Home / Advanced Backpacking Skills / How to Plan an Off-Trail Hike with Caltopo

How to Plan an Off-Trail Hike with Caltopo

Off Trail Hiking exercises your mind and body differently than hiking on trails that others have defined and built for you
Off Trail Hiking exercises your mind and body differently than hiking on trails that others have defined and built for you.

This is a tutorial about how to plan an off-trail hike that illustrates the judgements that experienced hikers make when they plan off-trail routes. I illustrate these with a free navigation tool called Caltopo.com, but there’s nothing preventing you from using other route planning tools like Gaia GPS, Garmin Basecamp or just a paper map, a pencil, and a ruler. The important thing is learning about the inferences you can make about terrain from a topographic map and how to use them to pick the best route from several alternatives. That said, Caltopo is a very versatile and free tool that’s exceptionally good for planning off-trail wilderness adventures.

Why Hike Off-Trail?

People hike off-trail for a whole host of reasons and it’s a good skill to have if you want to explore an area that doesn’t have any trails, you want to take a shortcut, or you need to bypass an obstacle, like an washed out bridge, but don’t want to backtrack the way you came. It’s kind of ironic that so many hikers only hike on well defined hiking trails when hunters, backcountry skiers, geocachers, prospectors, fisherman, and land managers spend most of their time navigating off-trail. In actuality, once you get comfortable hiking off trail, it becomes kind of hard to stop. There’s a real sense of freedom and self-reliance you develop when navigating off trail, that’s hard to duplicate when hiking on trails that someone else has defined and built for you.

Guiding Principles for Off-Trail Hiking

There are a few “guiding” principles, no pun intended, for how to define a good off-trail route.

  • Energy efficiency – picking the route that requires the least effort to follow.
  • Safety – avoiding dangerous land features.
  • Staying found – picking landmarks and routes that are easy to find or follow in the landscape without a compass or GPS
  • Local Knowledge – if you’re unfamiliar with a region, it’s best to acquire some local knowledge, not shown on maps, about local weather patterns, property boundaries, hunting seasons, and other hazards before wandering off-trail in the wilderness.

Energy Efficiency

When planning a route, you want to define a route that’s easy to hike. For example, instead of trying to climb a cliff face or a very steep incline, it’s best to find a gently sloping incline that will take you to the same destination. Off-trail hiking is tough enough, especially if there’s vegetation in your way, that you don’t want to waste energy unnecessarily. While following a brook or stream is a good way to always know where you are, you don’t want to get to close to the stream bank because it’s probably pretty thick with vegetation.

Safety

When hiking off trail, you’ll want to avoid certain landforms or features which can be a hazard. For example, there’s usually a lot of boulders and debris at the base of a cliff or very steep incline. This can be slow and onerous to walk through, but also dangerous in winter when snow covers voids between the rocks. Step in the wrong spot and you can be trapped or hurt yourself.

Staying Found

When hiking off-trail, it’s useful to pick a route that makes it easy to know where you are without resorting to a GPS or even a map and compass. This is easy to do if you follow obvious land features like ridges or watercourses. Why is it preferable to use these landforms to navigate instead of a map and compass, GPS unit, or Smartphone Navigation App? Mostly it’s just faster, since they’re so easy to follow. You can still refer to your devices if you need to. Hiking off trail is slow enough – usually between 1/2 and 1 mile per hour, but sometimes as slow as 1/4 mile per hour if you have to battle dense vegetation.

Local Knowledge

There’s a lot of local information, not included on maps about an area that it pays to know about before you head off-trail in an unfamiliar area including hunting season dates, prevailing weather patterns, property boundaries, spring flooding, avalanche forecasts, artillery range schedules (I kid you not!) – stuff you can only find out online with a little extra sleuthing or by talking to a helpful local.

An Example: Climbing Bald Knob

Let’s climb Bald Knob, a small peak in the Sandwich Range of the White Mountains, near Waterville Valley, NH. It doesn’t have any trails that go up it, so we need to plan our own route. Here’s the reasoning process, I’d go through, using Caltopo.com.

Note: All of these maps open live in Caltopo.com – so click on them and open them up!

The first thing I do when planning a route like this is to bring up a USGS map of the area I want to hike. The USGS (US Geological Survey) map has a scale of 1:24,000 which is 2-3 times higher resolution than most commercial paper maps. This is not the latest generation of USGS map available for this area (it was probably published around 1950) but it has more information on it than the current USGS National Map map of the area which doesn’t show any place names, roads, or hydrology information. The USGS stopped including these features in their maps after 1990 because they ran out of budget to send field observers into the field to check them…

The next thing I do is add a map layer in Caltopo, called fixed slope shading that colors slopes in order to make the gradient’s pop out visually. The darker the shading, the steeper the slope. You can also infer steep slopes by looking for closely bunched contour lines on topographic maps, but this added Caltopo layer makes them mush easier to see.

In planning my route, I want to avoid climbing the steepest slopes up Bald Knob, opting for a more gradual, energy-conserving route. I also want to avoid walking through any boulder or debris fields (especially fallen trees) below the steepest slopes because they also consume a lot of energy and there’s an increased risk of injury. This is particularly true in winter, when snow hides voids under the vegetation or between rocks: voids you can fall into.

Looking at this view, there are three possible routes to the summit of Bald Knob that look like they have potential.

  • Option A (marked in blue): Loops around the peak to the north and then climbs to the summit from the north, following a ridge above a stream.
  • Option B (marked in green): Climbs the front of Bald Knob, just south of its east-facing cliffs and a stream.
  • Option C (marked in purple): Loops around the peak to the south, following the Smarts Brook Trail, before climbing a ridge to the summit.

What are the differences between these three routes?

Option A is 2.7 miles long, but it starts by following an old road marked “406” on the map, so it will be easy to follow and is probably free of vegetation. If we followed this route we’d turn right (south) when we reach a stream and then follow a ridge to the summit. The climb up to the summit is only 0.84 miles off-trail in woods and should be easy to follow, even without a compass, because it follows a ridge line. How do I know it’s a ridge? If you follow the line up the hill, note how the contours fall off on either side of it? That’s a ridge. When walking up the hill you should be able to see the horizon slope downhill to your right and left. If you stay in the middle, you’ll reach the summit without having to use a compass to follow a bearing. Following a landform to stay on-course like this is a neat trick that off-trail hikers use all the time.

Option B is 1.7 miles long. It starts the same way as Option A before reaching a stream and then climbing a different ridge south of a stream. While the total length of Option B is shorter than Option A, the off-trail portion is 1.4 miles or nearly twice as long, which will be slower and require considerably more energy to climb. Why? Off trail hiking speeds (in dense forested areas, like this example) often range from 0.5 to 1.0 mph, unlike on-trail hiking which is generally 2.0 mph. So the longer you’re off trail, the slower and more exhausting your route will be.

Option C is also 2.7 miles long. It follows the Smarts Brook Trail, an established hiking trail for 1.4 miles, before climbing 1.3 miles off-trail to the summit on a ridge. It’s a pretty straightforward route, but it will be challenging to determine when we’ve arrived at the point where we want to step off trail because there’s no obvious landmark like a stream crossing to mark the spot or a distinct elevation that we can read off an altimeter. I could look the start point up using a GPS and there’s no shame in doing that, but my preference is to only use a map and compass when route-finding.

How to choose between them?

Of these three options, I like Option A the best because it has the shortest off-trail segment, getting to the start of the off-trail portion is an easy hike along an established path, and there’s an obvious landmark, a stream, that marks the beginning of the off-trail segment.

My main concern with Option B is the potential for boulders and debris along the route, even though the steepest ledges are on the north side of the stream. I don’t have any evidence that there are obstacles on Option B, but it’s a nagging suspicion based on intuition.

Option C is the least desirable of the three options because there’s no good way to know when we’ve reach the beginning of the off-trail portion of the hike without consulting a GPS. Again, that’s a self-imposed aesthetic constraint I like to adhere to, and not something most hikers would think twice about.

Wrap Up

If we examine Option A in light of the guiding principles for off-trail trail hiking I describe above, it’s:

  • Energy Efficient because requires the shortest section of off-trail hiking
  • Safe because it’s avoids the steepest slopes
  • Lets us Stay Found, because the off-trail portion starts at a well defined landmark, a stream, and then follows a ridgeline to the summit. While we could use a compass to follow a bearing up that ridgeline, there’s probably no need to.

That’s how I would plan an off-trail hike up Bald Knob using Caltopo.

Any questions?

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39 comments

  1. Although I could make number of jokes about the name of this mountain, I’m wondering if others are able to see the maps? I can’t see them and if I click them nothing happens?

  2. It is funny that I very seldom intentionally hike off-trail, and don’t really think about doing it on purpose. But when I hunt, I’ll wander through all kinds of terrain. So far, I haven’t gotten (permanently) lost.

  3. I didn’t know you could do the slope shading on Caltopo, I haven’t played with it in a while. Just been too busy to get out and hike this winter, now that I have a young kid. He will just have to come with me once he’s old enough to keep up :)

    Sometimes I envy your terrain out east. Here in the midwest, it is very flat. It’s hard to find the time to travel lately just because of my schedule and everything else going on. Going to try to make a point of getting out more this summer.

    When I do get out however, I’m doing a lot more off trail hiking than I used to since I started getting into bow hunting. But I’m a terrible hunter I haven’t shot anything yet lol, the father-in-law got me into it and it’s been quite the learning experience so far. It’s just been nice to get into the woods and learn some new skills as well.

    • Slope shading rocks. You can even specify the direction of your light source in Caltopo if you want to get real nerdy about it.

      Bow-hunting does have a steep learning curve. But navigating on flat terrain is challenging and fun too. Same basic skills, but different tricks. Its fun to challenge oneself. :-)

  4. I really enjoy seeing posts like this, where you outline your decision-making process. Very helpful! My gut reaction was that I’d prefer Option A as well, and your description bridged the gap between what instinct told me and the logical considerations on why it is the best choice.

    Out of curiosity, is there a reason that options B and C don’t hit the saddle between Bald Knob and Acteon, then ascend up the east face of Bald Knob? That would seem most natural to me, as the features would guide me up, and I’d avoid what looks like a potential small cove at the source of the stream. (In Tennessee, the source would likely be a spring that featured both a damp spot above it and the potential for quite a bit of rock layers that would require scrambling.) I likely have a personal bias for saddles as well, as they’re usually excellent hiking.

    Again, just idle curiosity, and probably partly due to the differences between putting a few points on the map and how I’d actually do it in the field. Thanks!

    • Carl – excellent question! I hate saddles because you never know where you are in them unless you can see the ends sloping up, which you can rarely do in forest. I always try to hit a saddle from a 90 degree angle, coming down a slope, so I know where I am and have come from. It’s less of an issue in this particular case though since both knobs are probably above treeline and there’s likely to be good visibility between them.

      In this case, I would probably come up a bit more widely around that stream source but still try to keep it in sight so I knew where I was. That last stretch to the summit is actually probably fairly open (little vegetation) in this case, so I’d probably be able to see exactly where I needed to walk. Make sense?

      • Thanks, that makes perfect sense! Might be a good example of how our areas dictate our preferences; around me, saddles are typically the tallest hardwoods with high canopy and little undergrowth, making it relatively easy to determine direction. Also, many saddles and ridgelines were the location of fire roads in the past.

        Appreciate the insight, and all your hike reports that have become additions to my “to-hike” list! :-)

  5. Good skill to have when you accidentally miss a switchback and end up near, but not on the trail and are simply too stubborn to go back and figure out where it happened.

    Or so I hear :-)

  6. An additional guiding principle might be LNT. Some terrain, especially some meadows and alpine features, are damaged when going off trail in an irresponsible manner (walking over everything rather than choosing a route in part that avoids the most sensitive spots). If in a group spreading out helps so everyone doesn’t step in the same sensitive spot. Also, if off-trail experiences a surge like normal hiking, this will become much more of a concern. Some well-publicized off-trail routes will become de facto trails.

    I go off trail often, my point is just be aware of this concern as well.

  7. Option c is my choice. I would use my map and plot a compass bearing from the primary trail to my destination. Using my map and compass while on the initial trail I would look at my compass and when I reached the estimated mileage and elevation mark and check my compass for the appropriate bearing to follow. I would let someone know my plan before I departed

    • Using option C: How would you know when to leave the hiking trail and head uphill. In other words how would you know that you’ve hiked 1.4 miles. There is so little elevation gain along the trail that it would be pretty hard to detect even with a barometric altimeter. Just curious, since you don’t say.

      • I mean, if I were to hike Option C, I’d take that trail up to about 1560 ft where I could detect some elevation change with an altimeter and then head for the saddle. Although it’s still a suboptimal route (in my opinion) because I’d have to hike diagonal to the contour instead of perpendicular to it which is much easier…

      • I’m not familiar with U.S. mapping, here in the U.K. we have Ordinance Survey which is metric and has a bit more info as I know you’re aware from your trips to Scotland. However, looking at option C I would follow the dotted line which I assume is the trail you are referring to until there is a definite change of direction SE to SW where the trail then crosses a stream. this would appear to be a good check point and depending on visibility you could take a bearing and continue to follow the stream SE. In approx 250m (using pace counting which for me would be about 170 double paces depending on type of terrain) the next tick off point would be where the stream forks and the fork follows a definite S direction. You could use this to take a bearing to hit the ridge or continue to follow the stream for about 80m where there is another obvious direction change bend in the stream and use this. An obvious feature I would look out for to help with orientation is the huge flat, marshy area that is roughly the length of 2 soccer pitches wide and 3 long (I did say I was in UK) You could also continue to handrail the stream until there is a gradual change in direction (approx 90 degrees from SE to NE) where it heads up a re-entrant. You could use these features to follow the ridge. I don’t know what the vegetation is here dense forest or open ground so that would affect the decisions I make on whether I follow the stream more or just walk on a bearing using timing and or pacing. I agree with you that from a navigating point of view option A is the easiest but if I wanted a circular route I might head up on option C and return via Option A using the easier navigation option for when I’m tired, or allowing for poor visibility etc. Just my 2 cents.

      • Love your logic. Pacing isn’t taught much here in the USA but it’s a valuable dead reckoning technique. Wish we had OS quality maps, but it is what it is….

      • Really? That surprises me, I use Ranger Beads (name comes from US Army Rangers) to help keep track of the count so I assumed it was a common thing in the US. Without using GPS how do you know how far you have travelled in a given direction? I can’t imagine how you would locate yourself or navigate between features not using timing or pacing especially at night, in bad weather (fog, rain or heavy snow fall) or on featureless terrain. The techniques are simple and only take a bit of practice to dial it in for your individual needs. I carry a card on my compass lanyard with timings already filled out which makes life sooo much easier when the wind is howling and the rain is horizontal! The one I use is here but you can make your own:

        http://shavenraspberry.com/shop/navigation-aids/navigators-timing-card/

        check out youtube: Glenmore Lodge does good basic videos:

        https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLrqtph4KNo5esswViU1swgwyow9JzDm2f

        I love reading your articles, keep up the good work.

      • You’re preaching to the choir. I just gave a talk at a well-known Outing club where I introduced Pacing as a technique for measuring distance in fog and people were dumbstruck. We just don’t have the caliber of winter training that you get on mountain leader courses in the UK (or in the rangers for that matter.)

      • Sorry, not trying to teach you to suck eggs Phil, I phrased it badly I just meant for anyone not familiar with the techniques who might be interested YouTube could be helpful. Having followed your blog for years I know you know. Sounds like you’re a lone voice in the wilderness, keep preaching brother. Lol.

      • No worries. Those Youtube videos are quite good. That first one got me thinking about how to teach better observation techniques for terrain to map association. People in the states don’t normally hike with a map out in hand or even check it frequently….so unlike the UK.

  8. Phil nice read.

    Planning is key to a successful off trail adventure and there’s only one thing I enjoy more than bushwhacking to the recognized high point, and that’s finding my way back. As you know getting to the top is always easier than getting back.

    My pick would have been option C. I may have cut towards the summit a little before but it’s a nice line to that flat area just below 1600 feet. I’ve always liked the southern approach as the moose like to sun on that side of mountains and you never what you’ll find.

    • Makes perfect sense. Of course hiking back down the north side is good to because you’re unlikely to hike over Rt 49 and not notice it. The same can’t be said for hiking down the south side and not walking right past the Smarts Brook Trail….:-)

      • BTW – This is shaping us to be a nice series of short bushwhacks to the same destination to see how each route is. One of these days I was planning on hiking up the entire ridge to Jennings.

  9. As an exercise, for my own curiosity, what about following route A along the old road, but then going up the ridge which lies on the line extending from the circle-49 marker to Acteon? To avoid the steep terrain, turn east at around 1640-1680 feet and then follow the second ridge along route A. Is there too much potential for debris? It’s a slightly shorter route (2.2 vs. 2.7mi).

    • It’s definitely an option. There will be a lot of debris though below those cliffs. In general, I find it easier to walk perpendicular to the contour lines rather than walking along a contour (one foot higher than the other), but there’s no reason your route couldn’t work to. My only question again is how do you know when you’ve reached 49 (which by the way, is the route number of the state highway to the left marked in white and red dashes).

  10. This is probably a very dumb question – but there’s nothing on the map to indicate a start point (ie, parking), correct? You have to know where the parking lot is from personal experience and be able to locate it on the USGS maps?

  11. What a great idea for an article, well done. Thanks. I use CalTopo all the time for planning both on-trail and off-trail routes. I just planned an off-trail the other day with some similar options to this one (though I was trying to go up and over a mountain — or around — to get to a remote stream to which there is no trail. (I’m a rabid Tenkara fly fisher in Colorado.) Your principles, which I found I was using for the most part, really illuminated and sharpened my thinking. I will commit them to memory.

    Keep up the great work on the best outdoor blog I’ve found!

  12. Nice article. I like the analysis and use of Caltopo which I am just getting familiar with. Regarding option A it appears to me that a significant chunk of it could be eliminated as well as a stream crossing at the beginning by driving farther down Rt. 49 and parking at what appears to be a picnic area pull off if I’m interpreting the symbol correctly. This is the one just above the “406” label. Then just bushwhacking south or slightly southeast to the old road (406) where you would take a left and follow the old road and rest of option A as described. Is there a reason(s) why one would or should not do this?

  13. CalTopo is one of my primary planning tools. I hike in the Sierras, North Cascades, and the Rocky Mountais, and use CalTopo in conjunction with Google Earth Pro extensively to map our route and to visualize the terrain. I usually start with mapping, then spend a lot of time with Google Earth going over every mile. That way I am totally familiar with the entire route, and all optional routes and bail-out alternatives before stepping off from the trailhead.

    Here’s a link to this summers hike into the Evolution Basin, with trail segments, off-trail segments, passes and optional route alternatives all marked in different colors:

    https://caltopo.com/m/E9E2

    One of CalTopo’s best features is the ability to see an interactive elevation profile of each route. In the map above, for example, the profile of the off-trail route over Haeckel Col gives me a wealth of information including length, gross elevation gain/loss, range, and lets me scrub the profile, which moves a location dot over the route line on the map. This is all critical info for us on the actual day when we leave Midnight Lake to cross the near 13,000′ pass of Haeckel Col. An even more detailed view of the profile will give data on aspect, vegitation coverage and type, and slope and elevation percentages.

    Google Earth, on the other hand, lets you visualize the terrain in great detail. On the trip this summer, one key off-trail segment involves crossing Darwin Col, a near 13,000′ pass which has a steep gully descent to the east. Google Earth lets me see that I will be able to look into that gully from the rock ridge above Midnight Lake as we climb up to cross Haeckel Col. If the gully is snow-filled (a likely possibility in the big snow year) we can opt for our bail-out route over Lamark Col.

    Lastly, CalTopo lets you print out maps in the way that best fits your objectives. All these feature are free, but I would ask you to become a paying member. This tool is a labor of love by the folks that created and maintain it for the community and deserve our support.

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