Off Road Trail Etiquette: Mind your Manners!

off road trail etiquetteAs an author and syndicated newspaper columnist, Emily Post became recognized as the leading authority on manners and etiquette during the 20th century. As much as she knew about decorum and social graces, she didn’t know a damn thing about riding motorcycles. But even though she may not have been able to teach people how to rail a berm or wheelie over a log, an alarming percentage of off-road riders could use some of her lessons in manners and etiquette – at least when it comes to trail usage.

Manners are defined as a customary mode of acting. Etiquette is a conduct or procedure to be observed in social or official life. While both manners and etiquette are based solely on behavior, there is a difference. Good manners are a generalized appropriate way of acting in society. Etiquette is a more specific procedure. For example: it isn’t polite to fart in church (manners); but if you absolutely must rip a loud one, make sure it’s during a hymn instead of the moment of silent prayer (etiquette).

During my formative years my parents tried hard to instill both good manners and proper  etiquette in me. Respect the elderly, be kind to animals, and always say please and thank you. At the dinner table I was told to keep my elbows off the table, chew with my mouth closed, and absolutely no slurping or burping. Eventually some of it stuck with me. By the time I reached my late 30s I had stopped pushing old ladies out of my way at the grocery store and quit using my shirt sleeve as a napkin. While I still occasionally belch like a frat boy, now I place my 40 oz bottle of Schlitz Malt Liquor on a coaster. These are just some of the ways I’m trying to pass myself off as a respectable member of society.

Modern society contains many subcultures, some of which can be broken down into further microcosms. Motorcyclists are a prime example. Within the subculture of motorcyclists lies the subset of off-road riders. And off-road riders, just like any other community, have some unwritten general and specific guidelines that help keep things civilized. These guidelines for proper conduct while riding are often referred to as trail etiquette.

A major part of trail etiquette is generalized, falling under the category of good manners. For instance, if you come up behind an unknown rider who’s slower than you, be courteous. As tempting as it may be, don’t cut under him in the next turn and punt him off the trail. Let Mr Pokey know you’re there, then back off and give him a little room – it’s trail riding, not a visit to the Proctologist. Then try to have some patience while he finds a place to pull over and let you by. If you’re on single track or in technical terrain it might take a few minutes. Just like the trail you’re riding on, this also works both ways.  Be aware of who’s behind you as well as what’s in front of you. If you suddenly find yourself causing a traffic jam – move over!

Riding trails aggressively can be challenging and exhilarating but keep in mind it is trail riding,  not sanctioned racing. There’s no time trials or special test sections. You’re not going to win anything. We were all beginners once and it’s not worth ruining someone’s day or putting life and limb at risk just to shave a minute off your imaginary lap time. The overwhelming majority of us are recreational users; if you’re a professional racer, that’s great – but please don’t confuse public trails with a private training facility.

The actual etiquette  part of trail etiquette is slightly more complicated and involves math. Being that most trail systems have two-way traffic, there’s always the potential of a head on collision between users. When encountering on-coming riders slow down  and make sure there’s room for both of you on the trail. Then, using the math skills you should have acquired watching Sesame Street, hold up the amount of fingers that represents the number of riders that are in your group behind you. This should be done by every rider in both groups, with each successive rider displaying one less digit, right down to the last man who makes a zero with his hand or simply holds up a fist. By doing this it lets everyone know how many more people to look out for and when they can get back on the gas. If there’s more riders in your group than fingers on your hand, flag down the on-coming rider and verbally tell him how many to look out for.

off road trail etiquette


I’ve lost track over the years of how many close calls I’ve had with head on collisions. Most of which can be attributed to chance circumstance, not irresponsibility. Off-road riding is inherently dangerous and there’s always the potential for serious injury no matter how cautious a rider is. Which is all the more reason that each trail user should keep an eye out for one another. And out of everyone in a riding group, the lead rider has the most impact on helping those coming and going to avoid a literal impact.

I’ve also lost track of how many times I’ve held up some fingers only to have the other lead rider wave hello to me. Or give me the thumbs up. Or cock his head slightly to one side like a curious poodle. Or completely ignore me.

The last part of trail etiquette is all common sense. If you have to stop to check the map, pick your nose, or change your underwear – think about where you are stopped. Is it in the middle of the trail, around a blind turn, or on the down slope of a bluff or rise? This past summer I came within fractions of an inch of plowing into a rider parked against a tree in a deep patch of shade on a very narrow section of trail. He was sitting on a black bike wearing dark gear. I was riding into the sun and never saw him until after  I barely missed him. As the saying goes, ‘God protects fools and children’, and I’m guessing this fool was well over eighteen.

Riding off-road requires intense focus and concentration. There’s a variety of stationary objects littered throughout  the trails that conspire to put your bike on the ground and you in the hospital. Rocks and downed trees won’t move over or warn you about their relatives lurking around the next corner. So next time you’re on the trail and encounter someone who shows you some fingers, remember they’re not flashing gang signs or throwing their set up. They’re merely being considerate and trying to help you avoid being one of the stars of a two man demolition derby.

And finally, seeing as this is a Dual Sport website, don’t forget your manners on the asphalt too. Many years ago when I first started riding street bikes most motorcycle riders acknowledged each other with a casual wave. But in recent years it seems like some of the Harley Davidson Sons of Anarchy crowd would just as soon turn their nose up at you. I still practice proper etiquette and acknowledge them, although instead of waving I just show them a finger.