To Camp or not to Camp? Wilderness camping

We received an excellent comment from Gareth one of our followers, regarding our work at European Wilderness Society, but he pointed out that ¨there is an important aspect of Wilderness that is being overlooked¨ and that is Wilderness camping. So from that comment, we had a flurry of internal communications about the subject asking ourselves, is Wilderness camping a good idea or not.

Do the benefits (people experience Wilderness) outweigh the possible consequences (litter, cutting of wood for fire and other disturbances). The comment from Gareth went on to say that he was concerned that he would not be able to enjoy Wilderness camping when he moved to Europe from the US next month, because unlike the US, Wilderness camping is illegal in many parts of Europe, particular in protected areas.

It is generally accepted by everyone in the nature conservation society that tourism and visitors, especially if their numbers are not controlled, have a negative impact on the quality of Wilderness. In a study in 2014 by the Bundesamt für Naturschutz in Germany 63% of Germans want more Wilderness and are even willing to accept access restrictions.

In fact, I did a little digging and I found that the rules vary widely across Europe. The situation regarding Wilderness camping ranged from

  • strictly illegal and enforced (Croatia),
  • illegal but generally tolerated or not enforced (Switzerland, Greece), and
  • legal (Norway & Sweden, enshrined in the Allemannsretten – every man or woman’s right of public access).

In the US, backcountry camping is completely legal and in most Wilderness areas only minimally controlled through overnight permits and therefore an accepted part of having a true Wilderness experience. It is an excellent way to connect with the landscape and have experiences you would not normal see or hear, such as the first and last light of the day, the first birdsong of the morning, the sound of the wind and more importantly the sound of silence.

Gudrun Pflüger, our resident large carnivore biologist, said it perfectly: “… Wilderness camping is leaning back and opening your senses.” In addition, one of the most important aspects of Wilderness camping according to Gareth, and we agree, is it inspires those who experience it to protect these areas of solitude and wildness. On the other hand, many Europeans have little experience with camping in a Wilderness area simply because of lack of opportunity. 

The conclusion our team reached was that there needs to be a common framework and strict principles and much more education for wild(erness) camping throughout Europe. In other words, it should be permitted in some areas such as in the transition zone of Wilderness areas, but it would only be permitted in the core and restoration zones if it was done with a Wilderness guide and/or ranger who can share his/her experience and educate at the same time on how to leave no trace while camping in the wild. In this way, people are able to appreciate Wilderness but at the same time, Wilderness remains just that – Wilderness, there for the next person to enjoy in the same way.

We recognize that given the appropriate guidelines and education along with the opportunity, visitors would use the Wilderness areas respectfully and would become new ¨ambassadors of Wilderness.¨

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10 thoughts on “To Camp or not to Camp? Wilderness camping

  1. Hi Max, thank you for the clarification. I trully did not know that this definition existed. Good to know.

    As said my experience is that wilderness is subjective and different for everyone.
    It is great to read that the definition also mentions differences. Perhaps good to combine with different kinds of permits, certificates and number of overnight stays. This might be a good way to earn money which can be invested back to the wilderness areas to ensure protection and ofcourse the surrounding human population, actively involving them more with “their” wilderness.
    One way perhaps to get rid of our ‘ecological bored’ feeling and to invite people on their level in their wilderness 😉

  2. Hi Katharina, thank you for reading and sharing more information. The blog post has generated some good ideas for how to approach wildernes camping.

  3. Hi Stefan, well wilderness is defined (see European Wilderness Quality Standard), but the aspect of overnite stays is hotly debated. We support your idea of a certificate, the concepts of permits and the leave no trace framework as a basis for enjoying wilderness day and night.

  4. For me, as a wilderness guide in the Black Forest, there is not a more important thing than to let the people experience nature and wilderness. But everything has its concequences.

    Wilderness camping in Europe is one of the most discussed topics among nature lovers. It is also widely misunderstood.
    You dont just put up a tent, build a fire or cook without leaving traces, causing damages or disturb the precious wildlife. For this you need common sence and a little training. Perhaps with a wilderness guide or ranger. Just doing this only once in a guided group might give you the understanding of the dangers it imposes and damages it could do. You could get a small certificate and practise further on your own.
    If you follow the Leave No Trace Framework principles you’ll be surprised what the options and possibilities are.

    Here in the Black Forest there are plenty of options for enjoying nature/wilderness (very subjective principle by the way) by camping. Just ask around and you will find a small hut in the woods you can use, build a camp-fire safely and sleep under the stary sky. Or join a guide and see wilderness in even the smallest of things.

    Lets first define Wilderness, then make up the rules.

    Cheers 🙂

  5. Being able to enjoy in them the completely different experience of self reliant recreation in remote areas unaffected by modern technological society is one of the major reasons for having ‘wilderness areas’ in Australia and New Zealand. They must be large enough for this purpose (requiring at least one overnight stay). Otherwise the nature reserve classification (IUCN protected area category 1A) is more appropriate. Clearly there are such wilderness areas in Norway and Scotland. The problem mentioned of wood fires can be solved by introducing ‘fuel stove only restrictions’.

  6. Hi Alan, this is exactly where we in Europe need to invest: educating the potential visitors on no impact camping skills and leave no trace skills. In addition, we need to look at quotas and access regulations. In fact the general public is aware that such restrictions maybe necessary to protect vulnerable flora and fauna sites.

  7. US overnight camping regulations vary quite a bit, away from developed campgrounds. Backcountry and wilderness regulations can vary, and they can vary by agency. On many Forest Service lands, including most wildernesses, you can camp most places you aren’t specifically restricted from camping (like maybe within 3 miles of a trailhead in a protected watershed, or in certain wildlife zones of note), but there are some restrictions. That’s not likely the case with the National Parks (except maybe in some Alaska parks and in some wildernesses), where you can generally camp only where specifically allowed. In places where there is heavy use or fragile environments (for any agency), expect assigned campsites in some places and camping restricted to designated campsites in others, or a quota system designed to not exceed a particular designated campsite occupancy rate based on knowledge of travel behavior obtained through travel simulation modeling. In the US there is substantial focus on impacts; behaviors and equipment, not just numbers of people. Generally we can find the opportunities to find the type of day use or overnight trips we are looking for with a good mix of freedom and restrictions, depending what’s important to you.

  8. Jim, thank you for your commments and it is subject that needs to be explored further as to how to best allow for the experience without ‘loving it to death’. Your suggestion about permits is a good option and you are also right in saying that most people would not do this type of camping.

  9. I think a framework for wilderness camping regulations across Europe is a very good idea.

    But I dont like the idea of wilderness core camping with a ranger only is a good idea at all. In fact, I think it will detract from the experience. I also dont think it is viable.

    More workable perhaps is the idea of a lottery of camping permits. That is that anyone and everyone who wants to apply for a backcountry permit can but permits are limited. For example, 2000 camping nights in Tatras a year, max limit 4 nights. Max limit four people per group.

    This type of thing works well in numerous places in the United States.

    I think that you will find that for MOST places this is a non-issue in Europe. Because most Europeans will never go camping. Just like with Americans. There are a few problem areas that will have to be more tightly controlled.

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Join more 100+ forest experts demanding a radical change in German forestry management.

Sign the Open Letter to the German Federal Minister of Forestry and Agriculture

Open Letter to the German Ministry of Food and Agriculture

Federal Ministry of
Food and Agriculture
Minister Julia Klöckner
11055 Berlin

Dear Minister Klöckner,

The current situation of the forest in Germany is worrying. It is a forest crisis not only driven by climate change. The current crisis management of the forestry industry is backward-looking and harmful to the forest. The declaration announced at the meeting of ministers in Moritzburg can be described as a `Moritzburg declaration of bankruptcy´. We call on the state forestry industry to, instead of expensive rushed actions, finally carry out an expert analysis of its own work and to involve all stakeholders in this process. What is called for is a consistent departure from plantation forestry and a radical shift towards a management that treats the forest as an ecosystem and no longer as a wood factory.

On 1stAugust 2019, five forestry ministers of CDU and CSU-led states adopted a so-called “master plan” for the forest in Germany, which was affected by heat, bark beetles, fire and drought. As of 2020, the federal government is to make 800 million euros available as a reaction to climate change. This money is to be used to repair the damage caused, reforest the damaged areas and carry out `climate-adapted´ forest conversion – including the use of non-native tree species that have not yet been cultivated in the forest. Research should therefore focus on on tree species suitability and forest plant breeding in the future – keyword: `Climate-adapted forest of the future 2100´.

Remarkably, the damage caused primarily by the extreme drought of 2018 is attributed solely to climate change. Climate change is meeting a forest that is systemically ill due to the planting of non-native tree species, species poverty, monocultures, uniform structure, average low age, mechanical soil compaction, drainage etc. A healthy, resistant forest would look differently! The master plan emphasizes: sustainable, multifunctional and `active´ forest management remains indispensable – and thereby means that its unnatural state cannot be changed. Reference is made to the `carbon storage and substitution effects´ of wood products. The use of wood, e.g. in the construction industry, should be increased and thus the demand for wood should be further fueled – while knowing that the forest in Germany already cannot meet this demand. In fact, forest owners are suffering from poor timber prices due to an oversupply of trunk wood on the world market.

All these demands make clear: the current forestry strategy, which has been practiced for decades, should not change in principle. The concept is simple: cut down trees – plant trees. At best, the `design´ of the future artificial forests consisting of perfectly calculated tree species mixtures, that are believed to survive climate change without damages, can be changed. In all seriousness, the intention is to continue selling the public a so-called `future strategy´ to save the forest. This strategy seamlessly follows the model of a wood factory, that is met with general rejection and must be regarded as a failure in view of the coniferous plantations that are currently collapsing on a large scale. An essential part of the forests that have currently died is exactly the part that was reestablished in 1947 as coniferous monocultures on a much larger area than today. There is only one difference to the situation at the time: considerable amounts of money are to be made available from taxes for forest owners this time.

Climate change is progressing, and this, without a doubt, has massive impacts on all terrestrial ecosystems, including forests. To pretend that the last two years of drought alone caused the disaster is too cheap. On closer inspection, the disaster is also the result of decades of a forestry focused on conifers – in a country that was once naturally dominated by mixed deciduous forests. People do not like to admit that for more than 200 years they have relied on the wrong species of commercial tree (spruce) and have also created artificial, ecologically highly unstable and thus high-risk forest ecosystems. A whole branch of business has become dependent on coniferous wood. And now the German coniferous timber industry is on the verge of bankruptcy.

It would only have been honest and also a sign of political greatness if you and the forestry ministers in Moritzburg had declared: Yes, our forestry industry has made mistakes in the past, and yes, we are ready for a relentless analysis that takes into account not only purely silvicultural, but also forest-ecological aspects. Instead, you have confined yourselves to pre-stamped excuses that are already familiar to everyone and that lack any self-critical reflection.

Clear is: We finally need resting periods for the forest in Germany, which has been exploited for centuries. We need a new, ecologically oriented concept for future forest – not a hectic `forest conversion´, but simply forest development closer towards nature. This gives the forest as an ecosystem the necessary leeway to self-regulate and react to the emerging environmental changes. We need a systemic forest management that is no less profitable than the present one, but must be substantially more stable and resistant to foreseeable environmental changes. The aid for forest owners that all citizens are now required to pay through their taxes is only politically justified in the interest of common good, if the forests of the future that are being promoted by it, do not end up in the next disaster, some of which is produced by the forest management itself.

That is why the signatories request from the the Federal Government, and in particular you, Mrs Klöckner, a master plan worthy of the name:

On disaster areas (mainly in public forests!) reestablishment through natural forest development (ecological succession), among other things with pioneer tree species, is to be brought about. In private forests, ecological succession for reestablishment must be purposefully promoted. Larger bare areas should be planted with a maximum of 400 to 600 large plants of native species per hectare in order to permit ecological succession parallelly.
To promote ecological succession, the areas should no longer be completely and mechanically cleared; as much wood as possible should be left in the stand (to promote optimum soil and germ bed formation, soil moisture storage and natural protection against browsing). In private forests, the abandonment of use in disaster areas should be specifically promoted for ecological reasons and in order to relieve the burden on the timber market.

Regarding the promotion of reestablishment plantings in private forests: priority for native tree species (of regional origin); choose wide planting distances in order to leave enough space for the development of pioneer species. For the forests of the future: Minimize thinning (low-input principle), build up stocks through targeted development towards old thick trees, protect the inner forest climate / promote self-cooling function (should have highest priority due to rapidly progressing climate change!), prohibit heavy machinery, refrain from further road construction and expansion, permit and promote natural self-regulatory development processes in the cultivated forest and on (larger) separate areas in the sense of an compound system; drastically reduce the density of ungulate game (reform of hunting laws).

Like in the field of organic agriculture, which has been established since the 1980s, the crisis of our forests should be the reason today to transform at least two existing forestry-related universities. They should be turned into universities for interdisciplinary forest ecosystem management. This is a contribution not only to the further development of forestry science and silviculture in Germany, but also of global importance! The goal must be to produce wood through largely natural forest production and to start with it here in Germany, the birthplace of forestry.


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