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Leave No Trace and Bushwhacking

Hiking on a Pre-existing Herd Path
Hiking on a Pre-existing Herd Path

What is the relationship between bushwhacking and Leave No Trace? Can you bushwhack in a manner that is consistent with Leave No Trace ethics or is all bushwhacking bad? What does bushwhacking have to do with ethics anyway? What are some best practices that one can adopt as a bushwhacker to minimize negative impacts and help conserve the wilderness?

These questions were at the forefront of my mind last spring when I took the 5-day training class required to become a Leave No Trace Master Educator. But my instructors wouldn’t tell me what was “right” or “wrong”. Instead, they did what I encourage everyone to do with the Leave No Trace principles. Use your judgement. Leave No Trace is about making choices, not about following dogma.

Leave No Trace Guidelines

Contrary to what many people believe, Leave No Trace is not a set of rules, but a system of ethics or guidelines to help people make informed decisions about how to behave in the wilderness. When you get right down to it, rules are unenforceable in wilderness situations. The only practical way to encourage conservation is to help people understand the consequences of wilderness activities that impact other people, wildlife, plants, and the environment. This is particularly important when a lot of people are using the same resources as in Yosemite or the White Mountain National Forest, where harmful impacts are hugely magnified by concentrated and repeated use.

For example, if everyone took a crap in the woods wherever they felt like it, our national parks and scenic trails would be knee deep in human shit. No one wants to see that, so most people use trail privies or bury their waste in cat holes in wilderness areas. While there will always be people who don’t consider the greater good important, if most do, there’s hope we can preserve the wilderness for future generations to enjoy.

But like any system of ethics (the 10 Commandments, the Talmud, Human Rights), the Leave No Trace guidelines are not absolutes. They are not applicable to every situation and are open to different interpretations depending on where you are, the popularity of an area, the level of existing impact, or the resilience of the local environment.

The view on a bushwhack
The view on a bushwhack

An Example: Preventing High Use Impacts

For example, when Leave No Trace encourages hikers to walk on durable surfaces, they want hikers to stick to designated paths in high-use areas in order to prevent fragile plant-life from being trampled and irreparable erosion. The intent is to preserve the high use area so that the next people to walk through it have the same quality of wilderness experience as the people who were there before them.

But hiking on hardened, durable surfaces might be impossible if you’re in a wilderness area where there are no trails. It’s also somewhat less important to hike on durable surfaces such as rock or mineral soil if you’re alone or in a small group of people in an area that is seldom visited by other people, or where the vegetation is fast growing and has time to recover before someone else visits the area.

I’m not saying that hikers get a free pass when it comes to trampling vegetation in low use areas, but rather that people need to make judgement calls about their level of impact when hiking off-trail. There are a lot of simple things that hikers can do to mitigate off-trail hiking impacts.

Leave No Trace Sign, White Mountains
Durable Surface Sign, White Mountains

What is Bushwhacking?

If you’ve never bushwhacked or are unclear what it entails, here are some of its distinguishing characteristics:

  • Travel off  designated or maintained trails, through forest, brush, across open landscape, or along unmarked and unmaintained pathways (often called herd paths) that are usually not listed on area maps.
  • Travel by foot across snow, frozen ponds and lakes, boulder fields, through stands of trees and brush, and open ground.
  • Navigation by compass, altimeter and map, frequently without the use of visible landmarks.
  • An activity that often results in torn clothes, scratches, and other minor injuries to one’s person and gear.
  • It’s called bushwhacking because the bushes whack back.
  • Few people do it and there’s little chance of that changing. The people who do it are probably a little cracked.

Personally, I like to bushwhack. I find it amazingly liberating to walk off-trail and use my brain and brawn to navigate through dense brush that seems determined to impede my progress and drain the last drops of blood from my body. While bushwhacking is not for everyone, I find it exhilarating to hike wherever I want to go in the wilderness and to explore places that no one has visited before.

Bushwhacking in Winter
Bushwhacking in Winter

This Bushwhacker’s Guide to Leave No Trace Awareness

My goal in this post is not to dictate how bushwhacking should be practiced, but I do believe that there is a way to practice low impact bushwhacking in a way that is consistent with the wilderness ethics of Leave No Trace. To illustrate, here are some personal bushwhacking practices that I try to observe in New Hampshire’s White Mountains in order to preserve the wilderness experience for others who might follow in my footsteps.

Note: These are my personal bushwhacking LNT preferences: I’m not dictating them to others, just putting them out there. 

  1. I try to bushwhack in small groups no larger than 6 people. The bigger group the group, the more impact it will cause even in very dense, fast growing vegetation.
  2. If bushwhacking with a larger group, I plan my hikes when there is snowshoe depth snow on the ground. Snow and ice are durable surfaces making winter a great time to practice low impact bushwhacking, particularly in higher use locations.
  3. I avoid bushwhacking in boggy locations or near beaver ponds. There is too much potential harm I can do to the animals and their habitat, so I stay away.
  4. If there’s an existing path or trail (ie. a herd path) leading to a bushwhacking destination, I follow it rather than creating a new one. I try to concentrate use on areas that have already been impacted instead of creating new ones.
  5. I avoid walking on moss, ferns, lichen, and alpine plants because they take longer to recover from trampling than woodier plants.
  6. I don’t mark my route in any way (tape, blazes, etc), or cut or chop trees and branches to create a new trail.
  7. I carefully plan a bushwhacking route in advance to minimize the distance traveled and obviate the need for a search and rescue effort, which can cause a far greater amount of damage. I bring gear necessary to spend an unexpected night out and make sure that the person I leave my itinerary with knows when to call for help and when to wait in case I’m temporarily delayed.
  8. I don’t alter the landscape or vegetation in any way such as building silly rock cairns or carving my initials in trees to commemorate my journey.
  9. I pack out all of the trash I pack in.
  10. I bury my feces and toilet paper in a cat hole or pack them out.
  11. I won’t start a campfire except in an emergency situation. If I need to cook, I use a camping stove.
  12. If I’m in a group, I try to take a slightly different return route on a bushwhack to further disperse any impacts.
  13. If I have to walk through an area of fragile vegetation, I encourage the people with me not to walk single file. Dispersed routes are better because is they distribute trampling impacts and help vegetation recover more quickly.

If you are a bushwhacker, do you ever consider the potential Leave No Trace consequences of your hikes?

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15 comments

  1. I try not to do major damage whenever I do one of two things: bushwhacking and stealth camping.

    Bushwhacking in the ADK’s is easy in many places, impossible in others. A gentlman from NH I was hiking with noted that ADK trails are often little more than markers nailed to trees. If the route changes due to blowdows, slides/localized avalanches, beaver activity, stream wash-outs or whatever, hikers will make a path around the obsticle. After a few years of this, a renger, sometimes a more ambitious hiker, will move the markers. to the new trail. WIth the thousands of miles of trails through the ADK’s, there is no one group that maintains all of them. Or even tries. Often these changes are marked with a brush pile in the middle of a well marked trail. It often seems for no purpose. But, there is one.

    As a kid, I would often just bounce from blowdown to blow down…I think about a 1/4-1/2 mile was my longest streatch. Playing in the woods was something you did. Not really something you thought about. A friend was quickly lost after about 200 yards. We found a pond and got a drink above it as we crossed, playing at rock skipping. He didn’t have a clue which way to go. I was surprised. I simply pointed down stream and told him “That way…” Some people have an easy time of playing in the woods. Some people don’t. An inate sense of direction, of about where “north” is seems to be needed. Route finding and maintaining a straigth line course through the ADK’s is more of an art. I wish it were a science, sometimes.

    Stealth camping is allowed in most state forests, or federal lands in NY. Only in the state parks is it generally NOT allowed. Even on the farm, my grandfather would often tell people to just clean up but they could stay for a night…a LOT of fishermen on the Delaware River. Getting rid of fire debris, rock rings, no trash left, etc, was second nature to me. To this day I will wander a camp site picking up aluminum foil bits and cleaning up fireplaces, . For stealth camping, when I leave, it is often nearly impossible to tell I had been there, except for some trampled brush (it grows back quick enough.) I have found many so-called stealth sites. Usually by the remains of a fire ring.

  2. As usual a good post.

    My interest in bushwhacking runs in cycles. Sometimes I like it for its challenge and solitude but at other times I hate t because I remember how miserable it can be.

    As you know, I run one of the largest and most active hiking groups in New England – while there are plenty of options if you want to follow a trail, we are one of the few groups that routinely has one or two bushwhacking trips on the calendar (thanks to Andrew, Alex, and you). As the group organizer I get emails from time to time condemning our group and the trip leaders that bushwhack because they are “ruining the wilderness” and that as an outdoor organization we should be promoting a “save the earth” mentality.

    While not as well written as what you said, I try to convey the same ideas when I reply. Most of the time the people that are complaining have never done it and don’t understand it. They think it involves groups of 20-30 people churning up the earth and using a machette to cut through the woods. I focus on some of the points you describe in your “LNT for Bushwhacking”. On a few of the bushwhack trips I have done it’s been six months or so since the previous person signed the register in the canister.

    I particularly like #12 and #13 on your list since I don’t actually plan for either, they just happen. Often times I navigate from the back (use the person or two in front of me like the scope on a rifle to line up our route) so I get to watch what is happening in front of me. People pick the route they think is less dense, rarely following in the footsteps of the person in front of them. On the way back there is really no way to “follow” the same route anyways so this one takes care of itself too.

  3. I think people naturally don’t walk single file on bush whack just to keep from getting smacked by the recoil of branches from the person in front of them! Unless you give a 20 foot lead, you’re definitely gonna get smacked.

  4. Philip: Excellent advice. This is a sticky question because the two ideas seem to run headlong into each other but you have laid out ways to minimize the impact, which is the point of leaving no trace in the first place.

  5. The only time I have seen bushwhacking become a problem is a: geocaching and b: to some orchid locations in remote regions of south Florida.

    Bushwhacking leads to the best places and sights unseen.

  6. Thanks for a great article, it made me feel a lot more comfortable about the way we’ve interpreted leave no trace – which pretty much follows what you’ve said.

    We tend to stick to recognizable – though not necessarily official trails, and generally bushwack off the trail to stealth camp, just so that we’re not disturbed and also so we don’t disturb anyone. People go out in the wilderness to enjoy nature not get a view of our tent.

    We try hard not to disturb things. My wife laughs at me as I ‘rough up’ the flattened ground where our tent leaves an imprint. If there’s a fire ring we’ll use it. We don’t dismantle them, in the vain hope that people will stick with it rather than keep clearing new areas. We don’t make fire rings ourselves. Why do so many hikers think they need to make a new fire ring and not use an existing one? We often see several around the same spot.

    We try and pack out more trash than we pack in, but that’s not always an easy thing to do. Tornadoes do an excellent job of dumping all sorts of trash – insulation and sheet metal in the middle of a wilderness here. Though a tornado can’t explain the cast iron bath half way up a hollow on one of our hikes.

    • Thank you Gary for efforts. Cast iron bath – obviously bootleggers!

      • Bootleggers – someone else suggested that when they saw my picture of a very old bullet ridden panel van which is about 3 miles from the bath. I’m sure there’s no connection. The van was probably abandoned where it died and found use later for the popular local pass-time of target practice. Especially as most of the bullet holes are in the roof.

        In Piney Creek Wilderness there are around half a dozen bullet ridden metal chairs near the lakeside. Unfortunately the chairs are too heavy/awkward to pack out.

        Welcome to the Ozarks!

      • Thank you for your interesting article. As a relatively new backpacker, I have found bushwacking to pose an ethical delimna within myself. Glad to see other’s perspectives on it, too! I try to balance out the planet by picking up garbage when I see it along the trail, to somehow counterbalance by effect of going off trail at times. Somehow it works in my mind.

      • If everyone does a bit it adds up. Thx

  7. If everyone picks up their trash what will Bear Grylls and Les Stroud do in an emergency situation.

  8. When I’m bushwhacking I often end up on deer trails. It’s easier going and you can make fun of the deer for being freaking insane the entire time. A win-win really. ;)

  9. Animals bushwack too. Unless you are cutting switchbacks and causing erosion, you aren’t going to cause problems. Even if you uproot or stomp some plants, who cares? It’s just going to grow back. If stomping a few plants way off trail is really such a tragedy, then we should arrest all of the deer and bears for violating leave no trace.

    I also enjoy hiking on trails that are in really rough condition. Or hiking along underused routes. It’s like bushwacking, but following a route.

  10. Great article! I love to bushwack. Over here in Australia, there are only certain places you are allowed to do this as so much of our forest is protected and unfortunately this results in it being protected from human enjoyment. I agree that most people who enjoy going off the trail actually more conscious of looking after the environment because they deeply appreciate the natural beauty of the forest.

    One note; you mention that systems of ethics are not absolutes but guidelines for decision making and you refer to the Ten Commandments as an example. However, the Ten Commandments are a list of moral absolutes or laws which is why they are called the Ten Commandments and not the Ten Suggestions. I don’t think they quite illustrate the point.

  11. Hmmm… didn’t know I was a bushwhacker. I spend more time bushwhacking than I do on established trails. I thought I was doing what all backpackers did. Interesting.

    I find most of the current Leave No Trace philosophy fairly laughable. A group of people(probably not hikers) have come up with a set of rules based around the idea that the forests are made of glass and tissue paper, and so much as looking at them wrong will wreck them forever.

    I go out bushwhacking in a group(typically 2-4, occasionally more). I leave my TP in my catholes, and most of the others do the same. We don’t have campfires unless we come upon an established fire pit(there are a couple in our regular stomping grounds, I think from the hunting community). I pack out all of my non-organic trash. Organic garbage(apple cores, fruit stones, leaves from my tea ball) go into my catholes. We don’t go out of our way to harm any vegetation, but we certainly don’t go out of our way to avoid new growth. We hang up our food in bear bags, well away from our sites. We don’t camp on the shore, but typically not too far from water.

    I don’t think we’re doing any greater amount of damage to the places that we pass through than a herd of deer or a pack of wolves. And we visit with a lot less frequency, so the area has a chance to recover from any damage that we did happen to do.

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