I visited my local forest preserve recently (in a suburb of Chicago, IL) and found new signs every mile or so that read something to the effect of

Please stay on the trail so as to preserve the natural environment beyond the trail.

Part of the joy for me in visiting a piece of nature is to go off the trail from time to time, so I found this new notice a bid disheartening. This particular forest preserve is about 4 miles long and 0.25 miles wide with a small river/stream running through it, and has lots of deer within its boundaries. My initial guess about this new rule is that perhaps because of the small size of the preserve and the amount of people frequenting it, they needed to create this additional restriction to minimize the wear on the surrounding land/habitat.

After doing Google search on "off trail hiking" I found at least one national park that says it's OK to do this on their property: Off Trail Hiking. So, I now know that "hiking exclusively on the trail" is not a universal rule in the US.

My original question: How common is this rule of staying strictly on the trail for forest preserves vs. a state/federal forest park?

My updated question (based on some responses below): How to know whether it is alright to hike off-trail in a particular nature area when there is no signage saying otherwise?

Followup: The comments below inspired me to take the basic hour-long Awareness Course from the "Leave No Trace" website: Online Awareness Course. I thought it was very informative in addition to the other info on that site, and helped address my question.

  • Related question/answer
    – user2766
    Commented Mar 13, 2015 at 16:19
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    I'm not familar with US laws in the area, but I'd say, if in doubt stay on the trail. If your in a national park/monument then there will likely be rangers who will be able to help. I do know that a lot of land in the US is private farmland and the parks can be quite strictly regulated, like the permit system in yosemite.
    – user2766
    Commented Mar 13, 2015 at 16:22
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    During the Winter when there's a good solid snow pack, just don't trigger any avalanches.
    – ShemSeger
    Commented Mar 13, 2015 at 20:08
  • 4
    Off-trail on most US federal public land is fine, with exceptions posted. NPS property tends to be more restrictive than Forest Service or BLM, but that's due more to visitor load than policy. Note also that not all such signage actually carries the force of regulation or law, though you would of course want to do your homework carefully before violating them, and be aware that others who are not as conscientious may follow your lead.
    – Reid
    Commented Mar 19, 2015 at 20:16
  • It really depends on the area. There is no general rule.
    – user2169
    Commented Jan 22, 2017 at 15:19

3 Answers 3


Leave No Trace

I grew up in a place that was surrounded by open wilderness. There are no, "stay on the trail rules" there. After spending a lot of time in Parks, where there are a lot of rules, and comparing them to growing up in the lawless wilderness, I have to admit that the Parks are a lot prettier. Visiting the wild trails and campgrounds from my youth now is kind of disheartening, because the lack of regulations has basically destroyed the areas compared to how I remember them as a kid.

This question really ventures into Leave No Trace ethics. Even if you're not in a Park or forest reserve, the fact that you can go off trail shouldn't serve as an invitation to indiscriminately trample around in the forest. Even the wild animals will make trails and stick to them, that's what most of the trails in the woods back home were; game trails made by elk, bears or mountain sheep. If I'm venturing into untamed forrest, and find a game trail, I'll typically follow it for as long as I can.

As a rule of thumb, always stick to the trail, especially in frequented areas. In places where venturing off trail is allowed, try to do your best to minimize your impact on the forrest floor. Back home we had a lot of deadfall in the lodgepole pine forests. So we could actually move through the woods without touching the ground by walking on the fallen logs. Avoid stepping on vegetation, especially soft mossy fragile areas, and look for routes that follow more rocky ground.

To answer your question, be responsible and do your best to make sure you're familiar with the rules for the area you're in. If you are in an area where hiking off trail is permissible, please be respectful, minimize your impact on nature while you do, and for the sake of future outdoor enthusiasts; Leave No Trace.

  • 3
    Your comment inspired me to take the basic hour-long Awareness Course from the "Leave No Trace" website: lnt.org/learn/online-awareness-course In addition, I was particularly intrigued regarding your mention of following trails made by wild animals... certainly this minimizes damage to the forest floor, but I wonder if there are any downsides to doing that, such as increased likelihood of wildlife encounters (invading in their territory, etc).
    – drapkin11
    Commented Mar 14, 2015 at 17:59
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    You're always in their territory, encounters only happen if you sneak up on them. As long as they can hear you or smell you coming, they'll get off the trail before you even know they're there.
    – ShemSeger
    Commented Mar 14, 2015 at 18:27
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    @Hack-R Crown Land in the Canadian Rockies. There are millions of hectares of land in Canada that nobody owns (save the Queen), which is essentially just out there. Forestry services and surveyors will make roads so they can explore the land for resources, but there's still a lot of land that is inaccessible except on foot. There's a lot of land out there that is only visited by the odd person once every few years, if that. If you find a trail out there, it's not man made, but most likely stamped down by deer, elk, bears, or some other large mammal.
    – ShemSeger
    Commented Jun 3, 2016 at 22:08
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    @ShemSeger O Canada! You know I already had have a mind to defect to Canada. This might be the tipping point.
    – Hack-R
    Commented Jun 3, 2016 at 22:10
  • 2
    @Hack-R Best get here before November, and beat the rush.
    – ShemSeger
    Commented Jun 4, 2016 at 1:57

Without knowing the numbers using it, the signs are absolutely acceptable. The forest floor is very fragile, and although one foot print might not make a noticeable difference to most people (Having tracking training for SAR, I see the damage one person makes), 10 people will leave obvious damage, and 50 a trail. The problem is people walk off the main trail and then retreat back the way they came - the side trail carries twice as much traffic. Before you know it, the side trail looks the same as the main trail, and develops side trails.... Eventually anyone walking though the forest can't see the trail for the trails, and whats worse - they come to think the bare ground stripped of all under growth is normal healthy forest.

Where I live such restrictions are not common, only the most frequently visited places. Walking more than 30 minutes gets you away from such restrictions. We are fortunate that we have a sparse population and lots of natural space.

So although rules like this are annoying, its much better than the two alternates - only having unhealthy forest to visit, or not being allowed to visit the healthy forest.

  • 1
    In high school, we used to make a yearly trip to a nearby mountain park, and the mountain was always exactly the state you describe—there basically wasn’t a trail, or maybe it was all trail. Was very surprised when I returned there for an anniversary and actually found myself at a dead end and forced to hike back up and go around (even more surprised to catch a glimpse of a relatively-large animal, which prompted me to make that hike back up with rather deliberate speed). Major kudos to the restoration team there to make that happen.
    – KRyan
    Commented Apr 4, 2017 at 3:02

I've hiked all over the USA and the general rule is that on public land, you can hike anywhere you want, unless there are specific rules for a given sensitive area.

Generally these rules are posted at least at the trailhead or in any wilderness permit you get.

The one place where there aren't posted signs, but that you should "STAY ON THE TRAIL" is making cuts across switchbacks. This damages both the trail and any nearby streams. It's one of the primary reasons why "Stay on the trail" rules get created.

There is a real difference between making your own route, and wandering just to the side of an existing trail. The first is generally much more acceptable since it's unlikely anyone will be following your tracks. The second can cause real problems in high traffic areas. As the population grows, more and more areas are becoming high traffic areas, and the rules will have to change if we want to preserve both access and habitat.

The other caveat is that it isn't always clear when you are leaving public land. Some trails only have a narrow right of way for public use and any wandering puts you on private land. Access there is up to the landowner. There are no "wander right" laws in the USA.

  • Thanks, Fred, for your insight regarding switchback etiquette and how it relates to "Stay on the trail" rules.
    – drapkin11
    Commented Mar 14, 2015 at 3:51

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