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Two hikers walking down a trail in midsummer.

Runners, Bikers, Hikers, and Horses: Who has the right of way?

As the busy season approaches for trail lovers of all kinds, now is the perfect time to brush up on trail etiquette. Trail etiquette is not only for your safety, but for the safety and enjoyment of others and the environment you’re recreating in! The best part? Trail rules are ubiquitous no matter where you travel. If you hike, bike, trail run, or ride, keep reading for an easy to follow guide.

Rider on horseback in the mountains in a field of wildflowers.


Finding horseback riders on trails might not be as uncommon as you think depending on where you live. Horses are large animals that get spooked pretty easily. For the safety of riders, the horse, and yourself, horses always have the right of way.

Whether you are on a bike or on foot, please slow down and give ample space for them to pass. Horses can be the most unpredictable facet on a trail, so speaking and moving with a cool demeanor while in their presence is  best practice.

Group of mountain bikers riding down trail

MTB Bikers

For cyclists, folks going uphill will always have the right of way; getting off your bike mid hill is far more of a pain than getting off and on while going down hill (most of the time at least).

If you are looking to pass others on the way up, please be patient. We know, you’re just trying to catch up to friends or fit in a quick ride before work, but  know that passing others going the same direction as you takes some finesse. Because bikes take up more space on trails than those on foot, finding an appropriate area to pass is key and arguably the most difficult part.

Figuring out what is “appropriate” can be done by reading the trail to make sure both you and the rider you are passing have ample space so that neither of you will be pushed off trail.

Speaking of, try to avoid riding off trail. We know it’s tempting, but nature really does start on the edge of the trail. The space we recreate in is something we share with not only humans, but other critters that call that space home. Staying on trail is respectful to the environment you find yourself in and ensures fun and safety within it for years to come!

Two people running on the trail near the summit


The same rules apply to hikers and runners as do cyclists. First and foremost, who always has the right of way? Horses do. Next are the folks coming uphill.  Passing is generally easier on foot as you can get around others without the bulk that a bike brings.

If you’re passing another hiker or runner, announcing yourself with a “Hello,” and “On your right/left” is a good way to begin the shuffle.

Another situation you might encounter is a fellow runner/hiker who is moving faster than you. There is, perhaps, room here to feel discouraged or want to stay in front (for the ego’s sake!), but letting them pass is a courtesy to the both of you. Making room for them to get ahead helps them maintain their pace while also allowing you to go at your own speed without pressure. The outdoors are places to have fun and share the natural world around you, not compete.

Let’s Put it All Together! 

Scenario 1: A group of 5 cyclists are coming downhill while 1 singular trail runner is grueling uphill. Who has the right of way?

Answer: The lonely trail runner! Even though there are more cyclists to runners in this instance, the person coming uphill still has the right of way.

Scenario 2: Two hikers are coming uphill with a cyclist behind them. The cyclist knows the trail well, and therefore knows there is an opening a mile ahead where she can safely pass the hikers. The cyclist could pass now, but that would mean going off trail to get around the others. What should the cyclist do?

Answer: The cyclist has two options. She can either wait until the trail opens up, or politely call out to the hikers asking if she can go in front. Either option is viable and the second one will probably be most appreciated by the others.  Going off the trail is not recommended as this can lead to trail widening and destruction of certain ecosystems.

Scenario 3: You and a group of four friends are walking uphill on the trail while three bikers are coming downhill. Just as both groups are about to meet, you hear the galloping of hooves behind you and realize there are horses and riders quickly approaching. What does each group do?

Answer: The bikers should all stop before reaching the hikers (granted they can see them) and step to the side of the trail. The hikers should also step to the side before passing the bikers to let the horses and riders pass. After giving the horses some distance, the hikers should continue to pass the bikers, and the bikers should take off afterwards.


The rules of the trail are not always easy to follow. Singletracks and other trail nuances sometimes make doing the right thing difficult 100% of the time. A tight trail might force you further off to the side than you want to let the proper recreator pass. On the other hand, maybe you’ve just plain old forgotten and passed when it wasn’t your turn amongst all the fun. Things happen!

Group of hikers having fun

Sometimes, folks who have the right of way might insist you go ahead anyway. To this we say: Sweet (and also thank you, always thank you.) In that case, make sure to let them know how many, if any, are behind you. Simple phrases like “Just me,” or “Two behind!” are enough to warn people that they might be moving to the side again. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but a real courtesy that anyone who’s been passed on trail can appreciate.

For cyclists especially, having a bell is helpful for when you do have the chance to pass somebody in front of you. When the uphill grinds get hard enough, sometimes trying to formulate a sentence is the last thing you want to do. Bells are easy ways to signal to others ahead of you that you’re coming up fast and would like to pass.

It might seem like a lot, but if you can put them into practice on your next few hikes, we’re sure they’ll stick! Finally, we should mention that not everyone will know best practices, but you now have the opportunity to share this new found trail  info with friends and family who love the outdoors just as much as you!  Now get out there, be safe, and have fun!

Finola McDonald thinks bios are really hard but here is her best go: Finola is a runner, a writer, a climber, snack enthusiast, cat mom, and city lifer turned nature lover who loves getting people outside. She is a firm believer that time in Earth’s wild spaces is time best spent and we need it more than ever. She hopes by sharing her passion for our planet and outdoor recreation, she can convince others of the same. In her free time, you can find her touching cool rocks, running around SLC and the Wasatch, and trying her hardest to leave this earth better than when she entered it.

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