Home / Advanced Backpacking Skills / 53 Bushwhacking Tips for Off-Trail Navigation

53 Bushwhacking Tips for Off-Trail Navigation

Keep your compass attached to your body at all times
Keep your compass attached to your body at all times – My friend Kris in his element!

Bushwhacking is a form of off-trail navigation through forested areas, so-called because the trees and ground vegetation whack back when you try to push through them. While expertise with a map and compass is a prerequisite skill to become an expert bushwhacker, many other skills are required including an ability to navigate by terrain and how to conserve energy when walking through thick brush, in addition to hiking and backpacking skills. Call me old-school, but I shun using GPS-enabled tools on bushwhacks, if only because they can lose power for a myriad of reasons and leave you stranded if you’re not an expert with traditional navigation techniques.

Bushwhacking Gear Tips

1. Wear a long sleeve shirt and long pants on bushwhacks to avoid getting scratched up. Safety glasses are good if you don’t wear glasses and so are lightweight work gloves. A billed hat is also useful for keeping branches from scratching your face and forehead.

2. Trekking poles are often not worth the hassle on bushwhacks unless you have a long approach hike on a road or trail. Best to stow them once you start so your hands are free.

3. Keep your compass attached to your body (with a non-elastic cord) at all times.

4. Always carry two copies of your map on a hike (one in your pack) in case you lose or destroy one.

5. Bring enough gear so you can spend an unplanned night out if you’re overtaken by darkness on a bushwhack.

6. Always wear blaze orange when hiking off-trail during hunting season, even in areas with known hiking trails.

7. Always bring some way to communicate with the outside world in an emergency such as a cell phone or personal locator beacon.

8. Don’t attach gear to the outside of your backpack because it’s likely to get torn or ripped off, and can be lost.

9. Don’t wear a backpack with external mesh pockets on a bushwhack because it’s likely to get ripped up.

10. Don’t bring your best rain gear or clothing because it’s likely to get ripped up.

11. If you’re bushwhacking solo, make sure you have a second compass with you in case you lose your first.

12. If you’re bushwhacking in a group, bring at least three compasses with you, so you have a third to break a tie if the first two disagree.

13. Always bring a pencil with you, so you can draw grid lines on your map or record data about your hike such as segment times or bearing changes.

14. Avoid using your compass near large metal objects, magnets, or electronic devices because they can throw off your bearing.

15. Always hold your compass level

16. Protect your map with some kind of waterproof case, even if it’s just a plastic bag.

Draw vertical gridlines on your maps before your hike to make it easier to get true north compass bearings in the field
Draw vertical grid lines on your maps before your hike to make it easier to get true north compass bearings in the field

Route Planning Tips

17. Always start a bushwhack from a well-defined location such as a road, trail, or landmark and a known elevation.

18. Use as many  different maps a possible when planning a bushwhack including local hiking maps, cross-country ski and snowmobile trails, and a Delorme gazetteer. Even historical USGS quads which can have useful information about old abandoned trails or logging roads.

19. Get as close to your destination as possible by following roads, trails, cross-country ski tracks or logging roads before starting a bushwhack.

20. Make sure you know when sunset is before your hike.

21. Define a turnaround time before your hike that will get you to a marked trail or road before dark.

22. Draw grid lines on your map (Caltopo.com is excellent for printing out paper maps on a 1:24:000 scale) before your hike to make it easier to take accurate (true north) bearings when you’re in the field.

23. A good estimating speed when planning a bushwhack is 1/2 mile per hour, although this can varry between 1/4 mile per hour to 1 mile per hour depending on the density of vegetation and slope angle.

24. Break your planned route down into segments with known endpoints, even if these are just altimeter readings on a bearing.

25. Respect private property. Don’t bushwhack without landowner permission.

26. Bushwhacking takes a lot more energy than hiking on trails, so bring extra food and snacks.

27. Bring plenty of water and a way to purify or filter more if you run out.

It can be easier to walk on the rocks along the edge of a river than in the vegetation running besides it.
It can be easier to walk on the rocks along the edge of a river than in the vegetation running besides it.

Compass Navigation and Route Finding Tips

28. Try to get everyone in your group to standardize on true north or magnetic bearings before your hike starts.

29. When reading out bearings to a group, make sure to tell your partners if the bearing is magnetic or based on true north.

30. Make a habit to constantly check your map and know your position, looking around to verify it by terrain-to-map association. altimeter, or visible landmarks.

31. Always record the time that you start a bushwhack so you can approximate the distance you’ve travelled and estimate your future speed.

32. Check and reset your altimeter at every known elevation since air pressure can change throughout the day.

33. Always validate what you see with your map and compass. You’ll probably be wrong more often than you’d expect.

34. Avoid bushwhacking in the dark. It’s very disorienting and dangerous.

35. You can increase your speed by hiking beside various landscape handrails – streams or ridgelines – rather than constantly referring to your compass for a bearing.

36 Try to conserve as much energy as possible by finding the easiest route through dense vegetation or marshy ground, even if that means walking around it.

37. It’s easier to walk perpendicular to contour lines than across them (on a slope) where one foot is always lower than another.

38. Walking in a stream can take more effort than it’s worth because the rocks in flowing stream beds are slippery and the vegetation growing along streams can be very thick.

39. It can be easier to walk on the rocks along the edge of a river than in the vegetation running besides it.

40. Be careful when navigating through wide saddles between mountains, because it’s hard to determine whether you’re still descending a peak or you’re fallen off the saddle’s sides prematurely.

41. Bushwhacking downhill is a lot easier than bushwhacking uphill.

42. Don’t get suckered into following an old road or trail that you come across unless you track exactly where it takes you.

43. Don’t put your leg down in between two rocks or trees where unexpected forward momentum can lead to broken leg.

44. Bushwhacking through deciduous trees is easier than spruce because the area between the trees is more open. (Stay under 3000′ as long as possible in the White Mountains because that’s the elevation where spruce trees start.)

45. It’s often easier to swing yourself underneath a fallen tree than crawl under one, since the gear on the outside of your backpack is less likely to get hung up in the blowdown’s branches.

46. Pay as much attention to your compass and route for the hike back as you did on the hike in. It’s very easy to get lazy and assume you can rely on your sense of direction (even though you know it sucks).

47. Don’t assume that fallen logs are solid – chances are good that they’re rotten and you’ll plunge through them

48. Don’t put flagging tape on a bushwhack route except in an emergency situation to lead rescuers to a victim. Otherwise you’ll create a herd path which will lead to unsightly human impacts in a wild area.

49. Don’t let the members of your group get separated on a bushwhack. Stay within easy speaking distance of one another, even if you can’t see them.

50. Always aim off to the right or left when hiking up a hill so you don’t walk past it. You can simply follow the local contour (up) when you get close.

51. Leapfrogging. Sending one bushwhacker forward and then giving them directions to move right or left to stay on the bearing can help improve the accuracy of your route.

52. Following animal herd paths can help reduce the energy required to move through the woods.

53. Practice bushwhacking and off-trail navigation. It takes experience to become an expert off-trail navigator and it is a perishable skill if you don’t use it.

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22 comments

  1. I like #4. I always carry a third map, one that I have studied long before the hike and stored to memory.

  2. Good list, lots of good pointers. It’s good to remember errors and failures so you don’t repeat mistakes. I’d say #41 is closely related to #46. When the going gets easier and you start to tire it’s easy to fall into the trap of relying on instinct (which can be wrong). Also, for #44 you mean bushwhacking through deciduous trees is easier… spruce is a conifer.

  3. In addition to the advice about keeping things solidly attached, I now always wear a hat that has a method to hold it on. It can be very hard to retrieve your hat on steep inclines, running water, … when it gets pulled of by a branch or wind.

  4. Ah, I see you read my list of mistakes from my last outing :-) Which is #54: always review what did or didn’t go right so you can fix what needs fixing.

    And the advice about bring multiples (maps, compasses, etc) should include the note that when 1 or more of these get lost/destroyed, you need to evaluate right then whether it’s time for a turn-around. The backups aren’t there to help you make forward progress, they’re there to get you home again.

  5. Great list. I don’t go walking through the bush often or for long, but if I start I will make sure to keep this list handy. I can cut out some trial and error and learn from those who have cleared a path before me.

  6. Nice list. You did briefly touch on one thing I’ve been wondering – can ultralight backpacks survive bushwhacking considering their materials?

    • I depends on the pack. If it has mesh pockets, I wouldn’t advise taking it off trail unless you have insider knowledge that it can withstand spruce hell. But most of the fabrics in use by UL manufacturers are quite robust these days. I wouldn’i worry about that part of your pack, but ymmv.

  7. Great list Phillip! I would only add a couple of items to your list..#1. With todays Satellite Photography I print out a Satellite picture of the area I am hiking in. So I have a picture of the area and a waterproofed Topo map. #2. Leather Work Gloves with wrist tabs to seal the wrist shut. #3.Rose Pruning Shears, I find them to be better than a Machete. Remove the spongy handle material, a solid piece of metal is better than the padding which always slips and causes me blisters. #4. Canvas long sleeve shirt. Use Boot Blouse Bands or Gaiters formerly used by the Military around your wrists to seal them shut, Do the same with the bottom hem of your trousers, I usually find them in a Military Surplus store. They keep Bugs and debris from crawling up your arms and legs. I use a bandana around my neck and keep my shirt buttoned at the neck. Spray Cuffs and neck line with Insect Repellent. #5. I hang my Compass from my neck beneath my shirt. #6. IF it is going to be an “in and out trip” of more than a mile in length, I use Hunters Reflective Thumbtacks, one every 100 yards or so, which can be easily removed on your return trip. They reflect in the daylight and glow in the dark at night. You need to turn around and check on them every so often to see how straight a line your are walking. These avoid the need to make Hash marks on Trees. When I make left or a right I use two tacks, the lower one indicating the direction I need to turn on the return trip. So if I was making a right on the return I would need to make a Left.. #7. I avoid hiking next to streams but maybe 30 yards to either side. One slip on a water polished rock can ruin your whole day. #8. Deer trails do not always lead to water, they often just peter out in a dense bush area where they hide during the day. Cattle trails are different, they generally do lead to water or shelter but becareful around RANGE CATTLE. In the Sespe Wilderness area in the Los Padres national Forest in 1988, which is not the Condor Breeding area, My Nephew and I had a good scare dealing with a 2000 pound plus Range Bull one time. He blocked the trail, if we went left, he went left, if we went right, he went right, if we walked towards him he turned and faced us and pawed the ground. I finally had my nephew stand behind me and remove his Red insulated vest thinking maybe the stories were true about Red and Raging bulls, nope, nothing changed. We finally backtracked a bit and stood still for about twenty minutes whereas the Bull wandered off far enough away from the trail so we could pass by far to his left. #8. Stiff bill hats can be a pain, easily knocked off or askew. Military issue Floppy hats were designed just for this type of hiking especially through thick undergrowth. I spray mine with a Silicone waterproofing material and then some bug repellent. Bug Nets fit perfectly over these floppy brim hats…

    • Just remembered two things I always wore in So. California when bushwhacking either in the Chapparel with the nasty Scrub Oak and Manzanita which will tear up your clothes which covered foothills and or the Deserts…Snake and Briar Proof Chaps from Cabela’s. The pair I have are over 20 years old and still in great shape. The second item was my pair of “Ugly Glasses” made with hardened glass lenses and treated for Transitional darking and lighting..Heavy duty plastic Military type frame.

  8. Eye protection is essential.

  9. How quaint that you have to draw your own grid lines – so privileged to have the Ordnance Survey to make our maps in the UK.

    • Ben – those are custom maps that I’ve printed out using a mapping program. Like you, our national mapping agency, the US geological survey, prints out giant maps that can’t be conveniently carried. We’re not the savages that we play on TV.

    • We’re very fortunate in New Zealand to have a government department that makes mapping data freely available, which is a nice & cheap alternative to paying for commercial software and maps that normally just render the official data anyway. One consequence has been many people printing their own custom maps instead of buying the stock-standard ones, which is fine, and convenient. A by-product, though, is that custom printed maps often exclude much of the useful info like map keys and indexes. I’ve lost count of the number of custom maps I’ve seen which have map grid lines as part of the standard renderings that most people print from (easier than using your own GIS software), but don’t have the lines indexed because the index numbers were only stamped onto the edges of the standard (large) maps. So, where people would once have been carrying easy map grid references with them, along with standard small-print instructions of how to infer a grid reference (very useful if you have to communicate with the SAR people), they’re now carrying a bunch of grid lines that are meaningless for anything except indicating scale. It’s just another one of those things to watch out for, I guess.

      These days I often print out a smaller map, for quick reference in a waterproof map thingee around my neck or similar, but I’ll nearly always have a standard purchased map packed away which is on more durable paper and covers a larger area.

  10. (35) Just be certain those handrails are actually going where you expect them to go, and don’t skimp on verifying as you go. :)

  11. Good list, and ensuing discussion. As to using a walking stick (now more fashionably called “trekking pole”) I do like to bring one on a bushwhack…one with a good sturdy wristband for when I must let it hang to do the two-handled muckle. When fording or rock-hopping stream beds the stick is invaluable for obvious reasons. Here in Northern New England the krumholz can get so thick at higher elevations it not only shreds your legs, it obscures the holes. There are places where a bushwhacker can fall right through spruce undergrowth/krumholz into a hole big enough to swallow a Volkswagen, where no search plane or dog will ever discover the corpse. Having a stick to “poke before I step” can help avoid such a trap. Most of those holes are simply chasms between huge boulders or slabs of rock, so I like to remove the stick’s rubber tip (it’s going to get stripped off in there anyway); the metal-on-granite “click” clearly indicates a safe spot for a footfall.
    Two more quickies: 1) I dislike gaiters in warm weather because of the sweat, so I doubletie my bootlaces in overhand knots, then duct tape them around the ankle to prevent snags. 2) For bushwhacks I use a small pack that is narrower than my torso so I can slip through more easily.

    • I agree with on the walking stick. Instead of trekking poles an certain hikes,, I carry attached to my pack a Hiking Stick I made from a 2 inch thick Hickory tree I removed from my backyard and asked my wife at that time make a heavy duty strap for it which she did with a hollow rivet on it so with the addition of two washers and a bolt through the Stick it would swing freely and hold my weight. I added a rubber tip from an old crutch I found at a yard sale. In cleared areas, free of brush I use it mainly to clear out the Spider Webs as I walk and to assist on steep hill climbs and especially stream crossings is where I found it to be the most useful. It also steadies my hands when taking photographs and if I am carrying a certain sleeping bag, I angle it into the ground, run a string off it and a miniature clothespin which keeps some mosquito netting built into the sleeping bag off my face at night as I sleep out in the open….

  12. Machetes aren’t just for the jungle. In desert chaparral they can be your friend.

  13. WildernessCalling

    Great list. I would add to #53 – practice in an area you are familiar with, study the maps carefully ahead of time to get the terrain and landmarks well in mind and pick a specific area/route ahead of time. Start with short forays, lengthening the trips as you gain confidence and experience. Nice post!!

  14. Here is another very useful technique for going downhill in thick brush. I often go over the top of it. It pushes down in front of you. I have done this in California in brush over 8 feet tall.

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