Next Level: Off-Trail Navigation

Use a map, compass, and GPS unit to plot an ambitious route with this beginner's guide to bushwhacking

Leaving the trail to hike cross-country is like getting your first car: Your adventure options expand exponentially. Here’s how to get started.

Your most important at-home task is to identify the line of least resistance. Consult guidebooks and talk to rangers and other hikers about route options and predictable conditions, such as where snow lingers and vegetation is thickest. Then plot your route on a USGS 7.5-minute quad (right). We highly recommend mapping software–which makes it easy to trace a path and mark key landmarks–and GPS, especially for areas of dense forest and limited visibility. Tip: Expect to average no more than 1 mile or 1,000 vertical feet per hour.

[A to B]

Avoid Green

If you’ll be leaving the trail below treeline, scan the map for open ridgetops and lightly vegetated side slopes. Avoid valleys and creek bottoms, which can be boggy and dense with brush. Identify possible detours, should you encounter impassable thickets.

[B to C]

Limit Ups And Downs

For travel above treeline, chart the most direct route to your destination that avoids obstacles like cliffs. Use open, gradual ridges to gain or lose elevation, and aim for passes (point C) to avoid unnecessary elevation gain.

[C to D]

Study Contours

A wide valley bottom can offer good walking (and campsites), but watch for canyons that cliff out (point X). In mountain terrain, plot your route along a contour line to avoid losing elevation, and mark spots–like steep headwalls (point Y)-that will require

in-the-field scouting.

[D to E]

Identify Hidden Options

When scrambling a peak, the best line often follows a less obvious gully to a pass, then a ridge to the summit. Highlight alternative routes like this at home so you don’t waste time on the ground.

Master basic navigation and map reading before going off the trail, and hike with someone experienced your first few times out.

When you buy something using the retail links in our stories, we may earn a small commission. We do not accept money for editorial gear reviews. Read more about our policy.