How you travel through the backcountry dictates what you see and, more importantly, how you see it. Most of the time most of us hike on human-constructed trails. They require the least effort to go from one place to another. Often these trails were primarily shaped by forces which do not necessarily best serve the needs of backpackers.
Take the Bright Angel and South Kaibab trails on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. They start seven miles apart on the rim, end at the same place down across the river, and take comparable distances to do so (10 miles for the former, 7 for the later). The Bright Angel was built atop a centuries-old path down a fault line and creek, which explains its gentler grades, greater distance, and position deep within a fold of the unviewable, unfathomable metacanyon which called visitors forth. The Bright Angel has big views at times, but given the scale of the surroundings is a surprisingly intimate, cloistered experience if you’re wise enough to go outside the high seasons. The first stretch winds close to walls of warped sedimentary rock, the middle section is hidden under lush cottonwoods, and the final miles lie deep within a sub-canyon where the harsh, 1.7 billion year old bedrock blocks out the sky. The attentive hiker gets the sense of being told intimate secrets on the first date.
The South Kaibab was built for tourism. It starts with expedient switchbacks which quickly deliver the hiker down to the main event; tread laid atop and along a ridge and prow sitting athwart the main thrust of the canyon, with 50+ miles views to the left and right. The final miles are comparable to the first: they are the most direct way down to and over the river to Phantom Creek. Needless to say, which trail the first-time visitor chooses will drastically, and irrevocably, shape their impressions of the Big Ditch.
Trails everywhere have similar quirks, historical influences, and holds over the souls of backpackers. Least you become too far in thrall of efficiency, consider hiking off trail on your next trip.
Hiking off trail should not mean plunging heedlessly into a random bushwack. Such excursions are unpleasant not so much because they can be slow and strenuous, but because they require travel which runs counter to the rhythms of the land. Hiking through an area ignoring natural avenues of travel is akin to tasting a banana by placing it on the floor and jumping on it repeatedly.
The art then is to examine your favorite maps and find a hopeful avenue where no human trail exists. Maybe it’s a promising ridgeline. Perhaps a pass left unmarked. It might be as simple as a hillside parallel to and a mile removed from a well-used trail. The point is to see familiar areas differently, on terms with the native inhabitants.
Theses inhabitants are of course the resident larger mammals. There are few greater backpacking pleasures than finding and following a coherent game trail through fresh terrain. Animals use human trails, of course, except when they do not meet their needs. Look for food and water sources, and areas of shelter, which are not served by human trails. Animals like elk and deer prefer to drink multiple times a day, and due to the low nutrient density of their foods need to eat almost constantly. By envisioning their habits and then ground-truthing your estimates, you’ll learn more about the places in which you walk.
Due to their marvelous adaptability, game trails can be found anywhere there is wild hiking. Midwestern deer paths may lack the grandeur of a 6 mile mountain goat trail along an 8000 foot ridge, but because it serves the same purpose can hold the same information, and if you live in Des Moines is available right now. Hiking off trail, off human-made paths is not only a key to backcountry enlightenment, it can be a powerful tool for backyard adventures in even the most humble environment. Just don’t expect everyone to be unmoved when they see you hiking through their backyards.
This post was written by former Trail Ambassador Dave Chenault.