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The Essential Guide to

Overland Travel

In the United States and Canada

A resource for Independent Travel and Camping

Book excerpt - Chapter 14 - Trail Etiquette Common sense rules for playing well with others on the trail

IMPORTANT NOTE: This chapter is copyrighted material. The contents of this chapter is shared because it provides a uniform set of guidelines for behavior while on the trail. It may only be reproduced following the conditions set in the press page. Please respect the author's rights.


Chapter 14

Setting common expectations

People always seem to work together and get along best when they have a common set of expectations. Over the years a set of etiquette guidelines have come into common use to help people travel and drive together harmoniously. Most of these are common sense safety and politeness guidelines, while others have grown out of increased land usage and the need to minimize overall impact on the land. With ever increasing pressures placed upon delicate ecosystems it is every traveler's responsibility to minimize their impact if we wish to continue using the land. Knowing and practicing trail etiquette allows us to travel together in greater safety, minimize conflict between drivers, and minimize negative impact on the world through which we travel.

Don't bring a vehicle that is not trail worthy out on the trail

People traveling together naturally need to look out for one another and lend a hand when someone gets stuck or breaks down. A breakdown caused by a poorly maintained vehicle is guaranteed to irritate your traveling companions who would much rather be out enjoying the trail than helping you fix overdue maintenance items while on the trail. Doing this is a good way to lose your welcome on future group trips. Mechanical breakdowns can create dangerous situations for yourself and your traveling companions. If your vehicle is not ready for the trail do not put it on the trail.

Never leave a disabled vehicle or a person behind

When a vehicle breaks down or gets stuck everyone in the group is responsible for getting it going back on the trail and not leaving it behind. This can mean lending tools, parts, or helping with the work. If the vehicle cannot be repaired in the field it means towing the stricken vehicle to a place where a tow truck can reach it and then staying with the vehicle until it is recovered. Sometimes this means sending a vehicle out for additional parts while others wait with the stricken vehicle. This may feel like a big imposition but vehicles left behind tend to get stripped and vandalized. People left behind can find themselves in a life threatening situation. We depend upon each other for everyone's safety. If it is your vehicle that is stricken remember you are the primary person responsible for fixing it and any help you get is purely a moral obligation. Be sure to offer to pay for any parts others contribute and to be appreciative all around.

Don't leave a group without letting others know

If you choose to stop along the trail without the group be sure that the trail leader is aware of your plans to leave the group, where you are planning to go, and when you expect to return. If you do get into trouble others will know that you are overdue and where you were going. Missing people and vehicles tend to elicit an emergency response. No one wants to call search and rescue because you decided to make a detour and did not bother to tell anyone.

Be at a group start point on time and ready to go

When you say you are going to meet a group to start a trail ride or to convoy someplace make a point of being there on time and ready to go. If there is a problem that may prevent you from being on time contact someone else in the group and let them know. Groups often tend to wait a while for missing members but no one wants to wait an hour or two because you decided not to come at the last minute or stopped for breakfast and didn't bother to tell anyone.

When you are with a group and camping overnight it is your responsibility to learn the time that the group intends to move out the next morning before turning in for the night. Next morning be sure to have your gear loaded and your vehicle ready for the trail at the appointed time.

Inform others of medical conditions

If you have a medical condition that could possibly cause a problem on the trail make sure the trail leader and anyone else in your vehicle knows what the condition is and how to assist you in case you need help. The trail leader should be made aware of your condition before the start of a trip. You are responsible for bringing along any special medication or aids that you might need and for informing others as to its location and how to administer it in case you are incapacitated.

Stay on the trail

Always stay on existing trails. This is an important ecological consideration because blazing a new trail can cause local environmental damage and start erosion. Going off existing trails provides ecological protective groups with ammunition to have an area closed to vehicle traffic. It can cause property owners to refuse passage to future vehicles and is against the law on many public lands.

Vehicle travel off a trail can harm delicate ecosystems. This is especially true of established desert areas where plants can die from water loss if a major branch is broken off. Your off trail travel can harm wildlife habitats. Tire tracks in soft soil can become a source of erosion during a storm. Blazing a new trail will encourage future travelers to take your route and further affect the land you drove over.

Avoid creating an obstacle bypass if at all possible. If your vehicle can get through an obstacle go through it. Look for an existing alternate route if the obstacle is too much for your vehicle. Do not create short cuts between sections of a trail.

Respect others using the same trail

While on a trail you may meet others on the same trail. Never insist on the right of way and never do anything that might put their safety in jeopardy. If a group of vehicles are overtaking you from the rear pull over at the nearest safe wide spot in the trail and let them pass. If you encounter vehicles coming from the front slow down and give them space to pass by. If one party needs to back up the safest way is for the vehicles going downhill to be the ones who back up. It is easy to lose control when backing down hill. If you meet hikers slow down to five mph (8 km/h) and give them as wide a berth as possible. If they are walking towards you on a narrow trail consider stopping until they are safely past.

If encountering horse riders moving in your direction pull to the edge of the trail, stop and turn off your engine. Horses spook easily at noises and unfamiliar sights. If you are going in the same direction as the horses stop, get out and ask the riders how you can safely pass. They know their horses temper and can get safely off the trail so you can slowly pass by.

You should slow for bike riders and if the trail is narrow stop and let oncoming riders pass. When entering or passing through a campground you want to slow to five mph (8 km/h) and keep a sharp lookout for children or pets that might dash out in front of you. Keep your dust down and your noise at a minimum. Respect the rights of others and treat them with courtesy.

If you encounter unattended livestock on the trail slow to five mph (8 km/h) and stop if you need to give them time to move out of your way. Do not try to shoo them away with your horn or by gunning your engine. Animals can be unpredictable and if frightened may run into your immediate path and not away from your vehicle.

When traveling in a group you are responsible for the vehicle behind you making the correct choice at all trail intersections.

If the vehicle behind you is out of sight when you reach a trail intersection wait at or just past the intersection until you can see the other vehicle and you are sure that they see you before continuing. Keep them in view until you are sure they have made the correct choice. If they go off in the wrong direction it is your responsibility to chase them down and get them back on the proper route. It behooves you to make sure they see you and make the proper choice at a trail fork.

The leading vehicle and the last vehicle in the group should maintain radio communication

Being able to communicate with others in your group adds another dimension to group travel and aids in group safety. The lead vehicle can warn followers about oncoming traffic, obstacles, or trail forks. The tail end vehicle can let the lead vehicle know if there is a problem with one of the following vehicles so the lead vehicle can stop the group.

Leave gates as you found them

Much of the BLM grasslands are used for livestock grazing and sometimes trails pass through private lands. Always make a point of leaving any gate you travel through in the position you found it unless there is signage that states otherwise.

Never press a vehicle in front of you to take an obstacle faster than the driver is comfortable with

Remember each of us have different skill levels and different vehicles may have different capabilities. What is safe for one may well be unsafe for another. Never pressure a driver to take an obstacle faster than they feel is safe.

Don't be shy about examining an obstacle before going through it

If you have any concerns about an obstacle in front of you or which approach to take through an obstacle pull over, get out, and take a look at it. If there is someone behind you who wants to pass, let them through but do not let anyone bully you through an obstacle faster than you feel is safe. Conversely if someone in front of you feels the need to look over an obstacle, they are doing it for safety and not to slow you down. Not everyone has the same skills and not every vehicle has the same capabilities. The ultimate goal is to arrive at your chosen destination safely and with your vehicle intact.

If at second try you don't succeed, try something different

When you attempt an obstacle and do not make it through it is easy to get into the mind set of trying the same approach over and over again. Never try the same unsuccessful approach more than twice. If you did not come close to making it through the first time don't try it the same way a second time. Repeating unsuccessful attempts at an obstacle is probably the single most common cause of drive train and suspension damage. It is best to stop, reassess the obstacle, and come up with a different tactic.

This is a good time to pull your vehicle out of the way and let someone else in your group tackle the obstacle. Often watching another vehicle go through provides you with insight that will allow you to get through as well. Never be afraid of what people might think if you ask to get winched through or take an established bypass. Good sense beats a broken vehicle in the middle of a trail every time.

Don't attempt an obstacle if someone else is still driving through it.

There should never be two vehicles transversing an obstacle at the same time. If there is another vehicle making its way through an obstacle from the other direction stop and wait for the other vehicle to complete the obstacle before proceeding. Even if you think it is safe to pass the other vehicle part way through you will cause the other driver concern and you may be placing your vehicle into the other vehicle's intended path fouling their attempt.

Never follow a vehicle up a steep climb until after it has cleared the ascent. You do not want to be part way up when the vehicle ahead of you fails the climb. Failed ascents commonly end up with uncontrolled or barely controlled rapid rollbacks. If you are next in line waiting for the climb keep well back unless you wish your vehicle to become a back stop for a run away vehicle. If you are outside your vehicle watching a climb from the bottom stay well out of the way of likely rollback or tumble paths.

Once you have cleared an obstacle get well out of the area that following vehicles may need

If, after clearing an obstacle you decide to stop and watch the vehicles behind you attempt the obstacle park well out of the way with adequate space for everyone behind you to drive past and stop.

Make sure at least one other person in the group who is not with you knows where you are at all times

Accidents happen and people can get lost. If you are going off on your own, make sure others know your intended path and when to expect your return. Carry a whistle with you. Whistles can be heard from a great distance. Three short blasts is the standard emergency signal. If you are traveling alone and leave your vehicle for a hike leave a note on your vehicle with the time you left, your expected route and your expected time of return. It would be a great help to anyone who has to search for you. If you are leaving the group make sure someone in the group, preferably the group leader, is aware you are leaving and of your intended plans.

Sign any registers that you encounter

Trailside registers help search and rescue trace you in case you do not return when expected or if there is an emergency which requires them to evacuate an area. There is usually a space for comments next to the name and date line. Your expected route and date you intend to complete it would help people find you in case of emergency.

Fill in deep mud ruts

If you create deep wheel ruts in a muddy section of a trail or dirt road you should consider stopping and filling them in. Especially if you got stuck and needed to dig your vehicle out of the mud. If the trail or road is deep mud all the way consider using an alternate route. Creating deep ruts in a dirt public road is a good way to get the road closed during the rainy season. Creating deep ruts on a trail on public lands is a good way to get that trail closed to vehicular traffic. Think first and avoid contributing to closures.


These are all common sense rules of behavior that when taken together represent a way to minimize potential problems with people you travel with or meet on a trail, minimize issues with land owners, and agencies while helping keep you safe and your vehicle intact.

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