Trail etiquette: 8 rules to remember while exploring Michigan's great outdoors

We asked parks professionals for tips on how to respect natural areas as well as the people (and animals!) we share them with. 
This article is part of Inside Our Outdoors, a series about Southeast Michigan's connected parks, greenways, and trails and how they affect residents' quality of life. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance.

When Michigan went into lockdown last year, people began flocking to outdoor spaces like never before. 

"We went from 150 [visitors] a week to one month when we had over 900. It was incredible," recalls Linda Moran, trail manager of the Polly Ann Trail in Oakland County. 
A hiker on the Polly Ann Trail.
This summer, as the state opens back up, many of those who turned to the outdoors during the pandemic are coming back for more. But other users, park staff, and the trails and park amenities themselves feel the impact.

"It's awesome to see," reports Jennifer Etienne, unit manager of Proud Lake Recreation Area in Commerce Township. "It's just important that we educate people, and [that] people educate themselves — like any new hobby you're taking up." 

What should park-goers be mindful of as they lace up their shoes to hit the trails? We asked four parks professionals for their tips on how to respect these natural areas as well as the people (and animals!) we share them with. 

1. Walk on the right.

"When you're walking, stay on the right of the trail, in the direction you're traveling," says Jamie Weasel, park supervisor at Independence Oaks in Clarkston. "Don't walk in the middle of the trail, or on the left."
Hikers on the Polly Ann Trail.
He also advises groups of more than two to get into single file if other users are coming from the opposite direction, so everyone can pass each other safely and comfortably.

"We have lots of regulars who are here all the time, and people who have never been here before," says Weasel. "Certain loops ... are multiple access, so we've got bikes and walkers and hikers." 
A cyclist at Independence Oaks.
The key to accommodating different user groups, he says, "is to make space and share."

When you're approaching a fellow hiker from behind, Moran says, "Let everybody know where you are. That makes it easier for everyone — just respectfulness."

2. Consider visibility.

"If you're on any type of motorized apparatus, make sure you're being seen," says Nancy Winzer, St. Clair County parks director. "Wear reflective gear, and keep at a safe speed. Our trails are packed. I've seen golf carts, horses, runners, walkers. Say 'excuse me,' 'to the left,' or 'passing.' If you have a bell on your bike, use it to tell people that you're coming. If you don't warn people, they don't know you're coming." 

3. Leave no trace.

"We live by the motto 'leave no trace.' As simple as it sounds, it's so important," Etienne says. "When you come out to visit a park, there should be no indication that you were there whatsoever. So even something as small as a cigarette butt — if you throw that on the ground, you've left a trace. It makes everybody's life easier, the public and our staff, if you just take out what you bring in, or throw it in the receptacles. ... Not only does our staff have to pick it up, but everyone else who visits the park is indirectly impacted by that as well."

The same applies to foraging and "bushwhacking." Parks professionals ask that you admire the wildflowers, but don't pick them. Foraging is not allowed in the park, nor is making your own trail.

"We want to keep some of the wild space wild," says Weasel.

4. Keep your dog on a 6-foot leash.
Hikers at Independence Oaks.
"We have a lot of guests who come out here trail-walking with dogs," says Weasel. "They have to be on a leash that's six feet or shorter. We have people with a 20-foot leash where the dog can run, and get up in other groups, or get in the way of bikers. We provide dog waste bags throughout the park, and ask that people pick up after their pet, and keep things clean for other guests of the park." 

5. Learn about your surroundings. 

"Educate yourself on what type of trail it is, whether it's a strict hiking trail, or a multi-use trail. That way you can keep in mind what other users you may potentially see when you're hiking," says Etienne. 

Some trails are for walkers only; others are open to hikers and mountain bikers. Moran says her and her colleagues' "biggest challenge" is raising awareness of the many types of users on the Polly Ann Trail, which include not only cyclists and walkers, but also horseback riders.
The Polly Ann Trail.
"People who don't have horses don't understand that they get very skittish if they get startled," she says. "Our goal is to educate people. Horses aren't like dogs. They're up high, they can't see — it's tough for them. So we try to get people to see that horses need some special attention."

Horses aren't the only large animals visitors may encounter.

"From time to time, we do have cows on the trail," says Moran. "About once or twice a summer, I get a call: 'Do you know there are cows all over the trail?' Then you go out there and the farmer and his son are wrangling the cows back into the field." 

She notes that all users – including cows – love the trail.

6. Volunteer. 

In addition to cleaning up after yourself, you can always volunteer to help keep the trails in top-notch condition. Managers of the Polly Ann Trail, which is 16.9 miles long, pay a company to mow the trail's acreage three times a year. 

"All the other mowing, which we do weekly, is done by volunteers. We just go out there and hustle it," says Moran. 

In addition to mowing, volunteers clear trees and remove invasive species like buckthorn, bittersweet, and autumn olive from the trail.

7. Plan ahead.

"You might think, 'I'm just going out for a walk,' [and that] you wouldn't need to do any background research," says Etienne. "People get out there, don't look at the terrain beforehand, and then we'll get calls: 'I'm lost in the woods, and I don't know where I am.'" 
A trail map at Independence Oaks.
This step of preparation will help you determine appropriate footwear and what sort of vehicle pass you will need to get into the recreation area. Bring water, snacks, sunscreen, and bug spray as needed. And don't forget to grab a map from the park office, if one is available, or check posted maps to plan your route before hitting the trail.

8. Be mindful and friendly.

With massive increases in park use since the pandemic began, Winzer stresses that being mindful of other trail users is the bottom line. 

"With COVID, just be mindful of other people. Have a mask in your pocket," Winzer advises. "I love going on the trail and talking to other people while walking and riding my bike. Just being friendly to other people is awesome." 
Cyclists on the Polly Ann Trail.
Most park websites publish their rules and regulations, which you can read before your visit. The Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance also offers a list of trail etiquette guidelines. 

Last, but not least: have fun! 

"Come on out and enjoy it," says Moran. "And if you have a couple hours to mow, I have a job for you!"

Jeanne Hodesh is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor, where she covers small business, food, and culture. She holds an MFA from Hunter College. Her essays and articles have appeared in Lenny Letter, The Hairpin, and Time Out New York, among other publications.

Photos by Steve Koss.
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