This is what the government said in the 1964 Wilderness Act:
"(c) A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value."
In general, if I go out far enough so I can't get back at night and I don't see people except close to the trailhead, that's wilderness to me.
It's really difficult in Western Colorado not to have a bailout point each day. It's quite easy in eastern Colorado to have 40 miles between places to get water.
As for what it's like? There is a lot less to think about than there is when urban backpacking. It's a lot simpler. Off for an urban hike.
Loc: Portland, OR
Wilderness is like most concepts: easy enough to define in broad generalities, but tricky to pin down at the edges. Real wilderness doesn't have crisp neat edges except on maps. My personal definition of wilderness progresses in many stages.
The first stage is where you leave behind all houses and domesticated plants. Another stage beyond this requires that the resources of the land are not being mined, logged, grazed or otherwise subjected to industrial uses. Next, fences, roads and other human structures will disappear. Next stage would be when the land is supporting a full complement of native, non-domesticated plants and animals. Lastly, when the only trails you can find are game trails.
It is important because humans aren't smart enough to manage the entire earth and all that dwell upon it, or the seas and all that swim within it. We are often selfish, greedy and short-sighted and the more power we acquire, the bigger our mistakes become. Wilderness is a place to preserve what we seem to be in the process of destroying.
The furthest I have been in the wilderness required me to hike about 40 miles into the heart of Banff Park in Canada. It was wild enough that the pikas let me sit within 30 feet of them while I ate supper. Ptarmigans wandered through my campsite. And I spent a couple hours one afternoon playing tag with a herd of about 15 Dahl sheep. Whenever they saw me they'd run, but as soon as they ran over the ridge, they'd start grazing again. All I had to do was stroll another 1/4 mile and there they would be. BTW, they were well within rifle shot at each sighting.
Loc: California (southern)
Aimless, you make a very good point about only the presence of game trail in the most extreme wilderness conditions. Most of our designated wilderness areas in this country have well developed trail systems, as well as extrmely accurate topographic maps.
My most extreme wilderness experience lacked both any kind of trail and anything like accurate maps. It was not in the USA, but just south of the border in Baja California - the Sierra San Pedro Martir. At the time we wanted to climb the high point in that range, Picacho del Diablo, all maps, other than 1:100,000 aeronautical charts, were classified, along with aerial photos. Hiking on an aeronautical chart is quite an adventure.
We started on the eastern side of the range at an altitude around 1000 feet above sea level (PDD is in excess of 10,000 feet). Our first attempt was laughable; we had grossly underestimated the magnitude of the task. On our second, successful try we bushwacked up a desert canyon into the tall pines, broke out our ropes for the summit push, and had a marvelous experience. Never saw any thing like a trail in our entire trip or anything like the slightest trace of man's presence. To this day, that remains a unique experience.
Loc: Ozark Mountains in SW Missouri
I think all the previous responses have done a great job of describing what a wilderness is.
Here, in the South Central States, our wilderness areas are not near as vast as the Western States. In truth, there isn't anyplace here that you couldn't walk out of in a day. There isn't anyplace you can't hear an airplane, and very few where you can't hear road noise if you try. Even the "Wilderness Areas" have trails.
There are places here where you can get about five miles from the nearest road, and maybe two or three from the nearest trail, but that's about as far as you can go.
On the other hand, the odds of seeing someone on a trail in the middle of the week here are pretty low. On the weekends they increase some, but not a lot. You'd almost never see 20 people in a day on even the most popular trails during the peak times.
Once you get off trail here you're not likely to see anyone. I don't believe I ever have while bushwhacking here. Can't think of one time that's happened.
A half a mile off the trail in a Wilderness Area here and you are in a true wilderness. That'd be true of our NF too. It's also true for a lot of private land here. There are hills and hollows here that haven't seen a footprint in decades. Those are the places I seek out.
Several years ago I did my best to locate the most remote spot in Missouri and Arkansas. From what I could gather, the area between the Lower Buffalo River Wilderness and the Leatherwood Wilderness is it. Now, to put this in perspective, the list of potential spots includes the Cache River Wildlife Refuge. That's where the once thought to be extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker was spotted living just a few years ago.
So, for me, a wilderness doesn't always have to be immense or far away, it can be someplace not often visited by humans.
The furtherest I've ever been from a road while backpacking was about 30 miles. I was on a trail in the Sequoia NP. As I recall, we could see Kings Canyon NP from where we were at that point.
As for why wilderness areas are important, I think there are people, like all of us here, that have an adventurous soul. We tolerate cities, but we must get out into the wilds and roam. W_D hit it square on when she said she was addicted to exploring. That's it. It is a very deep seeded need. Not everyone has that though.
As for the larger reasons, there are places that are so incredibly beautiful and unique that any work of man would serve no good purpose. It is important we all understand that.
One good definition for wilderness, is any country more than five miles from the nearest road, including dirt roads.
It is worth mentioning that most wilderness areas worldwide do not have a permit system, named trails, or any trails for that matter. Most of Alaska, northern Canada, Siberia, and the Amazon fall in this category to name a few. Large areas of the no. Rockies allow for a similar experince closer to home.
In the US we have had many primitive areas before the Wilderness Act of 1964. We have many roadless areas that are "defacto wilderness" areas primarily on Forest Service lands. The BLM has their wilderness study areas (WSAs). Every few years Congress votes on a new round of places to be included as wilderness areas.
What this means is that to a large degree, our wilderness system is expanding, and many roads have been closed and rehabed in the process. Countless log buildings have been destroyed as a part of this program by the Forest Service.
Many rural counties in the western US outside of urban areas have fewer residents than they did in 1900.
When I moved to Nevada in 1987, there were no wilderness areas in the state, but now there are many although it is tough to get an accurate count because the number continues to increase. In a state that is 87 percent owned by the Fed Government, wilderness is not always welcome because it limits certain uses.
Several people have recently suggested that they are more comfortable in the backcountry or wilderness areas than they are in cities, or even at home.
This is me. I grew up in the 'burbs of Atlanta. I don't go near the city anymore unless I have to. I hate traffic and crowds. Maybe that makes me somewhat anti-social, but then I simply don't care.
Aside from a sailboat anchored at a remote cove of some small, uninhabited island in the Carribbean (*sigh*...some day....), there is really nowhere else I'd rather spend my free time than in the backcountry.
We all value wilderness or we wouldn't be members of this forum. For anyone that believes Robert Redford and the Nature Conservancy and their plea for "the last wild places", you need to get out more. Take a trip by car through the Northern Rockies or better yet, British Columbia, or Alberta.
We have many people to thank for the conservation movement that really only started around 1900 when the "frontier" disappeared. We can start with Teddy Roosevelt. John Muir, John Burroughs, Aldo Leopold, and Izaak Walton. The list goes on. These people were visionairies that changed the way that people in this country think and feel about undeveloped lands.
We still have Izaak Walton to thank for being a pioneer in the field of conservation. He was born in 1593, died in 1682 and was most famous for his book "The Compleat Angler" published in 1653. His legacy of protecting soil, air, woods, water and wildlife was formalized in 1922 with the founding of the Izaak Walton League which is still very active today.
Wilderness is important on several fronts. First it allows people to decompress from the constant din of civilization and hear the silence. Second we get to see the beauty. Third we share wilderness with other living things. Fourth it is a large undisturbed outdoor laboratory that can be used as a baseline for how undisturbed ecosystems should behave.
Loc: California (southern)
Be careful with "undisturbed." It is a relative term. Before the advent of the blessings of European civilization, native Americans were all over our "wilderness." While their impacts were relatively trifling compared to the massive disruptions of recent times, the land was not undisturbed. In some areas, for instance, fires were set in the fall to improve browse for herbivores. I am not sure how pervasive that practice was, but it was practiced here in southern California.
Loc: Gateway to Columbia Gorge
The practice of the American Indians' setting fires to improve grazing land for game was common in the Rockies, where there is a natural post-fire progression from aspen to conifers. Aspen provides lots of winter browse for game, so when a forest got to the mature conifer stage, they would set it on fire to restart the progression.
We all know from the Thanksgiving story that the Indians in many areas cultivated crops. In the southwest, they not only cultivated crops but used irrigation.
May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view--E. Abbey
Loc: Portland, OR
There is a book titled 1491 in whcih the author reviews the evidence that native Americans (North, South and Central) were quite sophisticated and active managers of the natural environment. Their practises apparently included not just the use of fire, but may also have included many other active ways to alter the mix of plants to favor certain ones, like chestnuts, that provided good quality forage.
The author does stress that such new ideas of the past can be subject to misuse, in particular this new evidence of past environmental management has been used to excuse the very different, more destructive, and less proven management practises used in our present day economy, such as strip mining, clear-cutting, and wetlands drainage.
Loc: San Diego CA
That same author also wrote a book called 1493. Both very interesting reads; a pre and post Columbus' impact if you will. Puts things into a another perspective when you realise that the introduction of something as small as an earthworm could have such a huge overall impact on the distribution of trees in the eastern portion of the US.
This discussion relates to the fact that "wilderness management" is a very complex topic. It is not just about permits, and campiing locations, fire regulations, etc.
If the management changes the country changes. The National Park Service has started to recognize this in the way that they manage backcountry areas. Yosemite is a great example.
The NPS couldn't figure out for a long time why the meadows were disappearing in the Valley. Then they accessed the land use records in their own library, and realized that sheep were grazed in the valley for many years, and that Native Americans set fires every year. There are some historic saw mills just outside the Park also.
Loc: California (southern)
There is a similar situation in the Black hills of South Dakota. Just about everywhere you can see small ponderosa pine (or ponderosa like) seedlings encroaching on traditional prairies. Similar causes - vigorous suppression of wildfires. To counter this there are controlled burns and cutting of slash, stacked up on piles awaiting favorable ignition conditions.
Retaining the prairies is important so that the buffalo (and other species) have a place to roam.....
I'll second the recommendation of 1491: a very interesting book that really challenges the perception that the New World was somehow pure and unaldulterated until Europeans landed here. Not only fire, but many other tactics that were used by Native Americans had a significant impact on the environment.
It will also change your perceptions of the culture and sophistication of the peoples of the New World. Most of what we know about those civilizations and cultures was learned from the Europeans who came after the massive die-off due to disease. What they saw was a mere shred of the cultures that had existed before.
All of which tends to color the discussion of wilderness (Yes--he finally DID get back to the topic of this thread!)
So is it important to me? Absolutely. But do I have a definition that makes historical sense? No.
But I know that being out in what seems to be a natural world, far from the press of other people, is profoundly relaxing.
Our long-time Sponsor, BackcountryGear.com - The leading source for ultralite/lightweight outdoor gear:
Affiliate Disclaimer: This forum is an affiliate of BackcountryGear.com, Amazon.com, R.E.I. and others. The product links herein are linked to their sites. If you follow these links to make a purchase, we may get a small commission. This is our only source of support for these forums. Thanks.!