Thru-Hiking ethics

Style = Your Relationship to the Backcountry

When hikers talk about their "backpacking style," it usually refers to pack weight and gear preferences. However, there is no right or wrong pack weight, despite the amount of time, book pages, and gigabytes spent arguing about it. What you carry is a matter of personal preference. Hike your own hike. So let’s redefine “style” and make it about the hiker’s relationship with the backcountry.

How do you view the relationship between yourself and the backcountry? Is it harmonious or antagonistic? How does that view change your behavior while you are hiking and camping?


For so-called “survivalists” the backcountry is a menacing place, filled with threats, almost as if the land was actively trying to kill them. Their emphasis on “survival” implies they are at war with the natural world, and they even use manuals written for soldiers in wartime like the US Army Survival Manual and the SAS Survival Guide. During a walk around BassPro Shops, you might think they were outfitting customers for guerrilla warfare, not camping and fishing trips.


On the other hand, our editors believe that human activity threatens the land, and advocate a low impact, low profile backpacking style.


For example, we would never leave a scar on the land by trenching a tent, as the Boy Scouts taught in the past. We don’t even light campfires, since collecting firewood tramples the forest understory, robs the land of valuable decomposing wood, and leaves a charred scar on the land that persists for years. Wind blows ash and coals from fire pits across campsites. Unethical hikers treat fire pits like garbage cans, leaving trash behind and expecting someone else to burn it.


We try very hard to leave the backcountry as good or better than we found it. And basic preparation prevents survival situations from ever occurring. We hike and camp because we love the outdoors, and so we should be working to protect and preserve the outdoors in perpetuity.

Treatment of the Footpath

This Sierra meadow has been scarred by the accumulative effect of hikers walking next to the PCT, rather than on it
This Sierra meadow has been scarred by the accumulative effect of hikers walking next to the PCT, rather than on it

Walk in the Mud

Rainfall and snowmelt can and will make the trail muddy. When that happens, stay on the trail and walk in the mud. Never, ever try to keep your feet dry or less muddy by walking next to the trail. All that does is trample plants and erode the soil until a new path appears. That second path becomes muddy like the first and then hikers walk along side it, creating yet another path. In the picture to the right you can see how a meadow in the Sierras has been scarred by thoughtless hikers. That is not a vehicle path — it's a double track created by hikers trying to keep mud off their boots.


This is much more of a problem in the West than in Appalachia: plants grow back slowly because of the short winter growing season, the sandy soil is prone to erosion, and alpine plants are very fragile.


Never Cut a Switchback

While the Appalachian Trail likes to take you straight up and down a mountain, the PCT prefers long winding switchbacks. This prevents erosion, but also makes the hike longer. All along the PCT you will see evidence of impatient hikers who decided to go straight down a hillside rather than follow a lengthy switchback. This short-cutting creates serious erosion problems, harming both the hillside and the Trail itself.


Once a cut-trail is created, inexperienced hikers may think it is official trail, follow it, and unwittingly contribute to it. Conscientious hikers can stop this process. When you see damage caused by switchback cutters, take a moment to find fallen branches or big rocks and stack them across the cut-trails to block them off. If available, place long branches lengthwise along the PCT's edge to help define the course of the PCT and make it clear that the cut-trail is not a legitimate alternative route.

Always Close Gates Behind You

Occasionally on the PCT you will come across a gate. And many times these "gates" are the most ramshackle things you've ever seen, like this jury-rigged assemblage of barbed wire and branches pictured to the right. Regardless of how ridiculous they look, it is important that you always close the gate behind you in order to keep cattle where they belong.

Treatment of Other Hikers

  • When offered food, never put your hand into a bag of food. Let the person pour it into your open palm. This prevents the spread of infections and disease.
  • When two hikers going in opposite directions meet, give the person going downhill the right-of-way. They may have momentum that’s hard to stop, and it gives the uphill person an opportunity to break.

Giving & Receiving Trail Names

Trail names are a unique tradition in thru-hiking. There are no rules about how to get a trail name or what it should be but questions come up. First-time thru-hikers can be confused about etiquette, so we decided to answer some common questions here: 

Can I Name Myself?

Typically hikers do not name themselves, but sometimes they do. For whatever reason, more women name themselves than men. Most hikers wait to earn a name organically through some incident, that way there is a story associated with the name. Couples often name each other.

Do I Have to Take a Trail Name?

You can always reject a trail name if you don’t like it. And of course, you don't have to have a trail name if you don't want one.

How Do I Give Someone a Trail Name?

Respectfully, and only after becoming friends with the person. Do not aggressively try to give someone a trail name. Just because someone does not have a trail name yet doesn’t mean they need one immediately. Trail names should happen organically, and have a story behind them. Too often someone ends up with a name like “Trash Bag” because they happened to have a trash bag during the first week of the hike. 

Should I Keep My Old Trail Name?

If you got a trail name on another trail, you can use it on the PCT. Keeping an old name makes it easy for friends from other trails to follow your blog, et cetera. Of course, if you want a new trail name, you can wipe the slate clean and start fresh. 

While in Town

Hikers around the country have embraced something called Leave No Trace +Plus. We think of leaving no trace while in the wilderness, but we should also "leave no trace" when staying in towns along the trail. In the same way we want to leave our campsites clean for the next people who use the site, we should also leave behind goodwill in the towns where we stay.


Arrogant, drunken, or other obnoxious behavior from one hiker can leave behind a wake of bad feelings in townspeople, who then treat the next hiker who comes along with disdain.

Treatment of Trail Angels

Unlike the AT, there isn't much trailside trail magic. The PCT is even more remote than the AT, there are fewer thru-hikers, and they are spread out over greater distances. These factors all contribute to the absence of trailside trail magic. Very few, if any, trail angels hang out near the trail cooking burgers. However, in PCT towns there are many many more people who let hikers sleep in their homes. 


Always be respectful of someone who lets you stay at their house. Unless they explicitly give you the green light, don't light up a cigarette or a bowl. Don't get drunk. Don't invite other hikers over to hang out, and don't stay up late making noise. Always offer to do the dishes, clean the kitchen, or help with some other household chore. 


You should offer them money, even if it is only a few dollars. You can bring up the subject with a joke like, "Do you have a tip jar?" In a few towns there are "professional" trail angels who advertise on notices posted near road crossings. They typically ask for a "donation." Twenty dollars is standard. Non-professionals will not accept your money, usually, but it is respectful to offer.

On Hiker "Entitlement"

While perusing facebook and other message boards we have seen long-time trail angels or someone who thru-hiked decades ago complain of hiker “entitlement.” These curmudgeons claim that hikers today are different from hikers in the past (when they first got involved with the Trail). Supposedly today’s hikers expect that people will do things for them and give them free stuff just because they are a thru-hiker, which awards them special status. However, after a decade of thru-hiking our editors have never seen a thru-hiker behaving as if they were spoiled or entitled because they were thru-hiking.


These online complaints is hard to see as anything more than an older generation judging the younger as unworthy. Every generation has judged the one that followed them as inferior, and entitlement  is a consistent criticism. The WWII generation called the Boomers entitled, who then labeled GenXers as entitled, and now Millennials are receiving criticism for supposed entitlement. The same thing seems to be happening in the trail community.

Leave No Trace

By now, everyone knows the expression "leave no trace" even if they cannot name the seven principles from memory. Below are the principles as outlined on the Leave No Trace website.

1. Plan Ahead and Prepare

  -  Know the regulations and special concerns for the area you'll visit.
  -  Prepare for extreme weather, hazards, and emergencies.
  -  Schedule your trip to avoid times of high use.
  -  Visit in small groups when possible. Consider splitting larger groups into smaller groups.
  -  Repackage food to minimize waste.
  -  Use a map and compass to eliminate the use of marking paint, rock cairns or flagging.


2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

  -  Durable surfaces include established trails and campsites, rock, gravel, dry grasses or


  -  Protect riparian areas by camping at least 200 feet from lakes and streams.

  -  Good campsites are found, not made. Altering a site is not necessary.


    In popular areas

     -  Concentrate use on existing trails and campsites.

     -  Walk single file in the middle of the trail, even when wet or muddy.

     -  Keep campsites small. Focus activity in areas where vegetation is absent.


    In pristine areas

     -  Disperse use to prevent the creation of campsites and trails.

     -  Avoid places where impacts are just beginning.


3. Dispose of Waste Properly

  -  Pack it in, pack it out. Inspect your campsite and rest areas for trash or spilled foods. Pack

     out all trash, leftover food, and litter.

  -  Deposit solid human waste in catholes dug 6 to 8 inches deep at least 200 feet from water,

     camp, and trails. Cover and disguise the cathole when finished.

  -  Pack out toilet paper and hygiene products.

  -  To wash yourself or your dishes, carry water 200 feet away from streams or lakes and use

     small amounts of biodegradable soap. Scatter strained dishwater.


4. Leave What You Find

  -  Preserve the past: examine, but do not touch, cultural or historic structures and artifacts.

  -  Leave rocks, plants and other natural objects as you find them.  

  -  Do not build structures, furniture, or dig trenches.


5. Minimize Campfire Impacts

  -  Campfires can cause lasting impacts to the backcountry. Use a lightweight stove for

     cooking and enjoy a candle lantern for light.

  -  Where fires are permitted, use established fire rings, fire pans, or mound fires.

  -  Keep fires small. Only use sticks from the ground that can be broken by hand.

  -  Burn all wood and coals to ash, put out campfires completely, then scatter cool ashes.


6. Respect Wildlife

  -  Observe wildlife from a distance. Do not follow or approach them.

  -  Never feed animals. Feeding wildlife damages their health, alters natural behaviors, and

     exposes them to predators and other dangers.

  -  Protect wildlife and your food by storing rations and trash securely.

  -  Control pets at all times, or leave them at home.

  -  Avoid wildlife during sensitive times: mating, nesting, raising young, or winter.


7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors

  -  Respect other visitors and protect the quality of their experience.

  -  Be courteous. Yield to other users on the trail.

  -  Take breaks and camp away from trails and other visitors.

  -  Let nature's sounds prevail. Avoid loud voices and noises.