A Wilderness Ethic

About a decade ago, I decided I would fulfill a dream by enrolling on a National Outdoor Leadership School field course. I spent the next six months preparing, then strapped a 60-pound pack on my back and headed out into the Wyoming wilderness with a team of 12 students and two instructors.

I learned many lessons during that month on the trail (you never know how much you’ll miss music till you go a month without iGadgets), but one that’s stuck with me forever comes from a short essay one of our instructors read to us after a big hamburger feed on our first night back in town after a month in the field.

It’s called “Briefing for Entry Into a More Harsh Environment,” and it’s been a touchstone for NOLS students since Morgan Hite wrote it in 1991. The essay lists 11 habits that are essential for survival in the wilderness, and urges students returning to the “frontcountry” to maintain them in a culture of distraction and interruption.

These 11 habits of mind boil down to living simply, challenging ourselves to keep learning, and taking care of people and things.

Those are good rules for any time and place, and Morgan correctly notes that it doesn’t take a month in the mountains to learn them.

But, as we all know, it’s also quite possible for the amount of stuff in the frontcountry to overwhelm the simple principles of survival in the wilderness. You don’t have to go all the way to Wyoming every time that happens, but it can be useful to take a hard look at our mental and physical “stuff” from time to time and determine how much we really need to be carrying.