doing so will prevent a mad scramble off the trail due to your fight-or-flight mode kicking in. If you are prepared for something to go awry, then when it happens you will be able to stay calm and rational, reducing your impact on fragile surfaces.

Sharing Your Plan
We have heard it before so this is a quick reminder. Whether you are heading out solo or in a group, let someone who is not with you know where you will be going and when they should plan to hear back from you upon your return. To be extra cautious, write down your plans on a paper and put the paper on the driver’s floorboard of the car. Include where you are going and how long you expect to be gone. We can all hope that these precautions are always just that, but we will also appreciate our willingness to plan ahead should anything happen while we are out there.

Tread Lightly

The ecosystems through which we run are fragile, and contain innumerate delicate parts. The fragility of the land on which we run means that we need to take action to maintain its integrity.

Use Established Trails
Often when running, I will come across a whisper of a trail that goes off in a different direction. In many experiences, I have found that the ghost trail meets right back up with the main trail. The ghost trail is a shortcut created by people who didn’t plan ahead well enough and need to bail out early or who are too lazy to take the longer, intended way around. Stick to the main trail and let those ghost trails recover and grow in.

Cutting Switchbacks
This is a controversial subject depending on where you are from. The way I see it, Leave No Trace makes it simple, cutting switchbacks—zigzags in trails that take a shallower line up or down a steep piece of land—alters the land, therefore, we should not do it. Yes, it is the fastest way up and down the mountain, but is it really our right to sacrifice the integrity of the landscape for running a few seconds faster? Use the established trail.

Muddy Trails
When we find ourselves running in wet conditions, we may leave an impact due to the soft surface. Ruts can start with just one footprint, altering water flow, creating puddles that further soften what’s underneath them, and widening the trail. First, I want to encourage you not to run when there is enough mud to cake up on your shoes. Our gut instinct is to move to the side of the trail where there is some grass or other growth to prevent the mud from sticking and to gain traction. This widens the trails, too. If you find yourself on wet trails, the best thing to do is to run right through the middle. It will take a lot of active brainpower, it is not instinctual, but it is the best practice. Give the trail a break and return when it has dried out.

Getting a Perfect Photo
Many years ago, before I was privy to the Leave No Trace Seven Principles, I was asked to model for a trail running photo in a magazine. I drove down to Moab, Utah to meet the photographer and we hit the trails. He would find a good shot and I would run back and forth in front of the camera numerous times before moving onto the next spot. More than 10 years later, I still remember him asking me to run off the trail so he could capture a scenic photo with the sun in the right direction. After running out, I turned around and noticed how deep my footprints were. I am ashamed to say it but I had just run through an entire patch of biological soil crust, a thin and delicate layer of crust that forms as a result of microscopic organisms in the soil. This crust has a very important function: to hold soil in place, preventing erosion and allowing larger plants to grow. This crust can take hundreds of years to form and can be wiped out with one footprint. I didn’t know at the time what I had done but now, it hurts my heart every time I think about it.

With social-media photos as popular as they are, I encourage you to consider where you are stepping in order to get your perfect shot. Whether you are putting your camera off trail to get a photo of you on the trail, or you are running through something off trail to get that perfect angle, consider your impact on the environment before capturing the moment. Stay on the trail and get your photo without making a negative impact on the environment through which you run.

Dispose of Your Waste Correctly

What is waste? Does an apple core count as waste? What about poop, toilet paper, or a tampon? It is all waste and that each thing has its own best way to be disposed of.

Pack It In, Pack It Out
This one seems the most obvious but is also the most violated rule when traveling in the natural world. There are many reasons to not leave waste on or near a trail, but perhaps one of the most important is that critters might think your trash is food and it could end up making them ill or killing them. Is there anything you can leave behind? Banana peels, apple cores? How about that gel packet in the middle of a race? The rule is, if it didn’t grow there, it doesn’t go there. If you brought it, you are responsible for getting it back out.

Human Waste
This is icky but we have to talk about it. Especially those of you who are reading this to prepare for ultramarathons as you are more likely to be out there long enough that you’ll have to go. How do you poop in the woods? I was hiking at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona last week and came across a pile of toilet paper and a pile of poop about six inches off of the trail. That isn’t the way to do it.

Here are a couple of guidelines to follow. If you need to go, dig a hole. Your waste needs to be buried six inches under the ground. Let’s get friendly and honest. Waste takes up space. It actually takes up quite a bit of space. If you dig a hole that is six inches deep and then fill that hole with waste, then your waste isn’t buried under six inches of soil. I prefer to go wider rather than deeper. I start by finding a loose rock. I pick it up and then dig a hole about eight inches deep and six inches wide under the rock. (Chances are that is softer dirt). Don’t have a trowel or a tent spike to help you dig? That rock can do double duty! Use it to dig.

Once the hole is complete, squat over the hole and do your business. When you wipe, don’t put your wipe/toilet paper in the hole! It goes in a baggy that you carry with you and you pack it out. Remember, if it didn’t grow there, it doesn’t go there. Once you have safely deposited your wipe, fill in and cover the hole completely with dirt and then put the rock on top.

What to do with a tampon? The same thing you do with toilet paper, put it in a baggy and pack it out. Yes, it is kinda’ gross to think about that in your trail running pack. But just think about it being dug up, eaten by wildlife, or exposed for another recreationist to discover. Yup, that’s way worse. If you don’t want to pack it out, consider using a feminine cup. It can hold many hours of menstrual fluid so if you are out for a long run, you likely won’t have to worry about it until you make it to an aid station or back home.

Pick Up After Others
Recently I went out to the trails of the Uinta Mountains in Utah with a friend of mine. As we were running, I picked up the trash I came across and put it in a side pocket that I keep free for just that purpose. Later that day, my friend posted on social media: “I’ve been struggling with people who I would call ‘outdoor users…’ Users take from the wilderness. As they climb up their peaks their daily habits tear down our environment. Mountain [lovers] pick up trash as they hike [and run] and build up the mountains and each other as they explore.”

Not everyone who uses the outdoors has the same standards regarding what it looks like to take care of our environment. I think trail runners have a unique perspective because we rely on ourselves rather than an engine to make our way through the woods. I think this unique perspective makes us perfect stewards of the wilderness but also gives us the obligation of protecting the wild from people who don’t know what we know. If we can leave a trail cleaner than how we found it, then we are truly stewards.

‘Take Only Photos’

Contrary to picking up the trash left by other recreationists, there is a rule to leave historical things as they stand. In this case, any artifact or fossil you come across belongs in its rightful place which is staying put. Feel free to look but don’t touch. These artifacts hold keys to our past and by moving or removing them, you are making history disappear.

This goes for rocks and plants, too. You might find a rock you like with a particularly decorative lichen or a wildflower you would like to see grow in your yard. Don’t pick it up and take it home. Instead, admire it, take a photo if you wish, and then leave it be and move along. The environment deserves all the pieces that make it whole and complete. If everyone were to take their favorite rock or wildflower, natural places would look very different.

Treat Wildlife Respectfully

The creatures who roam natural landscapes deserve our utmost respect, and here a few thoughts on how to provide that to them.

Observe Only
Life is hard, we can all agree on that. Life out in the elements, chasing down or foraging your food, and being subjected to the risks of the wild all day, every day: we can imagine that wild animals have challenging lives.

When you see a wild animal in its natural habitat, consider yourself lucky. Normally wildlife is very good at sensing your presence and then simply disappearing into the brush or forest before you ever see it. When you do see wildlife, give it plenty of space if you can. Let it continue its natural, unmodified-by-you behavior. Why? First, there is the inherent value in a wild creature being able to live a life unmodified by humans. Secondly, approaching an animal too closely makes it stressed and requires of it a significant energy expenditure to get away from you.

Even though it’s tempting, don’t feed wildlife, intentionally or unintentionally. Human food and the wrappers it comes in are not healthy for a wild animal. Further, animals that have been fed by humans become maladapted to this opportunity and seek it out, becoming aggressive with humans.

All in all, admire the creature in front of you and feel honored that you are lucky enough to see it.

Dogs make great running companions. They love the exercise and can be a great motivator to get out the door on the tough days. Even if you are solid on the way you intend to interact with the wild, your pets are not. As wonderful as it is to watch your four-legged friend run wild and free in wild places, they can create just as much damage to fragile environments as humans and even though they are animals, this is not their natural habitat. Further, they are animals with animal instincts. Even the best-trained pets may chase down animals that do actually live there and who don’t get two meals a day fed to them out of a bowl. A dog may also view another user as a threat to you, its person, and jump on or attack other trail users.

Due to the unpredictable nature of pets, consider the impact your dog has on the environment and other users and then consider the best course of action. Some trail systems have rules for pets, so make sure you know those rules before setting out.

Treat Other Trail Users Respectfully

The other people we encounter on the trails are our environmental friends. Our aim in our interactions with them should be to follow the ‘Golden Rule:’ treat others how you would like to be treated.

Yielding Rules
Many trails are multi-use trails meaning they are open to people who want to use the trails in different kinds of ways. Other runners, hikers, mountain bikers, horseback riders, and off-road vehicles are all users with whom you might cross paths, depending on the kinds of users allowed on a trail system. It is important that all users celebrate each others’ experiences on the trails regardless of how we choose to experience them. Following yielding rules is one fundamental of showing respect. Motorized-vehicle users yield to everyone. Although they are allowed to and able to pass, they are required to do so at a time that is safe for all users. Everyone yields to horses. When you come across a horse, stand to the uphill side of the trail and listen to the rider’s instructions. Mountain bikers yield to runners and horses. Runners yield to horses. After the other yielding rules are applied, downhill users yield to uphill users.

These are the general yielding rules for most multi-use trail systems. You will find slight variances to these rules as you explore a diversity of trail systems. Always check right-of-way rules for a new-to-you trail before starting.

Yielding Realities
Yielding means slowing down and finding a good, safe time to pass. Often, the person who has an easier opportunity to pull over ends up doing the yielding. This is one of the ways that people treat each other with respect out on the trail. When you are running downhill and a mountain biker is grinding uphill in their granny gear, they are technically supposed to yield to you and let you pass. If it isn’t a place where stopping would cause trouble or harm, it might be just as great for you to step to the side of the trail for a couple of seconds and let them pass by. Similarly, if you are running uphill and a motorcycle is coming downhill, it would be nice of them to allow you to pass before they put up a plume of dust. Treating each other with respect and understanding goes beyond the yielding rules and creates a place for people to be kind to each other.

Many people on the trails use music to motivate themselves and help the time pass. Music is great for motivation but it doesn’t allow for easy trail sharing if one user can’t hear another. With some practice, the music of your breath, footsteps, and the birds chirping may become enough to keep you satisfied. In the event it isn’t, consider using one earbud so you can hear other users on the trail.

Think of the last time you went to a busy trail. Were you able to use the trail without stepping to the side constantly, widening the trail out? Were you able to find the calm and serene peacefulness that you were seeking, that is a normal part of wild places? Were you able to yield to the other users on the trail, and did they yield to you? Were you able to park at the trailhead with ease, without creating an impact? Was there trash on the trail? Were there many ghost trails fanning out and back into the main trail? Did you get the experience you set out to have? If you answer no to any of these questions, consider the impact that high use or overuse has on the places you love and perhaps reconsider your choice to use that trail.

Final Thoughts

Wild places have inherent value, whether you or I or anyone sees or experiences them. And, when we have the opportunity to become immersed in them, they bring meaning into our lives. It is a certain privilege to experience a wild place and be positively impacted by it. As such, as we take part in the ritual of the wild, we are obliged to maintain these places as we found them. To be clear, preservation should not be considered our option, it should be our honored obligation.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What other ideas do you have for helping to keep trail running sustainable for wild places?
  • Can you give an example of a time in which you modified your trail run in order to better care for the the environment through which you were running?
Rhielle Widders
Rhielle Widders is passionate about introducing her favorite sport to newcomers. She created and directed the Park City Trail Series, a four-race series designed to get people running on dirt, from 2010 to 2014. When she isn’t in Park City, Utah, where she lives, you will find her traveling to try out new dirt. Follow her on Instagram.