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BSA Outdoor Ethics

BSA Outdoor Ethics

Tread Lightly!

In this newsletter we continue to outline the Tread Lightly! principles and how they apply to the various outdoor activities including motorized recreation, water recreation, winter recreation, backcountry sport, hiking, camping, and more. This material will prepare you for enjoyable outdoor experiences and at the same time, help you share the information on how to be a responsible influence on nature and those around you.


These are the basic tools for responsible recreation. In the following paragraphs you will find in-depth information on how to Tread Lightly! by minimizing your impacts on waterways and shorelines. By utilizing these principles and the detailed suggestions provided in the guide, public and private waterways are more likely to remain open for recreation and enjoyment. 

EDUCATE YOURSELF by learning rules and regulations, planning for your trip, taking recreation skills classes, and knowing how to use and operate your equipment safely.


Motorized Watercraft

•Boating rules may vary from state to state. Regulations such as operating age and distance from other boats, swimmers, and the shore often differ, so you must know local ordinances before you go. The Personal Watercraft Industry Association (PWIA) model legislation recommends a minimum age of 16 for drivers. In states where children under 16 are allowed to operate watercraft, adult supervision is recommended. These laws apply to all inboard boaters including PWCs.

•Weather, particularly over open water, can change quickly. It’s crucial you get a weather forecast before setting out for the day. This will allow you to dress and plan accordingly. Also, keep a close eye on the skies when on

the water. While riding, watch for increasing winds, darkening skies, lightning, and thunder. When faced with adverse weather, return to shore. If caught in bad weather and faced with threatening waves, reduce speed and approach waves at a 45-degree angle.

•Modifications to your craft may reduce safety and reliability and may make the vessel illegal to use.

•Make sure you have enough fuel and oil for your entire trip. Waterways aren’t like the open road, and fueling opportunities are far less frequent. Think ahead; fill up on gas and oil before leaving, bring extra fuel if necessary, and know where potential fuel stops will be along your route. A good rule of thumb is to use no more than one-third going and one- third coming back; that way you’ll have one- third in reserve in case of an emergency.

•Know your machine and study your manual! Jumping on and taking off is a lot more fun than reading the Owner’s Manual first, but the long run if you take the time to understand your machine’s operating characteristics by reading the information the manufacturer has provided. Be sure you are completely familiar with the controls and operation of your watercraft, and be comfortable performing basic maintenance.

•The best teacher is experience. Learn from someone very familiar with your type of watercraft, and, if possible, take a boating education class. Your local dealer, state Department of Natural Resource (DNR), or Coast Guard (800/366-BOAT) will know of low-cost or free classes in your area.

•Maintenance is vital to keep your machine running trouble-free. Even casual inspections before and after you recreate can prevent problems.

•More involved maintenance should be done on a regular basis. If you are uncomfortable performing any of the suggested functions, have your local dealer tend to these tasks. It will be worth it in the long run.

•Pack a tool kit and carry a towrope in case you or another boat needs a tow.

Personal Watercraft (PWC)

•Licensing regulations for PWC vary from state to state. Check with your local dealer, enthusiast groups, or state department of recreation for the laws in your area.

•Consider purchasing PWC insurance.

•PWCs come with a standard tool kit. While not fancy, the tool kit includes plug wrenches, screwdrivers, other wrenches, among other tools: everything you need to complete a minor fix.

Basic Water Safety

•Use the buddy system; never swim alone.

•Swim when a lifeguard is present.

•Follow all posted rules. If no rules are posted, use common sense.

•A PFD is recommended for inexperienced swimmers when around the water.

•Swimmers with limited water experience should stay in water less than chest deep.

•Know the water you are in and all possible dangers associated.

•Do not swim if there are indications of bad weather.

•Do not dive headfirst unless the area is clearly posted for diving.

•Learn to swim. Seek out your local partners in the community that offer swimming lessons.


Boating is meant to be fun. You can keep it that way by using common sense and following a few simple guidelines.

Motorized Watercraft

•Don’t start your engine if you smell gas vapors. Check the engine compartment, and identify where the smell is coming from (i.e. fuel line, gas tank, engine). In addition, it’s never a good idea to smoke near your watercraft.

•Always carry a U.S. Coast Guard approved, working fire extinguisher with you when boating. It’s the law, and all watercraft have specific places to store the extinguisher. Periodically, check the canister to be sure it is still pressurized.

•It is essential that you know distress signals and warning symbols. Local clubs, dealers, or the Coast Guard can provide you with this short list. You should also carry on board, a whistle, flares (which are particularly useful when riding on a large body of water), a distress flag, or a brightly colored cloth.

•Don’t overload your boat. It is dangerous because boats lose buoyancy and stability, risking capsizing.

•Be aware of your surroundings at all times so you can react and respond in time to avoid accidents.

•Be sure to teach new users how to ride/drive the watercraft, and better yet, see that they take a boating education class.

•You must report all accidents within 10 days when property damage exceeds $500. Fatalities and missing persons must be reported immediately, and formal reports are due within 48 hours. To know whom to report to, be familiar with the entity that manages the waterway and numbers to call in case of emergency.

Personal Watercraft (PWC)

•Stay within your ability. It is natural for people to want to push their limits, but remember you are on a high performance vessel capable of high speeds in an environment that can change suddenly and without warning. Beginners should always start at low speeds in un- crowded areas and gradually work their way into more advanced riding.

•Ride in control. PWCs have become more powerful each year and can now cross a lot of water per second. Racing should be saved for sanctioned events.

•Know and observe all speed limits; it’s your responsibility.

•Remember that you must apply throttle to steer. If you try to steer without depressing the throttle, the craft will continue in its current direction.

•Know your PWCs load and towing limits, and do not go beyond the established weight limits.

•Many PWCs are capable of pulling a skier. In addition to the driver and skier, you should have a “spotter,” someone who sits on the back of the PWC and monitors the skier.

•Pulling a skier requires a towrope of reasonable length. A good rule of thumb is to stay at least twice the length of the rope away from any object or potential hazard.

•Be aware of all traffic and objects in your area. The sun can often distort or disguise objects, so pay attention to what is going on around you. Because of a PWCs small size, swells, obstructions, and other boats can affect sight lines, so approach other objects with caution. Do not operate directly behind other vessels and do not turn sharply so that other boaters cannot avoid you.

•Riding a PWC can be strenuous and tiring, and the wind and sun quickens fatigue. Use sun block and take frequent breaks. When you are tired, you are more susceptible to accidents.

•Be sure to keep your lanyard attached to your wrist, PFD, or clothing as appropriate. Its smart, and it’s the law.

•You and your passengers should wear a Coast Guard approved Personal Flotation Device (PFD) which is acceptable for PWC use. All PFDs contain information regarding the type of PFD it is. Based on Coast Guard statistics from the early 2000s, approximately three out of four boat drowning victims were not wearing

a PFD, and the vast majority of accidental boating deaths were due to drowning (www. As a PWC user, you are far more likely to fall into the water than any other boater.

•No boater spends more time in the water than a PWC user. Falls can be a fun, sometimes a welcome part of riding. However, reboarding can be difficult, especially in deep waters. Always reboard your craft from the rear, and ride carefully and slowly in traffic to avoid unwanted spills that may make reboarding difficult.

•You and your passengers should also wear appropriate protective clothing, such as wetsuits. You can receive severe internal injuries if you fall into the water or are near the jet thrust nozzle. These activities may force water into body cavities. Normal swimwear does not prevent water from entering body cavities. Wetsuits can also help to protect against hypothermia and abrasions.

•You may want to consider sunglasses or goggles, as they can protect your eyes from the wind, water, and sun. However, you might find that they are distracting or distort your vision.

•Water gloves and footwear (booties) are also recommended. Gloves can help keep blisters at bay and protect you from cuts and bruises. Booties help protect feet from injuries caused by underwater objects.

•Make every effort to ride with a partner, even if that person is on a different kind of boat. Not only is there fun in numbers, but also riding with at least one companion is essential to your safety. The buddy system is vital to assure quick assistance should problems arise. If your group only has one boat, stay within eyesight of shore.

•PWC are not equipped with lights. Therefore, do not attempt to ride at night.

Survival in the Water

Boating is a safe, fun activity, but as with any sport, potential risks are involved. Knowing what to do in case of an emergency could save a life.

•Knowing first aid is not the law, but it is a smart idea. Being familiar with resuscitation, heat exhaustion, hypothermia, and how to treat a wound can be invaluable.

 Any exposure to water that is colder than your core body temperature (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit) can eventually elicit symptoms

of hypothermia. Riding in water of less than 70 degrees greatly hastens the risk; so always wear a wetsuit or dry suit in these conditions. Signs of hypothermia include shivering, dizziness, confusion, drowsiness, numbness, weakness, and impaired judgment and vision. Get any victim of hypothermia out of the cold and into dry, warm clothing as quickly as possible.

•If you fall in cold water, reboard your vessel as quickly as possible. You lose body heat 25 times faster in water than from air of the same temperature.

•Do not give the person with hypothermia anything to eat or drink unless he or she is fully conscious, and NEVER give the victim alcohol. Warm the victim’s body slowly. After full consciousness is restored, feed the victim warm liquids and/or soup. 

For further information, visit the Thread Lightly! website at: 

For any information on Outdoor Ethics visit the Outdoor Ethics website at: 

Information on all William T. Hornaday awards visit the BSA website at:

If you have further questions, please contact the Pacific Harbors Council Outdoor Ethics Advocate, Jesus Lee Perez, at or 757-272-7921.