The Hiker's Code: National Park Edition

14 Do's and Don'ts for National Park Hiking


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America's national parks have seen record attendance numbers this year, which is totes awesome, but it also means more bodies and more boots tromping on our beloved hiking trails. What it comes down to? This. Only you can prevent forest fires. And erosion. And human poop on the side of the trail. Conserving America's exceptional wildness is up to us, so follow (and preach) these few tips to keep things pristine. And remember, these apply to every national park and hiking trail anywhere, not just in Utah's national parks. We don't think we're better than any other state. (Well, maybe just a little.)

1. Stay on the Trail

South Window at Arches National Park

(South Window at Arches National Park, photo courtesy of NPS)

Let’s start with the fundamentals. Footfalls have an obvious cumulative effect, and trails minimize the damage to vegetable and mineral alike. Stay in the middle of the trail and hike single-file if you’re in a group. You know that crusty black stuff that looks like dead moss on southern Utah’s red, sandy soil? It’s actually slow-growing cyanobacteria that helps stop erosion. Don’t squish it.

Cyanobacteria soil

(Biological soil crust - don't step on it!  Photo courtesy of Ann Whittaker)

2. Pets in the Park

In general, pets are only allowed in parking lots, in your car (a bad idea in the desert heat or a hot day anywhere), in most campgrounds and within 50 feet of the road — on a six-foot leash at all times.

Why so restrictive? Your dog may chase or scare wild animals, or leave a predator scent that lingers and disturbs the behavior of native species. It could trample vegetation off the trail. Also, some national park visitors just aren’t dog people.

Some parks are more lenient than others, so call ahead for specific pet policies. Or just find a kennel in town to board your pup while you take yourself for a walk.

3. Right-of-Way

Lest we forget. When hiking, in general, down-hillers yield to up-hillers, hikers yield to horses and bikers.

4. Littering: Don't Do It of Course

Don’t waste, you guys. (Remember that cool guy with the car and the dog in those commercials? Man, he hated litter.) This includes orange peels, sunflower seeds and the like. And it’s still your fault if the wind blows your plastic water bottle down a cliff. Bonus points for picking up lesser hikers’ litter.

5. Hold it Right There

Speaking of not letting things get away from you, do your best to avoid trailside potty breaks. 

A-plus hikers always use the toilets at the trailhead so they don’t get caught with their pants down, but if emergency strikes:

  1. Peeing a few paces from the trail is forgivable.
  2. Bring a plastic bag (or two) in case you have a problem that’s more… substantial. If you’re in a canyon or near a water source, pack your parcel out; otherwise, you still need to tote your TP but you can bury your BM in a 6-inch cat hole. Lucky you.

Sensitive wilderness areas may have more stringent rules so do your homework. (Fun conversation-starter with the ranger at the visitor center!)

6. Graffiti

Oh, golly sakes alive… [shakes head, pinches bridge of nose] Do you really need to be reminded not to carve your stupid, boring initials into signage, bathroom stalls or — horror of horrors — actual sandstone in an actual national park? You don’t, right? Okay, good.

Arches National Park

(Removing graffiti from sandstone walls in Arches National Park, photo courtesy of NPS)

(Graffiti on sandstone in Arches National Park, photo courtesy of NPS)

7. Can't Be Too Cairnful

Cairn in Capitol Reef National Park

(Cairn on hiking trail in Capitol Reef National Park, photo courtesy of Ann Whittaker)

This one’s tricky because cairns — those little stacks of rocks you sometimes see marking an otherwise vague section of a trail — are a nice, unobtrusive way to keep hikers on track. But if they start showing up every ten steps, they suddenly become… what? non-unobtrusive? Resist your decorator impulse and let the rangers handle the wayfinding.

Arches National Park

(Arches National Park - Park Avenue Trail, photo courtesy of NPS)

8. Leave What You Find

Are you noticing a theme? Just don’t mess stuff up. Leave no trace. “Leave only footprints, take only photographs,” etc. Your kid’s gonna want to take that rad stick/rock/leaf/rattlesnake he found with him in the car. It’s a great time to teach him the deeper joy of sacrificing some small pleasure for the greater good. Kids love sublimation!

9. National Parking

Finding a parking spot at the most popular trails can be tough, especially in the high season, but don’t park where you’re not supposed to. If it’s full, come back later. Do yourself (and the world) a favor and carpool or use the convenient shuttles if they're provided. Many national parks are very bike-able, too.

Arches National Park

(Entrance to Arches National Park, photo courtesy of NPS)

10. Obey Posted Signs

Because most of them are giving you great pointers about how to not die or how to not ruin something that took eons to make.

11. Tattle on Cheaters

Who ever said being a tattle-tale was a bad thing? That’s crazy. What deserves your loyalty: the delicate Jurassic rock formation, or the clown climbing on it? Make a note of dangerous or destructive behavior and tell a ranger. Snitch with pride, you goody two shoes boots.

12. Set an Example for the Kids

Respecting nature is like smoking cigarettes: If you can hook kids while they’re young, it’ll become a lifelong habit. Teach them the rules and follow them yourself. As always, they notice what you do more than what you say. Once your kids are on board, feel free to start publicly shaming your unsustainable friends. “Uh, don’t know if you know this, but that’s actually cyanobacteria…”

13. Dress for Success

This is more about savvy than etiquette, but be 30% more prepared than you think you need to be — always bring proper shoes, water, layers, a hat, water, sunscreen, water, snacks and sunscreen. Don’t be the one hiking Angels Landing in flip flops.

Arches National Park

(Fiery Furnace at Arches National Park, photo courtesy of NPS)

14. You Are Average!

The last, biggest rule of being a good steward of national parks and trails is believing that all the rules apply to you. Even the silly ones about not feeding bears. The national parks are exceptional. You are not.

Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.