It’s always risky to advise people on matters of courtesy. The difference between a friendly suggestion and an impertinent admonition is like beauty: it’s in the eye of the beholder. I’m going to walk out onto this thin ice for the simple reason that the JMT draws lots of first-time backpackers who, I assume, would like to know what’s expected.
Let’s begin with the two easy ones: follow the rules and practice leave-no-trace principles. You will be given a good orientation on the rules when you pick up your permit; pay close attention and ask questions if necessary. This link will take you to the official leave-no-trace website. Start familiarizing yourself with the tenets of LNT now, not the day before your hike begins. (After all, the first LNT principle is “Plan Ahead and Prepare.”)
(By the way, the backcountry regulation I see most frequently violated is the one that prohibits camping closer than a certain distance from any water source or the trail itself. In Yosemite that distance is 100 feet; other areas differ, but if you stick to that 100 feet you should be good.)
But courtesy, by definition, goes beyond just following the rules. It is less about protecting the wilderness and more about lubricating interaction between hikers. Here are some suggestions:
~ No one goes to the wilderness to find noise. At your campsite keep the volume of your conversations low and avoid yelling at your friends across the lake. As the sun goes down, try to be even more restrained. Do you like a little music while you are eating dinner or setting up camp? If so, use earbuds. Are you an early riser who likes to get on the trail before dawn, like I do? Then break camp as quietly as possible. Even on the trail, keep your voice down a bit; you might be surprised at how far your voice will carry.
~ Respect people’s privacy. The easiest way to do that is to not camp too close to them. In almost all cases there are plenty of dispersed places to camp at least 100 feet apart. Even where that isn’t the case (Guitar Lake is one) at least ask your neighbors if they mind. But there is more than just selecting a campsite carefully. Some hikers like company on the trail and others don’t. About two-thirds of the nights I am on the trail I deliberately camp where I know there will be other hikers. Before dinner, I often make the rounds and strike up conversations, especially since I normally hike alone. When I approach another hiker at their campsite I always keep my distance and crank my “sensors” up to maximum sensitivity. If I detect any kind of discomfort, I move on. People often go to the woods to spend some time alone and I want to respect that. One last note on visits to campsites: if the hikers are in their tent I take that as a sign that they are not entertaining visitors.
~ Keep the trail clear. The general rule is that people going uphill have the right-of-way over those descending, but keeping the trail clear goes beyond that. If you are taking a break or making adjustments, move yourself and your gear well off the trail. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve almost had to step over a backpack. If you are slower than the hiker behind you, move out of the way and let them go by. (Here’s a tip: if you are the faster hiker, gaining on a slower hiker from behind, make some noise BEFORE you are within a step or two of the person in front. Imagine you’re walking along the trail, thinking that you are all alone, and suddenly someone says “Excuse me,” from a step behind you. No one likes to be startled out of their boots!) Lastly, especially at the top of a pass where the space can sometimes be limited, resist the temptation to spread out and claim every flat surface. Make room for friends!
~ If you feel a correction needs to be made, consider a little diplomacy. I think most of us try to mind our own business when we’re in the backcountry, but sometimes the infraction is such that you may feel you need to say something. Since you will not be speaking under the color of authority, you are going to have to persuade. Scolding a hiker who is doing something wrong probably won’t work. Scolding the leader of a small group of hikers in front of his or her friends could be especially counter-productive. Choose your words carefully. After all, you are trying to change behavior, not prove you are right. A few trips back a group near me started a good sized camp fire in an area where they were strictly prohibited. The situation was serious enough that I felt I had to say something. I struck up a conversation with the oldest member of the group, alone, and she was mortified to find out that they were breaking the rules. No one lost face, and the fire was out within a few minutes.
I’m sure other hikers have other suggestions; I’d love to hear about them in the comments.
Good hiking, Ray