Recreational ecology is an internationally evolving research field addressing the high demand for nature-based tourism and recreation, and its environmental impacts. This review aimed to analyze the research effort of recreational ecology studies published in four renowned journals in the field, the Journal of Sustainable Tourism, Tourism Management, the Journal of Environmental Management, and Environmental Management. Between 1976 and 2017, this review identified 145 papers focused on recreational ecology. The majority of research investigated the direct impacts of terrestrial activities in protected areas, in particular the impacts of walking and hiking on vegetation and trail conditions, and the impacts of wildlife viewing. A conceptual model was developed to describe the varied relationships between nature-based tourists and recreationists and the environment. Future research in recreational ecology should broaden its agenda to increase knowledge on indirect and long-term impacts; including on cryptic or less popular species; establish more specifically how the intensity of impacts depends on the amount of use other than in trampling studies; extend to other geographic areas such as developing countries, and nature-based spaces that are less protected and exposed to high visitation such as urban environments. Importantly, a much stronger focus needs to be on interdisciplinary approaches incorporating both environmental and social science techniques to determine ways of how visitor experiential needs can be reconciled with environmental conservation concerns in a rapidly increasing tourism and recreation economy.