Dear Miss Trail Manners

Dear Miss Trail Manners,

I’ve been running, hiking, biking, and using trails for over thirty years.  Over time, I’ve considered myself a contentious and polite trail steward who respected the unwritten “rules” and manners we all use in order to share the space.  But recently I came across something and need your help.

Here’s what I know, and of course, these all depend on circumstances: 

  • For cyclists, I usually use the gravity rule and cede to whoever is coming downhill. Unless it’s a no-bike trail, then I hold my ground and give ’em stink face.
  • For runners, if someone is working harder than I am, I’ll get out of their way, step to the side of the single track, and let them pass either way. Otherwise, it really comes down to who has more room to get over and who does it first.
  • Equestrians command a wide berth, and I give it to them. At first site of a horse, I slow to a stop, and ask in a voice loud enough for the rider to hear, but not loud enough to startle the giant animal, “what do you want me to do?”, and they usually step aside or ask me to walk past them. They’ve got a huge animal and get their way with me every time.
  • When I’ve come across hunters, they’ve made themselves known to me and generally let me know it’s so-and-so season and to be safe. That’s my cue to get the heck out of the area.

But this week I encountered a group and didn’t know “the rules.”  That group was birdwatchers. Who has “the right of way” when trail runners and birdwatchers are sharing space and what would you have done in my situation?

I was running single track and noticed a few people with scopes and cameras in a clearing (maybe 50m away) over to the right side of the trail I was using. They were looking at a bird up in a tree that was on the left side of the trail. I slowed down and tried to figure it out, hoping they’d notice me and wave me through or silently tell me to hold up while they do whatever it is birdwatchers do. Unfortunately, they were too focused to notice me.

If I’d run through, I’m assuming I would’ve scared whatever was up in that tree, ruining whatever work they’d put into finding that species. Likewise, if I’d shouted over to them and asked them for guidance, I’m guessing the sound of my voice would’ve had the same effect. Scampering around them and rustling about bushes didn’t seem like an appropriate tactic either.

Is there a generally accepted practice to sharing trails with birdwatchers? If so, what is it? Do you know any who could offer their opinions? What should I have done, and how would you have handled the situation?


Chick on the Trail in California.


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