Prohibitions & Conflicting Use

Why are motorized equipment and mechanical transport prohibited in wilderness?

The Wilderness Act states "...there should be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport..." Where motorboat and aircraft were used before a wilderness was designated, the Wilderness Act, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, and other laws allow use to continue. Mobility-impaired persons, or persons with disabilities, may use wheelchairs in wilderness. Motorized wheelchairs, which are suitable for indoor use, (i.e. battery and electric motor driven) are also allowed under provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

The Wilderness Act makes exceptions for wilderness managers to use motorized equipment and methods of mechanical transport, but only " necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purpose of the Act (including measures required in emergencies involving the health and safety of persons within the area)..." Where possible, managers try to use traditional tools, skills and methods of travel, even if they may be more costly or time-consuming. Exceptions where managers may use motorized equipment or methods of mechanical transport might include search and rescue, fire fighting, or fish stocking if it occurred before an area was designated.

Why are some non-motorized devices such as hang gliders, parasails and bicycles prohibited in wilderness?

Hang gliders and bicycles are considered mechanical transport, methods of transportation prohibited by the Wilderness Act. Both hang gliders and parasails are forms of aircraft, which are prohibited from landing in wilderness. All tend to intrude on the wilderness experience of other visitors. The Wilderness Act recognizes the wilderness resource as a place that "...has outstanding opportunities for solitude..."In most cases there are opportunities for these activities to take place outside of wilderness.

Why are drones prohibited in wilderness?

According to the Wilderness Act, drones (or Umanned Aircraft Systems) are considered to be both motorized equipment and mechanical transport and are prohibited from being launched, landed, or operated within designated wilderness. Similar to hang gliders, drones are also a form of aircraft, which are prohibited from landing in wilderness. Prohibiting drones within wilderness areas protects opportunities for solitude for visitors and prevents wildlife disturbance.

What about geocaching?

Geocaching on public lands, and in designated wilderness, is a growing activity as evidenced by the number of locations and trends documented at: Many people enjoy downloading information on a geocache site and then using their orienteering skills and global positioning systems (GPS) units to find the site. Both urban and remote geocache sites exist but in many cases the more remote locations, such as those in wilderness, are the most popular with those seeking to enjoy the outdoors. 

Wilderness managers have seen an increase in geocaching activity in many areas, despite the general prohibition of geocache placement in designated wilderness. While wilderness is for the 'use and enjoyment' of the public the practice of locating geocaches in wilderness can lead to social trail development and resource degradation that would not otherwise not occur. In addition, most managers consider geocaches as abandoned property or litter and therefore, they are not allowed in wilderness. 

Information and education efforts have proven successful in some areas where managers have contacted cache owners or worked with web site providers to discourage geocaches in wilderness and encourage use of Leave No Trace techniques when visiting wilderness. Oftentimes, acceptable non-wilderness locations can be found for geocaches in areas where resource damage is minimal or can be mitigated.

What are the most common violations of the law in wilderness?

This varies by area, but off-road vehicles, such as snowmobiles, and wheeled vehicles, such as bicycles, are illegal in wilderness and are often cited. Where the wilderness borders a road or off-road vehicle trail or where vehicles had historically been used in that wilderness, vehicle trespass can be a serious problem. Many wildernesses require dogs to be kept on a leash, and these regulations are often violated. Littering, shortcutting switchbacks, and camping and confining pack and saddle stock in areas that are being rehabilitated, or are too close to lakes and streams are other common violations.

What is the policy on aircraft flights over wilderness?

There are restrictions for aircraft flights only over the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The Federal Aviation Administration has issued a Notice to Airmen that a minimum altitude of 2,000 feet above the terrain (or above the uppermost rim of a canyon or valley) over wilderness and National Parks be voluntarily observed by all aircraft.

Boundaries of many wildernesses are marked on aeronautical maps produced by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. In some wildernesses, military over flights and other airplanes can be heard by visitors. The Forest Service and National Park Service are cooperatively studying the effects of aircraft noise on visitors in selected wildernesses and parks.

What is the policy on staging competitive events in wilderness?

Races, endurance runs, special events, and large organized hikes are prohibited in wilderness. The basis of this policy is that wilderness was established to provide "...outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.." according to the Wilderness Act. Competitive events in wilderness tend to lessen the wilderness experience for others, and there are many opportunities for such events outside of wilderness.