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Lisa Jhung. Photo by Matt Trappe
The Beginner’s Guide to Trail Running in Colorado

Trail Running Etiquette 101

How to deal with mountain bikers, when you shouldn’t run, and where you can volunteer to maintain your favorite singletrack: Here are the unwritten rules of the trail you need to know.

If you’ve been on Colorado’s crowded singletrack lately, you know that things can get…testy. We asked Boulder’s Lisa Jhung—author of Trailhead: The Dirt on All Things Trail Running—for her top four tips on how America’s 11 million off-road runners, eight million mountain bikers, and nearly 50 million hikers can learn to get along. Plus: why you should volunteer to build or maintain trails.

1. Swallow your pride, step aside.
As a general rule, mountain bikers should yield to foot traffic and all trail users should yield to horses. But before you deputize yourself, consider this: Jhung recommends yielding based on effort, and in certain situations, it’s much easier for a runner to stop than a cyclist. If it’s possible for you to move off the trail, find a nice rock to stand on and think about all the karma points you’re racking up.

2. Mind your business.
Nature calls every runner at some point. When number one rings, get off the trail and out of sight by stepping on rocks, grass, or dirt instead of moss and wildflowers. If it’s number two? Move at least 200 feet (about 70 steps) from the trail and water sources, again stepping carefully, then dig a hole six inches deep, do your thing, and bury it thoroughly. “Nobody wants to trip on dirt and unearth your business,” Jhung says.

3. Pass with class.
“I’m not a big fan of screaming, ‘On your left!’ ” Jhung says. “I don’t think that makes anyone happy.” Emitting a polite noise, like clearing your throat, is typically enough to alert others of your presence and intent to pass. If they still don’t acknowledge you, escalating to a pleasant “Excuse me” will likely be more effective than hollering out “Hey!” Getting passed, meanwhile, is not an invitation to race; listen for others and let faster runners through.

4. Consider the conditions.
Nothing says trail noob like splashing down paths after a three-day stretch of rain. If you do encounter the occasional puddle or mud patch, run straight through it in order to avoid widening the trail. “We don’t want our singletrack trails turning into doubletrack,” Jhung says.


Giving Back

In 2019, Outside ran a story titled “Trail Runners Are Lazy Parasites.” The provocative headline was backed up by none other than Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado (VOC), a nonprofit whose spokesperson claimed in the piece that, anecdotally, off-road runners volunteered to build and maintain trails at a much lower rate than hikers and, yes, mountain bikers. Thankfully, the public shaming worked: “We’ve seen their numbers increase since then,” says Kellie Flowers, VOC’s senior marketing and communications manager, “especially with races starting to make volunteer work a requirement for acceptance.” To ensure we never again cede the moral high ground to the fat-tire set, however, you can volunteer to join a VOC trail crew (its outings run from April through October) at voc.org.

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