Wilderness Manners

"Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home: that wildness is a necessity ... " — John Muir

At Sierra Club Outings, we take great pride in our respect for the Earth's wild places. To that end, we aim to show our members how to minimize their impact on the land.

In 1970, the Outing Committee and the Sierra Club Foundation commissioned Dr. Richard Hartesveldt, Dr. H. Tom Harvey, and Dr. John Stanley of San Jose State University to study our program's effect on the environment. Published in 1978, this study provided the first comprehensive look at the program's environmental impacts—and the ways in which these impacts could be minimized.

Since then, our understanding of mankind's relationship with the wild has deepened, and a few bedrock truths have emerged. Wilderness use increases every year, and it's become clear that practices that were once acceptable are no longer sustainable. Human exploration is changing entire ecosystems; the ability of wild places to recover from human damage decreases dramatically as use increases.

Simply put, to minimize our impact we must refine our wilderness practices. Building on these discoveries, the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) has developed an educational program known as Leave No Trace™.

Good wilderness manners include the following principles, which are designed to be universal concepts for all outdoors people. Minimizing our impact depends on attitude, awareness, judgment, and experience. Necessarily, our practices depend on where we're traveling—each wilderness area's soil, vegetation, wildlife, moisture levels, and the amount and effect of prior use inform our approach. As outdoor enthusiasts, we should embrace the principles below to minimize our impact whenever we get outdoors.

"Wilderness may be used and enjoyed by such means and in such manner as will leave it unimpaired for future generations." — Richard M. Leonard

Plan Ahead and Prepare

  • Check with the local public land agencies. They can offer advice and inform you of regulations specific to a particular area.

  • Know the area and what to expect. Take weather, crowding, and terrain into account. When visiting popular areas that are highly impacted, prepare to see other people and camp in existing campsites rather than impact a new area. Conversely, in pristine, little-visited areas, prepare to use techniques that leave no trace of your stay.

  • Carpool to the trailhead. If your trip is a traverse from point A to point B, a vehicle exchange works well and saves time, fuel, and money.

  • Plan travel distances and activities. Be sure to leave adequate daylight and energy to address minimal impact considerations (such as locating durable tent sites). A time-control plan is essential to having enough energy at the end of the day. Fatigue, bad weather, and tardiness are not acceptable excuses for choosing a poor or fragile campsite.

  • Select the proper equipment for your activity. Bring equipment that anticipates area conditions. For example, shared tents minimize the need to select marginal sites; gaiters allow for travel across snow or through muddy trails rather than creating multiple trails by skirting such obstacles; collapsible water jugs allow for the acquisition of large quantities of water at one time, minimizing the frequency of trampling sensitive streamside ecosystems.

  • Repackage food. Plan meal portions carefully and repackage ingredients into reusable containers or plastic bags to minimize garbage.

Travel on Durable Surfaces

  • In popular areas, concentrate use. Hike on existing trails and camp in existing campsites.

  • Hike on existing trails to minimize impacts on soils and wildlife. Walking outside the tread widens the trail and furthers impact. Never cut across switchbacks.

  • Pull off the trail for rest breaks. Make sure that other hikers are not forced to leave the trail to go around you. Again, choose a durable surface, preferably one with no vegetation, lots of privacy, and a great view. Keep your collapsible water jug handy so one person can travel to collect water for the group.

  • Give packstock the right of way and plenty of room. Your entire party should move to the same side of the trail, preferably the downhill side. Remain quiet, as packstock frighten easily.

Camp on Durable Surfaces

  • Select an appropriate campsite. Choose a site that is not visible to others and is 200 feet from water and trails. If you choose your campsite appropriately, you can achieve a sense of solitude even in popular areas.

  • When selecting an undisturbed campsite, choose one with a durable surface. Choose a durable surface—such as sand, gravel, or rock outcroppings—with no snow or vegetation. A durable vegetation cover, such as short grasses, is an acceptable secondary choice. The kitchen is a high-traffic area; pay special attention to its placement. Spread out tents and avoid repetitive traffic routes. The objective is to minimize the number of times any part of the site is trampled. Always wear soft shoes around camp. It is best to move camps every night.

  • When going off-trail, spread use to avoid trampling vegetation (except in the desert). Hike in small groups of 4-6 people, where each group takes a slightly different route and none follow in the footsteps of another. This reduces the impact on any one spot. Avoid developing user-created trail systems by resisting travel in wet areas and unstable slopes. Durable hiking areas include rock; sand; snow; ice; and stable, non-vegetated surfaces. Unstable areas have loose or wet soils or fragile vegetation, such as biogenic desert soils, alpine vegetation, and tall grass meadows.

  • In the desert, watch your step. Biogenic soils take centuries to re-vegetate after even a single footstep. To avoid harming these fragile soils, travel on the most durable surfaces, such as rocks or dry drainages.

  • Avoid areas that show wear-and-tear. Avoid campsites and trails that show slight signs of use to allow them time to recover. Most areas can recover from a certain amount of use; there is a tipping point, however, after which the area will deteriorate rapidly. This is how established trails and campsites are formed.

Pack It In, Pack It Out

  • Reduce litter at the source. Repackage food into reusable containers or combine ingredients in plastic bags. This not only helps avoid inadvertently leaving litter behind, but also reduces the weight of the food packed in and the amount of garbage packed out.

  • Carry out all trash. Carefully plan meals to have exactly the correct portions for every trip member. The plastic bags used to repackage meals double as trash bags. Do not burn or bury food. Thoroughly burning food requires an extraordinarily hot fire; burying food is inappropriate, as animals simply dig it up. Keeping food waste away from animals is important, as they easily become habituated to people as a food source. To prevent animal visits and habituation, take care to remove crumbs and cooking splashes

Properly Dispose of What You Can’t Pack Out

  • Disperse urine properly. Urine has minimal impact on vegetation and soils. Occasionally, animals are attracted to the salts in urine and may dig up the soil. For this reason, it is best to urinate on rocks and other durable surfaces.

  • Bury human feces in individual catholes. Even though burial of human feces slows down decomposition, it is still considered the best disposal method. To dig a cathole: With a garden trowel, dig a hole 6-8 inches deep and 4-6 inches round. Disguise catholes with natural materials when done. Pathogens can survive for a year or more, so it is important to dig catholes at least 200 feet from water, trails, and campsites. If you are staying in one camp for more than a few nights, it's best to dig a group latrine. In this case, select your latrine site the same way you would a cathole.

  • Use toilet paper sparingly. Carry out all used toilet paper (opaque plastic bags containing a drop of bleach make this a more pleasant task). Do not burn toilet paper, as this can start forest fires; burying toilet paper in catholes is unacceptable, as it doesn't decompose. Experiment with natural toilet paper substitutes—such as stones, vegetation, and snow—which can be buried in a cathole. Be sure you know what you are using, though: Poison ivy and stinging nettle don't make good TP substitutes!

  • Tampons and menstrual pads must always be carried out as trash. Contrary to popular opinion, animals are not attracted to menstrual odors.

  • Keep cooking and waste water away from water sources. On personal trips, soap is unnecessary for most dishwashing jobs. If soap is needed to address health concerns, use biodegradable soap. After washing dishes, run the wastewater through a sieve to remove all food particles. The water can then be scattered over a wide area away from camp and water sources. In areas with grizzly bears, it may be best to dispose of wastewater in a sump hole far from camp; otherwise, bears might dig up large areas of ground.

  • If bathing with soap is necessary, make sure it is biodegradable. Wash at least 200 feet from water sources and rinse off with water carried to the wash site. Soap must never enter lakes or streams: It causes algae bloom, which competes for oxygen and can kill fish and other inhabitants.

  • Dispose of fishing and hunting waste far from campsites and trails. Viscera are a natural part of the ecosystem and tend to attract predators, especially bears. Viscera should be broadly scattered in areas where they are unlikely to be seen. In high-use areas it is considerate to bury viscera in a cathole. Do not throw viscera into lakes and streams, as the water's lower temperatures slow down decomposition.

  • Learn the special considerations for bear country. Contact the local public land agencies for advice and resources.

Minimize Use and Impact of Fires

Use stoves for cooking. If you choose to build an occasional fire, determine whether it is appropriate and build one that minimizes impact. The most important factors are:

  • Administrative restrictions
  • Wind conditions and overall fire danger

Never leave obvious ashes or build a fire ring. In heavily-used areas, use pre-existing fire rings. Where several fire rings exist in one camp, learn how to remove all but one and return the area to a more natural state.

Build a mound fire:

  • Collect mineral soil (light-colored soil found below the layer of rich, organic topsoil), sand, or gravel from already-disturbed areas such as overturned trees or stream beds.

  • Lay a ground cloth over the fire site to make it easier to clean up.

  • Mound the mineral soil over the ground cloth. The mound should be 6-8 inches thick to insulate the ground cloth and the soil beneath it. To prevent the spreading of coals, the circumference of the mound should be larger than your intended fire.

  • Construct your fire with downed wood less than 1.5 inches in diameter. Keep the fire small.

  • When the fire is out, scatter the ashes in a highly-vegetated area and return the mineral soil, sand, or gravel to its source.

Leave What You Find

  • Respect wildlife. Animals have their own daily patterns and are instinctively afraid of humans. Our presence disrupts their routines and may affect their health. When wildlife view humans as a source of food, they lose their fear of humans and become habituated. Habituated animals become problem animals, which often must be shot or relocated. Leave the wildness in wildlife and don't contribute to habituation through poor wilderness practices.

  • Minimize campsite alterations. Don't dig trenches, build fire rings, or construct camp "furniture." Choose your site carefully so it is comfortable without alterations. When you must remove a rock, replace it as soon as possible to avoid altering the micro-ecosystem surrounding the rock. Good campsites are found, not made.

  • Avoid damaging live trees and plants. Consider the alteration of living things an impact. Even picking a few flowers or removing deadwood from tree trunks has a significant impact.

  • Leave natural and cultural artifacts. In most places it is illegal to remove natural objects or pick wildflowers. Federal law makes removing cultural artifacts and fossils from a site illegal. Regardless of legality, however, leave objects where you find them so others may enjoy them.

Be Considerate of Others

We all visit the wilderness to have a unique experience with nature. For some the goal is solitude; for others, the pursuit of a sport. Be sure to choose secluded camps, take rest breaks in secluded areas not visible from the trail, travel in small groups, and leave items such as radios at home. Most of all, use common sense.

Be Considerate of Other Cultures

Encourage local support for the preservation of nature, cultural traditions, and historical sites. Avoid sensitive areas such as those discussed above. When visiting other cultures, pay special attention to sacred sites and local customs.

Take the time to learn about local environment and conservation issues, including the status of endangered species and impacted habitats. Avoid purchasing products that exploit these species or habitats.

"In wildness is the preservation of the world." — Thoreau

Please visit our frequently asked questions and trip planning pages for other useful information for planning your trip.