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How to Hike Across Peat Bogs: Fear No Moor

Crossing a Scottish Peat Bog
Crossing a Scottish Peat Bog

There aren’t many peat bogs in the continental United States and it’s difficult to learn the skills for safely hiking across them in Scotland, England and other parts of the world without first-hand experience. While you can avoid peat bogs and stay on well-defined paths or tracks that circle around them, you are missing out on the abundant animals and birds that live in them and more remote areas that are less visited by others.

Learning how to walk across peat bogs is easier than you think once you understand the load-bearing properties of the surfaces you can expect to encounter, but it helps to follow an expert for a few days to get the hang of it and observe the footwork choices they make. As usual, energy conservation is the name of the game and helps ensure safe and expeditious bog crossings.

Uniform Appearance of Blanket Bog
Uniform Appearance of Blanket Bog

What is a Peat Bog?

Peat bogs are expanses of decaying organic matter, primarily sphagnum moss, mixed in with grasses and woody shrubs like heather, that form in wet, poorly drained areas with abundant rain and mist. The peat bogs in Scotland and northern England are called blanket bogs because they hug the landscape like a blanket and appear to be homogenous from a distance.

Sedge grasses provide firm footing, but visibly wet peat will not hold you
Sedge grasses provide firm footing, but visibly wet peat will not hold you

However, up close, there is a great deal of variation in the surface of a peat bog including raised mushroom-shaped mounds called peat hags, continuous ribbons of sedge grass, holes in the ground that lead to underground streams, drier areas of peat, and wetter sections that will suck off your shoes and may be difficult to escape from.

Less Saturated - Drier Peat
Less saturated – drier peat – appears fluffy and can be safely walked over

The trick to walking across a peat bog is to pick your way across by linking up the firmer spots that will hold your bodyweight while avoiding the wetter spots where you will sink.  Making forward progress requires rapid identification of the features that will hold you and an awareness of the compass bearing you need to stick to stay on course. While you can think about walking across a bog as a game of Twister, it rarely comes to that if you are willing to backtrack when you run out of firm ground.

The degree of erosion in a bog is often inconsistent, enabling a successful traverse
The degree of erosion in a bog is often inconsistent, enabling a successful traverse

Sections of bog that are completely under water should be circumvented because you can’t determine what’s below the surface. The same holds for areas with fine grained mud particles that look like chocolate moose because you’re likely to sink into them rather deeply. While it is possible to step in partially submerged areas, it’s best if you can see grass or heather sticking out of the water around you.

The best footing is found in areas of sedge grass and heather that are visibly dry or mounds that are covered with them and provide firm footing. Hopping from one mound to another is common practice. Drier, fluffier looking areas of exposed peat can also be counted on to hold your weight.

When walking down hill, it’s not uncommon to encounter a wide ribbon of sedge grass that you can follow for quite a ways. These may run beside streams or even over them if the ground below is honeycombed with water courses that have erroded the peat but are not yet visible on the surface.

Undercut water courses ae very dangerous when covered by spring snow
Undercut water courses ae very dangerous when covered by snow

These undercut holes can be very dangerous when covered by snow because you can fall in and break a leg or get swept away by rushing water. They’re easy to see and avoid in 3 season conditions though.

Plotting a course across open moorland
Plotting a course across open moorland

Navigation

It’s important to know where you are before you cross a bog because finding a firm route may require many twists and turns to stay on terra firma. Taking and following a compass bearing is advised to ensure that you are headed in the correct direction if the mist drops, and it’s good to aim for a highly visible landmark or a hand-rail feature such as a stream or track that you can’t miss when you get to the other side. Carrying a GPS or a cell phone with pre-loaded maps can also be very useful in low visibility or if you decide you’ve had enough fun for one day and want  a quick exit to a firmer path or roadway.

Wet Feet

When you walk across a large bog, there’s a good chance that your shoes/boots and feet will get wet. But if you’re walking across open country that has bogs, chance are that your shoes/boots and feet will already be wet before you attempt to cross a bog! Under these circumatances, your best course of action is to wear a pair of shoes or boots that will dry as quickly as possible and not hold in water when they get wet (avoid gore-tex lined footware.)

Fear No Moor

I used to be afraid of crossing peat bogs because I nearly lost a shoe the first time I tried to walk cross one.  I likened them to Tarzan’s quicksand and vowed never to walk into them again. But I’m not afraid of bogs or open moor anymore. Instead I rather enjoy it, because it puts all of my navigational and footwork skills to the test, and has opened up new terriorty for exploration that is not visited by many other people.

If you’ve been hestitant about walking cross-country through bogs and open moorland (boggy countryside), I encourage you to go walking through a bog with a friend who knows what they’re doing. Once you understand where to walk in a bog, you will fear no moor.

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23 comments

  1. What an interesting post. It hadn’t even occurred to me that Americans don’t have peat bogs. Surely there must be some in higher latitudes?

    But yes – excellently dealt with. I just adore solving the puzzle of peat bogs and go out of my way each year to cross a really big gloopy one! I suppose I’m slightly lucky, having long-ish legs; it gives you more options than those lacking in the leg department!

    • I think the closest peat-style bog is in Hudson Bay up near the artic circle in Canada – thousands of miles from the Continental US. Shocking isn’t it. You’d have thought all those Irish and Scottish immigrants would have had the decency to bring some bogs with them when they emigrated here.

  2. I’m surprised to learn that there are no peat bogs in the US; not even in areas with a similar climate…I suppose these areas don’t have similar terrain though.

    • You need a maritime climate, lots of rainfall, moss, poor drainage, and no trees. We have a lot of trees here in the US along the parts of the east and west coast with rainfall.

      I read somewhere that the peat bogs of Scotland are in part the result of deforrestation by grazing animals, so you can chalk up the difference to political climate as well. We don’t have big estates that raise sheep and deer because we never had a aristocratic elite descended from a monarchy (we did, but we got rid of it).

  3. Main thing is to remember that water flows down hill. In many bogs, fans of peaty channels join to form a bigger stream. There will be a watershed between adjacent fans and, although it will have eroded through at one or two points, finding the watershed is almost always useful.

    Sometimes, when the peat has eroded down to bedrock, slithering down to the bottom of a grough then following all of its meanders is easiest, e.g. when crossing from one side of Kinder Scout to the other.

    On Saddleworth Moor, I made the mistake of attempting to turn round when things were getting a bit softer than expected. This drilled me in. My colleague was no help. He just laughed and laughed. The lesson is once committed, go for it.

    Some years ago I read an article by someone from either Devon or Cornwall who said he would take a running jump into the worst peat bog his northern friend could find in the Pennines or in Scotland because northern peat bogs are as nothing in comparison with the swamps they have in the South West. His northern friend found a nice bog and the southerner did the jump. After extraction, they moved down to the south west. When the northerner was shown the South West’s worst offering, he bottled the jump. So you’ve seen nothing yet!

  4. There are peatlands in North America and more. Check out this document before making too many claims.

    http://www.eolss.net/Sample-Chapters/C08/E3-04-06-04.pdf

    Check out the table on page 3 of this document.

    I spent to many years stomping peat bogs in Northern Minnesota as a forester. There is plenty of peat in many States and Provinces.

  5. We’re specifically discussing peat bogs here; the list you’ve mentioned refers to peatland generally. I’ve just done a bit of research and it seems that peat bogs do exist in North America, but they seem to be substantially different to the ones here in Britain.

  6. There appears to be a peat bog in northern Maine where I will be next weekend (see http://www.maine.gov/doc/parks/programs/history/quoddy/quoddytrails.htm) but it does seem to have trees. It also has a big boardwalk through it, so you wouldn’t get to practice your bog walking techniques there anyway.

  7. Sounds like a marsh, not a peat bog.

  8. I was very curious how you navigate peat bogs after you mentioned them in posts about your recent expedition. You’ve answered all my questions admirably! I’m not likely to encounter them hiking in Colorado, although once my husband had to pull me out of waist-deep mud in the mountains. An early snowstorm dumped several feet overnight, and we had to navigate around fallen trees. The more I struggled, the deeper I sank! Lesson learned. And it was our wedding anniversary!

  9. There are a few (very few) boggish places here in MInnesota, even within the BWCA but they are not large and are generally of the wetter variety.
    I’ve solo hiked across bogs in Scotland and Ireland and learned the lessons presented in this excellent article the hard way! Beautiful photos – I’m jealous of your 13 day trek!

  10. Scottish bog trotting……..a character building experience to be savoured…..usually after the fact over a large measure of Talisker (same colour as the water)

  11. Its really interesting to get an American perspective on UK peat bogs – and they can be dangerous places even for the locals.
    Below are a couple of.links that might be useful =

    A walker in Bowland (Lancashire) who had a scary experience this winter. Iis an area I’ll be surveying for birds this spring

    http://www.bowlandwalks.co.uk/index.php/dangerous-bog-burnslack-fell/

    Some advice from UK Ordnance Survey and a video clip from Bear Grylls on how to escape from a deep one – don’t try this at home!

    http://www.magazine.ordnancesurveyleisure.co.uk/magazine/tscontent/editorials/outdoor-skills/2011/bogs-and-quicksand.html

  12. Peat bogs in Appalachia, specifically in the High Alleghenies of the unglaciated areas of PA, WV, and MD – check out Canaan Valley, near Davis in Tucker County, West Virginia. Treeless, open areas, of sedge and sphagnum peat. Technically these are more closely classified as fens, but can easily be described as bogs.
    Cranesville Swamp in MD
    Cranberry Glades in WV
    Big Run Bog in WV
    Blister Swamp in WV
    Buckles Bog in MD
    etc.

    I happen to be studying them for my PhD. There is a difference between blanket peat and raised peat bogs, maybe that is where the confusion comes from. But there are peat bogs in the US! Plenty in the northern states.

    • I live in Minnesota. We have the largest peat bog in the lower 48 states. It’s 500 square miles and has just recently become an official recreational area with a mile-long boardwalk. There are also bogs in Wisconsin, plenty in Michigan and some in the northeastern states, and, as someone has pointed out, some in the high mountains in the southern states, remnants from past glaciation I believe. My photographic projects are bog landscapes and bog closeups I spend a good part of my summers in American bogs. Yes, please correct the statement above. Patently untrue.

  13. Actually there is a peat bog right in eastern MA. Plum Island NWR, area “C” has all the features you describe, even a small hill. I have tested the many pit-falls you also mention. :)

  14. We just visited a protected wetland peat bog in our city, Renton Washington. It is being preserved by S.H.A.D.O.W (Save Habitat and Diversity of Wetlands). It’s a small but wonderful preservation and education effort.

  15. After a lifetime of bog trotting in Scotland and off piste on Dartmoor, there are a couple of other tips I would offer.

    First, I’ve found walking poles to be a great boon. You can probe for the depth of a trembling bog or for a solid footing through hummocks of sedge. And you can conserve energy by vaulting over small areas of nastiness.

    Second, on the one occasion I found myself sinking dangerously into a hidden bog (in a remote area of the Rough Bounds), I extracted myself by quickly throwing my pack onto the most solid ground within reach and rolling onto it before I got sucked in too deep. This was purely instinctive, and I was using a simple pack with no additional straps. With modern chest and waist straps I’d have had to unclip, losing valuable time. These days if a bog is so bad that I think there is material danger, I unclip so I can respond more quickly.

  16. I work for the Forest Service in northern Minnesota. We have plenty of treeless bogs and I’m terrified of walking across them. Especially the bogs that wiggle and bounce when you walk on them. One time I fell in up to my waist in mud and never hit bottom. It was like quick sand in the mud. I pulled myself out by grabbing a tuff of grass and using my walking stick. I almost lost my boots because of the suction of the mud. After that experience I refuse to walk across one alone.

    We have a group of researchers on the forest doing experiments in the bogs. One of the technicians uses snowshoes to cross the bog in the spring, so he doesn’t fall through.

    In the winter bogs don’t freeze very deep due to the mud and vegetation in them acts as insulation. The researchers tell me they only freeze a few inches.

  17. Funny.
    I’m currently visiting northern Scotland and followed this trail that led me to a peat bog that stood between myself and what I later found out to be an estuary. I began crossing the peat bog and learned along the way the situation I was in and had to search for parches of stable ground (tested by my foot) before proceeding forward. I almost turned around because I started to get concerned about possibilities of what might happen (will I fall into some kind of fatal trap underground? Are there snakes that might bite me?) but kept pushing forward because I was almost there to the estuary. Moral of the story: crossing a pear bog (w/or prior knowledge) was fun and scary, but I felt triumphant once I made it through :) Amateur experience + your website will keep me better informed!

    • P.S. I think I encountered blanket peat, because it looked like regular land from afar and it wasn’t until I was already walking through the first 20 steps that I realized it wasn’t.

      The location was in Kinloss, near Findhorn estuary and Culbin forest in northern Scotland.

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