I thought you weren't supposed to leave the trail?
September 16, 2011 11:23 PM   Subscribe

I recently moved near Glacier National Park and love it. I scour our maps and the web to find interesting hikes and GNP and the surrounding areas never disappoint. Recently, a seasonal worker was hiking on his own and tragically died. When I looked on the map to see where he was hiking and where the mountain was that he last logged a summit, there was no trail.. This got me thinking about bushwhacking and back-country hiking.

Is bushwhacking normal? I grew up in the Chicago suburbs. With the exception of learning land nav in the military, I've always stayed on trails when wandering through woods. It wouldn't even occur to me to go where someone deemed I shouldn't go - especially scrambling up the crumbling sedimentary rocks that make up most of GNP's mountains or through brush in grizzly habitat. Then again, I'm a rule follower and perhaps a tad bit irrationaly scared of bears.

I'm not about to head off on some adventure hike of my own but I can't get this guy's death - really his life - out of my mind. What compels you to veer off-trail? Do most mountains have some sort of summit log even if there is no trail? What do logs look like/how are they protected from the weather? When you go off-trail, how do you prepare and what do you worry about the most? I've found some interesting info, especially about GNP, but I really want more. In a similar vein, how the heck are trail locations decided upon and how much is bushwhacking tolerated? For example, lots of folks hike near Triple Divide Peak then leave the trail to go to the top. I'm assuming the NP doesn't put up a sign pointing the way for liability reasons but is that it? Is it the danger of maintaining it? Is it lack of interest?

Any relevent info or interesting stories you have (or sites with interesting stories) about bushwhacking would be appreciated. If you want to suggest a website or book to peruse that sort of touches on any of the questions I have, that would also be nifty (but I don't need a list of adventure books... plenty of those on askmefi already which are already helping me make up a reading list). I'm especially interested in "local" information but I know going off-trail is not a local thing. And I want to make it clear: I am a chicken. I'm not going to veer from any trails probably ever even though I'm very comfortable with a compass, topo map, and I have a reliable pace count. I'm interested in the stories (and pictures) of those who do, though.
posted by adorap0621 to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (12 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Oh dear. Bushwhacking is not recommended. Read Off The Wall: Death in Yosemite for many, MANY tales about the dangers of going off-trail.

(Apologies if the book has been previously recommended.)
posted by book 'em, danno at 11:46 PM on September 16, 2011

Bushwhacking CAN be normal in the correct context, but most people are aware of their own limitations and won't do it. And that's probably a good thing. I hike and backpack a few times a year in Denali National Park, where are there are really no trails and you are encouraged not to walk along off-the-record "social" trails. It's just what you have to do there, it's unspoiled wilderness and the Park Service is not particularly inclined to change that. And it means that most people who go to Denali never get further than about 1/10 of a mile off the road....but that if you are one of the few who do, you get to be someplace ridiculously spectacular and feel like you are the only one there. There a lot of this mentality in Alaska (even around Anchorage and other urbanish areas) and some people get hurt trying things they shouldn't. I lived in California for about 7 years and no one-no one- I hiked with there would ever even consider going offtrail.

When I go offtrail I think about making sure I'm following basic safety precautions (letting someone know my plans, having a backup plan for water safety and fire, planning a route ahead of time, taking more food than I need and preparing for crappy weather even if it's not predicted). I think a lot about how I can avoid the bushwhacking part of bushwhacking because that's the most painful and slowest and scratchiest part of being offtrail, and it's also the part where you're most likely to surprise a bear. Fortunately, it doesn't take much to get above treeline here....
posted by charmedimsure at 1:56 AM on September 17, 2011

You'll need extremely good contour maps, a compass, and the knowledge to know how to read them. That's half a decade of guided practice right there. Then you'll need survival skills—more than just general survival, also impromptu first aid, fishing, hunting, and camping skills. Again, a few years of guided practice (and not occasional practice; you need to be doing it every day for a couple of years). You'll also need the requisite tools and knowledge of their use, as well as a great deal of physical strength and stamina not only to carry around yourself and your gear, but also to be able to hike for miles over varying terrain when you're dehydrated, lift your body weight under duress (figure if you can do ~30 pull-ups you're getting there), etc.

Only once you've achieved all of that are you really ready to go bushwhacking.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:55 AM on September 17, 2011

I am pretty new to Virginia and feel the same way about Shenandoah National Park. I love looking up hikes online and setting out for a solo day hiking in the woods. The furthest I've gone alone is 10 miles, and I have always over-prepared by carrying things I would need to comfortably survive the night if I were to get stuck someplace, and a backup copy of my map and directions.

It sounds like your treks are mostly solo, too. If you are considering bushwacking, please get a friend to go with you for safety. Civil-Disobedient has said it--you really need an experienced friend and tools and skills to get you started.

Also, after seeing 127 Hours, I've started just calling or texting someone to let them know what trail I'm on, and that I will call them when I'm back to my car. I would add if you are thinking of going off-trail even with the most experienced guide, that you let someone know the area where you will be. Maybe give them a map with your intended area of exploration highlighted with your start identified.

Happy exploring.
posted by shortyJBot at 5:19 AM on September 17, 2011

For me, yes, bushwhacking is totally normal.

I'm a bit surprised that people are all Bushwhacking=Death. Perhaps I should put the caveat that I'm an experienced hiker and climber, but I hike off trail all the time - if you're a climber, you pretty much have to. Lots of peaks don't have trails up them, or you want to do a route away from the standard route, or you want to do a first ascent. I've hiked and climbed off-trail in Glacier, which is actually a great place for this; there's a whole book on climbing in GNP, the vast majority of what's described in that book is off trail. If you're experienced and good at navigation, it's often not such a big deal.

A lot of the time, off-trail hiking easy - if you're above treeline or in a low-vegetation area you just walk across the ground. In Colorado there are lots of hiking trails that run east-west through mountain ranges that run north-south. If you're willing to hike off-trail for a couple of miles along a ridge above tree line, you can link different trail systems and do fun loops. This is not some death-defying feat. In the physical experience of how you are actually moving, it is not particularly different from hiking on trail: it's just walking. Personally, I feel less scared of bears when I'm off-trail above treeline where I can see for miles versus on a trail in the woods in bear habitat.

Assuming you are with an experienced partner or partners, you are good at navigation, and you have a friend with details of your route as an emergency contact, it doesn't have to be more dangerous than hiking on a trail. Most wilderness trails I go to don't have a ton of traffic and aren't patrolled by safety officers: if I get hurt or lost, the most important thing is that I have competent partners who can help with a rescue, and that's the same on or off trail.

I hope it doesn't sound like I'm trying to minimize the risks. Certainly all wilderness travel has risks, and depending on the type of off-trail travel you do bushwhacking can be very risky. I'm just trying to give the perspective of someone who does this all the time and doesn't think that there's necessarily a huge difference between walking along a ridge on a trail or walking along a ridge off a trail. One of the most terrifying outdoor experiences I ever had was an entirely on-trail backpacking trip when there was a ton of rain and the creek crossings were flooded. I thought I was going to die a couple of times dealing with those creek crossings, and the fact that I was on a trail didn't help at all.

I agree with charmedimsure that taking safety precautions is important when going off trail. And Civil_Disobedient has a good description of the process of learning navigation, physical preparation, etc., but I think the advice is a bit over the top. 30 pullups? I know top-level climbers who do difficult first ascents in the middle of nowhere who can't do more than 10 pullups in a row. I don't think you need to be superhumanly strong to walk for a couple miles across talus.

I'll try to answer the rest of your questions:

What compels you to veer off-trail?

Wanting to get to new places, wanting to get up peaks, wanting to explore. It's fun.

Do most mountains have some sort of summit log even if there is no trail? What do logs look like/how are they protected from the weather?

For most significant peaks in the Rockies, yes. The summit registers are usually in a PVC pipe with screw-on caps on the ends, with a piece of wire to attach the register to some rocks. Here's a photo.

When you go off-trail, how do you prepare and what do you worry about the most?

I prepare similarly to when I hike on trail, except I spend more time planning the route, looking at maps, reading information about the route if it's available, looking for photos of the area online, and looking at google earth. I worry about the same things for the most part as for on-trail travel. I guess I worry a bit more about water if I know I'll be traveling above treeline for a long time.

How the heck are trail locations decided upon and how much is bushwhacking tolerated? For example, lots of folks hike near Triple Divide Peak then leave the trail to go to the top. I'm assuming the NP doesn't put up a sign pointing the way for liability reasons but is that it? Is it the danger of maintaining it? Is it lack of interest?

I don't know about how the park service routes trails, but in my experience off-trail travel is tolerated just fine. I've never been given a hard time about it and park service people I've talked to are often excited to hear that someone has gone off the beaten track.
posted by medusa at 8:41 AM on September 17, 2011 [3 favorites]

We backpacked a 50 mile loop a few years ago that included a leg that was cross country and above treeline, and it was the highlight of the trip. Trails are great, but sometimes it's rewarding to leave the trail and be forced to make all of the decisions yourself: which line do we take up this ridge; which pass should we attempt when we near the top; how do we cross this heavily forested slope; etc. We were hiking in an area of the Sierras that had also been used by some immigrant parties crossing in the 1850's, and it was fascinating to be making trail decisions while simultaneously considering which routes they might have chosen, especially with wagons and draft animals. I gained a much greater appreciation of the challenges a wagon party would have faced.

I can say that being above or below treeline made a huge difference in our ease of travel. Above treeline it really is just walking around, as medusa says. Below treeline, well, that was some hard work! One afternoon we hiked about 7 miles down a creek/stream drainage with no trail, and it took hours longer than it would have if we were following a trail. It's slow going when you have to not only pick your route but also watch every step, and backtrack when you reach something impassable, like a cliff or really dense brush. It was exhausting, but so satisfying when we finally reached our destination for the night.
posted by mosk at 9:09 AM on September 17, 2011

medusa & mosk have it right. I did some of this many years ago, mostly in the Sierra Nevada (Kings Canyon NP). Start out identifying some frequented off-trail routes to try (Some Sierra Club totebooks have general descriptions, or read accounts online). There are often routes over passes that no longer are maintained trails, but perfectly hikeable.

Bushwhacking, climbing steep places up to a higher bench, and difficult stream crossings can be miserable or scary, but make much better stories later.

I was not a strong climber, had no technical experience or equipment, and avoided serious exposure to falls -- though got some experience climbing finger-and-toe on steep spots with a pack. I was interested in cross-country routes, not peak-bagging (though we did a few of those not requiring special skills beyond simple endurance). I don't do cliffs or ice.

Some places are less accommodating of this than others. Alaska and the Olympics looked less welcoming than California and the Great Basin to me.
posted by lathrop at 9:37 AM on September 17, 2011

Thank you everyone for the information! I realize my question was a bit silly - people go off trail to see interesting places, duh - but I was authentically interested in the thought processes and prepwork that someone goes through before departing from the trail. The worry, rightfully so, is on survival skills and not whether "The Man" is going to jump from behind a tree to stop you. :) And I'm happy to see what the summit logs generally look like. I have plenty of GNP left to explore on trail and I really need to get some more (calm, from a distance) bear sightings under my belt before I go on multi-day hikes- on or off trail.

Book 'em, danno - that book is totally going to sate my morbid curiousity and medusa and everyone else - thanks for the thoughtful responses about your experiences. Maybe I'll see y'all at the top of some peaks someday (through my bino's... I'll be on the trail).
posted by adorap0621 at 9:45 AM on September 17, 2011

I know this thread is marked resolved, but I'd like to echo mosks sentiments. You do not need to be a superhuman 30 pullup marine to go off trail, but preparation is essential. I only got into backpacking within the last few years and this summer I hiked for quite a while off trail near the palisades in the Sierra Nevadas in CA. Solo, no less. I did this to link two trails I wanted to link and spent the large part of a day off trail. I have decent nav skills and a good GPS unit. GPS combined with my topographic map helped me plan the route months in advance and I left it with friends and family. That way if I was dead in a ravine, they would know my planned off-trail route. I also carry a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) just in case (as an aside, if you are hiking / backpacking solo I think you really should be carrying a PLB).

It helps to have a general idea of the off-trail terrain you will be traveling on before heading in and a trail- based backup plan in case things just get too hairy. You can always turn around :)

I must admit, the off-trail part of my trip was the highlight of my experience. It is really no different than trail hiking except that there is a bit more scrambling in wooded sections, a bit more rock-hopping on moraines and on slopes. Otherwise, yeah, it's walking.

PS - I'm jealous that you moved to the GNP area. I am looking to move to Montana or Northwest Wyoming in the future. Have fun!
posted by jnnla at 12:08 PM on September 17, 2011

I live just a little north of you (in British Columbia) and I hike off official trails all the time.

One reason is that there is a big continuum between official trails (e.g. around here, in the national parks) and pure bushwhacking. There are less official trails, and over grown old trails and game trails and old logging roads and all kinds of different routes that may or may not appear on maps or in guidebooks. So you can hike somewhere without an official trail, but still be hiking on a trail.

Secondly, this is the way I grew up. I spent a lot of time hiking or running around in the bush as a child and teenager and so it would never occur to me not to head somewhere without a trail.

Thirdly, this is completely normal for people in my part of the world. People do this just to hike, to go hunting, to go skiing, to do their job (e.g. foresters), or for any number of other reasons.

And, yes, you get to go to some beautiful places. There is a provincial park near me with incredible scenery and no trails at all. It helps that you can cover a lot of the park above treeline, so it is easy to walk and easy to see where you are going (as long as the weather is good). In general, the higher up you go, the less likely there is to be a trail and when you get up into areas where you are travelling on rock, then trails aren't really possible (although they seem to take that as a challenge in less mountainous areas, like the Adirondacks).

Finally, summit registers are often just a box (ammunition cases are popular) that someone decided to stick on the summit of a mountain.

One more thing - I think what you write is telling: It wouldn't even occur to me to go where someone deemed I shouldn't go. The lack of a trail doesn't indicate that someone deemed that you shouldn't go somewhere - it just indicates to no one has made a trail to there. If you have the attitude that someone else decides where you can and can't go, then you won't go off the trail, but if you believe that you can go anywhere that you like, then you will. I'd bet that this is a city-folk versus rural-folk thing.
posted by ssg at 12:24 PM on September 17, 2011

Thanks for the additions, ssg and jnnia. @ ssg - it is totally a city thing versus more rural thing and just a different set of expectations due to the vastness of public lands out west (way less likely to have a big ol' group spoiling some place out here than in a smaller mid-west park without so many great views... in the midwest, the powers that be will just build a trail to protect the area). I'm glad to have input from folks without such limited perspectives. So many little cultural differences to become more attuned to!
posted by adorap0621 at 1:35 PM on September 17, 2011

This story from the Glacier Park area is a reminder that the bears are indeed out there: Wrangler charges griz to save boy in Flathead
posted by homunculus at 10:33 AM on September 21, 2011

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