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Backpacker Magazine – January 2012

Adventure Upgrade: Navigate Off Trail

Open up a new door to adventure–by leaving the well-trod route behind.

by: Kristy Holland

Adventure Upgrades
Elevate your skills with tips we gave to real readers who wanted to go bigger and farther.
Reader Carla Danley, 50, Portland, OR
» Problem “I’d like to see even more pristine places when basecamping. I know I need stronger map and compass skills, but I don’t want to have to rely on my GPS. What other tricks can I use to make off-trail travel easier?”

Expert Bruce Crawford, wilderness navigation instructor for The Mountaineers
» Solution “First, perfect your map and compass skills and learn to build a mental picture of real-world terrain by reading key landmarks on any type of map. Then plan smart, so bushwhacking doesn’t overwhelm you, and so you can stay on course, even in rugged or difficult terrain.”

Pick Your Path
Find the Easiest way around.

» Follow game trails. In over-grown areas frequented by large species, follow animal paths to increase your pace. Climb or descend by stair-stepping between trails, which often run parallel across slopes.
» Skirt vegetation. Avoid dense flora in wetlands and draws. Instead, travel on ridgelines or above treeline, if possible. In general, vegetation is thicker on northern and windward slopes.
» Contour around hills. Save energy by navigating hillsides along one elevation (use your GPS altimeter). Contour lines on maps may not expose impassable cliffs or other hazards, so look ahead to avoid tough or dangerous terrain.

Stay On Course
Use the land to guide you.

» Follow a handrail. Identify your target (X) and a linear feature that leads toward it, like a stream or ridge, on your map. Guide your direction of travel by hiking parallel to it until you’re near your goal.
» Reference a nearby land feature. Identify a prominent landmark within half a mile of your target destination, like a lake (A). Hike to that point via the easiest route and then use your map and compass to fine-tune a bearing and calculate the distance to your goal. Pace count on that bearing to get there.

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Mar 14, 2014

Correction: Trees and vegetation are generally thicker on north facing and leeward (not windward) slopes.
Avoid crossing through dense vegetation in draws and bottoms. What looks green and flat from a distance or ridge above is just that - wet, boggy, or marshy grass = slow, treacherous, or lethal.
Contour along ridges by using your topo sheet that identifies slopes too steep to navigate and your sense of gravity, climbing or descending, not your GPS altimeter. Contour lines on a map will ALWAYS expose a cliff or slope too steep to navigate.
Never been off-trail before?, do it!, it's worth it! But do it with confidence. Practice, practice, practice. Build your self confidence, assuredness, and reliance by navigating off piste in an area that you are very familiar and comfortable with. Then leave the GPS at home, bring the PLB, and gradually build up your skills by navigating more remote areas with good sight lines.
It's not for everyone - so if it doesn't feel right don't do it, stick to the trails.

Star Star Star Star Star
Jerry W Doyle
Mar 14, 2014

I understand fully the excitement and call for adventure for "bushwhacking" off designated trails. In doing so, though, the individual must have excellent knowledge in use of the compass and topographical maps in combination with each other. A GPS may serve as an additional back-up instrument. Bushwhacking, though, can be extremely dangerous in bear country when in heavy foliage. I'm often reminded of the cliche' by a survivor of the infamous Donner's Party who hurried to California by leaving the established Oregon trail: ".... Stay on the trail, take no short cuts and hurry along." A friend of mine with whom I hike periodically also has an excellent observation on why one should stay on designated trails: ".... There is a reason the trail is there."

Star Star Star Star Star
Mar 14, 2014

Also get to understand the terrain. Map and Compass are critical skills, but also understanding the terrain helps out. Knowing that the closer to water you get the denser brush tends to be. But more importantly is getting out there and actually doing it. Practice in an area you are familiar with. Practice in an area that you can't really get lost in is critical as well. If you have boundaries like roads all around, and knowing that regardless of the situation all you have to do is head in one specific direction and you are home free. Call it a safe bearing. Or have a safe bearing to a creek and then know that traveling downstream or upstream will always get you to the trail head or a road is important as well.

Star Star Star Star Star
AZ Hiker
Jul 10, 2013

Great tips Backpacker for staying on course and making off-trail travel easier! The ability to know your way and know where you are is something we all need in any survival situation not just while hiking. Stay found by using a compass and paying attention to your surroundings. A compass doesn't need a signal or batteries and works in all types of weather but you need to know how to use it and "Felix the Sugar Glider Be Safe Hike Smart" (Amazon) makes learning how to use a compass easy. Orient yourself day or night by using a compass, a compass and a map, a map and no compass, no compass and no map. This book is for all ages (only 34 pgs and illustrated) and available on

AZ Hiker
Feb 25, 2012

Perfect your compass skills and navigating off trail by reading Felix! the Sugar Glider Be Safe. Hike Smart. avail on Amazon.

AZ Hiker
Feb 25, 2012

Perfect your compass skills and navigating off trail by reading Felix! the Sugar Glider Be Safe. Hike Smart. avail on Amazon.


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