Why Regulations May Be Necessary in Wilderness

Generally Prohibited Uses in Wilderness

The primary mandate of the Wilderness Act is to preserve wilderness character--the natural, untamed, undeveloped and primitive aspects that make wilderness worthy of its name. This means that uses within wilderness areas that directly degrade wilderness character, such as the following, are prohibited for both land managers and the public:

  • commercial enterprise
  • permanent road
  • temporary road
  • use of motor vehicles
  • motorized equipment
  • motorboats
  • landing of aircraft
  • mechanical transport
  • structure or installation

Permanent rules against these things are enforced by the wilderness management agencies, but there are certain exceptions, such as commercial grazing and access to private inholdings (small parcels of privately-owned land that are sometimes found inside a wilderness).

Rules for Visitors in Wilderness

Wilderness is meant to be used and enjoyed, and “primitive recreation” is even part of the definition of wilderness in the Wilderness Act. Paradoxically, recreation can also result in biophysical and social impacts that can potentially impair wilderness character. Therefore, agencies often establish visitor use regulations, or rules, in addition to the general prohibitions listed above, that help protect wilderness resources and opportunities for high-quality wilderness experiences. There are many common types of regulations. Use the Find A Wilderness search to learn about regulations that are in effect in the wilderness areas you'd like to visit.

Below is a list of common regulations, descriptions about why they exist, and information about what you can do before and during your visitor to adhere to them.

Visitor Use Limits (permits)

In some wilderness areas, regulations are in place to limit the number of people visiting at any given time. In some cases, certain types of visitors, such as people visiting for just the day or overnight users, may need permits. Limiting visitation helps ensure that people visiting wilderness have the opportunity to enjoy solitude.

Suggested action(s) for visitors:

  • Where visitor use-limiting permit systems are in place, ensure your opportunity for a high-quality wilderness experience by making advance reservations to obtain a permit.

Group Size Limits

The activities of large groups of people can affect the solitude of others and can increase impacts in and around campsites and near water. In some cases, smaller campsites simply can't accommodate large groups. Therefore, group size limits confine groups of people to manageable sizes.

Suggested action(s) for visitors:

  • Visit wilderness in smaller groups when possible.
  • Large groups which have split to conform with group size limits should plan on traveling and camping separately.
  • Make extra effort to minimize all unnecessary noise and impacts from large groups.

Length of Stay Limits

The Wilderness Act defines wilderness as a place where "man is a visitor who does not remain." Regulations may limit the number of nights camping in one campsite, one specific area, or in the wilderness as a whole, so that the wilderness experience can be available to others.

Suggested action(s) for visitors:

  • Plan your trip to conform with length-of-stay restrictions.

Camping Setbacks from Lakes, Streams or Trails

Aquatic habitats and riparian ecosystems immediately adjacent to water are sensitive to human-caused impacts and critical to the survival of native species in wilderness. Lakes and streams are enjoyed by both overnight and day users, and camps placed too close to the water can block access to others. Trail corridors are the means of travel for those seeking wilderness solitude, and camps placed alongside trails can add to a sense of crowding in popular areas.

Suggested action(s) for visitors:

  • Always camp away from lakes, streams, and trails.
  • If specific setback distances are required, such as 1500 meters or 1/4 of a mile, know how to measure distances in the field to ensure your group conforms to required setbacks.

Designated Campsites

Research studies indicate that impacts to camping areas are reduced if visitors use established campsites instead of creating new ones.

Suggested action(s) for visitors:

  • Use designated campsites, if required.
  • In areas where campsites are not designated, use existing campsites.
  • In more pristine areas or when traveling off-trail, choose durable campsites (according to Leave No Trace recommendations), limit the length of your stay and restore your campsite when departing to remove evidence of your visit.

Campfire Restrictions and Bans

Certain ecosystems, such as high-elevation sub-alpine types, generate little downed and dead wood for campfires. In these same ecosystems, woody debris is an important part of the soil's nutrient recycling process to help maintain natural conditions. Where visitors' use of the firewood supply exceeds what is available, significant and long-term impacts can occur, such as cutting down live and dead trees, removing limbs and stripping bark from trees, and removing woody material used as habitat by wildlife. Evidence of campfires, such as blackening of rocks, is one of the longest lasting, most visible, human impacts in wilderness. During high-risk fire seasons, fire bans may be in place to prevent forest fires.

Suggested action(s) for visitors:

  • Use a stove, lantern or candle where and when campfires are prohibited.
  • Where campfires are permitted, keep fires small, limit the use of firewood to just what is necessary, and gather at a distance from your site. As a rule of thumb, only use downed wood that you can break by hand.
  • Use fire pans or fire blankets to reduce impacts from your campsite.

Recreation Livestock Restrictions

Grazing by recreational livestock, such as horses, mules and pack goats, in sensitive, high-elevation vegetation types and adjacent to water can cause significant impacts such as loss of native vegetation and manure washed into lakes and streams. Placing salt blocks in wilderness, especially near water, degrades the natural conditions.

Stock confinement near water and in camps, and tying stock directly to trees causes impacts to campsites, water sources and can kill trees. Loss of riparian habitat, manure in the water, exposed tree roots, scarred and dead trees, and manure in camp areas are unnecessary and avoidable.

Suggested action(s) for visitors:

  • Graze pack animals in meadows at lower elevations and away from water.
  • Don't place salt directly on the ground. Mix salt in the feed for stock and keep feed contained.
  • Confine stock away from water.
  • Avoid tying stock directly to trees, especially in camp areas, except for temporary loading and unloading.
  • Properly use high-lines, hobbles, pickets, and electric fences to confine stock.

Weed Free Feed Requirements

Feed for pack and saddle stock can introduce seeds from non-native invasive plants and noxious weeds. Once established, these plants can out-compete native species and become a significant human-caused influence on the natural conditions.

Suggested action(s) for visitors

  • When packing feed into the wilderness, only use certified, weed seed free feed.
  • Switch stock to processed feed several days prior to entering wilderness.

Caching Prohibitions

Storage of gear and equipment in wilderness can detract from the experience of others and is inappropriate because it violates the spirit of the Wilderness Act, which identifies wilderness as a place where "man is a visitor who does not remain."

Suggested action(s) for visitors:

  • Pack out what you pack in.
  • Leave equipment unattended in wilderness only for the short-term periods in accordance with regulations.

Area Closures

In some cases, it may be necessary to temporarily or permanently close an area of wilderness to visitors to help protect wilderness-dependent plant or animal species, ensure recovery of restoration efforts, reduce public safety risks from wildfire, or for other reasons.

Suggested action(s) for visitors:

  • Select alternate travel routes, if necessary, and respect closure orders.

Pet Restrictions

Loose dogs can harass wildlife and pose a potential risk to other visitors and recreation livestock. In addition, loose dogs can get lost or injured or be attacked by predators.

Suggested action(s) for visitors:

  • Keep dogs on a leash, or if allowed, under strict voice control.
  • Consider leaving your dog at home.

Human Waste Disposal Requirements

Improperly disposed human waste can cause water pollution, harm fish and wildlife, and is a public safety hazard and eyesore to other visitors.

Suggested action(s) for visitors:

  • Bring the necessary and appropriate tools and equipment, such as a spade, small trowel, waste disposal bag (WAG bags), or portable toilet, to be able to dispose of waste properly. In some cases, you may be required to pack out all human waste.
  • Locate 'cat holes' or group latrines away from water, camps, and trails.
  • Never leave waste or toilet paper exposed on the ground.

Litter Disposal Requirements

Littering in wilderness affects the experiences of other visitors and the health of wildlife.

Suggested action(s) for visitors:

  • Pack out what you pack in.
  • Help preserve wilderness character by packing out the litter of others too.

Bottle and Can Prohibitions

Near water or hot springs or in high-use areas, glass bottles and cans left behind by visitors are both trash and safety hazards. Broken glass from bottles can cut hands and feet (of visitors, children, pets and wildlife).

Suggested action(s) for visitors:

  • Avoid bringing glass of any kind and disposable containers into wilderness. Invest in reusable containers for water and other beverages and repackage food that comes in cans.
  • Pack out what you pack in.


Food Storage Requirements

Improper food storage practices can attract bears and other wildlife into camps and create an unsafe situation for visitors, recreation livestock, and the wildlife. Bears that become habituated to human food are often relocated or euthanized.

Suggested action(s) for visitors:

  • Hang all food, including toiletries and food-related trash, where possible. Food bags should be hung at least 10 feet above ground and at least 4 feet away from the tree trunk. Use bear poles, if available.
  • Use bear-resistant food lockers, if available.
  • Consider carrying bear-resistant food canisters. In some areas, these are now required.
  • Do not bury food-related trash.

Competitive Event Prohibitions

Competitive events are not allowed in wilderness because they typically are not a wilderness-dependent activity. These types of events are inconsistent with providing opportunities for primitive recreation or solitude, as required by the Wilderness Act, and there is potential for unnecessary increases in resource impacts from large groups that affect the wilderness experience of others.

Suggested action(s) for visitors:

  • Contact the wilderness area managing office to determine if there is a non-wilderness location that is instead suitable for competitive events.

Short-cutting Switchback Prohibitions

Cutting switchbacks, or not staying on trails, causes unnecessary erosion and additional repair work for trail crews.

Suggested action(s) for visitors:

  • Where trails are provided, confine travel to existing routes and encourage others to do the same.

Wagon, Cart, Bicycle and Vehicle Prohibitions

Wagons, carts, bicycles and other vehicles are considered forms of mechanical transport, which is explicitly prohibited by the Wilderness Act. The exclusion of mechanical transportation equipment is consistent with the concept of primitive recreation, meaning human or animal-powered transportation without the use of a wheel as a mechanical advantage. The one exception to this definition, by law, is wheel chairs. If they are suitable for indoor pedestrian use, they are allowed in wilderness.

Suggested action(s) for visitors:

  • Plan to visit wilderness on foot, or with recreation livestock, skis, or non-motorized watercraft.