The Fun and Ultimate-Ish Guide to Off-Trail Hiking and Bushwhacking
Dr. Suess titled one of his books Oh, the Places You’ll Go! Such a great title, isn’t it? Totally worthy of the exclamation mark. It captures the feeling I get when my boots tire of the linear trail and invite me into the adventure of yet another dirty, nasty, miserable, arduous, omnidirectional bushwhack. Another enlivening, uncertain bushwhack.
Another beautiful bushwhack.
I don’t mean to knock trails. They do an admirable job of localizing and limiting human impacts on the land, and they can be a nice treat if you’re in a hurry—say, trying to outrun a thunderstorm. Of course, they’ll lead you to amazing spots in the backcountry, too. But only a few of them.
I’ve long been obsessed with searching out the other amazing spots, the spots that are accessed accidentally, via random aimless bushwhacks. The goal is to increase my receptivity, to read the nuanced terrain and react, over and over, for an entire day or an entire week. A cliff pushes me left. A swamp pushes me right. Doubt stops me. Curiosity coaxes me onward. Finally, if I’m properly exhausted and frustrated and confused—and if I’m lucky—my head will jerk up, the trance of sweaty focus will dissolve, and I will arrive.
A vision of the primeval world. A moment beyond the reach of maps.
Each landscape is unique in terms of climate, flora, fauna, topography, challenges, delights, and thus each landscape asks for its own unique style of bushwhacking. Ultimately, there are no rules, no “correct” approaches. The following ideas are a starting point, that’s all. They can be drawn upon and experimented with as needed, in conversation with the actual ground beneath your achy, blistered feet.
Photo: Toa Heftiba
Believe it or not, humans aren’t the only critters that enjoy moseying around in the woods. Deer and elk go damn near everywhere, and apparently they appreciate a low-angled route—gradual, contouring—just as we two-leggers do. I often enter the underbrush prepared to thrash and cuss, then find myself cruising an ungulate thoroughfare a mere ten minutes later. Granted, the thoroughfare peters out after another ten minutes (game trails have a habit of vanishing into thin air), but soon enough the pattern repeats and I’m again cruising.
Lean On Trees
Class II hiking involves footwork, whereas Class III hiking requires the additional use of hands—for balance, climbing, etc. Bushwhacking, even through gentle, rolling hills, is typically a Class III endeavor, and that’s because vegetation tends to smother your face: You must whack the bushes! Furthermore, you must ease down steep slopes by weighting springy young trees (I call this a “sapling rappel” ) and charge up steep slopes by pulling on branches and trunks. As with suspect rock, test your holds.
Forget Trekking Poles
See above. A bushwhacker’s hands have more important stuff to, well, handle, and strapping the awkward things to your backpack is annoying, likewise unstrapping them. An old-fashioned walking stick scavenged from the forest floor will work in a pinch and can be abandoned spontaneously—for instance, if suddenly you’re frozen with fear on a damp mossy ledge, wanting to press your palms together in prayer.
I once spent two weeks backpacking among the rugged peaks of Strathcona Provincial Park, British Columbia—two weeks during which I rarely touched a trail. There weren’t any trails, not many at least, and my committing tour was possible for one reason: alpine ridges, a.k.a. sidewalks in the sky. Valleys tend to jam up with impenetrable mazes of growth, plus labyrinths of blowdowns, while mountains rise above the chaos, offering a clean, spartan alternative. The high country of rock and tundra essentially removes the “bush” from bushwhacking.
Guess what else removes the “bush” from bushwhacking: Lakewhacking! I coined this term in the Adirondacks of New York—a teenage sufferfest. My pals and I were neck-deep, dodging some “mandatory” miles by shortcutting across a lake’s shallow end, packs balanced atop our craniums. Creeks, streams, rivers, and waterfalls also can provide soggy routes (in desert canyons they’re frequently the sole option). Keep your shoes on and laced tight.
Dress For Success
Let’s say you’ve recently purchased a new high-tech raincoat and are excited to test it in the field. Don’t. Wilderness is rough—it is literally abrasive—and will ruin your duds in no time flat. I’ve sported the same crappy outfit for four summers in a row—pants with a gaping hole in the crotch, tattered shirt that a fashionable pirate would wear—and I adamantly refuse to upgrade. Nothing worse than spending a day in the woods stressing about protecting your gear from the woods. Note: A pair of cheapo sunglasses will shield your corneas from twigs and, obviously, get scratched to hell.
Driving the freeway and gobbling fast food, hunching over a desk and staring into a laptop, seeking fame and fortune—I’m positive that much of what we do on a regular basis is worse for our health than a little innocent vigorous bushwhacking. That said, there’s no denying that an injury or accident in a sees-zero-traffic corner of the wilderness could get ugly. Consider enlisting a friend to join your next excursion. You still might break both ankles in a gully of loose rubble at 13,000 feet (shit happens), but your buddy will be able to initiate a rescue.
Deviating from the prescribed course can be intimidating, borderline scary. It’s understandable that people prefer a beaten path, a predetermined destination: We’ll hike 2.1 miles to the beaver pond, then 1.7 miles to the summit, then pause for a snack in the meadow after 3.6 miles. Okay, fine. But the fact of the matter is that this mentality reduces our sprawling mysterious earth to a plan, a limited and limiting human objective. What requires real bravery isn’t stepping from the trail and entering the dark, tangled, treacherous forest, but rather learning to embrace a form of exploration that eschews goals, that celebrates serendipity. So, dear bushwhackers, screw up your courage, gather up your gumption, and in the case of paralyzing doubt (or lassitude), return to Dr. Suess for a shot of inspiration, a reminder of what this is all about: Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
Words by Leath Tonino. Top photo: Diogo Tavares