Guide to Bushwhacking 101

The meaning of bushwhacking and when and how to do it.

October 12, 2021
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Bushwhacking is the activity of traveling through wild or uncultivated wilderness. Bushwhacking can be tough travel, through dense forest or over rocky scree in higher elevations. It’s hard on your body, your gear and requires excellent navigation skills. Off trail travel is inherently riskier, but if you’re looking to really get away from it all, bushwhacking can reward you with a true wilderness adventure.

Why Bushwhacking?

Traditionally, bushwhacking has been done by explorers charting unknown regions of land. Today, bushwhacking is used by hunters to access remote places with more game and land surveyors and foresters needing to assess parcels of land.

For hikers, bushwhacking is employed for two main reasons.

  1. The first is need. If a trail is washed out, eroded or covered by snow, bushwhacking can be the best way around the obstacle. Generally, these are shorter, unplanned bushwhacks. In the case of injury, a bushwhack may be required to get to an access spot or to save time to get back to a trailhead.
  2. The second reason is for exploration. In many areas, trails don’t go up every valley, to every lake or along every ridge. In these areas, bushwhacking is your only means to see the remote and wild county. Bushwhacking is also an excellent opportunity to hone your navigation and orientation skills.
"I bushwhack in familiar areas to make it challenging and hone my navigation skills." - Greenbelly Blog Reader

Here's why I love bushwhacking, personally:

  • Slow Pace: The travel is slow and deliberate, letting you take in your surroundings and get feedback from the land.
  • Psychological Demand: Analyzing the best place to step, planning the way forward, checking (and rechecking) maps, and backtracking when you get it wrong takes more mental energy than hiking on a trail.
  • Physical Demand: You’ll be using your arms to push brush aside and hiking over, under and around fallen trees.

Bushwhacking is not for everyone. Most hikers either love it or hate it. If you enjoy pounding out the miles you might find the slow pace and navigational challenges tedious.

Before You Go...

The Risks of Bushwhacking

Bushwhacking can be alluring, but going off trail and away from people means your margin for error is reduced dramatically.

  • There is no trail, or trail markers, to help you orient yourself if you lose your way.
  • Walking over uneven ground, sharp rocks and through dense brush increases the likelihood of rolling an ankle or getting cut up by thorns.
  • You’re also walking where animals are not used to encountering people.

If you plan on bushwhacking, do it with a buddy (two heads are better than one!) or a small group. Always let someone back home know your intended route and what to do if you don’t check back in with them by a certain date.

When Not To Bushwhack

Before you plan your route make sure off trail travel is allowed. If you are uncertain of the rules, call the local park office for clarification.

In high use National Parks and high use areas of National Forests, bushwhacking is often forbidden or strongly discouraged. This is to minimize the impact on the land so everyone can enjoy its beauty.

Even in low-use areas, avoid bushwhacking on fragile ecosystems that take a long time to grow, like mossy forests or alpine meadows.

In any area, if there is a trail that goes to your destination use it instead of cutting your own trail.

How to Bushwhack

1. Confirm your skills and gear. Before you decide to bushwhack make sure you’ve brushed up on your navigation skills. Can you read topographic maps? Can you use a map and compass if your GPS breaks? You’ll be off trail and away from help so you need to be able to fend for yourself. Bushwhacking is hard on gear, so make sure you have the appropriate gear (see our list below) to tackle a rugged bushwhack.

2. Pick your destination. You might pick your destination before you leave home or you might be on the trail already and want to explore off trail. Whatever the case, pick where you want to end up. This point can be miles away or a few hundred yards. If you’re in a clearing and can see your destination (example: a ridge in the distance) locate that on your map and in your GPS app.

3. Analyze. Looking at your map, you now have two points: your current location and your destination. Since there is no trail, a straight line between the two points is the logical route to look at first. Analyze the information on the topographic map. Are there obstacles on your line to avoid, like cliffs, steep hills, rivers? In dense brush it can be harder to hike steeper grades, so look for a gentle path to your destination. Rivers won’t have bridges and may be impossible to cross depending on their size.

what is bushwhacking (map)

4. Set your route.
 After looking at what’s between you and your destination, set the route you think will be the best. Once you’ve agreed on a satisfactory route mark it down on your map and add points in your GPS app. If you have multiple people in your group make sure everyone has the same directions to your destination in their devices in case you get separated.

5. Start walking. Confirm with your map and/or GPS app that you are starting in the correct location and pointing in the correct direction and begin walking. Don’t get too hung up on being exactly on your line, you’ll likely encounter obstacles that don’t show up on the maps like downed trees, boulders or thick thorns. Take it slow, especially if the undergrowth is dense enough to obscure where you are putting your feet. Make sure to stay far enough away from your hiking partners to avoid branches hitting them in the face behind you.

6. Check and double check. As you make your way check in on your maps and navigation device to make sure you’re still heading in the correct direction. Do this often, it’s very easy to get off course without knowing it when there is no trail. The more you check the fewer major adjustments you have to make. When I hiked the Pacific Northwest Trail, there were bushwhacks where I checked my GPS at least every five minutes to make sure I didn’t miss a turn.

7. Reassess. Along with checking that you are heading in the intended direction it’s important to reassess the route from time to time. The challenge (and the thrill!) of bushwhacking is the unknown. Twenty minutes into the bushwhack you might discover the flat easy section you identified on the map is actually a giant impassible bramble patch. Don’t be afraid to adjust your route if it’s not working. Embrace the unknown and start back at step three to come up with a new route. 

    If you get lost

    If you get lost, don’t panic. Take a second to relax and catch your breath. Most likely this will occur if your GPS loses signal or is out of batteries. But no worries, that’s why you have a map and compass.
    • If you can remember where you came from, retrace your steps until you can identify your location on the map.
    • If you’ve completely spun yourself around try to get to a clearing where you can see landmarks. Use your map’s contour lines and your compass to identify roughly where those landmarks are on your map and how far away they are. This should help you approximate where you are.
    • If you’re in a dense forest without landmarks use your compass to orientate the map. Then find your last known location on the map. Try to estimate roughly how far you’ve come since you were at that location. This will let you know how far in any direction you must be from that point. You’re somewhere in that circle.
    • In the worst case scenario, if you cannot find where you are, use your PLB/Satellite messenger to call for help. But only do this after you’ve exhausted all other possibilities.

    Tips for Bushwhacking

    Don’t hike alone - Bushwhacking can be tiring, dangerous and tricky to navigate. Hiking with another person or two helps you plan and problem solve your route together. In the case of an injury, another person can help administer first aid or call for help.

    Keep pace - Keep track of your pace as you make progress. Being able to estimate how long a certain distance takes helps you plan out how far you can make it in a day. Bushwhacking can be very slow going.

    Bring multiple maps - Don’t rely on just your phone’s GPS app. Have a paper copy and compass as back up in case your phone dies. It’s also good to download or print as many different maps as possible. Often different versions of maps contain different information, like disused trails or old camp sites.

    Take notes - On your paper maps or in your GPS app take notes along the way. Having this information will help you navigate if you get lost or if you need to backtrack. It’s also fun to look back on after your trip and to help plan future hikes in the area.

    hiker bushwhacking tree roots

    Follow ridgelines - The vegetation on ridgelines is often less dense than valley bottoms, this makes the walking much easier. Staying high gives you more views which aid in navigation as well.

    Walk backwards through prickers - When going through dense prickers and thorns walking backwards lets your pack take the brunt of the impact. This protects your upper body from scratches and cuts.

    Follow animal trails - Bushwhacking is all about being opportunistic. If you come across an animal trail going in your direction, use it. You’ll be surprised how much easier walking is using these trails.

    Make noise - In thick undergrowth visibility is limited, meaning you’re more likely to surprise an animal. Being off trail also means animals aren’t as used to seeing people. If you’re in bear, cougar or moose country make noise or sing so they can hear you coming.

    Stay close - Stay close to the other hikers in your group. Fan out across the forest floor to be able to spot the best route forward and communicate that with the group. Wear bright colors to quickly locate your fellow hikers.

    Secure your gear - Hiking in dense brush will cause items on the outside of your pack to get snagged or ripped off completely. Before heading into a bushwhack safely stow your gear inside your pack.

    bushwhacking in forest

      Bushwhacking Gear

      When bushwhacking, it’s important to adjust your packed gear to keep you safe and make the hike enjoyable. On top of your standard backpacking gear consider the following items:

      • Hiking hat - A sturdy hat with a brim keeps you from getting whacked in the head or face with branches.
      • Long-sleeve shirt - Long sleeves prevent scratches from bushes and thorns to a minimum.
      • Hiking pants - Your legs are going to carry the brunt of the bushwhack; pants prevent scratches and cuts from scrubby bushes.
      • Gaiters - If you’ll be walking through heavy undergrowth gaiters provide even more protection than pants against cuts, scrapes and bruises.
      • Footwear - Bushwhacking is hard on your shoes. Make sure to wear either heavy trail runners or old school hiking boots that can hold up to the tough terrain.
      • Blaze Orange / Bright Colors - If it’s hunting season blaze orange is a must. Outside of hunting season, it’s still a good idea to wear bright colors to help your hiking partners see you through thick forest growth. It also helps SAR identify you if you need to be rescued.
      person bushwhacking

      • Glasses - Branches may be smacking you in the face. If you don’t wear eyeglasses, wearing sunglasses or clear glasses will help keep sticks out of your eyes.
      • Trekking poles - Poles help you balance when you can’t see where you are stepping, aid you with stream crossings and can move small branches and bushes out of the way. However, in dense brush, it may be easier to stow them on your pack and “swim” through the foliage.
      • Compass - Pack a compass and practice how to use it before you head out for your trip.
      • Maps - Water-resistant paper maps are easiest for using your compass. They are also a great backup if your phone or GPS device breaks or loses charge.
      • GPS (phone or other device) - This is your go-to device to make sure you’re in the spot you think you are. Don’t forget to download your mapset and route (if you know it ahead of time) for offline use before you lose service.
      • First aid kit - Add extra items to your first aid kit for twisted ankles and cuts. Being off trail means self sufficiency is key. If you’re injured you can’t depend on another hiker coming by to help.
      • Food & water - Bushwhacking often takes longer than planned. It’s a good idea to bring extra food to allow for delays. If your route is sparse on water bring extra of this as well.
      • Satellite Messenger / PLB - The risk of injury and getting lost is higher when bushwhacking. Having a way to contact emergency services can mean life or death.
      • Stuff Sacks/Ziplock bags - In dense forest the underbrush can be wet all day long, even without rain. Make sure you have enough stuff sacks or Ziplock bags to keep all your gear dry.
      • Sewing/Repair Kit - Bushwhacking is notoriously hard on gear. A lightweight sewing and patch kit will help you repair gear along the way.
      • Bear Spray - Being off trail increases your chances of catching a bear off guard. If hiking in bear country, taking bear spray helps protect you and the bear.
      Justin Sprecher photo

      About Justin Sprecher

      Justin is a thru-hiker and writer with a passion for wild backcountry. He's thru-hiked the Pacific Northwest Trail, LASHed the Great Divide Trail and Arizona Trail, and clocked up 1,000s of miles on long-distance trails around the world.

      About Greenbelly

      After thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, Chris Cage created Greenbelly to provide fast, filling and balanced meals to backpackers. Chris also wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail.

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