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.
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.
Hikin Jim Barbour
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.