By Anna Roth
As Washington’s population grows and more people discover how much hiking improves their quality of life, one thing is indisputable: There are more people on trail.
Making peace with the people
If you’ve lived here for a while, you may long for the days when you didn’t have to wake up especially early to get a spot in the parking lot for Granite Mountain. The increasing number of hikers on trail may be disconcerting. You might even think that the newer folks don’t appreciate trails properly. Years of hiking in the same area can mean changes to your favorite place feel jarring.
But hiking regularly in an area does not give someone more of a right to a place. Anyone who wants to hike should be able to, regardless of how new they are or how long they’ve lived here. Our Washington landscape draws people in, and each new hiker is out there chasing the same feeling we look for when we head outside. And those new hikers can become powerful advocates for public lands.
So, if the number of people on your favorite trail is bumming you out, try a new perspective: We’re all each other’s trail traffic. On a hike, you’re as much a part of someone else’s hiking experience as they’re part of yours. We’re in each other’s photos, brushing by each other on trail or bumping elbows at lookouts. You may wonder at how many dozens of people you had to move aside for on your recent hike, but consider this: each of those people had to do the same for you, and all the other folks on trail that day. As long as we’re all moving around each other on trail, why not make it a pleasant experience for everyone?
That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to engage in conversation with everyone you pass. Simply being aware of the people around you goes a long way. Consider how you might be impacting someone else’s hike. As you enjoy the view from a peak, look around: Is there someone nearby waiting to enjoy the same view from your perch? Or maybe it’s a rainy day and you’re enjoying the best shelter available. Can you make room for someone else to stay dry? A simple, thoughtful gesture can go a long way toward enhancing someone else’s hike and creating a more positive overall experience.
Consider the impact of your actions
For some folks, it’s not the number of people on trail that’s troubling but the fact that not everyone knows trail etiquette. But remember, everyone was a beginner once. We all make mistakes, and we all have to learn hiking best practices.
WTA works to spread this knowledge in a number of ways, from information in our hiking guide and social media to a new email series that introduces Leave No Trace and responsible hiking practices. But one of the most effective ways to teach is in person. It’s easy to see someone cutting a switchback and simply write them off as disrespectful. It’s harder, but more effective, to say something in the moment.
If you see someone doing something impactful or damaging to the environment and you want to say something, remember that from their perspective, you’re a stranger interrupting their day, telling them to change their behavior. That’s a hard encounter to pull off, and it may impact their hike, so engage them with as much grace as you can.
If you do decide to talk to someone, here are some steps to make it go smoother:
- Take a breath.
- Assume the best of the other person.
- Have a simple script, one that avoids accusing language. For example, "I think you dropped this," or "I wanted to let you know that ____ is against regulations, so you don’t get in trouble."
- Keep things chill and friendly, and don’t get sucked into an argument. Don't raise your voice, and make it clear you’re not going to react with anger. This allows others to respond in kind. A smile goes a long way.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with seeking solitude or peace in the woods. Sometimes you just want to hike to decompress and you don’t want to engage with anyone. That is, of course, fine. We can’t be on all the time. We need the mental break that being on trail provides. It’s possible the people you’re sharing the trail with are seeking the same break you are. So when you’re out enjoying the restorative qualities of nature, try not to put out negative emotions that can impact both your personal well-being and the well-being of those around you.
WTA believes that hiking can create stewards and advocates out of trail users. But that change doesn’t come simply from experiencing a beautiful mountain lake or bagging a peak. It takes kindness from seasoned hikers and advocates demonstrating that being a hiker isn’t just about walking in the woods. It’s about caring for the environment and being compassionate to the people you share the trail with.