Wilderness Connect, housed on the University of Montana campus, acknowledges that we are on the traditional lands of the Salish and Kalispel peoples, who have stewarded this land throughout many generations and are its past, present, and future caretakers.
This Wilderness Ranger toolbox is a ‘work in progress’ and represents information available to date on this subject. Contact us to suggest new materials for inclusion.
We use the title "wilderness ranger" to collectively address all those positions within the agencies that serve to work primarily in the wilderness to monitor and restore wilderness and provide visitor contact. These positions may by different titles that vary by agency. They also include volunteer or intern staff working through NGO organizations. This Wilderness Ranger Toolbox is provided to aid assist wilderness rangers and wilderness managers in developing and implementing a wilderness ranger program.
This Toolbox is informed by the Wilderness Fundamentals Toolbox which provides basic information about wilderness and the laws and policies that a wilderness ranger needs to know to be effective at the job. Links from this toolbox will take you to the Fundamentals toolbox as well as to the Agency Resources section for more specific strategies, guidelines, and training materials, and to other toolboxes for resource specific information.
The goal of this toolbox is to provide an overview of the wilderness ranger profession, including tools for developing a wilderness ranger program, training, and support of wilderness area stewardship. While the level of experience and responsibility varies between wilderness rangers, locations, and the different managing agencies, all share a common goal of wilderness stewardship and all require a degree of expertise and skill in the common aspects of the job.
- To provide fundamental information regarding the role and function of wilderness rangers
- To provide some general knowledge, skills, and abilities required by wilderness rangers
- To provide training and development considerations for the wilderness ranger profession.
The Role of a Wilderness Ranger
The wilderness ranger profession is viewed by many as a dream job that provides an opportunity to live and work in beautiful outdoor settings with a strong sense of purpose. Wilderness Rangers are known as educators, ambassadors, and guardians of the wilderness resource. They are often thought of as the heart and soul of the National Wilderness Preservation System. Serving as a wilderness ranger provides experiences and memories lasting a lifetime and help shape the public's understanding of wilderness.
The role and function of a wilderness ranger is highly diverse and requires a broad set of duties. These duties include wilderness character inventory and monitoring, natural and cultural resource protection, trail and campsite maintenance and restoration, fire suppression, search and rescue, first aid and emergency medical response, law enforcement and visitor protection, visitor education, local natural and cultural history, and more.
The wilderness ranger profession requires a variety of knowledge, skills, and abilities as displayed in the Wilderness Core Competencies and/or through agency or unit specific position descriptions. A wilderness ranger must have an intimate knowledge of the history, geography, flora, fauna, and other biophysical components of the wilderness resource and a fundamental understanding of the types, patterns and trends of visitor use and recreation in their wilderness area. Wilderness rangers must be personally committed to practicing Leave No Trace outdoor skills and ethics and be adept at encouraging wilderness visitors to follow their example.
Wilderness rangers work in a variety of terrain, climates and environments, ranging from the Alaskan Arctic to the Florida Everglades. They typically travel through their wilderness area on foot, by horseback, canoe, sea kayak, river raft, or XC Ski/snowshoe. A wilderness ranger must be self-reliant to work, travel, camp, and live in extremely remote areas. A wilderness ranger must understand and respect the naturally occurring hazards and mitigate the inherent risks occurring in their area. They must know and live their respective agency's employee health and safety guidelines and protocols. Wilderness rangers must maintain a level of health and physical fitness commensurate with the terrain and environment they are working in. They know the latest techniques and equipment essential for work assignments, wilderness travel, and emergency survival.
Wilderness rangers make helpful and informative contacts with wilderness visitors. The ability to make cordial, respectful, and informative visitor contacts is a vital skill. Ideally, visitor contacts will me made while wearing an official agency (or partner organization) uniform. A wilderness ranger may be the only representative of the agency that some visitors will ever meet during their wilderness trip providing a special opportunity to leave a lasting impression on wilderness visitors and helping them understand the benefits of wilderness along with the legal mandate to preserve wilderness character.
And finally, understanding wilderness in both a legal and practical context are fundamental requirements of the profession. This includes working knowledge of the statutory requirements of Wilderness Act, subsequent wilderness legislation specific to area, agency policies, and regulations while having the communication skills to gain visitor understanding and compliance.
Wilderness Ranger Training and Development
Training is a key component to a progressive wilderness ranger program and should be crafted to address the specific needs and priorities of an agency and area. Annual wilderness stewardship training for permanent and seasonal employees is a best practice and plays an important role in ensuring wilderness program staff are properly trained and/or certified. The most progressive wilderness ranger training programs include a mix of classroom and field activities and place an emphasis on participant interaction and engagement. [Examples of wilderness ranger training agendas are provided below under Training Agendas].
In addition to the fundamental training needs, many wilderness rangers are subject to highly specialized or technical training and certifications. These may include a federal law enforcement commission, emergency medical technician certification, technical/high angle search and rescue, swift water rescue, avalanche safety and rescue, mountaineering, bear or other wildlife management, etc. Specialized certifications are more common in areas of exclusive or concurrent federal jurisdiction more common with the National Park Service.
Key components of a progressive wilderness training program include but are not limited to the following topics:
- The Wilderness Act of 1964
- The area's wilderness legislation
- The area's wilderness stewardship plan (or comparable planning document)
- Agency/unit wilderness stewardship policies
- Agency/unit wilderness regulations
- The qualities of wilderness character
- Wilderness character inventory and monitoring protocols
- Agency/unit employee health and safety guidelines and protocols (including infectious diseases)
- Annual wilderness work plan, program of work, or priorities
- Wilderness patrol reporting requirements
- Public/visitor contact, interpretation and education techniques (including the basics of de-escalation)
- The principles of Leave No Trace outdoor skills and ethics
- Wilderness/field risk awareness and assessment
- Specific wilderness travel skills [example: sea kayaking)
- Specific certifications as required (example: Wilderness First Responder)
Wilderness Ranger Program Management
A progressive wilderness ranger program will provide adequate and appropriate supervision, training, supplies, equipment, materials, and logistical support to ensure employee health, welfare, and safety and effective accomplishment of program of work priorities. The following "best practices" are provided to aid wilderness ranger program managers in developing a progressive program.
- Effective supervision is provided, from someone with previous experience and effective supervisory skills
- Health, welfare and safety protocols are well-defined, including but not limited to:
- Wilderness rangers are subject to daily field tracking/welfare check-in protocol
- Wilderness Rangers are issued and required to carry a functional communications device (hand-held radio, satellite phone, InReach, etc.)
- Wilderness patrols are conducted in tandem; solo wilderness patrols having more aggressive safety procedures in place with clearly define and understood procedures
- Wilderness patrol locations and purposes are based on clear management and stewardship objectives and program of work priorities
- Wilderness rangers possess a skill level commensurate with the mode of travel, terrain and environmental conditions, type of equipment they are utilizing, and program of work assigned
- Wilderness rangers receive progressive training (including seasonal employees), including both classroom and practical, field-based agenda.
- Wilderness Fundamentals Toolbox (See these sections: Wilderness Laws with National Implications, Other Laws Directly Affecting Wilderness)
- Overview of Key Laws
- Wilderness Law Library
- Wild by Law historical film
Agency Policy and Guides for Wilderness Management
National Strategies and Programs
Wilderness Ranger Program Resources
- Before and After Hitch Duties
- Bring List
- BWCAW Maintenance Guide
- Camp List
- Crew Leader Duties
- First Aid and CPR
- Gear Inventory
- Guide to Wilderness CFR Education & Enforcement
- Job Hazard Analyses (See the Job Hazard Analysis library, which is found under "Resources" in the Safety Toolbox)
- New Employee Checklist
- Permit and Trailhead Checklist
- Rocky Mountain National Park
- WASO NPS Memo on Backcountry Travel Procedures 2006
Information and Education
Reports and Forms
- Agency Resources
- Wilderness Ranger Field Guide
The materials displayed in this document first appeared in 1993 and were published in a 5"x8" notebook format, distributed to all national forest offices with wilderness management responsibilities. Since 1993 many aspects of wilderness management have evolved but the job of the Wilderness Ranger remains much the same.
This handbook is being provided on-line as a source of ideas for those training wilderness rangers and volunteers. For updates to monitoring protocols, forms, and data analysis and other procedures, policies, and guidelines please visit the appropriate Toolboxes.
The Wilderness Ranger Field Guide is also available in an editable format that may be revised and updated as needed to meet local needs.