Wilderness Ethics—Taking the Moral High Trail

The key to behaving well in the wilderness is to behave in the same way that you would wish those that came before you had behaved. If you have ever hiked into a beautiful area only to find that some thoughtless soul left all his trash behind, you know what a blight that can be on your own experience. Or if you have ever drank [sic] from contaminated water and gotten sick, you know how miserable that can make you feel. The basic rule is if you don't want someone to do it to you, don't do it yourself.

—“Hiking Ethics,” Hikingwebsite.com

Central Questions Addressed in This Article

What commonly recommended trail and camp etiquettes should I go out of my way to follow? What other behaviors are required for the highest level of ethical behavior in the wilderness? What ethical issues directly related to hiking and backpacking are important to me? What is my stance on these issues? What ethical principles are important to me and how might they relate to my hiking activities? How important is it to take the “moral high trail” in dealing with the ethics of wilderness travel?


One of the core topics of philosophy and philosophical inquiry is that of ethics and morality. Therefore, it is more than appropriate for a website having a philosophical emphasis to explore this subject in some depth. [Note: Even though it is sometimes useful to make a distinction, in this article “ethics” and “morality” will be used as synonymous terms.]

I begin this article with some definitions and clarifications to narrow the subject matter. I then review what I see as the BASICS of wilderness ethics. This BASICS section will offer samples of recommended ethical behaviors plus some ethical principles for consideration. The basic wisdom presented in this section is commonly accepted by most hikers and backpackers and will be relatively non-controversial. I then use this BASIC ethical wisdom as a springboard for discussion of more ADVANCED ethical issues and more demanding ethical principles. The ADVANCED wilderness ethics section will be much more controversial.

Even though this article asks the reader to reflect on the highest levels of wilderness ethics (“The Moral High Trail”), don’t be put off by the title. You will find it quite practical and thought-provoking getting into the body of the article.

Narrowing the Subject Matter of Ethics

Before getting into the heart it, let’s narrow the subject by clarifying the meaning of “ethics.” On the most fundamental level, ethical concerns differ from other kinds of concerns by making explicit conflicts of values or conflicts of interests.  An unknown author expresses this point as follows: “Moral issues involve some degree of conflict between an individual and others—a conflict of needs, convictions, principles and values.” A graphic example of one such conflict involves personal hygiene in the wilderness: to bury or pack out used toilet paper? It is much easier to simply bury it, but many say this practice often results in toilet paper being dug up and strewn about by animals, leaving an unsightly mess for future hikers. A common resolution to this particular conflict is to carry used toilet paper in double plastic bags until one has the opportunity to dispose of it properly. Another, much less common resolution, is to not use toilet paper. Whatever the best solution, TP is a serious ethical issue.

Another necessary narrowing when exploring “wilderness” ethics in this article is to limit our focus to relationships with one’s fellow human beings (i.e., conflicts of values and behaviors with fellow hikers) rather than conflicts between humans and the non-human natural world. In this article, I explicitly exclude ethical concerns and conflicts involving the wilderness and the ecosystem in general and the specific flora and fauna (e.g., trees and forests, Grizzly bears and wolves) found in the wilderness. These excluded topics are referred to under a number of different labels: “Environmental Ethics,” “Land Ethics,” “Ecological Ethics,” “Animal Rights,” to name a few. Here are three examples of the types of ethical issues I am excluding from this current article:

  1. Is it okay to cut living trees to build a wilderness shelter or cabin while at the same time espousing wilderness preservation?
  2. Is it consistent to advocate building or maintaining trails in wilderness areas?
  3. What is meant by the concept of “wilderness preservation and conservation?”

 On the BASICS of Ethical Behavior in the Wilderness

Now that I have narrowed the subject matter a bit, here is an overview of the BASICS on this subject. As defined above, ethical concerns involve some sort of conflict of values or interests. Because of specific conflicts of values and interests in the wilderness, experienced hikers and managers of wilderness areas have evolved, over a period of time, a variety of Do’s and Don’ts. For example:

—Stay on established trails; do not take short cuts or cut through switchbacks.

—Don’t litter; if you carry it in, carry it out.

—Practice minimum impact camping—camp in well used and established sites.

—Do not contaminate water sources; no camping within 200 yards of lakes and streams.

—Make sure all campfires are cold before leaving.

The above five behaviors provide only a small sample. See document “Etiquette—Do’s and Don’ts of Proper Backcountry Behavior” for a comprehensive list of nearly 50 recommended behaviors/etiquettes/rules. This document is divided into five categories: Proper Behavior (General), Etiquette on the Trail, Camping Etiquette, Campfires and Dog Etiquette.

When dealing with ethics, many refer to generalized principles such as “Love thy neighbor . . . ” or the Golden Rule (“Do unto others . . ..”). When thinking about ethical behaviors on this more generalized level, consider adopting a reverse Golden Rule: “Do unto others as they would have done unto them.” (This formulation is sometimes referred to as the Platinum Rule.) This modification moves the focus from you onto the other person. It emphasizes the genuine respect and concern for others that is fundamental to human ethical behavior. It also emphasizes the diversity of cultures that exists in the world. There are many people in different cultures and sub-cultures who don’t want to be treated as we ourselves would want to be treated.

A somewhat different “Golden Rule of Trail Etiquette” has been proposed by Dan Nelson, former executive editor of Signpost (now Washington Trails Association) magazine (August, 2000): “Common sense and courtesy are the order of the day.”

A third basic ethical principle for your consideration, proposed by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, has a lot of power to shape ethical behavior: “treat all persons as ends in themselves and not merely as a means to an end.” This quoted principle is one of three “categorical imperatives” Kant regarded as universal for all ethical behavior.


The above provides a preview of the complete article (approximately 19 pages) available as a free download.  Click on one of the following to download in either a Word or PDF format.

Wilderness Ethics—Taking the Moral High Trail – Word Format

Wilderness Ethics—Taking the Moral High Trail – PDF Format

The sub-topics listed below are developed in the complete article:

On the BASICS of Ethical Behavior in the Wilderness

More ADVANCED Wilderness Ethics: Three Higher-Level Principles

More ADVANCED Wilderness Ethics:  Controversial Issues and Situations

Final Thoughts on Wilderness Ethics

Additional Practical Issues for Reflection

Some Theoretical Issues For Consideration