by Diane Spicer
Off trail hiking can take you to fantastic vistas, solitude, glorious animal encounters, pristine camp spots, and unspoiled backcountry.
It can also get you into deep trouble.
And challenge everything you think you know about yourself as a hiker.
Let's go over some tips and techniques for being a smart off trail hiker.
This includes a caveat: you are responsible for your own safety and well being, regardless of where you hike, but especially in the backcountry.
None of this information should be taken as "must do" advice.
Use your own head, heart and gut to make good choices when navigating off trail.
Now let's outline how to make "off the beaten path" more than just a phrase you use in conversation.
I know this is old fashioned thinking, but carrying a paper map means you eliminate the horror of a dead battery.
You also avoid the possibility that you won't have access to a clear shot at the sky. Those GPS satellites can be hard to line up sometimes.
Map reading skills are
super important essential for off trail navigation.
Ease into things with these articles:
As for safety, this link to a lengthy list of hiking personal safety resources will get you thinking about the responsibility you have to yourself when you step off a trail:
Pour over so called "current" maps and locate an established access point to start your off trail adventure.
Try it! It's fun (but a tremendous time suck - you've been warned).
Bonus: Windy also gives you weather conditions, a great way to get familiar with the conditions you will be facing in different seasons.
If you can get your hands on old maps (library archives, government libraries, or used book stores), you might discover abandoned routes that can take you into areas no longer accessible on an easy trail.
But someone put that trail in by following the easiest route!
They may be inaccurate, or simply wrong due to an update from nature: an earthquake, fire, retreating glacier, or flash flood.
Vegetation may have taken over a rocky slope.
Water crossings are impossible to predict from a map: sleepy little creeks turn into raging torrents after a thunderstorm.
Contour lines on a map may mask cliffs or other hazards.
Current conditions are nowhere on that map.
You get the picture!
So be prepared to face anything.
Seriously! Being prepared is your best move before you leave for off trail hiking.
Construct a mental map by studying the map before you head out. This can keep you out of trouble, because you have a rough idea of which landmarks you're going to hit.
In the field, fold your map until only the area you're interested in is displayed in your waterproof map case like the one I use.
Hold the map in your hand in the orientation that matches what you're seeing - unless you've got the rare brain that can flip, fold and turn the map perspective to match what you're facing.
Always study the map for the easiest opportunity to move across the landscape.
Do a risk assessment if you're looking to save time with a so called short cut or dicey maneuver. What might go wrong?
If you want or need to gain elevation as quickly as possible, study the map for potential routes that take you to a ridge, then a pass with easier going to the summit.
Lucky you! It's not always that easy.
Like in poor visibility.
How will you guide yourself to your destination?
Let everyone take a long look at the map.
I'm always amazed at how different people will spot different routes, and some of them might have merit as Plan B if an "obvious" route doesn't work out.
Consider this VOX article entitled "Is GPS ruining our ability to navigate for ourselves?"
Think about how and when you use GPS, and whether it's robbing you of some of the mystery and fun of navigating for yourself on a crosscountry route.
If you're going to rely on GPS, be sure to use it for more than navigation:
Wean yourself off reliance on GPS by starting to use it as a backup navigation method to your paper map and compass.
Now that you've got your map fundamentals dialed in, pick some training terrain.
A great way to build confidence is to establish a base camp and plan several day hikes from it. This slingshot approach gives you the comfort of knowing you have a home base, but the freedom to explore in all directions.
Suggestions for your base camp:
Build your skills in bite size chunks on a day hike using a favorite, familiar trail.
Study the map for an opportunity to navigate off trail from prominent Point A on the trail (like a trail junction or saddle) to Point B.
Or pick a fun destination which is just a short straight line distance off trail, like a lake or high point, to build your confidence.
After studying the map for potential hazards like elevation drops or cliffs, follow a creek (or dry creek bed) for a set distance. Keep track of the features on the other side.
Conserve your mental energy and guard your physical reserves by being smart about the way you move across the landscape.
Beaten in trails from deer, goats, sheep, elk, or caribou may be abundant, and it's tempting to follow these faint paths as a quick way across a slope.
Don't be afraid to use game trails across talus slopes or other areas where you have good sight distance. Animals like short cuts, too!
But you must realize by now that these sure footed animals go where humans are not able to follow.
Don't waste time and energy fighting brush.
If you're going to gut it out, be sure all loose strings, straps and clothing are locked down to avoid snags and falls. Check your boot laces, too.
Respect the vegetation you're mashing and crashing through as you look for the easiest path.
This is somebody's home, food source and protection!
Wetlands in particular are fragile beneath your boots.
When at all possible, step on durable surfaces like rock, snow, gravel: Leave No Trace.
If there are more pairs of boots than yours, spread out and avoid following closely in each other's footsteps.
Go as light as possible to minimize chances of extreme fatigue, getting hung up in dense brush, or losing your balance on slopes with dicey footing.
Always be on the lookout for surface water so you can replenish your supply as you move along, rather than having to carry it for long distances.
Trails are built to specifications that guarantee good tread and realistic slopes.
But you don't have the luxury of a trail, so slow down and be smart.
When you're navigating a slope, take precautions with your feet to remain stable.
Purists believe that encountering a rock cairn in the backcountry is a crime upon humanity, worse than talking during a concert.
Others are grateful for a clue when the going gets dicey, and I can't fault them: sometimes things go sideways and evidence of human travel brings confidence in your navigation decisions.
Some off trail hikers (myself included) may erect temporary rock cairns to cross terrain in one direction when landmarks aren't helpful (poor visibility, limited sight distance, expansive permanent snow fields, etc.), and scrupulously take them down upon the return trip.
And heads up: critters and plants depend on rocks for shelter, a source of moisture or water, and sometimes food caught in crevices.
When you pick up a rock, you're disrupting a way of life.
Distance and time will change when you're off trail.
Mileage that takes only an hour on an established trail could take several hours, maybe even half a day, depending on weather conditions, your energy level, and terrain.
Your sense of time will change because you're dealing with a whole new set of challenges.
Add in some wiggle room and pad your turn around time just a bit if you're hiking with other people.
Going solo means you can go as fast as you'd like, but even then, unpredictable events can slow you down or stop you completely.
If you're a fan of straight line travel, let it go! You might find that a circuitous route makes the most sense around a big obstacle.
Slow and steady wins the race.
And brings you some pretty sweet surprises!
Once you've got boots on the ground and your navigational plans seem rock solid, it's show time.
I've discovered that sometimes what looks really gnarly in the distance turns out to be relatively easy going.
But don't relax your vigilance.
Use the zoom feature on a camera, or a pair of binoculars, to scan the terrain ahead of you for navigational obstacles or animal activity.
"Glassing" or what I call "sweeping" will save you a lot of time and keep you out of trouble.
You do have a way to communicate with the outside world, right?
A satellite phone might be overkill, or it might be a great idea in the Alaskan or Canadian backcountry.
First aid skills up to speed?
And so is your survival kit, right?
But there's another thing to bring: a good attitude.
You think you're in control, but you're not.
So go into the backcountry knowing that your skills and decisions will only get you so far.
Be prepared to be humbled, slowed down, stopped, challenged.
It's all part of the experience! Roll with it.
There are certain types of hikers who are miserable or dangerous during off trail hiking.
In my personal experience, these are folks who:
If you're going into the backcountry with people you don't know well, take them on a few trial runs before the big trip to identify any attitude issues that could jeopardize your success and well being.
You know all the stuff that front country hikers are told to do for each and every hike?
You, my friend, should be very strict with yourself about following those rules.
You're going into unknown territory with unpredictable conditions and the possibility of injury or getting lost.
You owe it to yourself and your loved ones to be impeccable!
Plus, know when to call it quits. Pride, ego, stubbornness ... no room for those in off trail hiking.
Also a good habit: sharing your hard won knowledge with other off trail enthusiasts.
There is a lot to be said for challenging yourself as an off trail hiker.
The opportunity to explore favorite destinations with fresh eyes as you're learning is life changing.
You'll see places that no one else does.
And your backcountry skill set will grow, improve and expand.
Just be smart about it, using the resources on this page.
Off Trail Hiking Tips
About the author
Diane is the founder of Hiking For Her.
She’s been on a hiking trail somewhere in the world for nearly five decades & loves to share her best hiking tips right here.
All rights reserved.
Photo credits: All photos on this website were taken by David Midkiff or Diane Spicer except where noted.
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