hikers on a trail

How to Share the Trail

According to the new organization Trails are Common Ground, trail etiquette starts with kindness and empathy.

David Wiens may be the executive director of the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), but he’s well aware that mountain bikers aren’t the only trail users out there—and that in order for bikers (and others) to have the best experience, everyone needs to get along. “Mountain biking is a very narrow slice of the pie,” he says. “The sport thrives when we’re collaborative.”

Before he started with IMBA in 2016, Wiens started Gunnison Trails, a nonprofit in Southern Colorado, and worked at Western Colorado University where he served as the Director of Mountain Sports, leading a competitive team of trail runners, mountain bikers, and multiple disciplines of skiers. He did contract work for Lifetime Fitness and Ergon bikes, started the Growler Mountain Bike Race in Gunnison, Colorado, and founded Pennies for Trails, a partnership program that enlists vendors who donate a penny for every dollar customers spend. Those donations go to trail improvement projects. And though Wiens stopped racing bikes professionally in 2004, he still lines up his wheels at gravel and mountain bike races now and again. “I can’t quite shake that,” he says.

Needless to say, Wiens is a creative leader who’s spent a greater part of his life on trails, and he’s worked in the realm of trail sports for decades. So after years of noticing increasing numbers of trail users—which skyrocketed during the pandemic—Wiens and IMBA decided it was time to start organizing a group to help trail users get along. In spring of 2021, Wiens reached out to members of trail recreation groups—hikers, mountain bikers, trail runners, equestrians, and motorized trail users—to create a coalition to promote etiquette and cooperation on shared trails.

"At IMBA, we recognized the importance of all trail users having the best possible experience,” says Wiens. “We pulled together the Trails are Common Ground coalition to make this a reality."

Leaders from organizations like the Washington Trails Association, the Back Country Horsemen of American, the American Trail Running Association, Tread Lightly! and more came together to develop a group and a corresponding national movement with a shared goal: everyone getting along on the trails.

Shared Trail (hiking, biking, and horseback riding activities) sign in Elm Creek Park Reserve in Maple Grove, MN

We talked to Wiens about the main tenets of Trails are Common Ground, and the key takeaways when it comes to sharing trails. (For tips on sharing campgrounds, go here.)

1. Be Kind

“Being kind is just so important,” he says. “If that’s your default attitude on the trail, that’s gonna go a long way.”

2. Act with Empathy

Being empathetic on the trail means understanding that other trail users have just as much right to be on the trail as you do, even though they’re using the trail in a different way. “If I’m a mountain biker and see a birder and think, ‘I don’t get that, but that’s okay and they have a right to be out here,’ that’s great. And if the birder says, ‘I don’t get mountain biking, but that’s cool,’ then we all win,” says Wiens.

3. Be Aware

When you go out on the trails, have an awareness about your surroundings, says Wiens. “When we’re driving a car, we’re not unaware when we’re behind the wheel. There’s a certain amount of awareness and focus you have. You don’t stop in the middle of the road—so don’t stop in the middle of the trail. Be aware of your surroundings.”

4. Know When (and How) to Yield

Generally, all trail users should yield to equestrians, mountain bikers should yield to foot travelers, and motorized trail users should yield to all non-motorized trail users. That said, there are exceptions to these guidelines. Wiens recommends visiting sites like Trails are Common Ground and specific user-group sites to educate yourself on etiquette and safety. If you know you’ll be mountain biking, hiking, or running a trail that allows horses, for instance, do some research on how to safely pass or be passed by equestrians.

5. Pick Up After Fido

Be prepared to pick up after your pup, and avoid leaving full poop bags on the side of the trail. “I know it's warm, squishy, and gross,” says Wiens, “but it is completely encapsulated in the plastic bag.” But if you’re really squeamish about carrying it on your hike or run, he advises packing another bag for your poop bag(s), or designating a pocket in your pack. “Picking it up and then still leaving it on the trail, albeit bagged, is less than considerate to other users,” he says.

6. Mind the Plants

“Mountain bikers in particular, or anyone moving quickly down a trail, should come to a complete stop and step off of the trail to allow other users to pass, rather than just riding/running off of the trail,” says Wiens. “This protects trailside vegetation and keeps our singletrack trails singletracks!”

7. Keep It Quiet

Everyone experiences nature differently, but for many, it’s a peaceful respite from the chaos and noise of urban life. “Other trail users would rather hear the birds singing and the wind in the leaves than your latest playlist or your call to your old college roommate,” says Wiens. So, feel free to rock on—with headphones.

8. Reduce Impact

Leave No Trace guidelines help protect public lands, but they also are a way to show respect for other trail users. No one wants to see garbage or other signs of human intrusion on nature. Pack everything out, leave things the way you find them, camp on durable surfaces, and remember the wisdom of the adage: Take only pictures, leave only footprints.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.