40

I got a comment here that said,

Please omit the "Where have you been?" part of your social interaction. That is going to set me more on edge, not put me at ease. It sounds "stalker-ish", which is especially bad in OP's case where you look ragged.

and before that Strongbad had suggested changing

Where are you headed? to Where have you been?

for basically the same reason.

However, this doesn't match my personal experience at all. In my experience if you are making someone else nervous, they are going to pass you quickly without talking.

On the other hand if you meet someone and are talking its seems very normal to discuss either of the questions especially for finding out what lies ahead if you are going opposite directions.

Is it actually poor etiquette to these questions?

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    It's been a while, but as I recall this was pretty much the sole topic of conversation. – Strawberry Feb 2 '18 at 15:22
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    This is also a great way to find about some neat things that they have visited that you may not have known about! – agweber Feb 2 '18 at 20:10
  • Could you clarify whether you are asking this question after proper pleasantries have been exchanged and they've shown some kind of interest in a conversation, or right when you see a new hiker (entirely out of the blue)? – Mehrdad Feb 6 '18 at 1:24
  • @Mehrdad I would say either – Charlie Brumbaugh Feb 6 '18 at 4:25
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    The answers will depend massively on location, group size, seeming trustwothiness of asker, etc.. Think about group of uncouth men asking a single female in airport about her travel locations in the wilderness outside - there might be issues... Generally backpackers will share info very freely. 'I'd like to go to X tomorrow, where do you plan to go?' . but depending on the situation, many question may come over as creepy/intrusive, even some about past routes (because that may constrain future routes, compromising (felt) security) – bukwyrm Jul 9 '18 at 5:14

11 Answers 11

67

No. There's nothing wrong with asking other adventurers where they have adventured.

I've asked random people that question, other people have asked me, it never has put me or them on edge or anything of the sort. Sometimes people like to know if the trail they're on leads to something interesting and is worth going, sometimes people like to hear of others experience, as well as just regular small talk.

When backpacking, people are generally on the move, so "where are you going" and "where have you been" are pretty much the go-to introduction questions because that's whats of most interest to backpackers. In my experience, people love talking about their adventures, so if you ask where they've been, they'll blab for as long as you're willing to listen.

Obviously, human communication is complex, and there are a wide variety of situations you can be in when you encounter random people, but frankly, anything beyond the general case is material for IPS.se for the specific situations.

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    They're hiking, they want to tell everybody about where they came from and where they are going, because that's the interesting thing they're doing. – Monster Feb 2 '18 at 6:43
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    I disagree. If you want to know what is up ahead, ask if I know what is up ahead. – StrongBad Feb 2 '18 at 20:44
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    @StrongBad But often I'm interested in where people are headed , because it might make me change routes to go to a different spot. If I come by three groups all going to where I was going, and I know it's not super huge, then I might reroute to stay more secluded. – spacetyper Feb 3 '18 at 21:03
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    @Monster I don't think I've ever even had a chance to ask people before they've filled me in on everything they're up to, going to do, and how it compares to the last 20 trips they've taken (including that one time they "came through here and it was stone cold rain like you wouldn't believe, but that's fine because that's the fun of hiking - looks like the clouds might break today so let's keep our fingers crossed") – Bilkokuya Feb 5 '18 at 10:27
31

There is nothing wrong with asking people you meet on the trail where there are coming from or going to. This is very normal trail-encounter talk. I've asked people this many times and rarely gotten a negative reaction. Likewise, I've been asked these many times, and never considered it to be inappropriate in any way.

One obvious reasons hikers do this, especially when meeting people coming the other way, is to get reports of what is ahead. This first-hand reporting system is clearly to everyone's advantage.

Another reason I often ask people this when encountering them on trails in town is that I'm on the Trails Committee. I like to know what people are doing, what trails they are using, what they think of them, etc. It's a great way to get direct feedback.

I often find that most people know only a little bit of our large trail system (over 110 miles on over 10 square miles of land). After talking to them for a little bit and introducing myself as a member of the Trails Committee, most of the time I get questions about the trail system. I keep a bunch of Trails Committee "business cards" in my pocket when on the local trails. These have the URL to our on-line map on them. Sometimes I even show them on their smart phones how to get to the on-line map and how to enable the little dot that will follow them around as they are hiking. In the vast majority of these encounters, people are very appreciative of me having stopped and helped them understand the trail system better.

Sometimes I run into people who are lost, sometimes without even knowing it yet. Over the years, there have been more than a few cases where I discovered people weren't where they thought they were. It wouldn't have been possible to help them without asking where they were, where they were going, etc.

Very occasionally, I run into people that just want to keep hiking. No problem. I just smile, say something like "Have great day", and move on.

One thing NOT to do is to try to stop anyone that is running. Runners are there for a different reason, and stopping interferes with that. If they stop and try to chat, that's fine, but don't engage runners in any way that asks them to stop unless there is a critical situation.

23

Context matters. There is nothing wrong with "where have you been" when you meet a fellow backpacker on a trail. But that is not the context of the linked question. Here, the other person is in a panic due to seeing your dogs, and potentially suspicious of you. In this frame, "where have you been" may sound like a nosy question, but so does "where are you headed" (... is this weird dog-guy going to follow me?).

If you absolutely want to avoid any risk of putting the other person more on edge, stick to something that is harder to misconstrue, like "nice weather, isn't it?".

Having said that, the context is better judged in action, i.e. how much on edge does the person look, how does s/he react to your eye contact etc.? And if s/he looks halfway ok, "where have you been" is going to set the person at ease rather than on edge.

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    This was exactly it. I would like to add to your "is this weird dog-guy going to follow me?" that the following does not even need to be with ill intent. I have actually met people before who will follow strangers around and keep trying to be friendly to them with what I assume is no ill will. That is still very awkward. – Aaron Feb 2 '18 at 20:27
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    @Aaron: awkward weird people can manage to make any conceivable combination of words to be strange or creepy. – whatsisname Feb 2 '18 at 22:35
15

I am the one who left the comment you quoted, so I'll provide some advice from that point of view.

If you open with "Where have you been?" or something similar, or ask it very early on, then cautious people very well could be unnerved. Even if I was not afraid of you, asking where I have been or am going is not necessarily rude, per se, but it seems odd out of context. Asked merely out of the blue, I would assume that the other person is either comparing their trip to mine and might even try to 1-up me with something like "Ow wow, that's neat. I've come twice that far." or the like, or that they are a bit stalker-ish. I will not assume that you definitely are a stalker, but I will be wary that you could be.

If, on the other hand, I stopped and talked to you for longer than a passing nicety, then there could be situations in which you could ask about my travels. After talking about the weather, or about the trail conditions, or about your dogs, or something else, if you said "I still have a long walk ahead of me too. 15 more miles just for today. What about you? Where are you headed?" That would sound a whole lot better. And maybe that was even what you had in mind in your original answer that I commented on. In this situation, I might even tell you all about my trip and have a great conversation with you about it.

It could also work, even up front, if it was in the context of some reason why that information was useful to you. "Hey, I am looking for a river that is supposed to be up ahead and was wondering if you came from that way?" or "Hello. I just ran into [insert appropriate obstacle] in the path a couple miles back beyond the fork. Which way are you going?" Then obviously that is also fine.

But just by itself, with no conversational context, I'm likely to raise an eyebrow and respond with "I have at least a few miles to go. I'll find out when I get there." and try to end the conversation short. Some people are that abrupt and are just being friendly, but generally that is an odd context-less question. And I don't want to take the risk that you might be up to no good (no good doesn't even need to be evil; I have heard of people playing pranks on others, something I would still want to avoid).


Another good point inspired by the answer by @henning, adding my comment there to my answer:

One of the biggest worries is that you would follow me. However, the following does not even need to be through any malice. I would worry that it was, but it is still awkward to be followed when nothing bad is afoot.

I have actually had socially odd people follow me before and continue trying to be friendly to me. This is rare, but it has happened to me more than once. Sometimes I have even tried to get them to stop following me but they don't seem to get that what they are doing is not socially acceptable.

In fact, after trying to be extra nice to this one guy one time for as long as I could bear, I outright told him that I did not want him to keep following me and trying to talk to me; he acted like I was the one in the wrong, and he actually asked me if I needed a hug... yes, that's right, I was creeped out by him, and he asked me if I needed a hug. And I truly believe that he was not out to steal from me nor to hurt me, that he was just a socially odd person. I get socially odd - I'm somewhat socially odd, but there is weird and then there is "I hope I am never in that situation again" level of awkward.

Perhaps my experiences are part of what makes this difference between you and I.

So being leery of you does not necessarily mean I think you are going to attack my camp at night. If you're creepy enough, sure, maybe that could be a concern too. But I do not want the potential for any problems, whether they be fear of burglary, or even if they are just you thinking I need a hug.

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    I am glad you answered – Charlie Brumbaugh Feb 2 '18 at 20:10
  • @CharlieBrumbaugh Remember that, although I see you contribute on SE here and might believe you are probably fine, if I encountered you in the wilderness I have no idea who you are and you get treated as a random stranger, because you are, so my response to you is from that point of view, not the point of view of a fellow SE contributor. As a random unknown person you get respect but limited trust. I'm cynical and believe most people are too trusting; I believe crime would be much lower if everyone were just a little more paranoid. Also, edited: added 2nd to last paragraph. – Aaron Feb 2 '18 at 20:19
  • @CharlieBrumbaugh And I added an entire new section inspired by the answer from henning. That might enlighten you a lot more too and make you understand where I am coming from. – Aaron Feb 2 '18 at 20:38
  • I agree in that if i passed someone on a trail and in passing they asked "where have you been" i would be caught a little off guard and wonder A) what's it to you, and B) were you looking for me? haha just an odd way to start a conversation on it's own – Nate W Feb 2 '18 at 21:43
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    "Perhaps my experiences are part of what makes this difference between you and I." Clearly. Your problem obviously isn't with the question "where've you been", it was with weird behavior and poor boundaries from some individuals, one of whom happened to ask that. People can do that stuff without saying a word, too. – whatsisname Feb 2 '18 at 22:43
8

It depends on the circumstances. When hiking alone, I am always a little suspicious of strangers. I don't think this is that unusual, especially in some of the busier places I visit in the US, as crime in US National Parks is a thing. Rarely, but much more than once, I have skipped planned campsites and lunch spots (and even in some cases packed up and left), and as a hitch hiker I have turned down rides, based on vibes I got from strangers. I much prefer a stranger to tell me things about themselves than to ask questions about me. If I want to tell you about where I have been, I will.

The context of the question was about an individual with two large dogs that looks homeless and not making people scared. Your proposed questions were

How is your day?

This is a great question since I can tell you anything I am comfortable with

Where are you headed?

While it is not an atypical question, it raises red flags for me. What runs through my mind is why do you want to know. I want to make sure you are not going to try and follow me. In most cases I will tell you, in others I will just blow you off and give a vague answer. I suggested where have you been since rarely does knowing where I came from put me at risk, but even that is a little invasive.

How long have you been out for?
Where are you from?

I almost pointed out in my comment that these make me think you want to know if something happened to me, if someone would come looking right away. Telling a creepy stranger that you are not from around here and haven't checked in 3 days, is not really a good idea.

The questions are not really out of place, but under certain circumstances they might make an individual a little more on edge. This is especially true if you look homeless and have two large scary dogs. More importantly, most hikers are all to happy to tell you where they have been and are going. There typically is no reason to even have to ask; if you strike up a conversation, they will probably tell you.

  • I am glad that you added your perspective to this since you inspired it. – Charlie Brumbaugh Feb 2 '18 at 20:44
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    You are way too paranoid. – Olin Lathrop Feb 4 '18 at 13:29
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    @OlinLathrop care to explain. Have you never turned down a hitch because the driver creeped you out? Have you never seen a homeless person living at a campsite? Do you really think it is way too patanoid to not want to camp at the same site as someone who is not there to enjoy the outdoors? – StrongBad Feb 5 '18 at 5:32
  • I disagree with comment that you are way too paranoid, especially about hitch-hiking. – ab2 Feb 5 '18 at 19:18
6

No. In my experience it's a default intro question for multi-day hikers, and can make sense (if stopped to rest/eat) for short hikes too.

Someone worried that you may follow them can respond to these questions vaguely - "working my way towards the north end of the island!" when that's clearly a multi-day goal, or "oh, you know, just exploring fun-looking loops" in a smaller area with a network of trails.

Go with a question that comes naturally come to you instead of sounding stilted - I'd be more uneasy if it looked like someone was sizing me up and overthinking how to interact, than if they just asked a question. (Although "where are you camping tonight?" is the kind of question that I would probably answer ambiguously, depending on the situation.)

And if you get the sense they're uneasy, you can be the first to leave the encounter - whichever direction you were going before. Of course it might be mildly awkward if you met at a spot mid-trail where you were planning to turn around anyway, if you haven't already explained this to the person in your trail chat exchange and it looks like you are doubling back to follow them.

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    Ha! That is a great corner-case to point out. "Where are you going?" ... later ... "No, I'm not following you. I was already planning on turning back at this point." Now you have to deal with that awkwardness the entire time they are in view, and still be concerned after. At that point I may just turn back as well and either abort or delay my journey. – Aaron Feb 2 '18 at 20:23
6

Comments from Aaron and StrongBad suggest this may be a country-specific thing, in particular due to being further from civilisation, and perhaps with greater public access to guns.

In the UK, every walker, without exception, will talk to other walkers. To fail to say "hi" as you pass is deeply rude - and in places accessible with transport (such as the top of Snowdon) where you'll get keen walkers and day-trippers together, people blanking you is the clearest sign of whether they're walkers or they just got up there on the train. (Unsuitable footwear too, of course! :) And if you pause at a natural stopping point - a stile or trig point, say - and another walker coming past asks you where you've come from and where you're heading, again it would be seen as unusually rude to just blank them. You don't have to tell them your life story, or your full plans for the day or the next week.

Partly it could be out of genuine curiosity. But partly it's a human interaction thing though. The person asking is simply acknowledging that you both have a shared interest, and that shared interest gives a common topic of conversation which otherwise you would not have. Sure, you could both talk about the weather (and that's why Brits talk about the weather - it's about the only safe shared experience we all have as a conversation opener), but you're both doing something you both enjoy, so why not chat about it briefly while you both get your breath, then move off again?

I've done a lot of walking, and I rarely find people wanting to use this to show off. Show-offs don't tend to survive (often literally!) in the hills. Where you're going is purely factual. If someone is setting themselves a hard day's walking, you don't think they're boasting, you wish them luck. And if they've just got a short distance today, you say "you lucky sod, you'll be in the pub before me then". If you think they're showing off and they won't make it, you still wish them well, knowing privately that they're going to be suffering around mid-afternoon. (You can generally tell "all-the-gear-but-no-idea" folk by their pristine kit.)

Mostly you won't be going in the same direction as the other person. If you're doing a long distance walk though (especially if it's a defined route), the chances are very good that you'll meet the same people as you go. Maybe you'll overtake them during the day, or they'll overtake you, or you'll just see the same people at the campsites or huts in the evenings. If you blank them during the day, things are going to be pretty damn awkward in the evening. Be human. Interact. You may not know these people from Adam, and you may never see them again in your life - but be sure that any of these other walkers will risk their neck for you if they find you in trouble.

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    I wouldn't quite say "without exception" but you certainly capture the spirit of walking in the UK. The further you get from the road the more true it is. It's similar in the slower types of road cycling too. – Chris H Feb 5 '18 at 11:53
  • @ChrisH Fair enough, but the exceptions are by definition rude people - so if they're not prepared to say "hi" to you, then they're someone you wouldn't want to talk to anyway. :) (Exception to the exception - amazing super-fit fellrunning nutters who don't have the breath to spare and are usually past you too fast to talk!) – Graham Feb 5 '18 at 12:16
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    While I agree with you, that does sound a bit like no true walker. Even the fell runners normally acknowledge your presence with a wave or smile – Chris H Feb 5 '18 at 12:35
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    I am confused by your second paragraph. At first you seem to imply that talking to other hikers is natural. But then at the end you say it would be deeply rude if a hiker asks where you came from if you're stopped. It's not clear what exactly your answer is. – Olin Lathrop Feb 5 '18 at 17:52
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    @StrongBad Ironically, there I'm even less concerned, especially if you've both got packs on. If you're headed in opposite directions, as the OP says, sharing tips is good ("there's a great pub two roads back, much better than the cafe at the campsite"). And if you're going in the same direction, part of the appeal of walking for me (especially solo) is meeting people as I go and forming short-lived mutual-support friendships. You won't get on with everyone, of course, but I don't have a problem chatting with fellow walkers. YMMV, of course, especially if they really do seem creepy! – Graham Feb 6 '18 at 13:33
5

I am newer to hiking so on longer trails near rest points I will ask where else people have been. Normally it is well received and I leave with a laundry list of additional trails to track down when I am home.

Also first hand trail reports are always welcome when in places with small amounts of staff, which is evident at the start or end of the year.

  • 1
    But how do you ask people where they have been? When they enter a rest area, do you immediately say "Hello! Where have you been?" – Aaron Feb 2 '18 at 20:24
  • @Aaron: "how" is known as "Basic social skills". Goto IPS.se for more questions on that topic. – whatsisname Feb 4 '18 at 19:23
  • @whatshisname Except that it is precisely what this question is about. So, using that logic, you should really have said "This question should be migrated to IPS." That is, however, arguable: is IPS which is in the specific context of abnormal social interaction still off-topic here and on-topic at IPS.SE? That is, considering trying to not cause fear or offense during "The Great Outdoors" activities, which do not have the same answer outside of that context, is that IPS.SE on-topic and off-topic here? – Aaron Feb 5 '18 at 16:09
5

There is no right answer to this question, but let me give you a perspective from an older generation -- a generation which was raised to respect privacy, perhaps too much. As such, I consider it bad manners to ask personal questions of strangers without giving a good reason for the question.

And there is usually a way to avoid the personal question by rephrasing the question. "Do you know if the trail above Lake X is blocked?" is very different from "Where are you going/where are you coming from?"

People obviously differ on whether where one is going/is coming from is a personal question. People also differ as to how long it takes for a person met by chance on a trail to become more than a total stranger. Two sentences, or five minutes, or never? Much depends on the impressions they make on each other, how their day has gone so far, how tired they are, and what side of the sleeping bag they got out of that morning. I might be friendly today but stand-offish tomorrow.

Thus, my advice is to phrase questions as impersonal questions and not to be offended if the stranger you meet does not want to talk. Much of the joy of backpacking, for me, is to get far away from the madding crowd.

5

Sort of off-topic but some of the biggest searches here in New Zealand are for people who didn't let anyone know where they were going. Add on to this the number of side-trips that crop up while you're out, I think its a good idea to tell at least someone you meet. Many of our tramping huts have log books for this purpose.

5

It isn't poor etiquette per se, however one should remember that many people who are out on an adventure are doing so to get away from people, and for a lot of people, it can be rather annoying and intrusive to get "talked up" by every person who passes. I'm actually surprised that so many people here think it's normal to question people you run into on the trail - up here in Canada, it's certainly something that people, particularly "off the beaten track" tend to avoid.

Personally, i'm more of a "hello" or subtle-nod kinda person on the trail. I neither ask these kinds of questions, nor divulge much when asked. Most of my hiking is to or from a rock or alpine objective, and therefore most of it takes place very early in the morning or late at night. For alpine objectives, I may ask if only to see if the other party is attempting the same route we are.

I think overall, it's actually rather context dependent. Out on trails or destinations that are popular with the "tourist" crowd, I could see it being pretty standard. But in a lot of cases, I could see it being more intrusive than not.

  • 1
    While you are right sometimes people don't want to chat, in that scenario, the posed question isn't really any worse than any other question you could ask. – whatsisname Feb 5 '18 at 22:00

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