The meaning of bushwhacking and when and how to do it.
Published: October 11th, 2021
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.
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.
"I bushwhack in familiar areas to make it challenging and hone my navigation skills." - Greenbelly Blog Reader
Here's why I love bushwhacking, personally:
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.
The Risks of Bushwhacking
Bushwhacking can be alluring, but going off trail and away from people means your margin for error is reduced dramatically.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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:
By Justin Sprecher (aka "Semisweet"): Semisweet is a Wisconsin-based thru-hiker, adventurer and digital storyteller. You can find him exploring the upper midwest on foot, in a canoe and on a bike.
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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