The Meaning of Wilderness Backpacking

In a nutshell, wilderness is a big chunk of undeveloped wild country that’s not fragmented into multiple smaller chunks by roads or power corridors or other imprints of humanity’s work. There are no homes or buildings, no pavement and no crops. Wilderness, by definition, is largely wild and natural. In other words, wilderness is a big chunk of wild country where natural processes prevail with minimal disruption by humans. When backpacking or canoeing with Big Wild Adventures, you’ll be in a wilderness environment for the vast bulk of your trip.

There’s a legal definition, too, eloquently stated in the Wilderness Act of 1964, our nation’s foremost land protection law. The Wilderness Act requires Congress to pass and the President to sign legislation to designate a Wilderness Area on any chunk of undeveloped public land that’s 5,000 acres or larger. The law defines wilderness as “untrammeled” (meaning “uncontrolled” or “unregulated”), a place where “the imprint of man’s (sic) work is substantially unnoticeable”.  And It instructs agencies to “preserve the wilderness character” of each wilderness, which means that degradation is not allowed.  Resource extraction and mechanized transportation are forbidden in designated wilderness, but hiking, hunting, fishing, horseback riding, cross country skiing and snowshoeing, bird-watching, swimming, boating (no motors), scientific study and simple relaxation and contemplation are all allowed and encouraged in designated wilderness. Wilderness designation is our primary mechanism in the United States for keeping large landscapes wild; and any area of national park, national forest, national wildlife refuge or BLM backcountry area that’s still undeveloped with minimal imprint of human doings can be designated wilderness. At present, about 110 million acres of the USA constitutes the National Wilderness Preservation System, which is about 4% of the country. However, about 2/3 of that acreage is in Alaska. Only 2.5% of the lower 48 states is designated wilderness.

Wilderness designation is not just about recreation. It’s about protecting ecosystems and the services they provide. It’s also about protecting the timelessness of wild nature, and the very evolutionary processes that have shaped life as we know it on this fragile wonderful planet Earth. Wilderness is about the intrinsic value of unregulated wild nature. When visiting wilderness, many people feel a special sense of oneness with nature, a sense of peace and connectedness that is best attained in big chunks of wild country. In addition, numerous wildlife species thrive primarily in wilderness environments. In the Rocky Mountains these “Wilderness Dependent Species” include grizzly bears, lynx and wolverine, to name some of the better-known wilderness dependents.

In addition to our officially protected Wilderness Areas, we also have a huge realm of  un-designated or “de-facto wilderness” lands, sometimes referred to as “roadless areas”.  These unprotected wild lands total nearly one hundred million acres, scattered throughout the public domain. These “roadless areas”, which still remain wild but have no legal protection, are candidates for wilderness designation. Although many of our Big Wild Adventures are within officially designated wilderness, some of our treks are in roadless de-facto wilderness, such as all of our Yellowstone backpacking trips. That Yellowstone has no designated wilderness is a function of regional politics and belies simple, old-fashioned common sense. For there is no place on Earth that more deserves the highest level of protection possible – wilderness designation under the Wilderness Act of 1964 – than the wild backcountry of the world’s first national park (Yellowstone).


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