Trail Etiquette: Off-Road Running Rules

Trail Etiquette: Off-Road Running Rules

Surrounded by nature and beautiful views, hitting the trails is one of the best ways to get outside and get in a great workout, or give your fitness routine a boost. However, the path you choose to take isn’t the only thing you need to follow – there are rules you should be following as well. 

In fact, trail etiquette is an important part of off-road running and essential to ensuring everyone you share the trail with has the best experience possible. If you’ve ever wondered who has the right-of-way, when to pass, or if it’s okay to play music, then this manual of proper trail manners is sure to come in handy!

Right-of-Way Trail Guide

Say you’re cruising along and suddenly come upon another trail user – uh-oh. Should you pass first or let them go ahead? What if you’re both traveling in the same direction? Or, what if the trail user has four legs instead of two, or two wheels instead of legs? Don’t worry, you’ve got this! Avoid an awkward standoff by following these passing protocols and right-of-way rules:

Two runners stretching by trail marker

Fellow Runners

When running solo and coming upon a group, think of it this way: it’s easier for you to move aside and let them pass than vice versa, so it makes sense that in this circumstance you would yield to the group and give them the right-of-way. 

On a hilly route? Trail users going uphill are typically concentrating on the steps they're taking directly in front of themselves. They’re also fighting gravity and tend to have a narrower field of vision than those heading down. Therefore, the uphillers are given the right-of-way. Simply step to the side and wait for them to pass before you proceed downhill. The only exception to this is if those going up decide to stop and take a breather. In that case, you can continue downward and be the first to pass.  

Ah, but what if you’re heading the same way? When you approach someone moving in the same direction but at a slower pace, be sure to announce yourself so as not to startle the person. If possible, wait until the trail widens before politely asking if you can pass, then give them time to move over. Conversely, if someone is coming up behind you, you’ll be the one doing the stepping aside.


The old adage of “pedestrians have the right-of-way” normally rings true if you’re sharing the trail with a biker. But, since it’s easier for someone on foot to quickly step out of the way and let the faster-moving biker go by, the rule here is often flip flopped. Yielding to bikers instead of the other way around also tends to be safer for all involved, especially if the encounter takes place on a hill.


Sometimes you might run into horses on trails and no surprise here – they have the right-of-way! They are large, slow-moving, startle easily, and can lose their footing on trail surfaces, so the safest thing to do is give them plenty of space to pass and don’t make any abrupt movements. If you’re going the same direction, announce yourself just as you would with a person so the rider is aware, then give them a wide berth as you move ahead (making sure to watch where you step of course!).

Remember, in all circumstances, passing on the trail is the same as driving a car: keep to the right, pass on the left.

Woman passing a slower runner while trail running

Common Courtesy on the Trail

A considerate trail user realizes the trail is being shared with others – other people as well as other habitats and species of wildlife. It’s vital to keep this top of mind along your journey so as not to disturb anyone or anything. Here are a couple of rules to run by so that everyone, including Mother Earth, remains happy: 

Stay the Course

Even if you’re tired and spot a shortcut, be sure to stay on the trail. This is for your own protection as well as that of the surrounding environment. If muddy patches or puddles are in your way, we hate to tell you, but the proper thing to do is jump over them or trudge on through. Going around and off the side of the trail can widen it and cause damage. This is a perfect example of when water resistant shoes and quick-drying socks really pay off!

Keep it Down

No matter how entertaining your story is, or how much you love a particular song, the runner ahead of you likely doesn’t want to hear it! That means, if you’re with a friend or group or get a mid-run phone call, keep your conversations low. And if you want to listen to music, that’s cool – just be sure to use headphones. It’s best to use only one earbud or a pair that allows you to still be aware of your surroundings. That way, you’re not disturbing others trying to connect with nature, but are still able to know if a biker (or something with claws and teeth!) is approaching. Speaking of claws and teeth…  

Dog with trail and field in background

Doggie Do’s and Don’ts

Not even your pooch is exempt from the rules of the trail! If your furry friend is joining you on a run, always make sure you choose a dog-friendly trail and abide by its leashing rules. If dogs are allowed off-leash, they should still be kept under your control and within sight. Keep in mind that not everyone is a dog lover and, in fact, some people are afraid of them. It’s  important to be respectful and keep your dog close if you happen to come upon another person. 

Lastly, just as with people, dogs should stay on the path, away from wildlife and foliage, and be cleaned up after if Mother Nature calls. Sorry, but leaving the baggie is a big no-no. Which brings us to perhaps the most epic of all trail rules: carrying out what you carry in and leaving nothing but footprints behind!  

Leaving the Trail Without a Trace

For everyone to enjoy the trail, it’s imperative that the only thing taken is pictures and the only thing left behind are the tread marks from your shoes. Whatever you carry along with you on your run, make sure you carry it off with you when you’re done. That includes wrappers, fruit pits and peels, tissues – everything! Even if things are biodegradable, decomposition can take quite a while, and in the meantime, what you discard can detract from the natural beauty of the trail as well as put wildlife in harm’s way. Don’t be that person!

Man smiling while trail running

Mind Your Trail Running Manners and Have Fun!

Most trail running etiquette comes down to common sense, good judgment, and of course, respect – for the trail and for those using it. Once you have these off-road rules down you’ll not only enjoy the trail even more, but help others enjoy it too! 

Need trail gear or help finding fun trails to run? Gazelle Sports is here for you! For trail shoes, apparel, tips, trail recommendations and more, connect with us online or visit us in store at one of our convenient locations (please and thank you).

Back to blog