Flying a drone while hiking & backpacking in parks, forests, and wilderness areas
This article is geared towards the outdoorsy-types who wish to operate their drone in the backcountry and other designated scenic areas, and aren’t entirely clear on the rules of where they can and can’t fly.
In some places here you’ll see “hobbyist” and “Part 107” or “commercial”. Which moniker applies to you?
- If you’re taking photos or video for yourself or to show your friends, you’re a hobbyist.
- If you’re a photographer who earns any kind of income with your photos and/or video (including bloggers & vloggers with advertising income) you fall under the “commercial” or “Part 107” rules if those images or videos are associated with your money-maker.
Updated May 19, 2017.
The bottom line: Be respectful and don’t ruin it for the rest of us!
I know social media has turned into a giant popularity contest. You post a cool photo and wait for the likes to come in. Then another guy says, “that looks cool, I’m going to recreate that shot and see if I can get more likes.” Guilty.
But this can create a culture more concerned about “likes” than “laws & respect,” and it screws everyone. If the National Parks Service is on the verge of allowing limited use of drones in national parks, but some clowns keep crashing them into geysers, none of us will ever be allowed to fly there.
One person shits their pants, and we all wear diapers, as they say. Don’t shit your pants.
Before flying your drone for the first time
ALL Commercial drones between 0.55 and 55 pounds must be registered with the FAA – that’s pretty much anything you’d buy on the consumer or prosumer market. It doesn’t matter if you’re strictly a hobbyist or using your drone for commercial purposes. It must be registered if it’s flying in the National Airspace System. A court ruled on May 19, 2017, that the FAA cannot require hobbyist pilots to register their aircraft. Part 107 pilots must still do this.
You can pay a third-party service $10 to do it for you, or you can do it for $5 yourself at the FAA website. Registration is super-easy and is valid for three years. Go to registermyuas.faa.gov when you have two minutes of time for this task.
Are you a hobbyist? You don’t need a drone license. Continue to the next section.
But if the flight will make any money for you at all you’re supposed to be licensed and operating under the Part 107 regulations.
It’s straightforward and easy to get a drone license if you’re already licensed under FAR Part 61.
Even if you’re not already a licensed pilot, you’ll just need to study or take an online course and then take a test. Check out the process at the FAA Safety website.
One of the reasons I’ve despised drones for so long is because I’ve had a few close calls while piloting other aircraft. See, it’s easy to develop negative stereotypes about drones!
Chances are you’re a nature lover if you’re out backpacking or hiking and taking excellent scenic photos & video of said nature.
Please respect your fellow nature lovers and don’t harass them with your drone. The same goes for wildlife. You could permanently alter their behavior and not in a good way.
I’m not saying you’re going to intentionally harass anyone or anything – but you could be spoiling a perfectly zen moment for someone if you’re buzzing above them. Just be considerate of others, and everyone wins!
Stay in control
You must maintain sight of your drone at all times.
I’ve been to a lot of forums where people say, “well, that only applies if you’re in crowded areas” or “line of sight with the controller is okay, but you don’t actually have to see the drone”.
Argue all you want, but I’d be happy to send you a link to the law. In very black-and-white terms it says you must maintain visual contact with your drone unless you’re operating under a Part 107 waiver. You don’t have complete situational awareness when you’re looking through the soda straw.
Where You Can & Can’t Fly
Airports and Hospitals – RESTRICTED
Don’t fly near them. Period dot.
If you’re a hobbyist operating within five miles of an airport or helipad (i.e., hospital), you’re supposed to notify that airport or hospital. This could include a voicemail or email, but if ATC or the airport manager tells you not to fly there, it’s in everyone’s best interest if you comply.
If you’re flying under the Part 107 commercial rules, you need an authorization or waiver to operate in the airspace surrounding most airports (Class B, C, D, or E SFC). The only way to get this is through a web portal. You can’t call the airport. Authorizations are supposed to be nearly instant, but waivers could take months.
Let’s look at flying a drone at Lake Tahoe. Many great hiking trails & scenic spots are within the Class E SFC area for Lake Tahoe airport. You need an authorization (permission!) to fly in here under Part 107. You must notify the airport to operate as a hobbyist. A hospital is nearby as well.
National Parks Service – PROHIBITED
I think most people know this is illegal. Can you imagine if everyone who owned a drone brought it to places like Arches or Yosemite? You’d be getting “buzzed off” of Angel’s Landing!
This interim rule applies to National Parks, National Seashores, National Monuments, National Recreation Areas, and any other land administered by the National Park Service. That’s a lot of very photogenic land!
We may soon see some exceptions to this interim rule, but for now, just don’t bring your drone with you to any of these areas. B4UFLY and drone control apps won’t remind you of restrictions in all places. Don’t rely solely on them – know who manages the land you’re on.
Penalties could be as high as six months in jail and a $5,000 fine. You can read the memorandum here, which includes information on obtaining a permit.
State Parks – IT DEPENDS
Rules about flying drones in state parks vary by location. Check with the rangers before you fly.
- California doesn’t have a blanket rule applying to drones in California State Parks yet, but some individual parks do have restrictions now (FAQ). I did just speak to one of the California State Parks superintendents who said that flying drones will be classified as an “unsafe recreational activity” soon due to some hazardous incidents. You must obtain a state parks permit if operating to make money. Even within California, different parks have different rules.
- Nevada does have a rule saying that drones are prohibited in all Nevada State Parks. A Part 107 operator may obtain a commercial use permit (FAQ).
National Forests – YES, MOST OF THE TIME
You can fly a drone in National Forests for the most part, as long as you do it responsibly and within FAA guidelines. Localized exceptions may be in place; check with your local rangers before flying. Commercial pilots must have a permit.
Wilderness Areas – PROHIBITED
Congressionally-designated wilderness areas prohibit motorized vehicles. Unfortunately, drones are considered “motorized vehicles”.
This is a point of contention for many drone pilots. The Wilderness Act, written in 1964, was intended to set aside specific areas of land and leave them in their most natural state. Rangers can’t even bring in chainsaws for trail clearing because they have motors.
So some people say, “well, that motorized thing was intended for manned aircraft and ground vehicles. They couldn’t have envisioned personal drones in 1964. I can certainly fly a small camera around.” That’s not really the point of the Act though. The point was to give people areas where they can enjoy the solitude of wilderness. To set aside areas where people can be free of the distant buzzing of chainsaws, and also free from the buzzing of drones overhead. Wilderness areas only make up a tiny percentage of National Forest land, so please fly your drones elsewhere and give these small areas to the solitude-seekers. They’re not asking for a lot of lands. You have plenty of other areas to fly in.
Visit the Department of Agriculture’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems page.
BLM Land – YES, MOST OF THE TIME
If you can shoot big guns and camp anywhere without a permit, you can fly a drone within the FAA rules. Except in special areas such as archaeological sites. Please fly responsibly and have fun.
Recreation Areas – DEPENDS
Please see the “National Park Service” and “State Parks” paragraphs for information on either National or State Recreation Areas.
Private Land – CAREFUL!
Flying a drone over private land is another touchy subject. If you’re out in the middle of nowhere and it’s beautiful, and you just need to get that aerial, please stay away from private property. You run the risk of it getting shot down by some homesteader with a shotgun in some remote areas. You’ll be responsible for increased legislation regulating drones, or further prohibiting their use, for each complaint received.
Flight Restrictions You May Not Know
There’s more to restrictions than just “distance to nearest airport!”
The FAA could have issued Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs) or a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR). These restrictions won’t show up on standard maps, but there’s an excellent way to check this out – download the FAA’s B4UFLY App (iOS | Android). Check it every time “before you fly” because a TFR could pop up since the last time you checked it.
TFRs can be issued for a wide range of events – presidential visits, wildfires, sporting events, airshows, space launches, etc. You don’t want to get caught in one (especially the presidential TFR!).
These are the rules for flying a drone while backpacking & hiking in the United States
I’ll add another post soon that’ll dabble in some country-specific regulations about flying drones in foreign recreational areas, so check back soon.
The rules are continually changing and can be very confusing, so if you have any corrections or questions about anything here, please leave them below and I’ll be sure to get back to you.