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Hiking across treeless terrain may look easy, but it poses many unique challenges for both you and the land. Here’s how make your next cross-country outing a successful one.
In alpine tundra-that zone above treeline where mosses, lichens, and ankle-high wildflowers carpet the ground—the walking is easy. Still, you should minimize damage to delicate vegetation by sticking to trails where they exist. Where there’s no trail, walk on exposed rocks, and spread out so your group doesn’t create a new trail. Avoid going straight up steep slopes, because you may tear holes
in soft ground; instead, switchback up on the most durable surfaces you can find.
In Canada and Alaska, you’ll encounter Arctic tundra. Despite their inviting appearance, these areas can be difficult to hike across. Beware the gentle-looking fields of tussocks. These unstable mounds of grass court twisted ankles, and the deep-water trenches around them may suck off your boots. To avoid tussock fields, traverse well-drained slopes, riverbanks, and low patches of willow, all of which offer drier, easier hiking. Subtle color patterns—bands of light brown bordering bands of even lighter brown—on neighboring hills often reveal hiker-friendly, tussock-free zones. Wildlife trails may also come to your rescue. If there’s no getting around a field of tussocks, step slowly between mounds, using trekking poles for balance.
Navigating flat or rolling tundra can be difficult due to the paucity of mappable landmarks. To keep a steady line, take a bearing off distant points like rock outcrops or patches of unique vegetation (shrubs, for instance). Lacking either, stick to a compass heading, with minor allowances made for tussocks and marshes. A Global Positioning System can be very useful, particularly in foggy conditions, because it allows you to pinpoint your position. A compass indicates only direction. When used in combination with a map, both tools will tell you exactly where you are, and in what direction you should go.