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The Manual: Travel Off-Trail

Navigate across scree, snow, and rivers without getting blocked or lost.
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When you venture off the trail—whether to climb a remote peak, find a hidden lake, or ascend a snowfield—you, not a trail-builder, have to decide the best route over wild ground. BACKPACKER’S new book, Trailside Navigation ($13,, teaches you how to do just that. Learn these backcountry skills, and you can be comfortable exploring any terrain.

Plan Your Route
This might sound obvious, but writing down a detailed travel plan forces you to look closely at your map and the terrain. The plan should include:

>> Starting point and estimated time of departure
>> Destination and estimated time of arrival (an average off-trail pace is one to 1.5 miles per hour)
>> Distance and elevation gain
>> Detailed route description—including handrails (features, like a river or a ridge, that keep you moving in the right direction), landings (key spots, like a lake or saddle, that you tick off as you go by, just as landings on a staircase indicate the passage of floors), and ETAs for these points
>> Potential hazards (cliffs, river crossings, boulder fields, snow, and so on)

With practice, you’ll learn what features make a good line of travel. In general, look for ridges to follow (A), or gentle slopes to contour around (B). Valleys and gullies (C) make great handrails, but make sure they’re not too narrow, with tight contour lines (you might end up scrambling along steep banks or wading in the river to stay along the streambed), and avoid cliffs (D).

Keep Your Bearings
Stay on route by regularly checking your position on the map. To avoid misreading it, carefully observe your surroundings and note at least five land features before consulting the topo—such as proximity to water (1), slope angle, tree cover, aspect, and major landforms (peaks (2 and 3), inlets (4), meadows (5), etc.). If you can then identify each of those features on your map, you can be fairly confident you’ve correctly pinpointed your location (★). This is to avoid the pitfall of “making the land fit the map,” where we convince ourselves a nearby hill is a mountain, or a pond is a lake.

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