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Wilderness Environmental Ethics
A Quiz

Test your knowledge of backcountry and environmental ethics. The following quiz has been developed by Cliff Speer of CanoeSki Discovery Company, Saskatoon and Peter Goode of Stanley Consulting Group Ltd., Saskatoon, based on concepts from Cliff Jacobson's Canoeing and Camping, Beyond the Basics, and is used with permission of the publisher, I.C.S. Books, Inc.

You are welcome to use the quiz for non-profit, educational purposes, provided you acknowledge the authors as indicated. Please let us know how you plan to use the quiz. If you would like a copy of the quiz to print, use Questions and Answers.

(Select the false statement) To follow the ethical principle of minimum impact camping a responsible canoeist will:
  1. Bathe and wash clothes and dishes in the waterway using only "biodegradable" soap.
  2. Use a free-standing tent.
  3. Use existing campsites and firepits.
  4. Build small cooking fires using only dead wood.
  5. Carry spare garbage bags to pack out non-burnable litter left by thoughtless campers.
1 is false. "Biodegradable" doesn't always mean environmentally friendly. When bacteria attack biodegradable products they use up oxygen which then alters the natural aquatic system and potentially harms fish and aquatic life. It is better to bathe and wash dishes away from streams and lakes and dispose of the water in the forest.
2. To keep water from entering your tent in a heavy rain, dig a shallow trench around it so the run-off will drain harmlessly away.
  1. True
  2. False
  3. Open to interpretation
False. Trenching is unsightly, disturbs the soil, and may result in erosion. It violates the ethical principle of minimum impact camping and may be against park regulations. Use a plastic groundcloth inside your tent and you will stay dry in the heaviest rains.
3. What is the correct way to dispose of tin and aluminum cans, glass containers, and foil?
  1. Wash or burn the cans, pound them flat with a rock, and pack them out in a strong plastic bag along with the glass containers and foil.
  2. Burn them and then bury them.
  3. Bury them at least 30 m from water.
  4. Any of the above methods are acceptable.
1. Cans and glass should be packed out for recycling. To reduce garbage smells, food residue should be washed or burned off. A small cooking fire is not hot enough to burn foil completely, so pack it out as well. To reduce weight, transfer the contents of glass bottles into reusable plastic containers during pre-trip packing.
4. A fallen tree blocks your path on a portage. Someone has already improvised a detour around the obstacle. You should:
  1. Follow the detour and push aside the brush to make it easier for your next trip.
  2. Avoid the detour and lift your gear over the obstacle.
  3. Use your axe or saw to remove the obstacle.
3 (or 2) Try to avoid making new trails to keep the environmental disturbance to a minimum. It is better to keep established trails cleared. Often, it takes only a few minutes effort, and you will be doing your following fellow canoeists a big favor.
5. To properly dispose of human waste and toilet paper:
  1. Bury it over 20 cm deep and 30 m from water.
  2. Human waste degrades quickly; it isn't necessary for it to be buried.
  3. Bury it 10 to 20 cm deep, at least 30 m from water and the campsite.
  4. Burn the toilet paper on the spot and bury the rest of the waste in the organic layer of the soil.
3 (if no existing outhouses or latrines are available). The top 10-20 cm of soil contains the greatest number of organisms (fungi, bacteria) needed to decay fecal matter, so breakdown will occur most rapidly in this humus or organic layer. Dig a "cat-hole" with the heel of your boot or with a small trowel. Bury wastes deep enough so that animals won't dig them up, yet shallow enough so that decomposition is rapid. Toilet paper that is buried with waste in the active soil layer will soon compost in a boreal forest environment. Burning the paper, other than in the firepit, poses a risk of forest fire during dry conditions. High use areas, large groups, or more than a few days stay at one site may require the use of latrines. Also, in arctic & alpine tundra and deserts, human wastes should and often must be packed out.
6. At the end of a portage you realize your half-eaten bag of chips fell out of your canoe as you started the portage. This should prompt you to:
  1. Not worry over such a small piece of litter.
  2. Assume that someone coming behind you picked it up and carry on.
  3. Leave it for the next party through to pick up.
  4. Retrace your steps and retrieve the food and foil packaging.
4 Minimum impact camping and 'treading softly" in the wilderness should be your goal. Any garbage should be packed out or disposed of in your campfire (if appropriate). Always remember to bring a garbage bag for your waste, as well as the litter you find on the trail.
7. If you have meal leftovers, toss them into the bushes. Animals will dispose of the food quickly and completely.
  1. True
  2. False
  3. Open to interpretation
False!! This upsets the ecology of animals and encourages their dependence on humans. Small mammals become used to being fed and will chew through packs looking for food. Of a much more serious nature, bears become bold and aggressive. For your own safety and the health of the wildlife, food waste should be burned completely or packed out.
8. Modern day wilderness travellers like to identify with nature. This is best accomplished by:
  1. Carving your initials in trees around the campsite.
  2. Scratching a message on a prominent lichen-covered rock for all following travellers to appreciate.
  3. Meditating in a secluded spot.
  4. Learning something about the plants and wildlife along the route before starting the trip.
  5. Constructing log benches and tables for camp convenience.
4 Learning about the plants, wildlife, geography, and history will help you more fully appreciate and respect the area you travel to. This knowledge will also help you to make the most environmentally responsible choices.
9. Saskatchewan law provides for penalties up to $5000 and/or imprisonment for up to 6 months for:
  1. Littering on canoe routes in provincial wilderness lands.
  2. Trespassing on sacred Indian burial grounds.
  3. Cutting trees on crown land without a permit.
  4. Collecting projectile points without a permit.
  5. All of the above.
4 Projectile points (e.g. arrow heads) are archaeological artifacts protected by the Heritage Properties Act. It is an offense to remove, alter, or destroy heritage property without permission. Many archaeological and historic sites are located along canoe routes. Discoveries of sites and artifacts should be reported to the Heritage Branch of the Saskatchewan government, and must be left undisturbed.
10. Canoeing offers opportunities to enjoy Saskatchewan's natural areas with few restrictions. Responsible canoeists could express their appreciation of this freedom by:
  1. Respecting the culture and lifeways of communities and individuals living along canoe routes.
  2. Contributing financially to the improvement of canoeing areas.
  3. Joining organizations working for the protection of natural areas.
  4. Finding out from pre-trip research what features en route require special care (e.g. fragile terrain, endangered species, cultural sites, etc)
  5. All of the above.
5 If we treasure the natural world we have a responsibility to preserve it. This can extend well beyond observing minimum impact camping practices to the areas suggested, including educating others.
11. Use a campstove for all your cooking. It is unethical to build fires in a wilderness area.
  1. True
  2. False
  3. Open to interpretation
3 The decision to light a fire should be based upon the sustainability of the DEAD wood supply relative to the recreational use in the area. The local fire hazard and the sensitivity of the terrain to disturbance (e.g. digging of a fire pit) must also be considered. A stove is a more appropriate choice in ecologically sensitive areas. A stove is usually the only choice in arctic and alpine tundra and desert areas. If dead wood is scarce in an area, which is sometimes the case at heavily used campsites, a stove is a more appropriate choice.

Remember, if a fire is used, check the remains by hand before you leave the area. If ashes are hot enough to burn your hand, they are hot enough to cause a forest fire.

12. Of all its major ecozones, Saskatchewan's boreal forest (where most canoeing occurs) is the most vulnerable to impairment from industrial logging. Awareness of this should prompt a responsible canoeist to:
  1. Leave the problem to be solved by government resource managers.
  2. Question forestry companies on their plans to maintain biodiversity throughout their operations.
  3. Support groups working toward a sustainable future for the boreal forest.
  4. Avoid canoeing in areas where logging occurs.
3, although 2 is a commendable response. The advantage of supporting and working with organizations is to combine the resources of many like-minded individuals to have a stronger voice in promoting a better environment. Groups working on forestry issues can be contacted through the Saskatchewan Eco-Network
13. Bright-coloured equipment (canoes, tents, packs, clothing, etc.) detracts from a "wilderness experience".
  1. True
  2. False
  3. Open to interpretation
3, although purists might disagree. Bright-coloured equipment may be a safety consideration for a remote expedition in the event of a rescue party search.
14. What is the best way to dispose of used sanitary items such as pads and tampons?
  1. Burn them, along with toilet paper, where you have your backwoods bathroom.
  2. Pack them out
  3. Burn them in the main campfire
  4. Slip them into your tentmate's pack
Both 2 &3 are acceptable depending on the local forest fire hazard or the ecological sensitivity of the area. If building a fire is not advisable, ziplock bags can be used to pack out the garbage. If conditions permit a campfire, try to select a time when the fire is hot and when others are not cooking or eating nearby, and thoroughly burn your garbage. Burning at the bathroom site is not only inefficient, but could cause a forest fire.
15. The best way to dispose of fish entrails is to:
  1. Pack them out.
  2. Bury them in at least 4 metres of water.
  3. They are biodegradable so it makes no difference how you dispose of them.
  4. Burn them.
4 is good if open fires are permitted, but your fire must be very hot. 2 is also an approved disposal practice. Puncture the fish bladders to sink the entrails and make sure the deep water burial site is not a congested fishing area and is located well off-shore. In parks, check their regulations. Packing the entrails out may be a park requirement.
16. What is the least desirable of the following methods of dealing with animal hazards?
  1. Packing all food in sealable containers.
  2. Storing food well away from the campsite, out of sight of game trails.
  3. Using a large tree near your tent to suspend the food packs from.
  4. Keeping the cooking and tenting areas well separated.
  5. Transferring personal snacks and aromatic toiletries into the group food pack for overnight storage.
3 Hanging food from trees is okay if done properly, i.e. suspended at least 4 m above the ground and not accessible by climbing. However, if the only useful tree is near your tent, the best option is to seal the food containers (after personal snacks have been included) and put them well away from the campsite.
17. What is the best way to dispose of dishwater?
  1. Dump it into the lake or stream where it can become diluted.
  2. Pack it out, along with left-over food.
  3. Spread the water over the forest floor where it can filter into the soil.
  4. Boil it and use it for tea.
3 Before doing your dishes, scrape off left over food particles and burn them in the fire (if you are using a fire). The dish water can then be either spread over the forest floor or dumped into a cathole. Make sure you do this more than 30 m from waterbodies. Don't leave uneaten food lying around. Either plan your meals more carefully, burn as much as possible in the fire, or dispose of small quantities as you would human waste.
18. Many wilderness recreationists will row or paddle rather than use motors. The use of motorized vehicles in the wilderness is unacceptable.
  1. True
  2. False
  3. Open to interpretation
3 There are several factors to consider. Motors are noisy and can distract from the wilderness experience for many people. Also, if care is not taken, oil and gas can pollute the aquatic ecosystem. Driving boats through shallow areas may also affect fish spawning grounds. However, in some cases the use of motorized access is a traditional use with a longer history than recreation. Native hunters and fishermen may depend upon motorboats in gathering their food supply or making a living. Compromises sometimes must be made where non-motorized and motorized recreationists and local residents have to consider and respect each other.
19. To ensure a restful sleep, the wise camper will gather evergreen boughs or moss to make a sleeping pad.
  1. True
  2. False
  3. Open to interpretation
False!! Never cut live trees or shrubs or remove moss. Removal of moss kills the plant and disturbs the soil. Inexpensive sleeping pads are available which provide a much more comfortable sleep.
20. You should call environmentally irresponsible practices which you observe to the attention of the person(s) involved in a friendly, helpful manner and report violations of land and water use regulations to the appropriate authorities (if practical).
  1. True
  2. False
  3. Open to interpretation
True. Whenever possible, be a spokesperson for the environment. Be patient in your explanations and practice what you preach. Many people are unaware of their mistakes and would appreciate advice. If you anticipate a negative response, use common sense and avoid conflict.


Each question is worth one point.
12 or less BACKCOUNTRY BUMPKIN (You need help! Take along someone who scored much higher.)

© 1997 CanoeSki Discovery Company

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Modified on 20 June 97