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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.