Friday 10 May 2013

Backpacking & Wilderness

Pasayten Wilderness in the North Cascades

With the publication of Scottish Natural Heritage's Wild Land Map the question of what constitutes wild land or wilderness has come to the fore again. I understand that for the purpose of deciding which areas are worthy of conservation and protection lines on maps are needed but overall I think such designations are too limiting. Wilderness is more than just place. With this in mind here's another piece from the archives, written several years ago for TGO magazine, in which I look at the nature of wilderness.

Backpacking and wilderness go together. Backpacking is all about venturing deep into wilderness and experiencing nature at its most pristine and perfect. But what exactly is wilderness and how do you know when you are there? The answers may seem obvious but legislators and conservationists who have tried to define wilderness have found this surprisingly hard. Generally the conclusion is that wilderness is land without human habitations and little sign of human activity. In the USA there are designated wilderness areas, deemed to fit the definition of the Wilderness Act: “An area where the earth and its community of life are untrammelled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain”. As there is little land “untrammelled by man” (and what a lovely word untrammelled is) in the UK we prefer to talk about wild land rather than wilderness though the distinction is unclear. According to the John Muir Trust wild land is “Uninhabited land containing minimal evidence of human activity” while the National Trust for Scotland is rather more expansive, saying "Wild Land in Scotland is relatively remote and inaccessible, not noticeably affected by contemporary human activity, and offers high-quality opportunities to escape from the pressures of everyday living and to find physical and spiritual refreshment".

Designated wilderness sign in the North Cascades

There is a problem with these definitions. They leave out large areas of the UK beloved by backpackers, including much of the Lake District, Snowdonia, Peak District and Yorkshire Dales, not to mention many coastal areas. Popular long distance paths like the Pennine Way, West Highland Way, Offa’s Dyke and Cleveland Way don’t run through much wild land by these criteria either. Yet surely they do. The land in these national parks and along these trails doesn’t feel tame, which it must be if not wild. But feelings don’t come into official designations. Camp high on Cross Fell on the Pennine Way on a night of storm and wind, with the clouds racing across the moon and heavy showers hammering on the tent, as I have, and tell me this is not a wild place.

Many years ago I came up with my own explanation of wilderness: “If there is enough land to walk into, enough room to set up a camp and then walk on with that freedom that comes when you escape the constraints of modern living, then it is wilderness, in spirit if not by definition”. For backpackers I think this still holds. Trying to classify wilderness precisely doesn’t work, as it shouldn’t. The wild cannot be contained, defined and corralled into a neat box. If it could it wouldn’t be wild. As well as having a physical reality wilderness is also an idea, a feeling, a set of concepts that come together to shout “this is wild”. This idea is especially important in the UK and Western Europe where we do not have the huge areas of pristine land found in the Americas. Yet we do have many pockets of wildness that fit my description, places where you can feel you are far from civilisation even if it lies only a few miles away.

Camped deep in a wood with the only sounds those of wild life and the wind in the trees and you are in the wilds despite the nearby roads and villages. Climb into the Lakeland fells to camp by a high tarn and you are in a wild place though you could be back down in the pub in a few hours. The distance doesn’t matter; it’s the situation that says where you are. Strolling country lanes to camp on a crowded roadside campsite only touches the edge of the wild. Walk just a few miles on and camp in solitude beside a hill stream and you are part of it. In distance and time you are almost in the same place. In feeling and experience you are in a different world. I realised this when I camped in the Grand Canyon on the Arizona Trail. I was crossing the Canyon on the popular trails, which are spectacular but crowded and with strict regulations about where you can camp. I had planned on camping at the Bright Angel Campground at the bottom of the Canyon, a lovely but organised, safe, and tame campground with picnic tables, neatly laid out tent sites, toilets and fees. However the site was full so I followed a ranger’s suggestion and walked a few miles away from the campground along the Clear Creek Trail to an area where I could camp wild. Leaving the somewhat tempting lights of the campground and nearby Phantom Ranch with its bar and restaurant I followed the narrow winding trail below great cliffs as darkness fell. The instant the lights of Phantom Ranch vanished I felt back in wild country. Camp was on a flat stony platform just off the trail, where I simply threw down my foam pad and sleeping bag. The walls of the canyon rose above me, a hard blackness darker than the soft black of the sky, in which a myriad stars sparkled. There no lights, no sounds, no sign of people. Phantom Ranch and Bright Angel Campground were just a few hours away but no longer existed in my mind. For this night the Grand Canyon felt it belonged to me. At dawn I woke to the sun slowly lighting the colourful cliffs as the Canyon came back to life. I lay and watched the light and the glory return and felt incredibly grateful to be there rather than at Phantom Ranch. It was the finest camp site of the whole walk. Similar feelings of excitement, wonder and wildness can be found all over Britain by walking that little bit further away from bright lights and warm indoor cosiness.

Wilderness? Camp near home after a heavy snowfall

Once wilderness is seen as a feeling and a concept, an ideal perhaps, then various factors can change how wild a place seems. The weather and the time of year are significant here. A storm adds wildness to any place, as I found on Cross Fell, while winter changes the nature of the land. Under snow tame domesticated land can become like the Arctic. Last February, after exceptionally heavy snow, I set out from my front door and camped not far away on a rounded undistinguished hill, exploited for grouse shooting with heather burning and shooting butts. I could almost see my house from the summit. But all around spread a white wilderness, almost every sign of humanity hidden by the snow. It looked wild, it felt wild, it was wild. There are many such places that are transformed by storm or winter into wilder places that echo with what they once were. And many more that feel wild under blue skies and warm sun. Seeking them out is a large part of the joy of backpacking.


  1. I'm very interested in concepts of wildness and wilderness, although I find the wilderness thing very difficult to sustain for which I blame Aldo Leopold and his enduring legacy to be found in North American outdoor writing and thinking. The NTS definition is quite good from my perspective: the problem is almost everywhere on this planet has been altered by human activity from rainforest to desert, steppe to taiga. Humans affect change upon pre-existing ecosystems and create their own, largely in the form of plagioseres (ecosystems arrested at a stage of development by either direct or indirect effects of human activity). Consequently, i feel there is very little wilderness out there but a hell of a lot of wildness.

  2. Another thoughtful article Chris.

    Guy and Laura Waterman's book "Wilderness Ethics" has some insightful thoughts on wildness and wilderness - from a North American perspective. I think the concepts are highly subjective and to some degree dynamic (seasonal chnages)as you point out.

    I've known Sixth Form students refer to the Formby and Ainsdale Sand Dunes as "Wilderness" when we've been less than 500m from the car park. I've even known the Langdale Valley described as a "Wilderness" because there was no mobile signal!

    For me, it is the bureaucracy and regulation that is creeping in at many National Parks (in Europe and further afield)that risks destroying the sense of wildness. So, these days, I tend to seek out places with no real restrictions on "wild" camping.

    Dave Porter

  3. Thanks for the comments Paul and Dave. Defining just what is 'wilderness' and how it differes from 'wild land' is difficult.

    Dave, the Formby pine woods and sand dunes were where I discovered my love of wild places. I didn't know of concepts like wilderness when I explored them as a boy but I certainly loved the wildness I found there.

    The bureacracy and regulation is one reason I've done little hiking in the Alps. Scotland, Norway and Sweden have the best regulation - wild camping as a right.

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  5. The Pasayten Wilderness in the North Cascades looking more and more attractive and wish to go there.backpacking with dogs