Why You Should Learn to Hike Off Trail

Eight instructors, guides, and pros share the wildest things they’ve seen on the route less traveled.
By Alex Gulsby ,

Hiking in Denali? Going off trail is your only choice.

Sandy Brown Jensen

“You never hike the same trail twice,” is especially true when you leave the blazes behind. Off-trail navigation takes a little practice (and research), but it’s not hard to see what makes pioneering the wilderness worth it.

We asked the pros to share their best off-trail memories, moments and surprises. Here’s what they had to share.

PSA: Hiking off trail isn't appropriate everywhere—think trailless wilderness, not cutting off of established trails. Some wilderness areas are off-trail only, while others prohibit off-trail travel or restrict it to certain areas. Before you venture off trail, make sure the area’s land management organization and local environmental ethic allow it. Minimize your impact by following Leave No Trace principles, on trail or off.

“I was on a NOLS backpacking expedition in the Wind River Range. After hiking up a steep pass, we sat on the saddle, admiring the views. I walked to a stream to fill my water bottle when I saw a gray fox sipping water. This animal sighting sparked a connection to this wild place, and it would not have happened if we were traveling on-trail.”

-Kristen R., NOLS instructor

“I was surveying off-trail in the middle of nowhere, North Dakota, when I tripped over something strange. Looking at the old survey map I brought, I realized I was standing at the head of a very old, abandoned town. What I tripped over was the stone foundation of a post office built in the 1800’s. I was, at that moment, both historian and explorer.”

-Patrick H., survey technician for US Fish and Wildlife Service

“We were battling a fire near the Organ Mountains in New Mexico. It was scrubland so these barrel cacti kept catching fire and breaking away from the soil. They rolled down the hill like little fireballs. I had never seen anything like it. Our crewmaster would tell one of us, ‘go catch that cactus. Don’t let it breach containment’ and we’d race down the hill to catch it. Definitely a memorable experience.”

-Steve D., retired wildland firefighter, hotshot crew member

“Wandering along a stream near Gully Lake, Nova Scotia, I stopped to tighten my laces. A glimpse of bright green to the side caught my eye and a quick detour to the water captured one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve ever seen: A pregnant spring stream dotted with bright, moss-covered rocks. It was a moment of solitude and serenity I will never forget.”

-Bernardine W., outdoor gear influencer

“Our group had set up camp on an off-trail trip through the Weminuche Wilderness. Since the day prior had been exceptionally ass-kicking in elevation gain, some of us hoped to sleep in. Not possible. Around 7 A.M, a massive herd of mountain goats stampeded through our campsite. The noise was like that wildebeest scene from Lion King. We just watched as at least 15 of these monsters leap over bivy bags and camp chairs, completely ignoring us. I still have no idea what they were in such a hurry for, but the experience was epic nonetheless.”

- Alex G., BACKPACKER contributor

“On an overnight trip through Sam Houston National Forest, I hiked off-trail towards a hopeful primitive campsite. After getting turned around through the thick underbrush, I bee-lined it for Conroe Lake to reorient myself. Choosing that route led me to experience the most incredible sunset I’ve ever seen. As I came around the final bend to the lake, I noticed an adult male coyote strolling down the same path. Without my camera equipment, I just watched him for a whole minute until he eventually vanished. Completely unexpected and unforgettable.”

- John J., professional wilderness photographer

“One of my favorite off-trail moments involved traipsing across the desert grassland of Perry Mesa in Arizona’s Agua Fria National Monument, dodging cannonballs of basalt and overly affectionate cactus. I was in search of a complex of pueblo ruins, petroglyph panels, and other intriguing archaeological features built by the prehistoric people known today as the Perry Mesa Tradition. It was a surprisingly grueling trek, but the reward of closely investigating the site was well worth the journey.”

- Scott Jones, BACKPACKER contributor

“Our search and rescue team was called to search for a lost fisherman who had gotten mixed up near one of the rivers around Squamish. We went out searching with very little information and ended up wandering through a massive swamp. Our map and GPS had shown us a road going through but it was clearly flooded out. This mission turned into a maze of outflows and huge mud pits; definitely a unique way to explore a new landscape. By the end of the night, we were so exhausted, turned around and filthy, you couldn’t help but laugh. The fisherman was certainly glad to see us.”

- Sarah B., park ranger

Interested in getting started? To learn how to plan a route, navigate off-trail, and get unlost, check out BACKPACKER’s Backcountry Navigation course 

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