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I Am Not Lost. I Am Bushwhacking

A Happy New Bushwhacker
A Happy New Bushwhacker

Bushwhacking is a form of off-trail hiking where you need to navigate through dense vegetation to locate your destination. Getting really good at it is an art form that takes years of practice and lots of hikes in all kinds of different terrain.

Bushwhacking is not for everyone and about 90% of the people who try it for the first time hate it. They think it’s insane. Bulldozing through dense spruce that tears up your clothing and gear, scratches your skin, and makes you bleed is not for the faint of heart.

But the benefits can be tremendous. If you go hiking to get away from all of your worldly problems and recharge yourself by getting close to nature, bushwhacking provides a much deeper level of immersion than trail hiking. You also get to come home covered in sawdust, with small twigs in your hair, and smelling like a spruce car freshener.

Group Decision Making and Navigation
Group Decision Making and Navigation

Bushwhacking is much more difficult than trail hiking because you need to do all of your own navigation using a combination of maps, an altimeter, or if you are “lazy”, a GPS. But it’s not like you can just set a compass direction and follow it, because you need to walk around obstacles and dense brush while staying on your bearing. Teamwork and good group communications skills are essential and a fun part of the experience.

The Off Trail Experience
The Off Trail Experience

Bushwhacking can also be far more strenuous than trail hiking because you may need to bulldoze your way through dense vegetation or manueuver around huge piles of blow-downs blocking your path.  And you often don’t make your objective because you run out of time, the terrain is more difficult than what can be depicted on a map, or the ground cover is too thick to get through.

Getting used to “failure” or not meeting your goal might sound like a downer to trail hikers and peakbaggers who always make theirs, but it’s far less important to me than the cameraderie and sense of adventure that I experience when I go bushwhacking with a group. Something to ponder if you’re sick of climbing the same peaks week after week and want a richer outdoor experience.

Do you bushwhack? Do you like it or think bushwhackers are “cracked’?


  1. Haven’t tried it yet! I’m sure I will someday.

  2. Down here in Tasmania we call it “bushbashing”

    Some parts of the SW wilderness you can expect cover a little as 1-2 kilometres per day…
    I do NOT do it, but each to their own :)

  3. I have done some. I do NOT prefer it over regular hiking or paddling. Mostly, out hiking, I come out somewhere close to my planned destination. But, it has happened, that I missed my mark entirely. My partner and I did some getting to Mt. Marshal in the high peaks area of NY. We worked all day and never did find the peak. The snow was miserable. Wet and very slushy, we got soaked before we had gone more than a mile. We found several game trails going more or less in our direction, but they all circled the hill…none went uphill. The vegitation was mostly bent over the two foot of snow pack. Difficult walking? Yes, nearly impossible. At 1500 we canceled the climb and retraced our steps down.

    From the other side, the mountain is easy. The peak is not much to look at, nor out from. I have made it up there twice. You are absolutly correct. The hike was fun, if you don’t mind the work. The goal remained elusive. This was a hike we still talk about, but not one that is remembered fondly. The solitude of the bushwack, breaking trail and feeling the hill beneath your feet is a different sensation. Needless to say, we saw no one.

    This is one of my bushwacks that seems to fit in with everything you said about bushwacking. Portaging a small 21pound canoe to a trailless pond 6 miles back calls for the same skills, perhaps more so, since you have to leave an open path between three trees. Portaging to a stream or around a falls can be extra tough because of the stream banks. I ended up at a 20′ cliff face one time that took over an hour to get down.

    But, I think, way back when, there were no trails. No roads. No boat launches. These were all made by people. At one point someone, with enough stipidity to bushwack through, had to be the first.

  4. As Simon stated some parts of Australia have very limited number of trails which does make it interesting. Here in NSW around Sydney there are some trails but many of areas require fair amount of bushbashing or following faint trails or animal paths. I cannot say that I always enjoy it but certainly get to see place you would not otherwise have change to experience.
    This can also test your gear to the limits.


  5. I grew up hunting and always loved the adventure that comes along with covering many miles through dense growth while seeking out game such as grouse. I still love what i now know as “bushwhacking” and often prefer it over trail hiking.

  6. Yes I Bushwhacking. I like it because every thing is new off trail. i get to slow down (out of necessity) and explore.

  7. Have done this since I was a kid roaming the woods – going ever farther and farther out. There is no greater sense of adventure and exploration than finding your own way. Yes, the AT and other well-marked trails offer some of that – but bushwacking is true discovery. You describe this as a sort of orienteering exercise – which it can be. But it can also be driven by simple curiosity – “I wonder what’s over there.” – and you take off. The more you do it, the better you get at keeping your bearings and feeling the lay of the land, the vegetation, etc. We do this even as a family; and my kids (now grown) have a great comfort in the woods.

  8. My hiking is split evenly between trails (I’m section hiking the AT) and bushwhacking, Most of our bushwhacking is done in the Great Smokies, but it’s also my preferred method of exploring the northern Rockies, especially in Yellowstone. In the Smokies, we get to see things that most people never dream exist in the heavily visited park. Every trip is an exciting exploration and though progress might be measured at times in hours per mile, I never tire of the fun. It’s not for everybody and I don’t feel that one type of hiking is ‘better’ than another, but for me, nothing brings out the kid in me like scrambling up a steep rocky off-trail route with my friends.

    It’s all good!

  9. I’ve had a few bushes whack back.

  10. We do a bit here in Australia just we call it bush bashing. We really don’t have a lot of choice in many places as we don’t have the network of trails that the USA seems to have. There are times when I have been stuck in a pile of blackberry or some other nasty type of bush that I really wish I was on a trail but in general its just lots of fun.

  11. Just Wondering? How does Bushwhacking fit in with “leave no trace” ethics. I mean no one cares because you are in the middle of nowhere but still, trees are damaged and what not? Id love to get anyones ideas on this

    • Trees are damaged??? Hmmm, that’s one I haven’t heard before in regards to the type of bushwhacking that my friends and I do. To tell the truth, I find it laughable. Some of our favorite off-trail routes are on slide paths that have been ripped down the sides of our local mountains by flash floods, and getting through the debris left behind sometimes involves climbing and scrambling over huge piles of smashed stone and splintered trees. I think that a lot of folks that have no experience with bushwhacking place it in the same category as cutting switchbacks – that’s a whole different ball of wax.
      Even though we’re human, we’re still animals and for the most part, leave no more trace with our passage than the bears that share the woods with us. In fact, one of our favorite methods of gaining access to what most people consider inaccessible terrain is to crawl on hands and knees through bear tunnels that tend to follow the razor-backed ridges of the Great Smokies. There are only a tiny handful of people that share our passion for exploring off-trail in the Smokies and some areas that we visit might only see two or three people in a decade, if that. Hardly an impact worth mentioning.
      However, there are some rules that we strictly abide by. We don’t go in for the old school methods that include building shelters or off-trail fire rings. We keep our crew small and rarely use the same route twice. The wilderness is surprisingly resilient, shaped by tens of thousands of years of fire, flood, tornadoes, down-bursts (very common in this area), and grazing and browsing by a large variety of wild beasts. A few bushwhackers passing quietly through occasionally will leave little, if any, sign of their passage.
      It’s important to remember that the term “bushwhacking” doesn’t refer to cutting down trees or even cutting a path through the woods. It means that the person is simply finding the path less traveled.

      • I think it’s fair to note that the article uses words like “bulldoze”. Not exactly a leave-no-trace technique. I agree that many people misunderstand what bushwhacking is, but your tone is a bit harsh.

        Trees do occasionally get damaged. One of the photos shows someone snowshoeing across a large outcrop covered in moss. That’s really a no-no in my book, but not in others.

        One of the most important skills to master (and I think Phil has addressed this elsewhere), is where NOT to bushwhack.

  12. I often find myself wandering off trail wherever I go, mostly on short day hikes. Problem is I always seem to get hemmed in by acres of poison ivy and end up picking my way back to the beaten path.

  13. I’ve done some, although I avoid it when I can. Out here in the Pacific Northwest, most cross-country effort involves far too close an acquaintance with two lovely plants, slide alder (dense thickets of young alder that grow in avalanche scars–every few winters they are wiped out and then sprout right up again, seemingly denser than ever) and devil’s club, whose name becomes obvious should you grab a stalk to help keep your balance.

    Then there was the bushwhack in which I started to climb over a fallen trunk of one of our famous old-growth trees, got astraddle of the trunk and discovered I was stuck! The log was so enormous that each of my legs was sticking out straight sideways! It didn’t help that I got laughing so hard that-it took me quite a while to get unstuck. I was finally able to move (after I stopped laughing) by taking my pack off, remembering at the last minute drop it on the side of the log I was heading for.

    I prefer to save off-trail adventures for above timberline, well above where these two plants grow. Up there, I can see where I’m headed and avoid the rough sections! The main problem up there is to avoid walking on the sensitive vegetation.

  14. Here is a “universal” bushwhack rating system to put us all on the same page.

  15. I like a good bushwhack, though my appreciation depends on the terrain and vegetation. Down in Florida, my bushwhacks turned in to swamp whacks, and these were not all that much fun. Up here in NY, bushwhacks are OK if you wear long sturdy pants to avoid the thorns and poison ivy. Up further in NH/VT, bushwhacks are the spruce whacks described here, and I like them a lot. Out in the desert southwest, bushwhacks are mostly void whacks due to lack of bushes, but can entail circumnavigating a 6ft wide 50ft deep slot canyon that seemingly goes on forever before you find a spot where you can cross. These are the bushwhacks I like best. We probably should call them “off trail hiking and route finding”, so as not to discriminate the bushless regions ;)

  16. Love it! Makes you feel so accomplished and tests your strategic abilities!

  17. Since I starting shed hunting years ago, I never hike on trails anymore. Set a GPS waypoint, search the hills, canyons, slopes and ridges and I’m good for several hours of challenging but fun bushwhacking. And with any luck, I just might stumble across a few antlers.

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