Trail Etiquette: Reminders on the Unwritten Rules of the Trails

Bozeman might be growing, but we still share that small town social contract, the ‘Bozeman Way’. The folks you see on the trail aren’t strangers, they’re neighbors, or maybe a friend. We all live and play under a short list of unwritten but important rules. That’s the Bozeman Way, the thing that makes this place feel a little different than everywhere else. With lots of new faces around town and a season of trail adventures ahead of us, we thought it might be a good time for a few reminders about those unwritten rules of the trail. As GVLT continues to work with landowners and agencies to create more trails, a community of trail users with respect for the land makes our jobs a lot easier. It’s that simple. Be a good trail user, get more trails!

Smile, Greet, Nod

This is at the core of the Bozeman way. In other parts of the country, you might keep your head down as you walk by. Here, we look up and we smile,  say hello, nod, or wave. Sometimes we forget that trails are  not only connecting us to the land, they’re connecting us to each other. Plus, there’s loads of research on the mental health benefits of smiling, and seeing smiles. This is for your health! And you might just make someone’s day.

Listen to Leash Rules-

No one likes rules. We get it. But when it comes to keeping your dogs on leash, the rules are there for a reason. And no, it isn’t because we think your dog is a maniac. Leash rules don’t have much to do with how well behaved your dog is.

If a trail has a leash rule, consider the following:

  • Not everyone likes dogs. In fact, some people are very frightened of dogs. We hear from many seniors that dogs make walking on trails difficult and scary because it throws them off balance. Even if your dog is well behaved, it may ruin a nervous senior’s day.
  • Dogs, even well behaved ones, like to chase birds and wildlife. Many trails go right through very special habitat and nesting areas. Even if your dog isn’t chasing the animals or birds, they may be disturbing their habitat.
  • If your dog is off leash, you might not notice that they’re pooping and you’ll miss picking up after them. You’re probably thinking to yourself, I always pick up after my dog. But if they’re off leash and into the tall grass, you have no idea what they’re doing. Refer to our last post, pick up two poos next time.
  • Not all dogs can handle being off leash so their owners walk them on leash, and when your off-leash dog approaches their on-leash dog, there can be conflict. Be respectful for other dog owners and keep yours on leash so they don’t have to worry about unleashed dogs approaching.
  • Unleashed dogs can topple over kids, even the well behaved ones.
  • Dogs can trample rare wildflowers and native plants. Leashes keep them on the trail so we can continue to look at the beautiful flora and fauna.

Pick Up (Two) Poops-

Most people aren’t watching their dog poo and maliciously deciding NOT to pick it up. Let’s assume the best and give each other the benefit of the doubt. You’ve probably missed a poo or two for one of the following reasons.

  • You don’t have a bag.
  • You’re on your phone and don’t notice when your off leash dog ducks behind a tree.
  • You’re scrambling to get the kids’ sneakers on when you get out of the car at the parking lot and the dog sneaks off for their business.
  • You’re biking with your dog off leash and they do their thing behind you, out of sight.
  • You picked it up, put it in a bag and left it on the trail to get on the way down. But you got caught up in good conversation and missed it.

Sh*t happens. Literally. We’ve all probably let a few slide here and there. What’s the remedy? Next time, scoop two poos. We can all do a little more to keep those trails clean.

Avoid Muddy Trails-

We know you’re itching to get outside, we’re excited too. Because we want you to have great trails all summer long PLEASE stay off them if they’re muddy. Using muddy trails causes serious, permanent (expensive!) damage. We’re counting on you, and your neighbors, to avoid muddy trails this spring.

The trails aren’t dry yet so as the snow melts, consider these options:

  • Use trails early in the day when they’re still frozen
  • South facing slopes offer the best conditions
  • Paved trails are a great alternative
  • Story Hills Rd. is soft gravel so good for walking and riding
  • Wear appropriate footwear so you can walk through the mud, not around it so you don’t damage the vegetation or create a side trail. 
  • When possible, avoid muddy trails all together until they’re dry!

Yielding 101- 

Yielding means slow down, establish communication, be prepared to stop if necessary, and pass in a safe and friendly manner.

Here’s the basic rule of thumb: Bicyclists yield to hikers, runners, and horses. Downhill riders yield to uphill riders, that means watch your speed on the down. If you’re on bike, fully stop when you yield, with one foot on the ground. Make it clear that you’re yielding. Don’t just ride past off the trail, going off trail creates side trails and destroy vegetation. When biking in a group, the front rider should be alert for blind curves or in areas with limited view. And if you’re riding in a group, let other trail users know how many riders to expect behind you. If you’re biking and approaching a hiker or runner from behind, call out  a friendly greeting so they know you’re coming. Bike bells work great for this, and they look cool!

Stay On The Trail- 

As tempting as it may be, don’t cut switchbacks! When people cut switchbacks over and over, side trails are created that cause erosion and trail damage. Staying on the trail also prevents damage to the native vegetation along the trail. If we don’t have to spend money on fixing trails due to poor trail etiquette, we can spend more money on creating new trails!

Hiking or Biking Near Livestock-

You may encounter cattle on some local trails like the Highland Glen Nature Preserve. In this case, private landowners have generously allowed the public to access their property so we need to be extra respectful of the other uses of the land. If you come across livestock, slow down and speak in calm tones. You don’t want to startle or scare them.  Always close gates behind you if livestock are in the fields. Always follow the rules about having dogs on leash or temporary closures.

Getting Along with Horses-

Always yield to horses. They’re bigger than you, and easily startled. Typically it is easiest to just pull off to the side of the trail and let them pass. Generally yield on the downhill side of the trail so you don’t appear taller than the horse. You want them to see you as a friendly human, and not a predator. If you don’t know what to do, simply ask the rider!

Don’t Pick the Flowers-

We’re fortunate to live in a rainbow land of flowers on the trails during the spring months. Wildflowers are everywhere! While they’re beautiful to look at, please do not pick the flowers. The flowers are important food sources for birds, small mammals and our friends the bees! Picking wildflowers removes the seeds or roots that are needed for the flowers to grow again next year. And when you pick the flowers, you’re taking that experience of seeing them away from a future trail user. Share the beauty and simply take photos. Local farms sell beautiful bouquets at the Farmers’ Markets on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

Be Alert-

If you’re listening to music with ear buds, consider keeping one ear bud out so you can hear other trail users who are approaching from behind or trying to communicate with you. Same goes with talking on your phone. Go ahead and chat with mom but make sure you’re still paying attention to what’s going on around you (especially your dog’s bathroom stops).

More to add to the list? Email EJ@gvlt.org. We’ll be posting these tips and more in our Trail Etiquette Tuesday posts on Facebook.