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Off Trail Navigation and Compass Practice Hike to Mount Clough

Mount Clough
Mount Clough seen from the west side of Mount Moosilauke

The southwestern region of the White Mountains is one of the most remote and least visited portions of the White Mountain National Forest. While people frequently hike Mount Moosilauke, the rest of the trail system and woods in the area seldom visited by hikers, giving the entire region a distinctly wilderness feel. Mount Clough is the second highest mountain in the region after Mount Moosilauke, but is trail-less so it can only be climbed using off trail compass and navigation techniques which surprising few hikers are really good at.

I have a personal interest in growing the off-trail hiking community because I want to hike these trail-less peaks with other like-minded individuals who enjoy the wilderness experience they offer and the challenge and trade-craft associated with off-trail hiking and compass navigation. I’ve started leading some intermediate hiking trips for the Appalachian Mountain Club targeted at people who have taken a compass navigation course previously, but haven’t had the chance to apply and practice those skills on a off-trail hike where they need to do all the upfront planning and hands-on navigation during a trip.

I held the first of these trips last Sunday and it went really well. We had a great bunch of people and successfully summited Mount Clough after a three and a half hour climb. Rather than navigating for the participants myself, I let them do the route planning for this hike and work together as a team to determine a good route to the summit and back. My role was really to help structure their pre-trip planning activities and facilitate group interactions during the trip itself, occasionally pointing out some best practices in off-trail and compass navigation that they can build on for future hikes. I had a blast on this trip and it was one of the most rewarding hikes I’ve ever led for the AMC. If you missed this one, there will be others!

Blue -Up, Red - Down. Approximate Bushwhack Route for Mount Clough

Planning and Preparation

Participants were given an optional planning homework assignment before the trip. Most of them submitted their plans to me in advance, giving me the opportunity the comment and coach them offline. The “homework assignment” also prepared them for a trail head discussion where they compared the merits of two possible routes and decided amongst themselves which route they wanted to try climbing. I helped broker this discussion but tried to stay out of the group decision-making process because I wanted to empower participants. I’ve been on bushwhacks where the leader takes over and does all the route planning, figures out all the compass bearings, and leads the group up the mountain. My goal was to provide a context for participants to do this themselves and only help or coach when a teachable moment presented itself that all could benefit from.

Here are the planning questions I sent out and answers from one participant which will give you a feel for the type of planning required for an off-trail hike. We didn’t ascend Clough by this route, deciding to descend by it instead, because it was steeper and would be harder to climb. (We subsequently hiked down the same route because a participant had an old injury that was acting up and I decided to descend by the shorter route.)

Q: What declination angle should we use?

15 degrees West

Q: What is the best direction to climb up Mount Clough?

I think the best approach is from the west near the height of land on Long Pond Rd.

Q: What is the best approach to get to the point where we go off trail?

Question is when Long Pond Rd opens.  For now it’s closed, so we’d park down on High St near Glencliff and the cemetery.  From there it’s about 3 miles up Long Pond Rd to the height of land.  If the road is open then we can drive up.  One reason that I’d chose this route is because the road is more likely to have a better hiking surface than Tunnel Brook Trail (monorails)

Q: Where should we leave the trail and start bushwhacking? Why?

Near the height of land there is an old logging road that splits off to the left (west) at 2273 feet.  It’s a clear landmark at the base of the ridge that we’d want to ascend.

Q: What is the compass bearing we will follow when we step off the trail? How will we know when we’ve arrived at this point?

About 100 degrees.  Again the logging road is a clear landmark from where to start.  We’d follow this bearing to the main summit ridge, aiming for the sag between the main summit and a minor bump to the north.

Q: Where if any, will we need to make compass bearing changes along our ascent? Include an elevation for each point.

When we reach the ridge at 3380 feet we will adjust the compass bearing to 154 degrees and follow the ridge to the summit.

Q: Write a few sentences that describe the terrain features we should expect to see or experience along our route that you can use to verify that we’re where we want to be.

For the first half mile or so we will be in wide-open birch woods (I photographed the west slope from Jeffers/Hogsback back in December).  After that it will transition into medium spruce woods.  To the south there is a drainage/ravine so if we drift too far in that direction then the slope would drop off to the south more and more steep.  Terrain to the north is similar to our path but we’d still reach the ridge.  At 3080 ft contour there is a “prow-like” feature that we should find.  The terrain should clearly level off at the point where we gain the ridge and change bearing.

Q: How long should it take for us to cover the off-trail distance on your planned route between the time we step off-trail and we reach the summit of Clough?

The total bushwhack distance is approx 1.2 miles with around 1300 ft of elevation gain.  On trail this would translate to about 1 hour 15-20 minutes.  Bushwhacking, I’d estimate double this so 2.5 hours (one-way).

Q: If there are views during our ascent, what should we expect to see and on what compass bearings?

There should be views through the trees at the start of the bushwhack, leaves may start to come out at this point but it should be clear enough to see Jeffers, Hogsback, Blueberry Mtn to the west and Long Pond to the NW.  There are a few large patches of what appear to be blowdowns (satellite imagery) to the south of the summit.  These may offer views to the south, but it’s hard to say.

Q: What’s the best route off this peak?

I’d backtrack the way we come in, especially if the route is good and we can follow snowshoe track back.  An alternate descent would be to head to the Tunnel Brook Trail along that SE ridge (assuming we park near Glencliff) to make a loop out of the hike.

Hiking up the Tunnel Brook Trail
Hiking up the Tunnel Brook Trail

Lessons Learned (For Leaders and Participants)

We had perfect weather for this off-trail hike, at least from an educator’s perspective. Low cloud cover obscured all of the nearby landmarks that we should have been able to see on a clear day, forcing participants to rely on their compasses even more than usual. If you think you always know where north is in the forests of the White Mountains, you are in for a big surprise. It is very easy to get turned around and you’ll want to get into the habit of always verifying your direction using a compass.

For this hike, I required that everyone bring a declination adjustable compass, so we could all use the same bearings based on true north. It’s incredibly confusing on group hikes when some people have to add or subtract declination values to share bearing angles and getting everyone onto true north bearings nipped that issue in the bud. I didn’t want this hike to be a “compass class” but an applied off-trail navigation practice hike.

Climbing Mt Clough is not a terribly difficult off-trail hike, but it presented a number of excellent teachable moments:

  • Maps lie
    • The USGS map for Clough shows a sub-peak with a higher elevation than the main peak, which is an error on the map. this is easy to figure out because the contour lines leading up to the sub-peak don’t match the printed elevation.
    • The land features in front of you may be too small to register on a map with a 40′ map contour line so you can only really count on features large enough to show up on a map.
    • Maps of the White Mountains are often significantly out of date so it’s best to not trust them completely and to use multiple data sources for route planning.
    • Maps do not show whether forest roads are gated (closed), are impassable due to snow, or have been washed out by floods. You need to discover these things in advance or be willing to work around them when you arrive.
When you get close to the summit you can simply follow the contour without a compass bearing
When you get close to the summit you can simply follow the contour (slope of the hill) without a compass bearing
  • You can’t rely on a compass alone for off-trail navigation
    • While a compass will keep you on a bearing, it won’t keep you on a straight line from point A to point B. If you stray 50 yards to the right or left of your current bearing you’ll be walking parallel to your old route, and you might miss the end point you were aiming for.
    • Walking straight is harder than it looks but techniques like leap-frogging with a partner, or sighting on distant landmarks on your bearing and walking to them. even if you have to walk around an obstacle, can keep you on a straight line. We discussed and practiced both of these techniques.
    • Everybody at the rear of an off-trail hike should be constantly checking to make sure that the people up front are not straying to the left or right and are staying on the desired bearing.
    • While a compass is good for navigating through featureless landscape, you can use other clues such as elevation (using an altimeter) or visual features such as elevation drop offs to your right and left on a ridge, to determine where you are. The same goes as you near the summit of a pointy mountain like Clough. You know that going uphill will eventually lead you to the summit, so all you need to do is keep going uphill until you get to the highest point. Once you arrive you’ll know where you are (hopefully).

Approaching the summit of Mt Clough

  • Knowing where you are (approximately)
    • It’s good to start the off-trail section of your hike from an easy to identify start point. Trail junctions, forest road intersections, and altimeter readings along a hiking trail are all good ways to do this. For example, we started the off-trail section of our Mt Clough climb at 2200′ on the Tunnel Brook Trail. We had three altimeters in our group and synchronized them at the start of our hike at a known elevation.
    • Once you leave a known point and start off-trail, you’ll never know exactly where you are unless you come across an obvious landmark. That’s ok as long as you know how to get back to one easily.
      • One of the best types of landmarks is something called a handrail, like a stream, a road or trail which you can see or which is impossible to miss if you hike in the right direction. For the Clough hike, we knew that we could head due east at any time and run into the Tunnel Brook Trail, which would take us back to the trailhead where we’d started the hike.
    • Always record the time you start an off-trail section because you can use time and pace to estimate where you are along a bearing. In general a pace of 0.5 miles per hour is a good baseline estimate for off-trail hiking in the White Mountains.
The Canister on Mt Clough - Sucess is Sweet!
The Canister on Mt Clough – Success is Sweet!
  • Energy Conservation
    • Off-trail hiking is significantly more physical than on-trail hiking. The climbs are steeper and you need to use your arms as much as your legs to pull yourself up steep grades.
    • In order to conserve your energy, it’s good to get as close to your destination as possible on a road or trail before heading off-trail. This will save time and energy.
    • It’s often difficult to hike uphill along a stream bed because the sides of the stream bed are heavily eroded or choked by blowdowns and other vegetation. Streams can make good navigational handrails, if they’re on your map, as long as you keep them in sight to your right or left when hiking uphill or down.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Off-trail hiking in the White Mountains can be a very humbling experience and even the most wizened bushwhackers will tell you that you need to practice, practice, practice to learn off-trail planning, hiking, and navigational skills. But if you crave a wilderness experience and want to sharpen your observational and reasoning skills. off trail hiking cannot be beat!

I’ll be leading more of the Off Trail Navigation and Compass Practice hikes for the Appalachian Mountain Club later this year and hope you’ll join me then.

13 comments

  1. This was an awesome hike, Philip! Thank you so much for organizing it and for creating the space for us to rotate leadership. That opportunity packed a lot of learning into the day. There was an impressive and inspiring amount of hiking experience in the group. An image from the hike that keeps making me smile was looking up and down the line of hikers and seeing everyone carrying their own little tree with them–branches that had caught in their packs while ducking through the brush.

    • Greg, I had a blast on that hike too and the group clearly had fun getting to know one another. My wife is always complaining, well really chuckling, about the spruce needles and tiny sticks in our house, especially in the bedroom. I guess you can never really take the hiker out of the woods!

      • I got a backpack from Philip last year… complete with spruce needles. Of course, in my part of Texas the only Spruce is a high school–and it was named after a man, not a tree!

  2. This was a great hike and an incredible full body work out. I noticed the next day how much you use use your arms and shoulders by grabbing saplings and boulders to pulling yourself upward and forward. In places the forest was so dense and the terrain convoluted that we needed to hold up the line lead to get back into visual contact, and we weren’t that far apart. The use of altimeters to select way points for course changes was enlightening. This was one of those hikes when you get back to the trailhead you immediately start thinking of when can I get to do the next one. Great bunch of people to hike with.

    Thanks for the adventure.

    • Wait till you go on a whack where the spruce is so dense that you can’t even see your feet! Altimeters are great and an incredibly useful tool for off trail navigation. I have about 30 more bushwhacks in the planning phases – it is incredibly empowering knowing you can hike to any destination with or without a trail to take you there.

      Great to have you along Tony. I hope to see you again!

  3. Looks like a blast. I’ve never done any bushwhacking, but some of your recent posts have me intrigued. I’d definitely need to brush up on my compass skills first, though. Reading this and a couple of posts from Skurka, though, have me a bit curious about one item you mention – the altimeter.

    Assuming you’re using a barometric altimeter w/out the luxury of GPS, can you tell me how the device can tell whether the changes in pressure are due to elevation or changing atmospheric conditions? I assume there’s some very easy explanation, but my Googling skills have failed me and I’m stumped.

    Thanks!

    • I don’t know how it works actually other than it’s barometric. It’s built into my watch. You have to reset it before each hike which is how it recalibrates.

      • Altimeters are useful but do need to be checked and calibrated at a known elevation. Weather changes will cause variation in altitude readings. A falling barometer will make the altimeter read higher, a rising one will cause a lower reading. In aviation, there is a saying, “When going high to low, look out below.” Lowering pressure will make the altimeter read higher, causing the pilot to think he has more terrain clearance than is really there. When a pilot gets a handoff to another controller, one of the first things he is told is the current altimeter reading.

        An increase in humidity also makes the air less dense and will bump the elevation reading a small bit. Very cold air is denser and will read lower and hot air is less dense and will read higher. There could be some micro climate variations depending on snow pack and exposed areas heating in the sun.

        One winter morning, I’d planned to fly out of an airport at 644′ above sea level when the temperature was -1ºF, one of the coldest days in Dallas history. Because of the extreme high pressure, my altimeter reading was over 1000′ BELOW sea level when I got in the airplane. The pressure was so high, I couldn’t adjust it all out of the altimeter and had to fly with a thousand foot fudge factor that day. Airplanes perform really well in cold dense air. Coupled with the 40 knot headwind right down the runway, I was airborne in my Piper Cherokee two seconds after pushing in the throttle. I felt like I was flying the space shuttle! When I took off from the same runway at 105ºF in the summer, I was very grateful for the several thousand feet of pavement ahead of me to use.

        High winds will increase pressure on the windward side of a ridge and decrease it on the lee side, resulting in readings of lower elevation on the side facing the wind and higher on the side away. This phenomenon has been part of the accident scenario for aircraft approaching a ridge while heading upwind. The pilot thinks he has enough altitude to clear because his altimeter is reading higher than his actual altitude. Coupled with the downdrafts and rollers on the lee side of the ridge, he might not have the climbing capacity to clear it. Aircraft are recommended to approach at a 45º angle so that a 90º turn can steer away from danger if it’s apparent the plane cannot climb over the ridge. When approaching with the wind, a pilot generally has more built in safety margin because he’ll be flying higher than his altimeter is reading. He also has the benefit of updrafts on that side of the ridge. It’s generally recommended to approach a ridge with 2000′ of altitude to spare, which allows plenty of safety margin and avoids many of the turbulence problems closer to the terrain. Of course, out west, it’s not always possible to clear the mountains by 2000′ in a general aviation aircraft.

        My father used very sensitive altimeters when surveying for oil exploration. With some of the instruments, he said he could tell the difference in air pressure from one side of a ridge to another and even when stepping off a chair in still weather.

        In the 1880s, the USGS determined Mount Mitchell was the highest mountain in the Appalachians by using barometers calibrated together and sending one to the top of Clingman’s Dome and the other to Mitchell where simultaneous readings were then made that day. Mitchell turned out to be 39′ higher.

        I guess all of the above is just to illustrate that altimeters are valuable tools but you have to calibrate them and be aware of the environmental conditions that affect them. Right now, my altimeter watch says I’m 3539 feet below sea level, however, that isn’t so much a weather related high pressure reading as a grandkid playing with my watch situation.

      • Fascinating! Thank you so much for the detailed response. I hadn’t even begun to think about the implications for aircraft. So it sounds like barometric altimeters are much like other gadgets – great, but not great enough to leave your brain behind.

  4. This sounds like fun, I will have to watch for furure trips.

  5. Great write-up of what sounds like a fantastic learning experience. Here’s two little nuggets that I learned from my own mistakes: 1) The Osprey ad says “Magnet on the bite valve partners with the included sternum strap magnet, giving the bite valve a place to rest when it’s not in use”. What they don’t tell you is that the magnet not only throws off your magnetic compass reading, it’s actually strong enough to reverse the polarity of your compass needle! 2) Using a trail as a “handrail” is very difficult in an oak forest in autumn, when the fallen leaves can totally obscure a trail. I managed to walk right over two trails in one day, turning a 15-minute short cut into several hours of bushwacking.

    • I guess no one at Osprey (or Vietnam) uses a compass. :-)
      It can also be challenging to find a handrail trail in winter or spring when there is snow on the ground. It really helps if the trail runs alongside a stream or river (which is harder to miss)

  6. This is exactly the kind of thing I do for practice, and it has helped my navigation competence so much.

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