The Department of the Interior conserves and manages over 70 percent of all federal public lands for the benefit and enjoyment of the American people. From parks and historic sites to refuges and recreation areas, our public lands are admired by people around the world. As more families and friends look to public lands as a way to live happier and healthier lives during the pandemic, it’s more important than ever to recreate responsibly. Different land agencies have different missions, which means not all public lands have the same rules and regulations. So, whether you’re a first-time visitor or a public land pro, follow and share these tips to help spread the word about #TeamPublicLands!
Check agency websites or stop by a contact station before you set out to learn about fees, pick up permits, check the weather and make a plan. Know your limits and pack the proper gear for your public lands adventure. Not sure where to start? Check out the 10 essentials!
With over 450 million acres to explore, federal public lands are a great place to get outside, stay socially distant, and improve your mental and physical health. But if you’re inside a building or exploring a place where social distancing isn’t possible -- like a crowded overlook or passing someone on a trail -- you’ll need to wear a mask.
If you’re exploring public lands with a designated trail system, stay on the trail to focus your impacts. Yes, that might mean walking through a mud puddle on the trail. If you’re exploring public lands without trails, then do your best to stay on durable surfaces like rocks, sand or gravel or have your group spread out to prevent unplanned trails from forming when that isn’t possible.
The safest way to view wildlife is through a telephoto lens, a spotting scope or a pair of binoculars. Animals are wild and unpredictable. Do not approach, follow, feed or bait any animal. Required distances may vary, but a general rule is to stay 100 yards away from predators, like bears and wolves (whales too!), and 25 yards from all other animals.
If a trash can happens to be full, find another. Animals that eat human food can become habituated and may need to be killed. Food scraps belong in the trash, not on the trail!
Whether you’re living the van life or backcountry camping, the goal is to always leave a clean camp. That means pack out all trash you might find, avoid leaving lasting marks on trees and rocks, and replace any natural items you may have moved when setting up your camp. Some public land designations allow for hunting and gathering of natural items like antlers, plants and rocks, while others do not. If you aren’t sure what’s allowed, the safe bet is to leave anything you find for the next person to enjoy.
Using a toilet should be your first choice. If that’s not possible then your number two choice should be to find an area 70 yards away from water, roads, trails and campsites and dig a cat hole, bury your waste 6-8 inches down, wrap your toilet paper in a plastic bag, and throw it in the garbage. If you’re exploring on public lands that allow pets, don’t forget to clean up after your furry friend!
Check seasonal and local fire restrictions before you burn. If fires are allowed, use an existing fire ring when available, NEVER leave your fire unattended and completely extinguish your fire before you leave. Remember, if it’s too hot to touch, it’s too hot to leave.
No picture is worth hurting yourself or damaging the resources of our public lands. Be aware of your surroundings whether near wildlife, water, roads or steep cliffs. Many of our public lands are in remote locations and help is not always a quick phone call away.
Drone regulations vary from site to site so it’s best to look up if they are permitted for the specific public land you plan to visit. Drones can also disrupt natural soundscapes and wildlife so it’s always polite to ask your neighbors if they mind before you launch and to be mindful of nearby wildlife. There are a few areas and situations where you should always keep your drone grounded -- near wildland fire or search and rescue operations, Wilderness or Primitive Areas, and all lands managed by the National Park Service.
Hundreds of millions of people visit public lands each year. When you’re exploring public lands, consider how your actions might affect the experience of others around you. Whether it’s playing music on the trail, using high-power lights for night photos, or using a tripod at crowded overlooks, remember that public lands belong to all of us.
It’s no secret where places like Old Faithful and the Grand Canyon are located. But if you’re looking to geotag a lesser-known or backcountry spot on social media, ask yourself if that area can handle an increased amount of people. Does it have restrooms, garbage cans and a designated trail? If the answer is no, then consider using a generic tag versus GPS coordinates.