How to Hike Off-Trail

How To Hike Off-Trail

Rule number one: Don’t venture off-trail unless you’re an experienced hiker and confident in your navigation skills. Rule number two: Only hike off-trail where it’s permitted. Check and check? Great, because hiking off-trail is a wonderful way to find solitude and explore the wildest corners of the wilderness. Here’s how to get off-trail safely and appropriately. 

Do: Your Research

Before you strike out, do your research to make sure off-trail hiking is allowed. While in some areas it’s allowed, encouraged, and even required to get around, there are plenty of areas that do not allow off-trail hiking. As a general rule, big wilderness areas are more likely to allow off-trail hiking, while small or heavily used parks do not. Sometimes off-trail hiking is prohibited for safety reasons, or to protect vulnerable plants and animals. Regardless of the reason, if the rules say stay on the trail, stay on the trail.

Don't: Go Off-Trail to Save 20 Steps

Hiking off-trail gives you an opportunity to explore seemingly untraveled areas. It is not an excuse to save a few steps by cutting off a switchback or forcing a shortcut. These actions can ruin a trail and encourage other hikers to do the same thing. This will lead to a confusing, potentially dangerous, maze of official and unofficial trails that exacerbates erosion and other damage. 

Do: Follow Leave No Trace Principles

As with all outdoor activities, you should hike off-trail only while following Leave No Trace principles to protect the wilderness. For off-trail hiking, that involves traveling on durable surfaces and avoiding damaging sensitive vegetation. Stay away from fragile ecosystems like wet meadows. Keep plants safe by seeking out areas with sparse vegetation or hardy, dry grasses. Spread out while walking in a group to disperse impact. 

Don’t: Think You'll Be As Fast as You Are on Trail

Hiking off-trail will invariably slow your pace. Rather than hurrying, make sure you allow more time. How much? Assume you’ll travel at about half the speed as you normally do on trails. 

Do: Bring a Map

When you’re off-trail, it's even more important to know where you are. Check your map (or GPS) regularly to know where you are, how far you've gone, and how far you have to go.

Don't: Rely Fully on Your GPS

GPS technology is great, but like all electronics it can fail you. If you run out of battery power, lose a signal, or break a screen, you are in a bad spot, unless you have other means of finding where you are. Practice your orienteering skills in a safe location until you are confident in navigating with a map.

Do: Start Slowly

Start your off-trail exploration with hub-and-spoke trips. Leave a campsite or car and do an out-and-back trip, returning to your car or campsite. Become comfortable with this navigation before you try to travel from one location to another off-trail.

Don’t: Step Without Checking

When you’re walking through tricky terrain, like across boulder fields or through a forest with downed trees, tread carefully. Check the stability of a rock or tree trunk by stepping lightly on it before committing your full body weight. Be light and nimble and ready to move should things shift beneath you.

Do: Create Efficient Routes

If you're trying to get from one place to another, your map with its topographical information has a lot of helpful information to keep you moving quickly and efficiently. The fastest route is not always the straightest route. Most trails curve and turn to give you an efficient path. You should think similarly while you're walking off-trail. Look for obstacles to avoid, like ridges or steep valleys, and seek out long, gentle slopes rather than steep, short sections. Watching how water moves through the landscape will give you insights into efficient paths. 

Don’t: Take Unnecessary Risks

There is some inherent danger in traveling off-trail, don't add to it. Rather than scrambling up a cliffy section, walk around it. Rather than fording a river in a dangerous place, look for a safer crossing (or turn around). When you are off-trail, it can take longer to get help in case of an accident. 

Do: Stay on Track

In dense forest, rolling desert terrain, and in limited visibility, it can be easy to wander off your intended path. To prevent this, shoot a compass bearing in the direction you want to go and pick a prominent object, like a particularly unique tree, in the right direction and walk to it. Then shoot a bearing again, pick another notable object, and walk toward it. Repeat this leapfrogging process and you’ll stay on your path.  

Don’t: Go Beyond Your Limits

When you're hiking off-trail, you need to be ready to turn around and head back. If you are injured, out of water, or fatigued, the best course of action is to make your way back to safety rather than pressing on. Knowing when to stop traveling off-trail will keep you traveling off-trail for years to come. 

Do: Dress For The Job

Long sleeves and pants can help protect you from the branches, brush, and burrs. Covering up will help avoid irritation and scratches. Wear hiking boots with good grip, and consider gaiters to help keep debris out. Sunglasses are also great for protecting your eyes from sticks and branches. 

Don’t: Keep Your Head Down

When you have an opportunity to look from an overlook, take it. This can give you valuable information about the terrain to come and help you choose the best route. 

Do: Get Online

Before you leave, look over the area you’re going to hike through in an app like Google Maps with a satellite view. This will give you an opportunity to notice any interesting or dangerous features. 

Don’t: Get Stuck

Be sure you know how to get out of an area should anything go wrong. That means knowing where the creek crossing is or where to find the exit from the valley. Know how to get out in a hurry should the weather change. 

All articles are for general informational purposes. Each individual's needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary. Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.