Hiking Off Trail: The Essential Guide

Hiking Off Trail: The Essential Guide

The Best Tips On How To Hike Off Trail

No two hikes are ever going to be 100% alike, no matter how many times you go on them. You could be headed out on a different time of day or you could be with new people. Changes to things seemingly as small as your mindset about a certain hike could also make a world of difference. However, when a trail starts to get too bland for your liking, you could always take on the road less traveled. Here is a guide detailing some of the things you should take into consideration when you’re hiking off the trail.

In Defense Of Off-Trail Hiking

Off-trail hiking or bushwhacking as it’s known in some circles is a great way for hikers to challenge themselves if they feel like the trail on their favorite hiking spot has gotten too easy. Going off the trail forces hikers to push themselves further by making them navigate through unfamiliar paths. They’ll also have to use whatever knowledge and experience they may have to properly portion their supplies and energy for the aberrant trip they have on their hands.

Other hikers enjoy bushwhacking because it provides them with an escape from the status quo. You’ll be able to go where there are no crowds and no eroded pathways – two things that plague the more popular hiking spots in the otherwise beautiful backcountry. The latter shows that some treks have already been “used to death,” meaning they have been weathered down to the point of no longer being the natural beauties they once were. In some cases, this has even compromised their safety.

When you go bushwhacking, you might be able to spot some uncommon flora and fauna. You may also get the chance to see a bit of history when you come across an abandoned settlement, for example. Along the way, you may even get to meet new people who share the same interests as you. If you do your best to stay safe and to follow the rules, it’s mostly good that comes from going off the trail. You may have your most noteworthy and breathtaking experiences when you decide to step outside a trail’s boundaries. Just make sure you wear a pair of good hiking shoes or hiking sandals.

Hiking Off Trail: The Essential Guide

Bring The Right Gear

When you go off-trail hiking, always remember that you’ll be going through areas that are off the beaten path. These are places where the flora and fauna are not usually tended to. So, to protect yourself, always wear a long-sleeved shirt and long pants. Layer up if you can. Wearing glasses or safety goggles, as well as a billed hat, is also helpful in this scenario. These will guard you from the thorny shrubs and long branches you’ll most likely encounter during your hike.

Speaking of the things you wear, you should never put on your best and most expensive gear when going bushwhacking. You’ll simply be running the risk of these being ruined. When you’re off-trail hiking during hunting season, you should wear striking colors so unwitting hunters don’t accidentally shoot you at. Bright orange is your best bet, as this color is unnatural and will easily catch their attention. Wearing reflective materials is also advisable for the same reasons.

Keep in mind though that you should never attach your gear to the outside of your backpack, as it’s likely that they will be ripped or torn off during your hike. For the same reason, don’t keep them in your backpack’s external pockets either, especially if they’re made of mesh. Although they are essential on normal hikes, you may want to pack away the trekking poles on bushwhacks, as you want both of your hands to be free to push away branches, logs, and other forms of debris.

As we’ve said before, you’re going on the road less traveled, so you’ll never know if your hike is going to take a bit longer than expected. Pack some extra gear when you go bushwhacking just in case the darkness catches up to you and you have to set up camp for an additional night. In the same way, you should pack additional snacks and water in your backpack. Don’t underestimate how hungry or thirsty you’re going to get on a hike. It would also be useful to learn how to purify water and how to identify which plants are safe to eat.

Hiking Off Trail: The Essential Guide

Navigating Through Unfamiliar Terrain

You also need to learn how to use navigational tools, so you can always find your way back home. Keep a compass on your person at all times using a non-elastic cord and bring an extra one with you if you’re going solo. If you’re with a group, you should always have at least three compasses so you could break a tie if ever the first two don’t agree with one another. Get everyone to agree on one true north before you start your hike. Always hold your compasses level and avoid using them near large metal or magnetic objects, as this could throw off your bearing.

You should always carry an extra copy of your map as well, in case one of them gets destroyed. It’ll be good to laminate your maps or keep them in a waterproof container. Bring a writing instrument with you, so you could draw grid lines on your map and record data about where you are. It’ll also be a good idea to bring a trusty communication device such as a cellular phone or a personal locator beacon. At the very least, tell a couple of people where you plan to go and what you’ll be doing there.

Always validate what you see in your immediate surroundings using your map and compass. Check for the landmarks these devices tell you you’ll be able to see. Check and reset your altimeter at every known elevation since the air pressure can change multiple times throughout the day. Record the time you started your hike so you could have an idea of how far you traveled and how much time it took. This will help you navigate your way through when you decide to go back to a previous bushwhacking trail you visited.

Use as many maps as you can when planning a bushwhacking route. Of course, you’d want to use local hiking maps, but you could also make use of cross-country skiing or snowmobile trail maps if they’re available. If you know you’re going to be passing through private property, make sure you respect the owners. Better yet, ask for their permission first before going through that area. Also, remember that the area you’re trekking along serves as the natural habitat for many forms of wildlife, so show them some respect as well.

Hiking Off Trail: The Essential Guide

Where To Start A Hike

When planning your route, always begin at a well-defined area. This could be a bridge, a road, or even a historical landmark. No matter what it is, make sure that you’re quite familiar with it and that it has a known elevation. Make this familiar location as close to your destination as possible. It would also be good to know when sunset’s going to come on the days of your hike so you could plan accordingly about when and where to set up camp. Break down the route you’re going to take into appropriate segments, even if not for camp.

How To Stay Safe While Bushwhacking

Now that you’ve set a route for yourself or for your bushwhacking group, let’s talk about how to navigate the rough terrain you’ll encounter when you go off the trail. For starters, you could increase the speed of your hike by sticking to streams and ridgelines. This is more efficient compared to constantly checking your compass for a bearing. Always walk perpendicular at contour lines too. It’s much better than walking across them where one of your feet will always be at a lower position compared to the other.

Save energy by choosing the best route possible. Don’t bushwhack in the dark, as this could prove to be the easiest way for you to get lost. Follow animal herding paths if you see any of them along the way. In most cases, it’s also easier to walk across marshes and thick vegetation compared to going through them. Walk on the surfaces along the edge of a river rather than on the rocks or vegetation within them. These areas may be thick and slippery – definitely not worth the time, effort or risk.

It’s also easier to bushwhack through deciduous trees – those that shed their leaves on a regular basis – compared to doing so through spruce. This is because the area between those trees will be more open. A good rule of thumb would be to stay below an altitude of 3000 feet, since this is the elevation where spruce trees begin to grow. Speaking of trees, it’s also much easier to swing yourself underneath a tree compared to crawling underneath one. Your backpack is less likely to get caught up in branches if you do the former.

Hiking Off Trail: The Essential Guide

When you’re going through hills or peaks, stay to the left or to the right so you don’t walk past them. Simply follow the contour when you get closer. You could also send a member of your troop forward and give them directions to move left or right, so your group to stay on a more accurate bearing. Be mindful when you’re navigating through the wide saddles in between mountains. If you don’t, it’s going to be tough to figure out whether you’re still descending from a peak or if you’ve prematurely gone to the sides of the saddle.

However, you shouldn’t put flagging tape on your route unless it’s to lead the authorities to an emergency. This would otherwise create an unnatural human impact in and around the area. What you should do is pay as much attention as possible to your navigational tools going out of your route as you did getting into it. Don’t simply get suckered into taking an old road or trail, unless you know exactly where it leads. This will help ensure that you don’t get lost, even when you’re in unfamiliar hiking spots.

You should also know that bushwhacking downhill is easier than going uphill because you’re not going against gravity. Just be careful when your putting your feet through a crevice as the downhill momentum could cause serious trauma. Don’t assume that fallen logs and debris are solid. Chances are they’re already old and rotten, and that you’ll fall straight through them. Think twice before you do anything, as even the simplest mistakes can lead to grave injuries that could sideline your hiking for quite a long time.

Don’t separate from your hiking group, especially if you’re the least experienced among the bunch. In much the same way, you shouldn’t let other members of your group get out of earshot. Stay within speaking distance of one another even if you can’t see them. A good idea would be to have someone lead the group who sets a moderate pace. Have people stay at the back of the pack too, to make sure no one gets left behind. “Start as a group, hike as a group, and finish as a group,” they always say.

If you plan to continue bushwhacking, then you should always try to find ways you could further hone your navigational skills. It takes experience to become an expert at anything – off-trail hiking included. Likewise, if you don’t go off the beaten path for some time, your skills might start to get a bit rusty.

Hiking Off Trail: The Essential Guide

You Can’t Do This Everywhere

Don’t forget that hiking off an established trail isn’t appropriate everywhere. Before you go bushwhacking make sure that the local authorities, as well as the local environmental ethics board, allows it. They might restrict the area you’re able to explore or they may prohibit you from going off the trail completely, but this is only for the best. Hikers’ safety will always be in these people’s best interest.

Now you know how to safely navigate your way through an off-trail hike. Just follow this guide and we’ll be sure that you’ll have a memorable experience; so much so that you’ll find yourself often recommending bushwhacking to many of your fellow hikers.

Sources:

  1. 53 Bushwhacking Tips for Off-Trail Navigation, Section Hiker
  2. How To: Basic Bushwhacking, Eastern Slopes
  3. Why You Should Learn to Hike Off Trail, Backpacker
Hiking Off Trail: The Essential Guide

Hiking Off Trail: The Essential Guide
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