Some Thoughts for Your Next Hike

A hiker thinking, “Oh my goodness, someone is coming, what should I do?” is a new mentality straight out of the hell that is 2020. A mere 10 months ago, the standard action on trail when encountering another hiker was to say something like “Hello,” then maybe leash your dog if they’re not already, or turn down your music if it’s overly audible, and then to also let the person ascending the mountain have the right-of-way on a narrow trail because the descending hiker has much better oversight—they’re already looking down. Of course, in many instances, the person coming up trail would stop anyway, saying something like, “No (insert gasp for breath here) you can go,” as they voluntarily stood aside visibly grateful for the brief respite. These actions are still a part of the ritual, but some things have certainly changed. What follows are some modified thoughts about being a hiker during this “New Age of Trail Etiquette.”

PASSING ANOTHER HIKER — This Is the Biggie

The rule of allowing the ascending person the right-of-way doesn’t change. What has to change is the amount of space given. Before 2020, people would think nothing of passing very closely, knowing the only downside was possibly getting a whiff of their fellow hiker’s stink. Ever since “social distancing” became part of our vocabulary, however, we now seek a 6-foot separation. And technically speaking, thanks to the novel coronavirus’s (SARSCoV-2) ability to spread via aerosols, 6 feet is the minimum for those choosing to play it safe. If you don’t understand why, just watch the cloud that is your breath on a cold day, and you will see. (This may be a blessing in the winter.) Granted, being outdoors helps disperse (maybe not so good) and dilute (this part is good) shedded viral particles from an infected person. Air movement helps prevent viral concentrations; this is just common sense. But the less the air that is moving, the longer this dispersion and dilution will take to occur. Space and time are valid concerns and offer valid solutions at the same time. But even when the air is moving, direction needs to be considered as well.

The real problem is that many trails don’t make a 6-foot separation easy, or even possible. Many are narrow and brushed-in, and even further snow-choked in the winter. And because of this, the ascending hiker can’t always keep moving, not unless the descending hiker sees the person coming well in advance, has the ability to take adequate action, and actually does so. But what if they can’t? This is the tricky part, and to coordinate on a truly narrow stretch might require the cooperation of both parties. It could even involve someone backing up to the nearest drainage or outlet, or packed-out area in the winter. And willingness is key. Otherwise, we’re rolling the dice. And even if you’re the gambling type, the etiquette part of all this must beg the question: is the other person also a gambler? The whole point of this is to consider the feelings of another human being. This consideration, however, must come from within. Sadly, this cannot be taught to many “adults.”

HOLDING YOUR BREATH — Crazy Stuff, Right?

To pass while holding one’s breath is certainly a brief option for those descending. Rarely is this viable for someone coming up the trail. Their breaths must come regularly because they’re exerting themselves. But those standing aside can certainly do their part (unless a big group is passing — but groups should generally yield for individuals, regardless of the direction of travel). Holding one’s breath is a bit extreme, though. Some, we know, say they turn their faces away from the other person. This probably helps, too, especially if both parties do it. Others, we know, have a mask attached to their pack strap by one ear loop. The idea here is if someone is coming one can put the free loop on the opposite ear, then turn their head slightly to tighten the mask’s fit. Easy peasy. Still, others wear a buff, at the very least, around their neck and pull up double layers over their nose and mouth.

SURELY, MY DOG IS OKAY — But Don’t Call Me Shirley

Aside from a couple of isolated cases of domestic cats getting sick with COVID-19 (Coronavirus Infectious Disease 2019), and one dog, supposedly our pets don’t contract or carry the coronavirus. That said, we suspect it is possible that the pets could transfer viral particles via touch (fomite transfer). This is probably very unlikely, but if dogs aren’t leashed or allowed to get too friendly to passersby, it might make some hikers uncomfortable. Again, this harkens back to the simple concept of just being considerate of others. There was a day back when, where we thought a dog’s freedom was the most important thing, until we realized that an unleashed dog can ruin someone’s day (some folks are very afraid of dogs). We have long had a change of heart. We can all learn and grow. Remember, this is an etiquette article.

There are a lot of conscientious hikers that willingly pick up trash and lost items left by others, but this type of trash really needs to be carried out by its producer. This might mean planning ahead, but it’s the proper thing to do. Anyone who says they love the mountains, yet treats them in such a manner is suffering from a complete disconnect from reality.

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT — You’re Standing on Me

All of these matters are pretty easy to solve if we are allowed space to move, to get off trail, and if we want to be considerate to others. But if we don’t have the space, we are then forced to push ourselves off trail. This can lead to some environmental impacts. According to the principles of Leave No Trace (LNT), we really need to stick to “durable surfaces” when we hike and camp. So, roots and rocks are okay—soft soils and plants, not so much. Soil compaction begins a process that ultimately kills trees and widens our trails. This is particularly important in sensitive alpine areas where vegetative recovery is next to impossible.

Winter may offer a solution to a lot of these challenges, thanks to the ground being frozen, yet the season will introduce its own problems. For example, now a person yielding may disappear out of sight in the deep snow found at elevation, swallowed up whole by a spruce trap. You can’t make this stuff up.

To manage these issues, we not only need to be aware and vigilant, we may need to really plan these passings and be willing to compromise like never before. To be accommodating as necessary, because—if you haven’t heard—we’re dealing with a pandemic.

HAZARDOUS WASTE — We Had to Go There Because You Went There

Trail carnations—the wads of toilet paper or tissue—are unsightly. In fact, they’re disgusting. Other trash articles are equally disgusting and unsanitary: human and dog feces, condoms, feminine hygiene products, syringes (think diabetics, not junkies), and more. In the days of coronavirus, in fact, even lowly cigarette butts and food goods and wrappers may be tainted. Now we can also add face masks and latex/nitrile gloves to the list. We have seen too many of them in the woods and hanging from trees already. These are possible sources of viral transfer, and like the other types of what we called “disgusting” trash, they should not be left behind. Nothing should be! There are a lot of conscientious hikers that willingly pick up trash and lost items left by others, but this type of trash really needs to be carried out by its producer. This might mean planning ahead, but it’s the proper thing to do. Anyone who says they love the mountains, yet treats them in such a manner is suffering from a complete disconnect from reality.

ALL THE OTHER STUFF — The Unchanged Parts of Trail Etiquette

Some etiquette, such as passing along the Hiker’s Code and Leave No Trace, waiting for your whole party at junctions and stream crossings (even in the depths of winter), and whatnot, these parts don’t have to change. But the rest of it begs your consideration. If we are to keep hiking and using our natural spaces without violating them along with the rights of others, we must adopt some novel ways of thinking. But we’re not going to really address these topics, as they have been addressed many times before. Whether or not wearing snowshoes on trails is the right thing to do has been discussed ad nauseam. Nothing has changed in these departments. This article is about the parts of trail etiquette that have been affected by this pandemic. A quick Google search should offer broader insights to general trail etiquette concerns.

AND LASTLY — What If They Don’t Care or Believe?

This is going to be a problem at times. Not everyone is polite or considerate and they will make damn sure that you know that you can’t make them be who they’re not. Some will deny the very need and laugh at your concerns. You will be a sheep in their eyes. Thus, in such instances, if consideration is absent, one will have to live with this and take one-sided action to protect themselves. An article like this isn’t meant to change anyone’s mind or turn lousy citizens into good ones. This article is more about exploring the how-to side of today’s novel trail etiquette challenges for the majority of hikers—folks who care and want to show it. As for the rest, stand aside, because they’re coming through.

Catch this article in the Winter 2020/21 edition of Mt Washington Valley Vibe available at any of these locations around the region.