Ethics is a fuzzy issue that, by nature, has no hard rules. There is no black and white, everything is gray, and everyone probably means something different when talking about wilderness ethics. However, I think that there is perhaps one basic idea and two broad principles upon which most of us would agree.
One Basic Idea: We Are Only Visitors
When we go into the wilderness, we are visitors. We don't live there; we don't own the place. Being visitors, we should strive to minimize the evidence of our passage. There are two main ways to do that: we can show respect for the wilderness and we can show respect for the other people out there.
Principle #1: Respect the Wilderness
When we go into the wilderness, we are visitors. We don't live there, and just as we wouldn't go into someone's house and trash the place, we shouldn't go into the wilderness and trash the place.
Think of it as if you went into your grandparent's house. Would you break the arm off a chair and beat the couch with it? Would you throw rocks at the walls? Would you pull flowers out of the vase? Would you carve your name on the door? Would you defecate in the middle of the carpet? No. You wouldn't do any of these things; you would treat your grandparent's house and their things with courtesy and respect.
The same ideas of courtesy and respect apply to the wilderness. There are, however, two parts of the wilderness (the wildlands and the things we put in them) that both need to be respected.
When we go into the wilderness, we need to be courteous and respect the land, plants, animals, other forms of life, and the non-living natural things such as rocks and cultural resources (e.g., rock art, arrowheads, and pots). Don't trash these things, don't throw rocks, don't carve on trees or rocks, don't pick the flowers, don't throw trash around, don't crap in public places or near water, don't leave toilet paper blowing around, and don't feed the animals. Leave cultural resources and other historic objects the way you found them. In general, we should display respect for wilderness by behaving in a way that minimizes the impact of our passage.
Similarly, when we go into the wilderness, be need to be courteous and respect trails, waterbars, switchbacks, signs, campsites, gates, and similar things that facilitate our passage. Don't trash these things and don't tear up campsites. In fact, we should do what we can to fix the broken things we find. We can clear rocks and sticks out of the trail, prop up signs that are falling over, clean up campsites, and do other things to make our next passage, or that of the next person, that much easier. If each of us does a little bit, we will get a lot done. In general, we should display a respect for these things by behaving in a way that minimizes the negative impacts of our passage while trying to do things to make it a little bit better for the next person who comes along (each of us is someone's next person).
This seems like many "don'ts," but this is the same courtesy and respect you would display in your grandparent's home. Read the Leave No Trace page for specifics on how to tread lightly in the wilderness.
Principle #2: Respect Other People
Most of us go into the wilderness to get away from it all, where "it all" is the hustle and bustle of modern life; that is, we go to find solitude. We expect to find solitude and we expect everyone else to respect our solitude; therefore, in turn, we need to make sure that we don't damage other people's solitude.
There are many ways to damage the solitude. Hooting, hollering, and blasting the stereo are obvious ways to damage the solitude, but so are littering, camping in conspicuous places, or even damaging trails. The bottom line is that we should respect other hikers in the way we want them to respect us.
There are many things we can do to respect other people without unduly restricting our own behavior. We can talk without shouting (noise, including voices, carries farther than you might think; use your indoor voice). We can camp in inconspicuous places (part of solitude is not seeing other campsites). We can keep our campfires small (they are less conspicuous and use less wood). We can keep our dogs leashed (they scare people and wildlife), keep them from barking too much, and clean up after them as we would clean up after ourselves. We can refrain from throwing rocks or rolling rocks down hillsides; they are noisy, scary, and can hurt. We can clean up or obliterate our campsites (roughing up duff smoothed out for a tent, refill (or not making) trenches, putting fires out cold (put your fingers into the cold ashes), checking carefully for litter, and carrying out our trash and that of others. We can defecate and urinate in inconspicuous places and cover it properly (including the paper).
By following these ethical practices, we can go into the wilderness over and over again and still find the wilderness and solitude that we found the first time we went out.
Happy hiking! All distances, elevations, and other facts are approximate.
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