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Trail Etiquette: Which Side is Which, and the Right of Way

We’re rolling into mid-March, which means, here in Colorado, spring has sprung… in between random snow storms.  And with the temperature rising some runners are starting to come out of their self-imposed winter hibernation, and brand new ones are beginning to hit the trail for the first time. But for those poor newly entranced souls the idea of just getting their sea legs is probably daunting enough. When you add in the fact that running is one of those activities that’s developed its own semisecret vocabulary and sets of rules and niceties you’re just expected to know, it can add an unsettling layer of self-consciousness to every step (and there are soooo many steps). So for once I’m turning aside from my constant bitching, moaning, and self-congratulatory victory laps to actually help. I’m working on a runner’s glossary to make our foreign language accessible to the uninitiated (or even for experienced runners to spot check a baffling new word or two), and, beginning with this post I’ll be checking in occasionally with short guides to some of the etiquette involved in running.

Let’s start with the most basic of basics. What part of the trail do you run on? Actually this one isn’t too hard, and a lot of trails even have signs outlining it, but running generally follows street traffic patterns. So more often than not you’re going to be on the right hand side of the trail, and pass people by swinging out to the left. Occasionally you’ll have to do some weaving because various self-important people don’t think this applies to them (or they’ve never considered it before and don’t have the pattern recognition to pick up on the problem) and will walk, run, bike, or, in extreme cases, lie down wherever the hell they like. Don’t be one of those people. Rarely will anyone attempt to correct you, but we will all start to secretly wish you harm. Grievous bodily harm. (The only exception to this rule I can think of is gonna apply to people with dogs. If you can’t keep your dog on the right hand side of the trail, stay with it wherever it ends up. It’s much better to be on the wrong side of the trail than stringing your leash all the way across it like a Home Alone-esque trip wire for everyone else to barrel through).

Who has the right of way? Usually whoever’s going fastest. If you’re on singletrack (i.e. trails wide enough for just one person) that means you’re going to have to make way for bikes and faster runners whenever they pop up, which often involves stepping off the trail so they can go by. But as long as the trail is wide enough to hold two people (or more) at once you shouldn’t have to get off. If you approach a group from behind it may feel rude to warn them you’re coming up by shouting something like “On your left” so they clear some space, but it is a commonly accepted practice. So if you’re not suffering from dire runner’s cotton mouth feel free to shout away. Likewise, if a group of people is charging at you taking up the whole trail, in theory (although admittedly not always in practice) they should leave some space for you to sidle by. Remember, your right to be on the trail supersedes their desire to be parallel to each other so they can chat. And the same goes in reverse, if you’re running with friends try and leave some space for people to get around your group. A lot of people traveling in crowds tend to assume it’s okay to spread out across the whole trail as long as they keep an eye out for incoming traffic, both in front of, and behind them. And etiquette wise, as a whole, we seem to have decided that’s fine. But where I run there’s often professional and Olympic bikers chugging along at 40+ miles per hour. You’re not going to spot people like that in time to move, so in the interest of safety (and yes, admittedly, convenience as well) my best advice is to just leave a gap.

The big exception to the fastest mover gets the right of way rule is on mountain trails. Even though the people coming down are generally going much faster, in most cases (and you’ll see signs at a lot of trails warning you about this) the people going up have the right of way under the theory that it’s harder to regain your momentum from a stop and start when going up then it is when going down. Of course there are exceptions to this too, particularly in races (like the Pikes Peak Marathon) but if you haven’t seen it posted as otherwise you’re usually safe assuming base rules apply.

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