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Backcountry Ethics

The imperfect science of sanitation and ethical camping procedures-

It is no longer acceptable to build beds of green pine boughs (or dead ones, for that matter), lash log furniture, trench tents, hack green trees and otherwise disturb the natural environment to suit our whims. There's just too little of the wilderness and too many of us. If we are to preserve the remaining backcountry for future generations, then each of us must adopt a solemn "I care" attitude. We must unfailingly practice ethical use of our natural resources, and we must teach - indeed, preach -ethics to all who will listen. And for those who turn the other ear, there must be laws . . . and penalties. The alternative is regulation upon regulation and a lessened quality of experience for everyone.

Here are the recommended land and water use procedures:

Disposal of human and food wastes

 Bury these wastes in mineral soil (if possible), four to twelve inches deep. The upper foot of soil contains the majority of decomposer organisms and so ensures the fastest rate of decay.

Toilet paper should be burned.
 Unburned tissue may take a season or more to degrade. Human waste will be gone in a matter of days if the weather is warm. When camping on the granite rock of the Canadian shield, or anywhere soil cover is at a premium, simply follow the recommended procedure for "shallow burial" and cover the waste with whatever soil cover is available.

Please do not leave leftover food around camp "for the animals"

- this will upset their ecology and make them dependent on man, not to mention the aggravation they'll bestow on campers who will later occupy the site.

Fish entrails

 It is illegal in most states to throw fish entrails into a lake or river, and for good reason. Bacteria consume the viscera and multiply, which raises germ levels to possibly dangerous proportions. Bacteria also use vast amounts of oxygen, which in turn robs fish and aquatic organisms of this essential element. Since food scraps react similarly, they too should never be tossed into a body of water.

Bury fish remains as you would food wastes - 100 feet from water and well away from the campsite area. If you are camping in a very remote area where seagulls are common, you may leave viscera on a large rock - well away from human habitation - for the gulls. This procedure is not acceptable on heavily used lakes!

Cans and bottles should always be packed out of the wilderness. 
Tin cans should be burned out and crushed flat with the back of an axe or your boot, then packed out. The typical steel can requires about 75 years to decompose completely; aluminum cans may need 500 years! A glass bottle could last one million years in the environment!
We do not bury cans and bottles today. 

Your garbage detail will be easier if you make a strong nylon bag, with drawstring, for this purpose.

Dish washing

Dishes should never be washed in a waterway. Food scraps encourage bacterial growth and even biodegradable detergents kill essential microorganisms. Dishes should be washed on land in a large cooking pot. Dish water is best disposed of on mineral soil, 100 feet from a lake or river.

Swimming is fine, but "bathing" is not. If you use soap to wash your hair and body, please rinse on the shore (with a bucket of water), well away from the water's edge.


And a word about biodegradable products

 It's fashionable today to extol the virtues of biodegradable products over those which do not break down by bacterial action. Certainly, you should choose biodegradable detergents, tissues, and toilet paper whenever  possible. Be aware, however, that even the best biodegradable products depend upon bacteria, moisture . . .

 and time for decomposition. 

And this means increased germ counts, lowered levels c oxygen, and visual pollution for some time.
 There's no such thing as a free ride!

Bough beds

 Cutting evergreen branches to make bough beds is illegal, immoral, and damaging to the trees. An air mattress or foam pad works better. The use of dead evergreen boughs or mosses should also be discouraged as this material provides a "surface cover" which blots out sunlight and consequently kills vegetation below. Campsites should always be left as natural as possible so that nature can effectively do "its thing."

Cutting green trees is, of course, illegal and damaging. Since green wood burns poorly, there's no sense cutting it for firewood You'll find plenty of good dead fire wood in the backcountry if you look for it.
(see The Campfire Page)


 It's always shocking to see initials and names carved or painted on trees and rocks in the backcountry. But it does happen even in the most remote wilderness. The rationale is certainly ignorance and insensitivity, neither of which can be tolerated by those of us who know and care.



 Most people take to the backcountry to experience peace and quiet. Loud, man-made disturbances are obviously unwelcome and in state and national parks, usually illegal. Please keep radios at home or use a personal "Walkman"."



 Some campers are offended by brightly colored camping gear and clothing. Consequently, the trend is toward gentle "earth tones" - greens, browns and grays. However, there's no denying the safety (and photographic) advantages of brightly colored tents, canoes and clothing in remote areas. Despite much hoopla, the color issue is over-exaggerated. There are more pressing environmental concerns in the backcountry.


Lugged hiking boots

 Chunky soled mountain boots churn up much more soil than non-aggressive footwear and are therefore discouraged in popular hiking areas. Primitive peoples got along quite nicely without Vibram lugs and you will too, not to mention the freedom of foot you'll enjoy by selecting lighter more flexible shoes. Nonetheless, the damage that results from use of Rambo-style-boots is probably over-rated. Like "color," there are more pressing concerns.

Fire site

 Fire sites should always be left as natural as possible. In military terms, "everything that's not growing or nailed down" should be removed from the premises. Every scrap of paper, every shred of aluminum foil, down to the tiniest speck, should be picked out and hauled home. Ideally, there should be no partially burned wood left in the grate - absolutely everything should be consumed by flame before you pass on.

It is permissible, but no longer traditional (or even desirable) to leave cut firewood for those who will later occupy the site. Some modern campers consider the sight of a woodpile an "affront," one which detracts from the wildness of the area.

So cut only the wood you need and put your fire dead out 
- check it with your hands to be sure it is DEAD OUT! 

-  before you leave.



 Unfortunately, there are not yet enough of us who care who will carry the banner for ethical land use. We must spread the word as gospel, but quietly, sensibly and in a non-intimidating way, with full realization that you can always get more bears with honey than with guns. Studies show that the majority of campers mean well even though they often do what is improper. Most abuse occurs out of ignorance. The majority of people will willingly follow your lead if properly taught.

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