This learner guide is designed to provide the basic knowledge for planning and executing overnight and campsite based kayaking and canoeing activities with minimal impact.


The reference covers the basic knowledge and skills for minimal environmental impact practices for paddlers.

This reference covers the following elements:

  • Determine the environmental impacts of canoeing or kayaking
  • Identify the causes of such impacts and their consequences
  • Adopt practices to reduce impact on the natural environment and on other users of wilderness areas
  • Find information on related rules and regulations
“A journey by canoe along ancient waterways is a good way to rediscover our lost relationship with the natural world and the Creator who put it all together so long ago.” (Bill Mason, 1984)


“The experience [of paddling] is truly like hovering between heaven and earth. No words can describe the feeling of sitting peacefully among the reflections on the Gordon and Noosa rivers, or paddling at sunset...” Alan Jones, Director Kayak & Canoe Inc.

This awareness is most needed today if we are to pass on something precious to our children. The Australian ecosystem is vulnerable to disturbance especially from foreign flora and fauna.

The ecosystem has been isolated for many years and has its own unique system. When there is some kind of impact to the natural environment then there is a high risk exotic plants and animals will enter and compete with native species. 

With increasing numbers of people preferring to spend more time with nature, the damage done to the national parks, wilderness areas and rivers is also increasing. Fortunately environmentally conscious visitors are adopting minimal impact recreation practices thereby reducing the damage to the natural environment.

This resource is designed to assist you in understanding and developing practices that limit human impact on the environment and also help others understand these practices.

It is both necessary and important that you understand and practice environmentally responsible behaviour. As an Instructor or Guide you should be demonstrating and enforcing the best practice minimal impact actions.

All National Parks management bodies have an environmental code that should be followed. Heavy fines apply, in many cases.


Biodiversity is the variety of all life forms: different plants (from lichens and mosses to shrubs and trees), animals (invertebrates, frogs, reptiles, birds and mammals), the genes they contain and the ecosystems in which they live.

Biodiversity is vital in supporting human life on Earth. It provides many benefits, including all our food, most of our medicines, and industrial products. It is our life supporting system in that it supplies clean air, water and fertile soils.

An ecosystem is a dynamic complex of plant, animal, fungal and micro organism communities and associated nonliving environment, interacting as an ecological unit. Australia is home to more than one million species of plants and animals, many of which are unique. About 82% of mammals and 93% of frogs are found in Australia. However, over the past 200 years the Australian environment has dramatically changed. Australia has lost 75% of its rainforests and has the world’s worst record of mammal extinctions. Some 125 plant and animal species are known to have become extinct including seven per cent of Australia’s known mammal species.

Respect special areas and land in national parks and reserves so that key habitats including the wetlands are preserved. Today more than 360 species of animals and around 1240 species of plants in Australia are considered threatened, extinct, critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable.

In New South Wales alone:

  • Over 40 animal species and 40 plant species presumed extinct
  • Over 60 animal species and over 290 plant species considered endangered
  • Over 170 animal species and over 210 plant species considered vulnerable


You must identify critical habitat: the areas of land that are crucial to the survival of particular threatened species, populations and communities 

You must identify key threatening processes: all sources that harm the endangered species or could cause threat to other species. These range from foxes and feral cats to rock removal. 

Be aware of pest animals: exotic animals are the non-native species introduced into Australia from other countries such as cane toads, goats, foxes, deer, rabbits, pigs, cats, dogs and horses. Pest species may be native Australian species that have moved out for their natural habitat and taken over other ecosystems and their numbers, presence or activities cause disturbance to the environment, endemic species or to humans. They include cockatoos, possums, and koalas. They compete with and prey upon the native animals, damage native plants and degrade natural habitats. For this reason some exotic animals listed below have been listed as threatening processes:

Fire ants
Cane toads
Plague minnows
Ship rats on Lord Howe Island


A weed is any plant that has been removed or escaped from its natural habitat and has established itself in a new system. Most translocated species do not survive but the species that successfully establish themselves are highly competitive and threaten the native flora. In national parks and reserves, weed control programs are undertaken in areas where weed species are increasing in numbers, spreading into new areas or displacing native plants and animals.

All exotic and native plants that are not local to the area are treated as weeds on land managed by the NPWS. Focus is on controlling weeds on the borders of reserved lands and in water catchments so that weeds do not spread into national parks or neighbouring lands.

  • Disturbance to the local vegetation by trampling and breakage
  • Breakage and dislodgement of rock and other formations
  • Compaction of soil and other deposits
  • Erosion to banks and soil
  • Disturbance of fauna
  • Introduction of new flora and fauna
  • Chemical alteration of environments
  • Damage to, or inappropriate behaviour in, cultural sites
  • Graffiti
  • Reduction of decomposing timber
  • Campfire scars
  • Urbanisation
  • Noise pollution
  • Contamination of water supplies
  • Intrusion into private lives and culture
  • Development of facilities and signs.

As a paddling Instructor or Guide you need to understand the uniqueness of each water course: be it a river, a lake, or the sea. You should have a good understanding of the flora and fauna present in any area that you intend leading a group, so that you are not responsible for the deterioration of the area. Impacts may include:

  • Organic wastes increasing the bacterial levels in the water • soaps and antiseptics that kill the essential micro-organisms and can increase phosphorous causing algal blooms
  • Improperly disposed of faeces, causing disease and/or polluting the water
  • Compaction of soil, reducing oxygen cycling for biotic species
  • Trampling vegetation, destroying food supply and shelter for fauna
  • Fire scars, bush fires and fires creeping hundreds of metres underground
  • Rusty cans, broken bottles, forgotten or left tent guys and pegs, scraps of paper—all are permanent scars on nature.


Impact on the natural environment takes three forms:

  • Physical: e.g. breaking tree branches for firewood, damaging river banks on launching
  • Ecological: e.g. polluted waterways
  • Social and cultural: e.g. noise of vehicles

The degree of impact of canoeing and kayaking activities depends on participant knowledge, care and planning. There’s both good and bad news about the impacts involving different activities. The good news is that people are beginning to understand the no trace camping principles; but we still have incidents of various impacts including:

  • Pollution with foreign matter (human waste, rubbish, soap, detergent, creams) Causes of the impacts on the environment could be various sources:
  • Individuals or small or large groups of people
  • Innocence and/or ignorance of people
  • Natural reasons like a lightning strike causing a fire
  • Domestic or feral animals. The consequences of these and other causes are innumerable, causing damage, destruction and degradation of the natural resources. Examples include all of the above outlined impacts.


Various levels of the Australian Government control the paddling environment including:

  • National Parks (State bodies) govern National Parks and State recreation areas
  • Department of Land and Water Conservation (State bodies) govern water bodies to the high water limit
  • Fisheries (State bodies) control all fishing and fishing related practices
  • Waterways authorities (State bodies) regulate watercraft, including canoes and kayaks
  • Local councils regulate access to water bodies in their districts.

All of these groups implement management strategies to control environmental impact. The overall management strategies include:

  • Restricting access
  • Limiting group size
  • Seasonal closures
  • Permit only access
  • Published codes of ethics and conduct.


The overall guideline is to practice the no-trace camping principle, which means when you finish with a campsite, you leave it without any traces of your intrusion with nature. The following are minimal impact practices for paddling Guides and Instructors: 


Light fires only when necessary: fuel stoves should be carried on all overnight trips. Many National Parks in Australia are designated ‘fuel stove only areas’. Use fuel stoves instead of campfires in all situations. Stoves minimise the risk of fires escaping. Compared with campfires they are faster, and a lot easier in wet weather.

Campfires could also lead to local environmental degradation (trampling) around campsites. Use fuel stoves on hard surfaces like rock or hard earth. Heat from certain stoves can damage underlying vegetation. When camping in a designated camping area, fires must be lit only in a National Park’s provided fireplace.

This does not include fire scars found during your trip. Bush camping (away from designated campsites) is available in many National Parks. Group size and fire lighting provisions apply and you should contact the office to check on these prior to departure. Many National Parks also specify

Fallen branches and dead trees are the homes of many creatures and provide a source of nutrients back into the soil. Fires should be kept less than one metre square.

Do not put rocks around the perimeter as this simply adds to the visual scar. Light fires in areas clear of vegetation, not under tree branches and at least four metres from tents. You need to have permission from landowners to light a fire on private property. Fire restrictions are present for a number of months each year. On any day there may be either a park specific ban or a State or area ban or both. Never light an open fire or use a fuel stove outside on a day of total fire ban: there are severe penalties involved. As an Instructor or Guide it is important that you check the local restrictions and or permissions each day before you light a fire. Also as an Instructor or Guide it is important that you have spare, dry clothing to avoid the need for a fire. Be absolutely sure that the fire is out. Feel the ground under the fire and if it is hot, put water on it.

Do not use soil to put out fires, as they may keep smouldering for days. Remove all signs of the fire and restore the area to its original condition. Do not throw the residual ash, etc. into a water course.


Many National Parks require that a trip plan with details of the route and participants be lodged along with fees for over night camping. Pets, firearms, spear guns and chainsaws are not allowed in National Parks. Choose a campsite at least 100 metres from the coast, any road, track or parking area. Camp at least 30 metres from any river bank.

Ensure you are not in an area that may flood after rain or at high tide. Sandy or hard surfaces are better than boggy or vegetated areas. Limit your stay at a campsite to less than three nights. Use modern tents and a sleeping mat to limit impact on the ground. Avoid digging trenches. When you camp, try to avoid camping with other groups and choose a site with a robust bank or beach on which landing and launching of craft will have least impact. Leave the camping beach scrupulously cleaner than when you arrived, leaving only footprints behind.

Wash everything at least 50 metres from the river. Empty the residual water into scrub at least 50 metres from the water. Wash yourself, eating utensils and cooking equipment at least 50 metres away from creeks or lakes and spread the dirty water so that it can filter through the soil. No soaps or detergents should be used: even biodegradable types affect water quality. Use sand and a scourer rather than detergents. Ensure that no chemicals or fuel enters any waterway or is used near any waterway.

Minimise your movements to and from the tent in order to avoid a maze of tracks forming. Carry a large water container to collect water for the night once, rather than making repeat visits.


On day activities, participants are encouraged to use public toilets prior to commencing the activity. Carry a hand trowel for burying toilet wastes (Note: some wilderness areas require the removal of all human faecal waste.) Toilet pits should be dug at least 100 metres from the lake, river and from your campsite.

Toilet pits should be 15 cm deep so that animals and light rains do not easily expose them, but so that they are shallow enough for fast breakdown of the faecal matter. Carry out all tampons, sanitary pads, condoms and nappies.

Burn the toilet paper where this can be done safely (Note, as a result of bush fires, some National Parks do not allow the burning of paper.) In high use areas boil water for 10 minutes prior to drinking. Use disinfectant gel on your hands after going to the toilet. Use disposable gloves for all food preparation.


Take all waste out with you. ‘Burn bash and bury’ is a thing of the past. When leading a group, it is easiest to enforce the rule ‘You bring it in, you take its waste out.’ That way you will have no problems with who will carry the rubbish bag.

The use of packing materials is to be kept to an absolute minimum. Remove outer boxes, etc. before you go to minimise weight and waste. Take all plastic bags out with you.

They often end up in water courses where they are mistaken as jellyfish and other marine life and ingested by animals including sea turtles. This may kill the animal. 


Familiarise yourself with the flora and the fauna of the water courses and of the region. For example, salt water crocodiles inhabit over a third of the Australian coast (roughly north of the Tropic of Capricorn from Rockhampton to about Carnarvon in Western Australia, and also many inland river systems). So prepare for any emergencies, avoid crocodile-infested areas. Watch out for fresh water crocodile nesting areas. Stay clear of other wild animals like dingoes, pigs, lace monitors, wallabies, other big animals that could cause damage to people and equipment. Feeding wild animals can cause diseases and produce unnaturally high populations.

It can also produce animals which aggressively (and sometimes dangerously) approach humans to get food. Do not leave open food around the campsite. Be careful of handling packs, etc. with food contaminated hands.

There are a number of accounts of animals, including feral pigs, destroying packs, etc. which smelled of food. Place all food in sealed containers and preferably back in your boat each night to stop nocturnal animals raiding your supplies. Rats have been known to chew their way into water bottles in times of drought (potentially risking the lives of the campers).


Take care when paddling close to the shore and do not disturb vegetation as these areas may be housing birdnesting sites. Take considerable care not to disturb fish spawning grounds. If other groups are present, stagger launchings to avoid congestion and social impacts. Mangrove areas are highly sensitive and in some States are the nurseries of around 70% of commercial fishing stocks. In some areas you should not paddle through mangroves, and in areas where you may, do not trample the pneumatophores (aerial roots).


Fishing is quite popular from canoes and kayaks. Be aware that in some States an Instructor or Guide cannot take a paying group fishing without a commercial licence. Know the local regulations. Return unwanted and undersize fish to the water as soon as possible. Take unwanted or tangled fishing lines with you. They can become death traps for fish and birds. Collect only the bait that you require.


Constructed walks are to be used where possible. The practice of short cutting corners, skirting wet sections or walking wide of the track is discouraged. If there are no tracks, then spread out in vegetated areas to avoid track formation. Don’t follow in each other’s footsteps and stay at least a metre apart. Stay on rocks and hard ground wherever possible. Avoid walking on alpine and other soft vegetation that is highly sensitive to damage. Some plants can die after just one person steps on them. Don’t cut new tracks as this is not only detrimental to the bush but is also illegal in National parks. Never mark a route by laying cairns, taping, or blazing trees. This is illegal in National parks and will incur a fine. When walking on beaches, be aware that you could be sharing the beach with shore-nesting birds so walk below the high tide mark. Sand dunes are extremely sensitive: always walk on tracks where present. Picnic on the beach and not in the dunes.


Keep to authorised tracks, don’t go off track. Craft like canoes must be carried to the water.

Wash tyres and the underside of vehicles leaving base to reduce the risk of infestation of weeds or fungus such as phytophtora which can attack the root systems of plants.

Where possible undertake trips when conditions are dry and know when to call it off. Lower tyre pressures to improve traction and to spread ground impact. Drive slowly and appropriately for the terrain.

Steep slopes and water are responsible for much of the erosion evident on tracks. Minimise damage by avoiding steep tracks (especially greater than 30°) on erodible soils in winter and during wet weather. Use existing entry and exit points when crossing streams and creeks where bridges and culverts are not provided. Where possible, winch between vehicles, but if you have to winch from a tree, use tree protecting paddling or webbing. Use wheel chains only as a last resort.


As a visitor to new places of historical and cultural significance you should take care to respect those sites. They can be buildings, rock features inside caves, stone structures, landscape, sacred hills, plants, trees, etc. Exercise caution not to touch them, scrape, scar, or trample them.


It all comes down to respect for the environment, respect for others and respect for yourself. Plan to minimse impact and for easy and simple rubbish removal. Avoid doing multiple trips on the same section of riverbank to prevent bank erosion Try to limit the group size. Large groups will compound your impact on the riverside environment. Some heavily used areas have an enforced group size limit (usually around eight). Don’t muscle in on other groups.


This resource was written by Ian Dewey