Off Trail Hiking with Gossamer Gear’s Trail Ambassadors

Big Horn Sheep that I stumbled upon when on a cross country desert trek.  I've never been that close to these reclusive animals before.

Big Horn Sheep that I came across on a cross-country desert trek. I’ve never been that close to these reclusive animals before. Jim Barbour.

Many of Gossamer Gear’s Trail Ambassadors like hiking off trail. It’s actually quite easy to get hooked once you try it. I decided to ask a few of them why they like hiking off trail or bushwhacking, as it’s called back east. Here’s what they had to say.

Hiking Off Trail

Will Rietveld

My backyard is the Weminuche Wilderness in southwest Colorado, the largest wilderness area in the state. Since its close I hike there a lot. Frankly, I find trail hiking a bit boring, but trails are handy to get to “the good stuff” – alpine areas, where I love to wander and explore. Ironically, it seems like 95% of wilderness users stay on trails (carrying heavy packs), but that leaves a lot of pristine wilderness for more adventurous (and enlightened) types. I love to plan routes and then see if they go through; usually they do. For me, it’s an addiction, I simply love being there to revel the serene beauty, explore the nooks and crannies, and enjoy the physical challenge. Hiking off trail is not easy, I hike and camp above 12,000 feet and typically do 4000 feet of elevation gain in a day while hiking through high passes, crossing slide rock, and some scrambling. Needless to say, an ultralight backpack makes this a lot easier and a lot more enjoyable. As a Gossamer Gear Trail Ambassador and US Forest Service volunteer wilderness ranger, I get to share my passion for the wilderness and UL backpacking whenever I encounter other hikers, which is usually when I am hiking a section of trail.

standing at about 12,000' on the summit ridge of North Peak (12,242 ft / 3731 m).  There ain't no trail to North Peak.

Jim standing on the summit ridge of North Peak (12,242 ft / 3731 m). There ain’t no trail to North Peak.

Hikin Jim Barbour

Why off trail hiking?  Hey, you’ve got to take the “training wheels” off some time, right?  Seriously though, the really fun hiking starts when you get off the trail. First there’s the challenge of planning and executing your own trip.  Yeah, you could stay on the beaten track like you were on a ride on an amusement park, but it’s nice to really be independent and to do your own thing.  Second, there’s solitude.  Imagine camping in lodgepole forest at about 10,000′.  Nearby is a spring.  Completely unspoiled.  There’s not another soul around.  There’s no bigger turn off for me than big crowds in the wilderness. Third is necessity.  You know the old joke about “you cain’t get thar from here?”  Well, that’s literally true if you limit yourself to trails.  Sometimes if you want to get somewhere, you just have to go off trail.  Finally, there is discovery.  You never know what you might encounter off trail.  I can still remember coming across some Big Horn Sheep on a cross-country desert trek.  I’ve never been that close to these reclusive animals before. So, challenge, solitude, necessity, and discovery, all these and more await you, off trail
Beaver Damn

Beaver Damn in the Adirondacks

Jim Marco

Sometimes I have to get off trail. In winter, with a snow obscured trail and frozen ground, this is easier than in summer, when undergrowth hides my footsteps, tangling my feet as I walk. I have enough trouble just walking. Animals are the single biggest cause of my off trail travel, though. Yup, I have learned to hate beaver. Nasty critters they are, always flooding trails near streams or ruining my best fishing holes. Sometimes I have traveled a half mile to find a dry crossing (usually on the dam, sometimes just below it.) The picture is of a classic beaver dam in the ADK’s in early summer. This was after bushwhacking almost a quarter-mile in this effort to keep my feet/pants dry. Anyway, finding a campsite is a matter of simply finding a tree to sleep next to. I enjoy the feeling that no one has ever walked here
before, and, I am looking forward to sleeping on a thick bed of pine needles. These are reasons enough to go off-trail. I feel that every step is on new earth. Every step is a fresh beginning. Hmmm, this is a good place to camp, tonight. I sip my cocoa listening to the birds. A few noodles with peas, a piece of meat and, now, my cocoa…a good enough supper. Well, maybe being rerouted was a good idea after all. I guess I don’t hate this beaver. You have to hand it to him, he lives in very nice spot. You can’t see quite to the end of the pond from here. As I tie off the old green tarp and settle in for the night, he starts gnawing on one of the birch trees. Nope, I take it all back. I HATE beaver!

Off Trail in the Olympics

Off Trail in the Olympics

Barefoot Jake

Pre-trip research and using important land navigation skills is the reason I love off trail walking so much.  Hours of reviewing topographical maps (7.5 minutes minimum) and satellite images are involved for each section of a successful trip, using your wits to find paths of least resistance.  The ability to take steps where no recent human has been, but following an animal instead.  Tapping into your primal side, follow a game trail or sometimes choose a unique route. Snake your way through thick brush or cross little streams, where there is no foot bridge.  Connect with wilderness on a more intimate and respectful level.

I love complete freedom from a path that someone has laid out for you.  On a trail I sometimes find that there is a basic blueprint of the experience one can have.  Feeling like a train heading through a mountain pass. Seeing the same section of creek, meadow, lake or mountain view as hundreds of hikers before me.  Which is awesome thing to have in your life, but after hundreds of miles in the same wilderness area, I began to seek out unique paths, to keep physically challenged and mentally stimulated.  I also respect the fact that leaving the trail in an easily accessible or highly traveled area, may cause long term scars and that avoiding that situation lessens the impact on the land.

Isle of Rum

Isle of Rum

David Lintern

Off trail hiking might be the best thing about walking in Scotland. Before I moved north of the border I was less used to off trail walking, but up here the opportunities are good to ignore for too long. The backcountry is easier to access, and despite several conservation threats there’s still a lot of it compared to other parts of the UK. One of the most interesting things about Scotland is that whilst it now has a low population density, in the past people lived throughout the country in tiny communities. The country is dotted with tiny tracks and trails that aren’t shown on most maps, used by hunters and animals as well as walkers, but there are also huge areas of wild land without maintained paths at all. The map really is not the territory and only tells half the story, once in the highlands. As in this image, taken as my girlfriend and I walked the coastal perimeter of the Isle of Rum, it’s still fairly easy to get off trail for a few days at a time.

Most of the time I don’t think about paths any more, I think about routes – terrain, substrate, contours and rivers – is it unduly wet, steep, rocky, boggy, tussocky? How will the conditions underfoot effect journey times? Where are my potential wild camp sites, and if I need to bail, where is that possible? I confess I think about this more carefully if I’m with others, for their sake as well as mine. So, walking off trail means paying more attention to navigation and safety, but the advantages are clear – remoteness and solitude, a deep feeling of immersion in wild country, seeing things as if for the first time – a sense of discovery.

Rubh Lang Aoinidh (Isle of Jura)

Rubh Lang Aoinidh (Isle of Jura)

David Hine

For me the greatest reward in backpacking is to be found when I leave the trails behind. There are so many great places out there which no established paths will take me to, and I find a real joy in discovering them. It feels great to spend time in really out-of-the-way areas of natural beauty. I think this is partly because I’m so much more likely to have those places all to myself than I am if I’m hiking along established routes. But I also like off trail hiking because the increased challenge that often goes with it kind of amplifies the sense of satisfaction I get in return. My picture is from a summertime backpack down the West Coast of the Isle of Jura (off the West Coast of Scotland). The route involved a fair bit of schwacking through dense ferns and scrambling around on steep bluffs. But in each new bay I got to there were more raised beaches, crazy natural arches, and wildlife in abundance. And I didn’t see a soul!

Off Trail in Scotland

Off Trail in Scotland

Martin Rye

Trail walking has a draw back.  You follow someone else’s route, idea and direction through the landscape.  Don’t think I’m anti-trail walking.  Far from it, but at times I want to break off trail, to go my “own way” and enjoy the hills, woods and high moors as I want.  Also going off trail builds skills, pushes your navigation skill and makes you read a map with intent and attention to every detail, as you have to ensure you can remain located – as you won’t be on a well worn way-marked trail.    But once you go off route you choose the way you want to go over a mountain, or across a range of hills.  Even better you’ll find less people and have a sense of “alone,” you just don’t get by sticking to the trails.    Go off the beaten track and break out, and skill up your backpacking experience.  Get off trail.

Canyoneering

Canyoneering

Dave Brunstein

I really enjoy water hikes and the Southwest has some great canyons to explore.  In addition to spectacular beauty, going off-trail opens up some great trips not considered by most backpackers.  Off-trail is harder physically and requires advanced skills – including being lightweight.  I love the solitude and sense of exploration that going to a place few have visited provides!

Eagle Cliff overlooking Canon Mountain and Franconia Notch, New Hampshire

Eagle Cliff overlooking Canon Mountain and Franconia Notch, New Hampshire

Philip Werner

I like the anticipation and excitement of hiking off trail because you never know what you’ll run into no matter how much you plan in advance. I always do a lot of up front planning on my off-trails hikes in New England – we call them bushwhacks – because the bushes, often young spruce trees, whack back when you push your way through dense forest. This involves reading historic accounts of the area if there are any, pouring over historic and modern maps, and plotting compass bearings. As you hike, you compare the landscape to what you expected to see, all the while knowing that maps provide an incomplete view of the world, especially between contour lines. On certain hikes, you can walk the entire route without using your compass if you know what to look for in the landscape in terms of increasing elevation, ledges and cliffs, or streams. Although I can still keep up with the youngest fast hikers, I also like the slower pace of off trail travel better than more hurried hiking and backpacking trips. Walking at a pace of 1/4 or a 1/2 miles per  hour, especially when you have to scramble over a lot of blowdowns, or you can’t see your feet in thick brush, is a very different experience than hiking at a 2 mph pace. You cover less distance, but you see a lot more.

This post was a collaboration between Gossamer Gear Trail Ambassadors: Will Rietveld, Jim Barbour, Barefoot Jake, David Lintern, David Hine, Martin Rye, Dave Brunstein, and Philip Werner. 

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4 Responses to Off Trail Hiking with Gossamer Gear’s Trail Ambassadors

  1. Gage March 5, 2014 at 11:25 am #

    In Texas we grew up calling it Bushwacking. Still my sons favorite kind of hiking. :)

  2. BeeKeeper March 6, 2014 at 10:10 am #

    Definitely my favorite kind of hiking; it’s addictive!

  3. Steve wG0AT March 7, 2014 at 12:07 pm #

    Yah! …for us it’s the “Trailess or Untrailed” I usually hike with my 3-goats. They’re pack-goats that can haul a substantial amount of gear (40lbs/each). But now days I just enjoy their hiking companionship with less gear. Winding along through game trails or no trail as a herd we see and hear things most mass trail commuters never come close to experiencing. You also learn new skills by tracking where few have gone finding paths of least resistance. It’s rewarding, relaxing, renewing and FUN! (Not for the unexperienced or ill prepared)

    • Editor March 7, 2014 at 12:20 pm #

      Steve – are Rooster and Peanuts your goats? I love their videos!

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