two hikers on trail leading into forest under blue sky with white clouds

Hitting the trails? Know the etiquette before you go

Matt Cunliffe started at Ontario Parks in 2006 and has spent over a decade working as a park interpreter and an assistant park planner, and is now a Discovery Leader at MacGregor Provincial Park. An avid trail user and self-proclaimed nature geek, when he’s not on the clock, you’re likely to find him onto a new discovery somewhere in one of our parks.

Spring has sprung and I, like many Ontarians, cannot wait hike and bike as many trails as I can.

While you’re getting your gear ready for the next adventure, here are some tips to help you prepare and minimize impacts while you are out enjoying the trails.

Pack in, pack out

Organize your pack with zero-waste products, like reusable water bottles, and bring everything out that you took in, including wrappers, food scraps, and dog waste.

Pack in, pack out trail sign.
Pack it in, pack it out: keep our parks litter-free by packing waste-free products and taking all of your belongings home with you

When nature calls

While nature can call at any moment, “going” off-trail when you’re out isn’t an option. It can cause damage to sensitive habitats, and is unsanitary for park staff and fellow visitors.

Comfort station on a sunny day

Check the park maps for the closest washrooms, and plan that bathroom trip before you hit the trail. Check the park webpage before you hit the road to confirm what facilities are available.

Stay on designated trails

Trails bring us closer to the landscapes and heritage that draw us to Ontario’s protected places.

Staying on the trail helps keep human impacts to just the trail.

3 hikers on trail lookout platform over wetland
Trails are designed to let you explore the park while minimizing impacts to sensitive habitats

With so many visitors enjoying parks for their outdoor recreational activities, a simple shortcut through a dune, around a wet trail, or across a meadow can have long-lasting negative impacts.

Find each park’s official trails by checking the park map.

Be respectful of others

Our trails are popular (and for good reason!), so be sure to share with your fellow visitors.

Read the trailhead signage before you start to learn more about trail etiquette based on your activity.

two hikers looking at map on sign

On our multi-use trails, move to one side when cyclists are coming through. If you’re on a bike, ring your bell if you hear hikers ahead!

If others around you are quietly observing wildlife, do your best to walk slowly and keep your noise levels down.

A woman walking on a trail with hiking poles in the summer.

If you need tunes, make sure to use headphones. Music played through speakers can be disruptive to animals and fellow outdoorspeople.

Clean your feet

Invasive species are a growing concern in our province.

Help do your part in our protected areas by making sure you (and your pets) aren’t tracking in any unwanted seeds.

boot brush
Cleaning your footwear before & after your hike can prevent the spread of invasive species with tiny seeds, like Garlic Mustard and Spotted Knapweed

A simple boot brush helps to reduce the risk of spreading invasive species, and will help to keep your vehicle clean after a spring hike! Keep an eye out for boot scrubbing stations at some trailheads.

Put safety first

Sure, you know your favourite trails like the back of your boot, but what about those new adventures that are calling?

Ontario Parks staff are called to rescue many lost and injured hikers every season. This uses limited park resources and takes staff away from other important work (and it is also an unpleasant situation for those being rescued!).

Plan ahead by:

  • checking the weather forecast and sunset time for your visit
  • bringing appropriate clothing to stay warm and dry
  • wearing appropriate footwear to handle all types of trail conditions

Storm rolling in over the water.

Pro tip: pack a bug jacket, just in case. You’ll only get caught unprotected once in black fly country.

Keep your dog on-leash

When bringing your pets along for an adventure, keep them on a leash at all times (unless you’re in a designated leash-free area).

This is important because:

  • other hikers may not appreciate your pooch’s enthusiasm
  • it is illegal to harass wildlife (even if the culprit is a dog)
  • leashed dogs protect our parks’ ecological integrity
A person from the hips down with their dog on leash, on a boardwalk.
Off-leash dogs may not be appreciated by your fellow hikers. Keep everyone safe, comfortable, and prevent the spread of invasive species by keeping your dog leashed

And, of course, be prepared to clean up after your pet! This includes carrying their waste out with you, not leaving it on the side of the trail in a bag.

Jazz up your hike

Check out AdventureLabs for self-led journeys developed by our own Discovery Program (participating parks only), or become a community scientist by sending us your species sightings on iNaturalist!

We’re asking everyone to do their part to minimize the risk to yourself and others by following all public health advice, including physical distancing, and only engaging in outdoor activities close to where you live.

Please do not travel outside of your area. Use our Park Locator to find your local provincial park or conservation reserve.

Happy trails!