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Backwoods Ethics: A Guide to Low-Impact Camping and Hiking

Backwoods Ethics by Laura and Guy Waterman
Backwoods Ethics by Laura and Guy Waterman

Backwoods Ethics is one of my favorite hiking and outdoor conservation books. Written by two legendary New England hikers, Laura and the late Guy Waterman, it was first published in 1979 and is still considered a cornerstone of the outdoor conservation and Leave No Trace movement. If you have an interest in the history of hiking and climbing in the White Mountains, Adirondacks, and Maine, I’d also suggest you check out these other Waterman classics: Forest and Crag (available on Kindle) and Yankee Rock (out of print).

Backwoods Ethics is organized as a series of delightful essays that describe New England hiking styles, the surge of over use impacts experienced by the region in late 70’s, and the beginnings of a sense of stewardship by hikers, climbers, the Forest Service and land owners. It’s a great historic snapshot and remarkably contemporary, considering it was written over 30 years ago.

[quote]Rules are not what we need. They are inconsistent with the freedom of the hills anyway, and that spirit of freedom is an important part of the mountain experience. [/quote]

Never preachy, the Watermans tackle some of the most perplexing impact issues head-on including campfires, hiking with dogs, bushwhacking, rock climbing, and winter camping. Instead of dictating a common standard for all of us, they carefully examine the pros and cons of the different viewpoints around each issue and then tell us the choices they’d make to reduce their impacts, in a practical how-to fashion that you can choose to emulate or disregard. It should be no surprise, that many of the techniques they discuss have become standard practice for low-impact recreation, worldwide.

Rather than define a common code of ethics for the Backwoods and Backwoods visitors, the Watermans attempt to rationalize a set of social conventions or etiquette, for how hikers, climbers, and outdoor visitors treat one another and protect the environment they play in so others can experience its glories as well. This might sound like wordplay, but creating an etiquette of social norms is far more open to interpretation and individual choice than defining hard and fast ethical principles. Rather than enforcing rules, the Watermans appeal to  individuals to make up their own minds about their backcountry conduct, a viewpoint which is far more practical given the budgetary realities of backcountry management today.

The open question, at least in my mind, is whether a new generation of hikers, climbers, mountain bikers, skiers, and all the users of the backwoods can be persuaded to give up their sense of entitlement over the outdoors and are willing to help preserve it for others. I want to believe that the vision of a backwoods ethics or Leave No Trace lives on, but I sometimes question whether it really has much traction anymore. I’ve met too many people in the backcountry who really don’t give a shit about the consequences of their actions on the environment or on others….a gloomy thought perhaps, going into another White Mountain weekend.

What do you think?


  1. One of the most important parts of hiking is camping. While walking on a hardened trail does little damage, the establishment of off-trail campsites can play a major destrutive roll in the the order of progression of “civilization” into our wilderness. As Philip has written several times in the past, tread lightly and leave nothing to mark your passage. This, of course, is tempered with the overall need of our expanding population to touch and feel the outdoors. More than at any other time in history, people are realizing the simple little things we do can have a huge impact on the environment. The simplest little things, such as bushwhacking a hundred yards off trail to create a “stealth” camp site, leads to other people following our steps, as evidenced by an earlier article by Philip. LNT means exactly that, leaving no trace of your use of a trail or campsite,

    Let me examine erosion for a moment. Trail erosion, in particular, washes soils, duff, even rocks out of the trail. This leaves the larger boulders to step around, widening the trail. What happens to the water? What used to be an absorbant forest floor is now trampled to rocks. A somewhat more difficult footing, but, the water simply runs off, it is not absorbed into the ground…it runs off. No grass, bushes or trees whoose roots anchor soils..The simple act of walking on a trail, killing grass, plant shoots, etc, causes damage, because the trail now erodes even more rapidly. I caused this. You caused this. I don’t worry too much about it I know some of these trails are older than recorded history. (The NYS Thruway was built along parts of the older Mohawk Trail and in existance before Europeans came to the America’s.) The erosion controll methodes used by many conservation orgs seems to help some. The question is to disburse our hiking, or concentrate it…and where is each methode to be used? No simple answer. A blowdown across a trail? Remove it? Let it stay? Sometimes nature will drop a tree in the correct spot, creating a natural erosion control mechanism. Sometimes it needs to be cut away so people can walk the same path over and over. It is not simply removing all blowdowns across a trail. And this is only a single aspect of hiking that requires more knowledge than is immediatly apparent..

    Dealing with these types of moral delima’s is where LNT really fails. They make NO allowance for the number of people that use the trails, nor the number of people that need to get away from society for whatever reason. Nor does LNT allow for changes to the envioronment and microclimates. Maintaining the status quo will never work because things WILL change. But, it is a start. Picking up simple litter is a no brainer. Picking up after others is annoying, . .that’s OK. A few dispariging remarks is all it takes to get my companions to clean up, too. Sort of a game…who can clean up the best…

    Perhaps the best we can do is to carry less into the woods. (Of course, every enviornment will be different, but, I am most familiar with the ADK’s.) While my pack weight is low, base pack is between 9-11 pounds depending on whether I need a bear ball or not, my food tends to accumulate a bit of trash. One of the ways I reduce this is by packaging and buying things bulk. 10 pounds of food is typically good for a week or 10 days.

    Picking up litter means I often return with close to the same weight as when I started. I often pick up 3-5 pounds of litter and trash. I find a lot of trash in the woods…even more several days in. I often bring my canoe (and assorted gear: life vest, paddle…<25 pounds.) Soo, it is not uncommon to carry 40-45pounds for a weeks outing. Plastics, bottles, cans, mylar pieces, cardboard, strings on trees, etc. I find and remove. In my way, I help on all the trails I visit, Regardless of condition of the site, taking some out is better than leaving it all there.

    I get upset with people carrying more than what is needed in the woods. Beyond heavy packs, they are more prone to leaving stuff behind. As an UL hiker, I KNOW I cannot save the world, ha, ha. But, my piece, where I have been, Where I have camped, means the next person to follow will be more prone to cleaning up, too. My comment is usually to insure that a heavyweight backpacker they carry it out, whatever "it" is.

    • Jim – I’ve never really put together UL backpacking and Leave No Trace/Low Impact techniques like this. Thanks for helping me make that conceptual bridge.

    • John Westmoreland

      Marco, I’m intrigued – what is a ‘bear ball.’ I have the standard Bear Vault, but the concept of a ball is interesting.

      • Ha, ha…it is just a Bear Valt, I forget the model, I have both. I think it is BV450? It is such a pain in the arse, I mockingly refer to it as bear ball. It weighs as much as two days of food! It will literally give you a hernia or in common slang “bust your balls” getting it to camp.

        More seriously, there was one out there that split in half, shaped like a sphere. But, about 7″ is the minimum size for anything the bear cannot get his jaws around. Unfortunatly, a sphere has the least amount of volume for surface area, soo, it will always be heavier per volume, but this could even out due to the strength of the natural shape of the sphere. Never really analyzed it. In 40 years of hiking, I have never had a hang raided by a bear, soo, I sort of laugh at the idea, but, they ARE required in the High Peaks area. Most of this was prompted by inexperienced people doing bad hangs or none at all.

      • Sorry, I made a mistake, there. It has a MINIMAL surface area for MAXIMAL internal volume.

        I found a link: http://camp4outdoors.com/products.html

        But, I don’t think it is available. I am not sure. It sounds good anyway.

        Still, 2 pounds is two pounds…way more than the 2-1/2 ounces I need for a bear bag hang. The hang should be a minimum of 10′ up, 4′ away from any climbable tree trunk, 4′ hanging down from any branch, and the branch should NOT be capable of supporting a bears weight. I suspect the rounded shape could be a problem if you also compress your sleeping bag.

  2. Guy’s concept of “wildness” struck a cord with me. As a result of reading his two ethic books, I stopped taking my cell phone and use my GPS is a last resort location fix only. I haven’t needed to use the GPS yet but it is still in the pack as safety gear.

    I was amazed at how relevant his book still is. Perhaps each generation has to relearn the lessons he was trying to teach us.

    We still feel the affects of that 1970s first hiking boom that cause the Waterman’s to write their books. Thinking of locations like Greeley Pond and Camp 16 that are still no camping zones due to the overuse back then

  3. I hear you on the “new generation”. I assume you’re referring to Millenials (which I am a part of, albeit at the older end of the range, as I hit the big 30 in July). My generation is very much an entitled generation (though we did not develop this mentality on our own), and yes I have witnessed the same type of disregard for nature that you mention above. However, I feel like this is less a generational change, than a population change. It would appear there are more people on the trails than ever, as the population has swelled over the years. With more people on the trails, the chances that there will be a larger number of folks either ignorant to the LNT principals or simply abuse the wilds grows.

    In fact, quite on the contrary, I think folks especially towards the bottom end (the younger) Millenials are quite conscious of the sins of prior generations, and want to legitimately make a difference in the environment. Millenials are more accepting of global warming, deforestation, etc. and are more willing to accept these problems as real.

    I guess I can understand Marco UL connection in theory, but I don’t really buy into it. Are you saying that a heavy pack will increase the wear and tear I put on the trail? That seems a bit subjective as it could be a small, 140lb guy like me carrying 50lbs for a total of 190lbs on the trail. So what’s the difference between that and a 180lb guy (a very average weight) carrying a 10lb UL pack? Or if it is that people who carry more, tend to litter more? I don’t really buy into that either. A responsible person will pack out all of their trash, and trash they find along the way regardless of pack size. In fact, you could have an inexperienced dayhiker, who carry’s a very light pack, just toss their poland spring bottle to the side of the trail, or their power bar packages or whatever (I’ve seen this) versus an experienced, LNT practicing backpacker who carry’s 40-50lb packs for a week at a time, who leaves zero trace.

  4. Excellent book. They really are pioneers and explore critical issues. I really respect how they truly walk the walk, from all their trail work mitigating impact to the sustainable way of life they lived on their homestead. I also just really enjoy their writing. Forest and Crag is a favorite.

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