What To Keep In Mind When Hiking Off Trail?

Off-trail hiking, also known as bushwhacking, is an exciting and rewarding hiking alternative to regular trail hikes. It is an opportunity to literally get off the beaten track and explore areas that can reveal aspects of nature and the area unknown to you. The effects of seasons and also the time of the day can be experienced much more satisfactorily when we trample ahead creating our own paths in the backcountry.

Off-trail hiking appeals to many because of the challenges it offers. Often, when you step away from the trail, you’re on uncharted territory…well, it’s charted out on a map and hopefully you’re carrying one but the assurances that a trail offers, are no longer there. You’re on your own, and you need your wits about you to ensure that the supplies last, you stay clear of the poison ivy, and that you maintain a decent pace so as to complete the hike in the time that it takes to do so. As mentioned earlier, hiking away from the beaten path lets you explore brooks, streams, trees, birdlife and animal life of the place. You may even discover artefacts, remains, and relics from a time long gone. Basically, when you step away from the trail, you enter a wilderness area where you can truly experience the beauty of hiking; and once you begin to enjoy off-trail hikes, you might just find regular hikes to be a little insipid for your tastes.

How to Plan for a Off Trail Hike

You need to plan for an off-trail hike. It’s basic due diligence that you need to perform. If you’re plan is to explore an area inside a national park, then check if you need a permit for it. You will find a lot of useful information on the park’s page on nps.gov, including do’s and don’ts when trekking away from the marked trails.

The information you collect on the area you wish to cover will allow you to select a route that is most energy efficient. Experienced trekkers can choose more challenging routes, but if you’re planning an off-trail hike with a group or if it’s your first time in a particular area then you may want to consider the easiest paths or routes, avoiding valleys, bogs, dense undergrowth, and stretches where there are no sources of water. The best way to understand the lay of the land and the geographical features is by perusing a topographical map of the wilderness. Understand where the streams are and where the inclines along the route are too steep to climb.

Plan for safety. If, for example, you wish to venture off trail in the rainy season, then it’s possible that dry stream beds that you can easily ford during summer may turn into fast-running channels, cutting off your path. You need to be aware of an alternate route; trying to find a path on your own may result in diminishing supplies and prolonged exposure to the elements. Similarly, a hike during the winter months, when the snow covers pits and gorges, is fraught with the risk of injury from a misstep. Planning for safety entails gathering information about any risks present, such as slippery slopes, places where rocks slide, and of course the weather conditions for the days when you’ll be out trekking.

Prior study through maps and information available online can help you memorize easily recognizable features across the terrain, such as lakes, a cluster of trees, a huge rock, a cave, etc. This will help you navigate the route with ease, and if required, even without a map or a GPS system. Staying safe also means that you be aware of any electric fences, private properties, risks from wild animals, hunting season, mating season, and such details.

What to Carry in Your Backpack for an Off-Trail Trek?

Ideally, you must travel light but not at the cost of leaving out essentials. Pack items according to the frequency with which you’ll be using them, for example, food, water, maps, and if it’s nearing dusk then a flashlight. Layered clothing lets you travel light and also stay warm. Pack waterproof jackets and pants, if required. If you plan on camping, then pack a sleeping bag, a tent, and sandals to wear at the end of the day. A first-aid kit, pocket-knife, extra batteries, waterproof pouches, and matches are essentials that you want to carry on all hikes.

Tips for Successful Off-Trail Trekking

Know Your Limitations

If you’re a beginner, then get used to off-trail hiking by first trying out easier terrains, such as subalpine meadows or even a valley between two peaks. You can also cover the distance between two trails via the forest; it’s a relatively safe way to cut your teeth with this exciting activity. Venture farther each time to build confidence and gain insight into the attributes and skills required for tackling and traversing a given terrain. For example, you may come across an unexpected obstacle on the route; it could be an uprooted tree, or a pool left behind from a flash flood.

Learn What Works For You

You have to get across with minimum fuss and risk, there’s learning in it.

  • You’ll learn to test rocks and boulders for stability before putting your weight on it.
  • When you hit stretches where the canopy above is thick, you may not be able to use the sun or other features as guides. That’s when you may need to use a compass.
  • Over a couple of treks, you’ll learn about the things that you need to carry and those you can dispense with.
  • You’ll learn if your hiking boots afford you grip on the scree and are comfortable enough for wearing all day. Good hiking boots are lightweight, well balanced, with a sole that grips, well cushioned, and are breathable.
  • Treks of easy to medium difficulty are an opportunity to learn how to read a map and minimize reliance on a GPS system that may die out unexpectedly.
  • You will learn that the best way to hold a map is to fold it such that it shows your location and is oriented such that it displays the route as your seeing it. It may take you some time to learn how to navigate using a map, but it’s an essential skill to master if you wish to enjoy off-trail trekking in a safe manner.

Mistakes to Avoid

  • Do not presume that the shortest route will also be the quickest. It won’t if it has valleys, peaks, and bogs that you need to cross. Hiking across meadows is quicker than trekking up slopes and wading through thick scrub.
  • Be realistic about the distance you can cover in a day; it could be a to-and-fro trek where you’re back to the starting point at the end of the trek or a longer one, but in either case, it is safer to be conservative in your estimates about the time you’ll take. The terrain and your fitness are factors to consider.
  • Off-trail hiking stresses the environment. You may venture out alone or be a part of a small group, but there are many such solo trekkers and groups that cover the area through the year. Do what you can to minimize your impact on the area. Avoid trampling on vegetation. Do not walk in a single file, spread your impact.
  • Avoid dangerous shortcuts. Eschew risks such as wading through rapids or descending a steep slope. It’s preferable to spend a few extra minutes or even hours instead of risking injury.
  • Do not neglect the skill of micro navigation. Learn how to scan the terrain, a mile or two at a time using binoculars and preferably from a vantage point. Compare what you observe with the information already acquired from maps. There could be debris from a storm, snow melt, mud from a flash flood, or a gaping hole that wasn’t marked on the map.

How to Find Water

If you’re going to be trekking for more than a day, you’ll need information on available water sources. Maps can help you with this. You will also need to keep your wits about you and your eyes open to clues such as birds and insects that are found near water bodies. In deserts, vegetation such as cottonwood trees indicates water in the vicinity. In valleys and canyons, you may want to check for holes and crevices with water, these indicate an underground source of water.

Avoid water from standing water bodies such as rocky pools and puddles. Beaver dams are also not a good idea because the water polluted by these animals can result in “beaver fever”. Filling canteens, water bottles, and bladders from directly under waterfalls should be avoided because the water at these spots is agitated and likely to contain particulate matter.

When to Cut Short an Off-Trail Trek?

As a rule of thumb, discretion is surely the better part of valor, more so when you’re up against multiple opponents and on a battleground that’s probably alien to you. Out in the woods, if you’re assailed by diarrhea, injury, dehydration, inclement weather, a difficult route, insect bites, sickness, etc. then do what you can to get out of the woods. Turn back, if you must. Call the national park authorities, if you can. Get in touch with your family.

Sarah Shawman

is the webmistress of Footwear 4 Workers.

She started this website out of displeasure with the fact that there are so few good online resources especially dedicated to the 99%: working people. Having suffered from work related plantar fasciitis herself, she set out on a mission to help others.

She updated this page on and will continue to update it as time goes on.

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