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.
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.
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.
The trick to walking across a peat bog is to pick your way across by linking up the firmer spots that will hold your body weight 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 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.
Sections of bog that are completely underwater 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 downhill, 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 watercourses that have eroded the peat but are not yet visible on the surface.
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.
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.
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, chances are that your shoes/boots and feet will already be wet before you attempt to cross a bog! Under these circumstances, your best course of action is to wear a pair of shoes or boots that will dry as quickly as possible and not hold water when they get wet (avoid gore-tex lined footwear.)
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 across 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 territory for exploration that is not visited by many other people.
If you’ve been hesitant 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.