San Diego Natural History Museum--Your Nature ConnectionSDNHM Field Guide

Wilderness Ethics

Take only pictures, leave only footprints

There is no way to resolve the paradox of the great attraction of the wilderness. Its undisturbed isolation is inevitably changed when we respond to the attraction. We are uncomfortably aware that our very presence violates an unspoiled environment. But there are ways to minimize the effects of our invasion. We can recognize where we are most disruptive, and we can adopt a few simple precepts.

Take no living specimens of any kind. Collect no archaeological specimens (this includes arrowheads, potsherd and chipping flakes). If you pick anything up, replace it exactly as you found it. Beachdrift, too, has its place in the total scene. Within the few years that groups like ours have been coming to beaches, the depletion of natural items has become painfully obvious. Although the drift shells are almost irresistible, we urge restraint on both aesthetic and ecological grounds. Even shells play a part in maintaining a "natural balance." You should also be reminded that the importation from Mexico of bones or any parts of marine mammals is a federal offense (Mexico and U.S.) and is dealt with very seriously. Carefully replace any rocks or objects turned over for observation, whether in tide pools or dry desert land.

Nesting Mourning DoveKeep away from occupied bird nests. Your presence may effectively evict the occupant. A frightened bird may abandon its home permanently. Eggs left even for a short time may "spoil" on exposure to the ambient temperature. Hatchlings also are susceptible to temperature changes, and parents may not return to feed them. Moreover, eggs and hatchlings can be preyed upon by predators (birds, snakes, etc.) when the parents are frightened from the nest.

  • If you are with a group, please follow your leader's suggestions. Some areas are off limits. Osprey and pelican colonies are especially vulnerable to disturbance and should not be visited up close. Usually a cautious and planned slow approach, followed by sitting quietly at a safe distance from the colonies, will enable you to make good observations and take excellent photographs. Remember, a great photo means very little if the animals are killed as a result.
  • Whenever possible, keep to the established trails. Try to walk in a single file. We want to leave everything as pristine as possible for others to cherish, protect and enjoy.
  • Please pack out all trash with you (including toilet paper) rather than leaving it in rest stops or camping areas. Coyotes dig up everything so burying does not work.
  • When traveling in Baja California, please respect the homes, properties, and life styles of the Mexicans we may encounter. Remember, you are a guest in their country.

When traveling in SDNHM group expeditions, please remember:

  • Absolutely no pets, no firearms, no illegal drugs, no sound-generating equipment.
  • Send in driver-passenger information and medical release form one week prior to trip. If driving in Mexico, drivers buy Mexican insurance.
  • Be on time. The trip leader will leave fifteen minutes after the departure time. Travel instructions will be given during that fifteen minutes.
  • Have all your personal gear including food, water, medications, identification and Mexican money, if needed.
  • We may stop at a local market or bakery, and at a money exchange, but this depends on many factors and is at the discretion of the leader.

In Camp

When traveling in SDNHM group expeditions, you will be given specific instructions for the day's activities. If for some reason you missed them, find the leader and ask.

  • Stake your tent securely; winds can come up unexpectedly.
  • Be on time for activities. Expect to begin your day at approximately 8:30 A.M., dressed for the field with lunch packed. Time will vary with daylight savings time and activity, such as an early morning bird walk.
  • Notify leader if you are feeling ill.

Personal Hygiene

  • Take care of your personal needs away from camp and off trails. Use a trowel to bury waste, digging down about eight inches. Decomposing bacteria are near the surface. There is no need to bury urine. Bring all toilet paper out with you. Most of us find it convenient to carry a small zip-lock bag for this purpose. Remember-burying paper only challenges coyotes.
  • When using restroom facilities in Mexico, do not put paper in toilet - use nearby receptacle.
  • If you leave the camp for a walk, please notify the leader of your route along with the time you expect to return.

On Trail

  • Know your limitations and check with the leader if you are unsure about the physical requirements for the trek. You will be respected for staying behind if you feel unprepared for the hike. It is up to the leader to decide if it is safe for you to return to camp separately from the group.
  • Stay with the group. If you step off the trail for personal reasons, let the person in front or following you know. Again, you are responsible for not getting lost.

Highway Caravaning

Many factors make it very difficult for caravans to stay together. Do not panic if you lose sight of the group. You are not lost. Radios are provided for the first and last vehicle but are only useful within a certain distance. Magnetic Museum signs are available for easier identification.

Special considerations when in Mexico:

  • Mexican roads have narrow lanes, generally without shoulders, and are full of fast trucks or very slow trucks releasing diesel fumes.
  • In some areas the pavement has a rounded crown and rests on a raised roadbed requiring careful steering since vehicles tend to drift to the right.
  • High winds create driving problems for operators of large and/or high-clearance vehicles. Cars frequently spread out because of the need to pass.
  • Be careful when passing on narrow winding roads, since trucks tend to drift over the center divider.
  • For safety, the road conditions may dictate slower speeds than in the US:
    40 to 50 m.p.h. on level terrain, 20 to 30 m.p.h. in hilly or mountainous areas.


Whenever a turn is made off the highway, the vehicles will stop, line up, and wait until all have assembled. Stay alert. If you pass the group, turn around as soon as possible and rejoin the group. At some point the leader may decide to pull over for the vehicles to reassemble. This is up to the leader and depends on the availability of a wide area being seen in time to pull over safely. Safety is of the first importance.

Visual Contact

Naturally, drivers will pay attention to the car in front. Assist your driver in keeping the vehicle behind you in sight. If you lose sight of that vehicle, note the time and place (include your mileage) so that if it is necessary to go on a search, the leader will know how far back to go. The sweep vehicle will be the last in line and will wait with any stopped vehicle.


Continue to watch vehicles in front (know where you are going) and behind. Whenever a turn is made on a dirt road be sure that the vehicle behind you can see your turn. Wait long enough to be sure he/she is following. Do not assume; be sure. Because it is desirable to cut down on dust (for people and engines), cars will space themselves out on dirt roads. The leader will occasionally pull over to interpret the landscape and to be sure the group is together.

Missing Vehicles

It is up to the leader's discretion to decide what to do if a vehicle is long overdue. Traffic, bathroom stops, and flat tires all take time. One vehicle will return to the last place the vehicle was seen. It is assumed that the vehicle (and the sweep), following all the safe driving tips mentioned, will be seen and given help as needed. All this becomes less of a problem if the lead and sweep vehicle are in radio contact. However, distance, topography, and batteries can influence reception and prevent use of the radios.

Other Considerations

When stopped, stay with the group. If you must leave for personal reasons, be sure that your driver and the sweep vehicle know that you will be gone for a few moments. In a large group it is very possible that you will not be missed, so it is your responsibility to not get lost. If you need to make a bathroom stop or are feeling unwell, speak to your driver. Your driver will stop at the next appropriate place.

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