Lake George

Lake George
Lake George - from Tongue Mtn Range - 11/11/2011

Monday, January 9, 2012

Bushwhacking - A Pleasure or a Curse?

Most serious hikers and backpackers have done a bushwhack hike at some point, whether intentionally or not.  Have you ever lost your trail and found yourself tramping through the virgin forest?  Have you ever taken a shortcut from a marked trail and it didn't quite work out?  Have you ever been on a trailless hike, relying on a herd path that wasn't so obvious?  Perhaps your whole intent on a hike was to bushwhack to a summit or a point of interest.  What did you learn from any of those experiences?  Are you now more careful in following a trail?  Do you carry more precautionary equipment in case you find yourself off-trail?  Maybe, just maybe, you've discovered that you like bushwhacking.

Why would you want to bushwhack?  Bushwhacking or "whacking" is not for everyone.  You need to carry additional supplies.  Navigational skills are a must.  Your pace will likely be less as you find yourself spending some of your time negotiating obstacles and studying your course.  What if you get hurt?  The chances of getting hurt while whacking are greater than while following a trail.  Most likely no-one will be passing by to help you.  And what if you encounter severe blowdown or other obstacles?

Thick but passable...

So what's the other side of the coin?  For starters, whacking can be a safe and enjoyable experience (with proper preparation).  As with vacation planning, sometimes half the fun is the planning itself.  If you enjoy trip planning, whack planning may interest you.  For some people, the navigation/orienteering aspect of a whack provides pleasure.  For others, solitude is important and they want to be away from a constant stream of hikers. You may find a thrill in being "off the grid" in a Thoreau type of way.  The natural world may be what you are seeking or the primitive feeling of relying on yourself, your gear, and your knowledge to traverse a remote area.

A little hard to get through

To increase your chance of having a sucessful whack, you need to study your proposed route in advance.  Look at a good topographic map of the area.  What do the contours tell you?  Are there streams, creeks or wetlands that you will have to navigate.  Are there cliffs?  Are there lots of little hills to get confused by?  Topography can be studied.  Traditional water courses can be studied.  Keep in mind that water can change based on mother nature.  Periods of heavy rain or spring snow melt runoff can greatly swell most water courses.

Hardwoods usually are not too bad, especially when the leaves are down

Google Earth can be a great tool to use to visualize an area in 3D before you go.  You can even get a sense of whether the area is forested with hardwoods or softwoods.  Of course you can't zoom to a level where you can determine blowdown, but it's a great tool.  On Google Earth, you can also identify features and locations that you want to get to, and alternatively, those you want to avoid.  You can note elevations and can establish coordinates of areas you are trying to locate. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) can also be great planning tools.  It is also helpful to seach the internet for information about your destination.

In addition to maps and your trustworthy compass, a
Global Positioning System (GPS) device is invaluable.  A good GPS unit can double as an electonic compass.  Many units have built-in altimeters so you can accurately know your elevation.  Many also have topo maps built-in, or they can be added on.  With a GPS Unit, you can set a course toward a predefined set of coordinates (waypoint), or you can save waypoints, or tracks (a series of waypoints).  Saving a track can be valuable so you can see how you are traveling on a map.  You can also use a tracback feature to retrace your route if you want to go back the way you came.  Make sure you have a new set of batteries and a spare set.  Geocaching is a great way to practice your navigation skills with a GPS device.  Most smart phones can run GPS apps.  I use Backcountry Navigator Pro on my Android phone as a backup to my GPS unit.  Battery life on the smart phone wlll be a problem.  You will need a spare phone battery and/or a solar charging device to get a day of more use out of your cell phone.

Of course, technology doesn't replace common sense.  If the sun is out, you can use the location of the sun to determine the approximate time of day and approximate direction you are heading (or the direction you need to head).  Know your weather forecast, and watch for changes in weather.  If you run into obstacles like heavy blowdown, your progress with slow greatly, and it will become easy to get twisted around.  Sometimes you'll come to a stream that you thought would be crossable, but it's not!  You could come across timber growth so thick that it is nearly impenetrable.  These are some of the unknowns and challenges that make whacking a pleasure or a curse.

If your intended route crosses private property, don't forget to get permission from the land owner, to hike on their property.  It pays to be respectful.  For you own safety, be sure to leave an itinerary, even a rough one, with someone you trust.  Make sure you've got all the
gear, food and information you need to survive outdoors if need be (especially in the winter).  Remember to leave the backcountry the way you found it so others can enjoy nature as it should be.  Remember the Leave No Trace principles!

Maybe you've guessed by now that I find bushwhacking to be a pleasure.  If you haven't tried it, you owe it to yourself to try it once (on something within your own skill level).   Not every site worth seeing on earth has a road or a trail leading to it.   Happy trails hiking!


  1. cool stuff, dude. looks like you're making the best of this lackluster snow season...

    1. Hi Brian - Yes, but as soon as we get soon snow, I'm going to do some backcountry skiing.

  2. I was joking with my bushwhack partner just yesterday how great it would be if google earth had a vegetation density capability!

    1. Hi Philip -- Great idea! Perhaps we should petition Google

  3. I love this topic! Great post! Thanks for talking about it. I am so NOT a fan of bushwhacking but so many people I've hiked with are. When they vote on whether or not to bushwhack "the return" home, I always vote NO! and get outnumbered and then have to follow.

    I could write a story or two about my experiences - which were all good with good hikers and navigators, but I didn't like it!

    Crossing narrow beaver dams in steep spots, and water with thin ice. Sliding down steep embankments on my . . .(you know what), tight-rope walking and trying to balanace on a narrow strip of rocks and fallen branches to cross a steep, mini-waterfall.

    And getting "whacked" in the face in the woods with lots of branches and scraped by bushes. Sometimes, looking for the pink tape on trees to find our way back to a real trail, and the way out or the way down a steep area.

    We do have poison ivy around here in Canada too - off trail! I do prefer known trails.

    I think it is dangerous in winter to bushwhack when you have snow drifts covering things you might not want to step into and can't see.

    Wow! You really got me going, and smiling with all the bushwhacking memories.

    Would be great to hike with you someday. Great blog. I added you to my blog list too. Cheers!

    1. Hi Peggy - Thanks for the comments and the blogroll addition. Sounds like you've done enough bushwhacking to have an opinion! If we hike, we'll have to keep you on trail...