Outdoor Etiquette: Respect Landowners

Here’s an outdoor etiquette tip for everyone. If you’re passing through someone’s land and are asked to stay on the trail, then please stay on the trail. This means you, and me, and everyone else.

Yesterday I went cross-country skiing locally with the family. The first half mile of the multi-use trail we followed passes through someone’s private property. Someone who was kind enough to allow the trail to pass through his working timberland and fields, to have the trailhead located across the road from his driveway. Thanks to him, one can access hundreds of acres for skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, and mountain biking. This is a gift.

Alongside one field the owner and local trail maintainers have posted multiple signs stating to keep on the trail and off the field. And yet, track upon track bypassed the trail, crossing the snowy field. (The large moose tracks were okay, I explained to my son. They live here.)

I know most outdoor enthusiasts are courteous and follow the rules, and this isn't about singling out any particular user group (no finger-pointing, please, unless it's at yourself). I simply want to call attention to how our individual actions affect others and ultimately our own opportunities for outdoor recreation.

When even one person disregards the rules it can make a bad impression, making relationships more contentious all around. "Oh, I hate how those hikers/climbers/mountain bikers/snowmobilers/ATV-ers/jugglers/whomever are always doing X…," we—or landowners—might think based on one experience.

This makes outdoor access harder to come by for all of us.

Many people are gracious enough to allow trails to pass through their lands. And many others work hard to achieve and protect that access. We are the beneficiaries. So, don’t throw that generosity away. Be courteous. Be respectful. Be a good neighbor. Stay on the trail, please.

Further resources: American Hiking Society, Access Fund, and Leave No Trace

Filed under: Outdoor Skills


1,663 reviewer rep
3,956 forum posts
January 11, 2009 at 11:42 a.m. (EST)

I could not agree more!!

The more we (society) abuse our liberties and privileges, they closer we draw to loosing them.

We must keep things in perspective and have a balanced approach to our outdoor activities, be courteous, respectful, thoughtful, and obey the rules.
More and more places are being closed to backcountry travel because of failure to follow rules or to practice LNT.

I personally feel we all have an obligation to help educate those new to outdoor activities in a friendly, encouraging way.
Lead them to educational materials, or websites like Trailspace, get them plugged in to networks of experienced outdoorsmen and outdoorsladies, of course.

My spell checker just freaked out so I'll quit now.

But Alicia could not be more right!! Kudos!

Bill S
4,419 reviewer rep
6,010 forum posts
January 11, 2009 at 2:34 p.m. (EST)

The Access Fund actively deals with access issues concerning climbing. Their website has a section on dealing with land owners and land managers. Climbing has the additional problem of perception as a high risk sport, raising concerns about liability issues (there have been lots of lawsuits).

Leave No Trace is something that I cannot emphasize too much - practice it ALWAYS!

Many land owners and land managers have serious (and well-justified) concerns about liability issues, especially here in California where people seem to be especially litigious. A friend ended up losing some land that had rocks that formed a good, easily accessible bouldering area when a person who was climbing without permission or the owner's knowledge fell from one of the higher rocks and ended up a paraplegic. Say what you will about it being general knowledge that climbing is a risk sport and any climber is (or should be) aware of the risks involved. The owner got sued (along with a couple organizations he belonged to), with a major piece of the settlement being that the land got donated to the city (or county, I forget which) for use as a park, and lots of signs being posted about the dangers of climbing. Since this land is on the San Francisco Peninsula, I suspect that it would be worth several million dollars even on today's market.


So, respect the landowner's rules, make sure you are being safe, and make sure you are practicing Leave No Trace. In the case Alicia describes, I would guess that the fields that she observed tracks of people going off-trail are used for raising crops during the non-snow seasons - the disregard of the off-trail users could well be costing the owner serious income.

Perry Clark
78 reviewer rep
440 forum posts
January 13, 2009 at 2:25 p.m. (EST)

A pair of thumbs up for this post. Way up. One of the quickest ways to lose access to fantastic wild areas is to abuse the privileges granted for pass-through by local landowners. Many landowners are extremely gracious and willing to overlook the occasional violation, but some have reached a point where even small abuses may cause them to retract the permission of passage.

Even if you're absolutely convinced that violating the "posted" signs or such won't matter in the smallest way, don't do it. Your actions may lead someone else to follow, with less care or more nefarious aims. And at the end of the day, it still is trespassing on another's property.

Treat private land like it's the owner's living room, proceeding only where/when invited, and acting as a guest should.

110 reviewer rep
762 forum posts
January 13, 2009 at 5:50 p.m. (EST)

I can't really add anything more than what has been said - except...

If things like this continue to happen, not only will more and more trails be closed to the public, but then, folks may be charged with trespassing, destruction of property etc. How hard is it to stay on the trail anyway? Learn to color within the lines kiddies!

Alicia MacLeay (Alicia)
848 reviewer rep
3,902 forum posts
January 15, 2009 at 8:44 p.m. (EST)

Thanks for all of the positive comments.

I was pretty annoyed when I saw this instance of disrespect, especially because I know how much work can go into getting trail permissions, conservation easements, and the like, from which we all benefit.

This is a simple case of having respect for others and the land and some common sense.

Chris in VT
0 reviewer rep
2 forum posts
January 18, 2009 at 3:37 p.m. (EST)

Excellent points!

It's important to note that in some areas you may be trespassing even when you are on the trail.

In VT, 80% of the 6,000+ miles of the incredible winter trails that we take for granted are on private land. VAST (Vermont Association of Snow Travelers), a non-profit private entity, maintains the trails. Local clubs affiliated with VAST obtain permission from landowners to allow VAST members to use the trails.

Per the VAST website:
"VAST trails are for winter use only! Permission to use snowmobile trails does not extend to use of these trails by ATVs, four-wheelers, motor or mountain bikes, hiking or other uses, unless specifically authorized. A VAST trail is a trail only during the snow season; any other use will be considered trespassing."


1,663 reviewer rep
3,956 forum posts
January 19, 2009 at 10:01 p.m. (EST)

Hi Chris in VT,

Are the VAST trails posted as being closed during the warmer months? I understand you have to be a VAST member to use them at all, right?

Chris in VT
0 reviewer rep
2 forum posts
January 21, 2009 at 8:28 a.m. (EST)

Most of the trail markers are completely removed in the spring and reposted every fall. Many landowners have gates that are closed aafter April 15th.
To use the trails legally without trespassing you have to be a VAST member. The permission that VAST receives from landowners extends only to members. However, this is largely ignored by the general public. In VT, unless land is posted, people generally assume they have permission to be on other people's property...kind of a strange idea that wouldn't hold up in court.

This post has been locked and is not accepting new comments