Bushwhacking Off Trail:
Hike Off Trail
Bushwhacking might sound a little taboo. Many folks are against bushwhacking off trail for a number of reason. One particular reason is ecology because you might harm sensitive plants or violate leave no trace. Another reason is safety – assuming that you may get hurt or lost. It isn’t misleading that you could harm nature or get lost easier while bushwhacking but I wouldn’t completely write it off. There are also many benefits to bushwhacking including finding hidden gems like shelters, waterfalls, Native American rock art, arches and more. I decided to write this extensive article to show you the art of bushwhacking and how to do it effectively with an intent on preventing ecological damage or negative impacts for you. This article is meant for educational use only – bushwhacking is done at your own risk. This article is a Patreon Exclusive meaning only paid supporters of Hiking with Shawn will ever have access to it.
Bushwhacking Off Trail: Clothing Choices
When starting out bushwhacking, I recommend you wear clothing that fits the type of off trail adventure you plan to go on. Long pants (tucked into sock), long shirt and a hat is recommended because you will be brushing up against potentially harmful plants like sticker bush and stinging nettle. You also risk getting more contact with ticks and nymph stage ticks (seed ticks, turkey mites, etc.).
Consider wearing boot that go up high or snake protection for your legs. Even if snakes are “hibernating”, on nicer days, some like to peak out. They’re not asleep like bears hibernate. If it is a little warmer during the winter, they might come out for a bit. You have a much better chance of coming into contact with a snake off trail than you do on the trail.
Safety glasses might be wise. As you move off trail, there will be more limbs, twigs, leaves, sticks, plants and so on sticking out. You risk getting tagged in the eye a lot more off trail than while on the trail. Trust me, I have had to learn this the hard way. There is nothing worse than a sore eye watering for the entire duration of your hike.
No matter the time of year – treat all clothing (not synthetics like base layers, spandex, polys, etc.) with permethrin. The prevention of tick bites is extremely important since you will likely come into contact when them quicker when hiking off the trail. I’ve also had luck with using powdered activated sulfur on my feet and socks to prevent biting bugs and chiggers.
Whether it is hunting season or not, I recommend wearing some kind of bright blaze orange color vest or backpack. It isn’t just wise for hunting, it is wise for being found by search and rescue personnel if you become lost, hurt, or incapacitated for some reason or another.
Consider not bringing brand new clothing/packs or such that you don’t want to get damaged. Going off trail might mean rips and tears to your clothing and gear. You are going to be coming into contact with more nature since there are no trails. It is food for thought and something to consider.
Bushwhacking Off Trail: Must Have Gear
The gear that is more important than ever is navigation. Keep a map, compass, GPS, and your phone (or such items you plan to bring) safeguarded. Make you put it somewhere where it won’t fall out and get left behind. If you lose your ability to navigate off trail, you will likely become lost. And with that note, I highly recommend you carry a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB unit) with you when hiking in any capacity. If you get lost or hurt, you can activate your PLB and it will communicate with first responders. It could very well save your life.
Trekking poles will likely become snagged on the natural environment around you. Unless they are an absolute must, consider leaving them behind. Don’t attach any gear to the outside of your pack as they can come into contact with snags. I even recommend attached your compass to a rope that attached to you to help ensure you don’t lose it.
Carry enough food, water (and a water filter) and snacks to last you 72 hours if needed even if you plan on just a day hike. If something happens and you have to spend the night in the woods, having proper food and hydration can safe your life. With that being said, bring a shelter even if its id just a poncho to make a quick tent. Carry some insulated base-layer clothing in your pack in case you need to get warm at night. Carry gloves, extra socks, and a sock cap. Carry a few different methods of making a fire as well as something to use to start the fire like cotton balls soaked in Vaseline or drier lint.
Carry at least 2 forms of artificial light such as a flashlight and a headlamp. Bring extra batteries. Put the batteries in the wrong way when not using the light – this prevents the unit from accidentally turning on and killing the battery level.
Bring a pencil with you in case you need to create temporary marks on your map. Don’t know how to read a map? Learn maps before you bushwhack – specifically topography, contour lines, hills, ridges, canyons, ravines, etc. Knowing how to read a map when bushwhacking can help you choose the easiest route rather than the hardest. Put maps and things that shouldn’t get wet in waterproof sleeves or sealed bags. Stay away from plastic cases as they add more weight.
Bushwhacking Off Trail: Safety Information
Bring a basic first aid kit and only pack items that you know how to use. Everything you need should fit into a normal size sandwich bag.
Tell someone where you are going before you go. Make sure you show them on the map where you will be. This is important for search and rescue if you never come home.
Always watch where you are putting your feet next. There are holes, cliffs, snakes, rocks and more than can immediately harm you if you make the wrong step. Getting hurt while off trail will be extremely dangerous compared to getting hurt on a trail where people likely are going to be.
Bring a whistle in case you need to call for help. Blowing on a whistle is less exhausting than screaming.
Take a directional reading (with your compass) of the start of where you will start hiking (like where you parked your car or a trailhead). Record that. Use that direction to bushwhack to in case you get lost and need to get back to where you started.
Have a boundary map or app to show you private property boundaries. Don’t trespass. If you see a tree with purple paint on it, everything behind it is private.
Understand that bushwhacking is harder than regular hiking and usually takes more energy. Watch your body, hydrate often and snack and eat to keep fueled up for the trek.
Always bring a water filter but most importantly, know how to use the filter and test that filter before you go.
Avoid bushwhacking in the dark. Dark hiking is more dangerous and easier to become disorganized and get lost quicker. You also don’t see the hazards (and potentially deadly hazards) that you are stepping on.
Use less energy by avoiding hills and going around thick and dense vegetation. Walking in a shallow creek or stream will use more energy because you will likely be avoiding rock obstacles, slipping, and trying to not get wet.
Look for game trails (deer or wildlife trails) and follow them if they conform with your route. They have made it a lot easier for you with those trails.
Bushwhacking Off Trail: Ecological Tips
Don’t build cairns (rock stacks) off the trail. When stacking rock for navigation, you should only do that on a trail in very remote and rugged environments. You should also understand how to make cairns the way they’re supposed to be made. Building a cairn off trial does nothing but damage the ecological environment that critters depend on.
Try not to start fires unless it is an emergency. Even though rocks shouldn’t be moved off trail for ecological reasoning, during an emergency situation where you need to make a fire, try to build a fire ring with rocks to help manage the fire and prevent spread. Make sure a fire is completely out and cold to touch before abandoning it.
Don’t bushwhack in areas where it specifically requests you do not get off trail. For example, don’t leave the trail while in Nature Preserves. Nature Preserves and related areas often have rare and extremely endangered plants, wildflowers, and wildlife (that you might not be able to see) that should never be disrupted.
Clean your shoes/boots before you enter a natural area. Use a brush and clean the entire outside. This is done to prevent the spread of invasive plant species. Sometimes seeds are so small that you won’t see them.
If going off trail, tread lightly and watch what you’re stepping on. If a plant looks special, avoid stepping on it. Don’t pick anything that you don’t intent to use for food or medicinal purposes. And be careful with mushrooms, there are a lot of lookalikes that could seriously harm to even kill you if you eat them.
The best time to bushwhack is during the winter when most sensitive plants are not in bloom. You should still be treading lightly, nonetheless.
Bushwhacking Off Trail: Final Thoughts
I love to bushwhack! I do it all year long but especially love to do it during the winter when it is easier to see everything and there are fewer biting insects present. Because of bushwhacking, I’ve discovered special places like Bulge Hole Waterfalls, unknown natural arches, rarely visited waterfalls, chunks of Shawnee that have no trails but awesome features, caves, and old home sites. As a word of caution though, usually around old home sites, I tend to find open wells that would be dangerous to fall into. I’ve recorded over 50 of them in the Shawnee thus far. I plan to keep bushwhacking as I experience a side of the forest that most folks will never experience. But I will say, bushwhacking isn’t for everyone!
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I’m trying to keep coming up with cool article ideas to make being a Patreon better. Your support really helps me out and I am so grateful for it. If you ever have any recommendations for new article topics, let me know and I will work on getting them here. If you do bushwhack, please be safe and use common sense.
Reply with a comment about what cool things you have found while hiking off of the beaten path!
Shawn J. Gossman
Shawn is the founder and host of the YouTube Channel, Hiking with Shawn as well as Hiking with Shawn LLC. Shawn hikes, backpacks and visits various forested areas in the Shawnee National Forest, local state parks and other areas promoting outdoor recreational activities to obtain video to show to locals and non-locals alike. Please support Shawn’s efforts by sharing this post and leaving a comment below.