December 2016 | Volume 22, Number 3


Just as technology has had an incredible impact on contemporary society, so too have technological innovations had significant impacts on wilderness and the wilderness experience. In terms of the relationship between wilderness and technology, for example, the impact of technology associated with the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th to early 19th century shifted societal perceptions of wilderness (e.g., via the Romantic Movement); the appearance of the automobile in the early 20th century facilitated visitation of wilderness and acted as a catalyst for the wilderness preservation movement; and the rise of synthetic materials (e.g., nylon, aluminum) in the mid- to late-20th century further facilitated visitation and allowed people to become much more mobile, comfortable, and safe in wilderness settings (Shultis 2012).

The use of new technologies in the 21st century includes cell and satellite phones, Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS, aka drones), Geographical Positioning System (GPS) units, information sharing via the Internet, and personal locator beacons (PLBs). The effects of the use of these newer technologies is not yet well studied and understood in terms of their biophysical, psychological, and behavioral impacts. Informal discussions with wilderness managers indicate increasing use of many forms of new technologies in wilderness, but the scarcity of empirical study and specific agency policy, combined with insufficient resources, has generally led to a lack of direct management action.

Why are there inconsistencies and unresolved divergent opinions on the use of new technologies in wilderness? Does it reflect only inadequate policy and guidance, poor decision-making tools/processes, insufficient training, a wider societal unwillingness to consider the unintended consequences of technology in our lives, uncertainty about the likely effectiveness of interventions in wilderness, lack of funding or other types of institutional support, or is it just because many of these devices and uses are relatively new? While all of these may contribute to some degree, our fundamental conclusion is that both a lack of empirical research on the impacts of increasing use of new technologies and inadequate policy and/or guidance are the foremost barriers to making good decisions about whether, where, and when to impose management actions. Without clear policy and guidance based on solid research, decision-making frameworks and training are not yet well studied and will inevitably be applied in inconsistent ways, reflecting the personal perspectives of the decision maker at the time regarding the impacts associated with use of new technologies. With necessary study and discussion leading to clear policy and guidance, wilderness stewards should be in a position to apply decision-making tools to make good decisions that hopefully will attract the funding and other institutional support to allow for effective implementation.

The objective of the article is to highlight the potential issues the use of technology might have on wilderness and wilderness management, review the limited literature that exists on the topic, relate these to issues identified by wilderness managers, and examine the implications of this information on policy development and management of global wilderness and other protected areas. This article is based on a recent white paper by the Society for Wilderness Stewardship (Carlson, Shultis, and Van Horn 2015).

Technology in Wilderness: Perceptions and Issues

The use of contemporary technology in and outside of wilderness has the potential to change how wilderness is perceived, experienced, and managed (Douglas and Borrie 2015). These changes will likely range from being very positive to very negative for the variety of actors involved in wilderness preservation and management (e.g., wilderness visitors, special interest groups, and wilderness managers) and for the wilderness itself. As Stankey noted, “If any issue deserves characterization as ‘Janus-like,’ technology is it” (2000, p. 17).

The traditional perception of wilderness has been the physical and psychological challenges of visiting a wild, natural environment. This perception has necessitated acquiring skills of self-reliance to be able to successfully travel and camp in wilderness using nothing more than a map, compass, and good decision making. There has always been a degree of inherent risk in wilderness given the knowledge that natural hazards exist and the chances of swift rescue are diminished by the remoteness of the areas (Hall and Cole 2012). Off-trail travel was typically limited to those who had the necessary skills. Information about opportunities and experiences in wilderness was shared by word of mouth on a limited basis or through guidebooks. Areas in need of special protection (e.g., archaeological sites) were not typically identified to reduce potential impacts.

The use of personal electronic equipment (e.g., cell phones, GPS units, PLBs, etc.) in wilderness areas within the United States is not prohibited by the Wilderness Act of 1964 or subsequent legislation. But the widespread use of some newer technologies, along with the increased use of online information sharing platforms (e.g., social media, trip maps, blogs, websites, electronic guides, etc.) may prompt changes in the perception and use of wilderness and create real and potential impacts for wilderness and wilderness managers. These changes in visitor experience and behavior may include an overreliance by some visitors on technology in remote areas for travel-route location and decision making, and a perception that risk is decreased because emergency rescue can be more easily summoned (Shultis 2012). Changes may also occur because of information transfer that occurs outside of the wilderness. For example, visitors who map a new off-trail travel route can easily share that route via the Internet and social media, which leads to others using the same previously unused route. If the shared information leads to a significant increase in use and impacts to a fragile ecosystem or inadvertently causes others to discover and damage archaeological resources, social and biophysical degradation of wilderness may occur. In addition, some visitors may have a perception of wilderness not as an area of natural conditions and processes to be respected and discovered but rather as an area where they can use their technology (Ewert and Shultis 1999). This may lead to a perception of less contrast between wilderness and other lands and potentially a changed value for wilderness in society.

But there may also be more positive impacts from the use of technology. The increased comfort and safety provided by many recent technological advances (e.g., lightweight materials, improved communication devices) may also lead to additional or longer visits to wilderness areas, including those areas previously perceived to be “out of reach” before the widespread availability of new recreational equipment. The technological advances in new equipment may also allow older users to continue using wilderness areas (e.g., walking poles, lightweight materials) (Shultis 2015). The ability to use new technology may also help address the recent declines in use of many protected area systems. Increasing visits to wilderness may lead to a greater understanding and appreciation and ultimately public and political support for wilderness areas in the public lands.

There is also the potential for landscape scale impacts to wilderness. Requests for power lines, pipelines, water developments, cell towers, and so on, have been and will continue to be proposed for wilderness areas. New technologies may also help make these developments more feasible. Managers may also be tempted to use new technology (e.g., drones, trail-making machines) to perform research or management.

What’s Missing: Gaps in Research and Policy

Underlying the discussion of the use of new technologies in wilderness is the lack of research on the issues noted above. The vast majority of published work on this topic is almost entirely written by academics and is anecdotal in nature, focusing almost completely on the potentially negative consequences of technology (Shultis 2012). Existing literature on the topic also tends to focus on specific types of technology (e.g., communication tools such as cell phones and personal locator beacons or navigation tools such as GPS units), while ignoring others (e.g., lightweight synthetic materials) (e.g., see Borrie 2000; Borrie 2004; Dawson 2007; Dickson 2004; Douglas and Borrie 2015; Ewert and Shultis 1999; Roggenbuck 2000; Van Horn 2007; Watson 2000).

In general, no US agency policy or guidelines are readily available to help managers prepare or take action when needed. Nor has the previously published work managed to generate a sustained debate about the potential impact of technology in wilderness settings. Shultis (2012, p. 117) suggests, “The unwillingness of Western society to question the use of new technology or consider its impacts, the commodification of leisure experiences in our consumer society, and the public desire for safety, comfort and ease also provide challenging roadblocks to such a public debate.”

Finally, the lack of adequate US federal agency wilderness management policy to help wilderness managers address issues of new technology has led to lack of action or, in some cases, inconsistent management approaches as well as uncertainty among wilder-ness managers over how to address existing and emerging examples of this issue. The consequences of inadequate policy may include unnecessary biophysical resource impacts and confusion or misunderstood opportunities for wilderness visitors.

Issue Identification: Wilderness Manager Anecdotes

Recently, an informal request for examples of new technology use in wilderness was distributed in the four US federal agencies with management responsibilities for wilderness. Where new technology is or has been an issue, most managers were addressing impacts on a case-by-case basis, using a combination of monitoring, information, education, and law enforcement techniques. Most respondents indicated a need for more emphasis on better definitions of the various types of new technology, discussion of the appropriate uses of new technology in wilderness, new or clearer agency policy to help evaluate impacts and formulate management strategies, and additional resources to prioritize actions such as visitor information and education (see Carlson, Shultis, and Van Horn 2015).

Managers stated they were experiencing more false alarms from PLBs due to the increasing use of this technology. While many were due to an inadvertent triggering of the device, sometimes alarms were sounded for a relatively minor problem or in a moment of panic. Managers were also encountering situations in which users with a PLB failed to check in with a designated contact person in a timely manner. Sometimes these were proven to be legitimate emergencies, but frequently it was a result of forgetfulness or being out of range. Managers also stated that many of the same concerns identified for PLB use applied to cell phone use (e.g., calls increasingly received for nonemergency situations). However, the ability to communicate directly with the user did provide a chance for the manager to limit the response to an appropriate level, or encourage the user to personally deal with it.

The larger concern was that these devices seemed to be changing the wilderness user’s attitude away from self-reliance toward a reliance on others if a problem developed. Many managers wondered if a new generation of users would develop the necessary skills to deal with wilderness problems on their own if the technology were to fail. They were also concerned that users were taking more risks or extending themselves beyond their limits on the assumption that they could contact someone to bail them out. These concerns were based on conversations with users and appraisals of changing experience levels in users made by experienced field staff.

Managers reported several emerging issues related to the sharing of extremely detailed trip information that includes GPS data and digital imagery, sometimes captured by UAS flights, that is now wide-spread via the Internet. For example, they noted significant and sudden increases in use that can be directly related to information published on the Internet about a specific location or route and were particularly concerned about use changes in areas without designated trail systems (e.g., increases in informal trail development and a proliferation of campsites). Because use levels typically were low in these areas, they were often not viewed as a priority for monitoring in the past, and, in many cases, baseline information did not exist for quantitative evaluations. However, we also found several examples of sufficient monitoring leading to recognition of the issue. In these cases, management action taken through visitor information and education and proactive contacts with user organizations, web managers, bloggers, and others led to some changes in the availability and use of the information by visitors, and a reduction of impacts.

In addition, longtime managers felt that there have been several significant changes in how users are interacting with wilderness. For example, users were routinely taking more electronic equipment (and solar powered chargers) into the backcountry. There also seemed to be a very strong desire to constantly “document” and share the trip with others. Hikers could be found gathered at “hotspots” for connectivity, the locations of which are noted in apps or on the Internet. Digital cameras allow hundreds of photos to be taken and linked to GPS points, and video footage of a hike or climb is commonplace. Are the more contemplative values of wilderness that are linked to its pristine and primitive aspects being missed because users never really leave modern society behind on their trips?

Similarly, staff that regularly con-tacted visitors also report that there has been a greater expectation and desire for very detailed trip planning information from others. They want a trip that has been determined to be the “best” by someone else rather than help planning a trip that might be the best for them. There is a reluctance to try something that isn’t already rated and documented by someone else.

Managers also felt that light-weight equipment has allowed hikers to travel faster. This has changed use patterns, particularly along trails such as the Pacific Crest, where long-distance hiking is popular. Use allocation models based on previous hiker behavior are not working as well as in the past. Managers could not link a greater need for rescue to the use of lightweight equipment, but they did feel that many trips were ended sooner than expected due to lightweight gear not providing adequate protection during extreme weather conditions common to many wilderness areas.

Current Policy

As previously described, there exists a lack of current policy from the four US federal agencies applicable to new technologies (Table 1). The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has addressed new technologies by requiring that “new activities and technologies will be evaluated as they are developed” and identifies specific concerns related to geocaches. The other agencies do not yet have specific policies to address new technologies, although the National Park Service (NPS) has recently prohibited all use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) by visitors over national parks. The BLM, Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and Forest Service (FS) have considered forming separate task forces to address the UAS issue for wilderness areas they manage but are not currently formulating policy for other new technologies. The FS has also identified the commercial use of video filmed by UAS as an additional issue that requires new policy and management strategies.

Future Research and Management Responses

The existing literature from wilderness researchers tends to focus on highlighting the potential negative impacts of modern technology on risk perceptions and behavior of wilderness users. Most frequently, communication technology (e.g., cell phones and personal locator beacons) is identified as being problematic, based on anecdotes provided by managers and local/regional media outlets (e.g., see the comments provided by managers above). One empirical study found in a sample of northern California wilderness users a “substantial subset of visitors (high risk takers in the pro-technology cluster; 23% of the sample) with a combination of traits that managers have expressed concern over – high risk takers who (1) believe that technology reduces many of the dangers people associate with being in the wilderness, (2) believe that having technology makes people think their safety is not their personal responsibility, (3) believe that technology creates a genuine increase in safety for wilderness users, and (4) are willing to take more risks and then use that technology to bail themselves out of trouble” (Martin and Pope 2012, p. 125).

Future research could assess the following basic and frequently asked questions facing wilderness managers:

  • How does the use of modern technology increasingly embedded within recreational equipment influence the perception of risks and actual risk-taking behavior in the wilderness?
  • Does the use of advanced technology change the meaning of the wilderness experience, and if so, how and why do these changes occur?
  • How do users think managers should deal with the increased use of technology in wilderness areas (i.e., which managerial approaches would be supported or considered most appropriate)?
  • What are managers’ perceptions of this issue?
  • How important is it and what potential approaches are considered appropriate?

But the deeper questions about societal use of technology should not be ignored. For example:

  • How do our social and cultural perceptions of the role of technology in society reflect or influence wilderness users’ perceptions of recreational technology?
  • Why is concern expressed over certain types of technology and not others?
  • Why is it so hard for Western culture to critically examine the cumulative impact of technology on society (i.e., the so-called “unintended consequences” of technology)?
  • Why did concern over drones in natural areas lead to a relatively rapid response from the National Park Service (see Table 1 above), while other technologies have not been singled out as being worthy of concern?


The positive impacts of existing and future technology should also be assessed. A recent qualitative study of primarily highly experienced wilderness recreationists in New Zealand found that users almost completely focused on the positive attributes of technology: the increased comfort and safety provided by new technologies allowed users to gain new skills, undertake more trips, and visit new areas. They saw technology as a great enabler to access, remain comfortable, and stay safe within the wilderness (Shultis 2015). Similarly, Martin and Blackwell (2016) studied the impact of technology on visitors to the Sequoia-Kings Canyon Wilderness in California, and suggested that the use of new technology allowed visitors to have less stress and worry while on their wilderness visit, giving them and their loved ones an added sense of security. Visitors suggested they were able to enjoy solitude when they carried the technology with them. Further, risk takers said they would be just as likely to take the same risks with or without the technology (e.g., cell phones, personal locator beacons). It is interesting that the very few empirical studies of wilderness visitors almost completely reflect the positive impacts of technology on the wilderness experience, while the nonempirical literature (reflecting management concerns) almost completely focuses on the negative impacts of technology on the wilderness experience. Why do managers and users have such different perspectives on the impact of technology?

In addition to the need for additional empirical studies on the impacts of new technologies in wilderness, there is also a need to explore the development of more definitive policies to manage potential and existing impacts. As noted below, the four federal agencies in the United States have not yet formulated policy related to new technology (except for the NPS prohibition on the public use of drones in all parks), and managers are struggling to address impacts when they do occur. Basic questions center around whether use of some or all of the new technologies should be allowed or encouraged or whether they should be discouraged or limited by either regulation or information/education.

Any regulatory action will require supportive data on changes in use level, patterns of use, and biophysical impacts. Our discussions with managers indicated that this type of data is not normally available. Agencies need to consider ways to gather this data for the areas where change is most likely to occur now because of the time required to acquire this information. Situations in which it appears changes are already occurring have been previously discussed in this document. Areas that are managed for dispersed use such as trailless zones or trail corridors where use is regulated by trailhead quotas seem to be priorities for immediate attention. Unique recreational opportunities for self-reliance, solitude, and naturalness that are key wilderness values can be quickly lost in these pristine areas once use escalates and impacts such as new informal trails or camp-sites occur.

Concentrated use management systems that employ designated trails and campsites have some resilience to change, as opposed to dispersed management systems, which can be quickly altered. The authors understand the budgetary and staffing limitations that land managers face today, but suggest it is essential that baseline inventories for these dispersed use areas be made a priority. Once again, additional research on more effective methods for inventory techniques in dispersed management systems could ease the already difficult job that managers face. Extensive research has been done on measuring the condition of designated trails and campsites. Some of these techniques are transferable, but many are not. The worst outcome would be for agencies to devote their limited resources to poor data collection that would not be useful or defendable.

There is also a role for nongovernmental organizations with regard to the issue of technology of in wilderness. One of the challenges for conducting baseline inventories is the amount of area that needs to be examined. The scale is likely well beyond the abilities of even the best staffed wilderness operations. Cooperative volunteer efforts with agencies to conduct basic presence/absence surveys of impacts could significantly increase the ability to accomplish the needed work. A side benefit for the agency is that it also provides a way to engage user groups and make them aware of an important issue in a constructive way. This type of collaborative engagement has been successfully used in other land management issues.

Perhaps the most important recommendation that can be made is for the agencies to acknowledge that the use of new technology can create changes, both negative and positive, in wilderness resources and visitor experiences, and that it is an important issue they currently face. Once it is recognized as such, wilderness managers have a wealth of professional experience and creative energy that can be focused on how best manage these activities for both the benefit of the resource and the users of wilderness. Partnerships with academic institutions could also be used to generate additional research and perspectives.


The current state of both knowledge and policy related to new technology use in wilderness seems inadequate to address the needs of managers and wilderness visitors. Also, decisions about whether to take action against use of new technologies have been inconsistent. Many managers take a reactive approach to these impacts as the basis for visitor education or regulation, but others wonder if there is value or even necessity in the use of new technologies in wilderness that can enhance both understanding and support for wilderness. In addition, the four federal agencies are not using a coordinated approach (e.g., only the NPS currently bans UAS in wilderness); clear and instructive agency policy, informed by research, is lacking.

To help move forward on the issue of new technologies in wilderness, it is important to remember that technology is always a double-edged sword in society, having both positive and negative impacts simultaneously. It seems likely that the impacts of technology on the wilderness experience and resource are similarly complex as well as mutually constructive and destructive: our managerial response to technology should address both aspects resulting from the use of technology in the wilderness.

Adams (1996, p. xii) noted that in modern society, “ongoing technological change presents us with a highly complex, contradictory set of challenges. Systematically linked in ways that are often counterintuitive, these challenges include irregular, nonlinear paths of advance that defy prediction. Enveloping and invading our lives at every level, they call for choices in which short-run and long-run considerations are forcibly blurred by attendant uncertainties.” These challenges are certainly reflected in the issue of technology in wilderness, but the increased use of research on the topic, creation of policies, and increased internal and external discussion on the issues and questions raised by increasing new or emerging technologies would help wilderness managers take proactive as opposed to reactive steps to maintain or improve both the social and biophysical attributes of wilderness.

TOM CARLSON is retired staff of the Arthur Carhart National Wilderness Training Center; email:


JOHN SHULTIS is an associate professor of the Ecosystem Science and Management Program at the University of Northern British Columbia; email:


JOE VAN HORN is the retired wilderness program coordinator of Denali National Park and Preserve.



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