West Field Bushwhack

West Field Bushwhack Route
West Field Bushwhack Route

My friend David and I went on a very tough bushwhack yesterday, climbing West Field Mountain (3,617ft) on the western side of Mount Field. This didn’t look like a difficult bushwhack on paper, quite the opposite, but the brush was so dense that it slowed our pace down to half a mile (or less) per hour. It was really tough going and definitely one of the hardest day hikes I’ve ever been on.

It was pretty unnerving too because we were out 5 hours past sunset and had to bushwhack out in the dark.  I don’t want to do that again, although I suppose it’s probably inevitable for winter bushwhacking.

Still, we kept our cool and trusted our compass bearing, eventually finding the trail we’d hiked to get to the bushwhack area. In the worst case, we were both equipped to spend an unplanned night out with a stove, extra insulation, and shelter, although it would have been a bit dicey with a major storm predicted in the evening.

If you’re thinking about hiking West Field, which is on the New Hampshire Hundred Highest, be forewarned. There is a lot of dense forest on the northern side of the peak, approaching from the A-Z trail. This was exacerbated by pine traps, blow downs, and heavy snow on upper branches, which rained down on us are be rammed our way through the growth. I feel like I played ice hockey all day yesterday. Those trees fight back!

Philip at the West Field Canister
Philip at the West Field Canister

We did find the canister at the summit by 2:30 pm, but there was no way were going to retrace our steps to get back to the A-Z trail, especially if it got dark in the process. Instead, we headed northeast off the peak, hoping to find the A-Z trail east of where we’d initially stepped off of it.

At first the going was pretty easy and we avoided the dense forest that we had had to plow through to get to the summit. But we eventually hit some pretty thick growth and had to slow down to muscle our way through it. On top of that, we had some problems staying on a northeasterly bearing as we detoured around obstacles in our path. This ultimately resulted in us walking in circles, a fact we discovered about 30 minutes before sunset at 4:30 pm.

From that point on, we became militant about staying on the northerly bearing. Both of us had our compasses tied to lanyards around our necks and we started checking our bearings constantly, We figured we’d cross the A-Z trail eventually, which thankfully we did, at 7:05 pm. From there, it was a two hour walkout back to the AMC Highland Center where we managed to beg cappuccinos even though the kitchen was closed. I figure they were pretty surprised when 2 hikers walking int the main lobby at 9:15pm in January.

 Lessons Learned

David and I are not experienced bushwhackers, but I’m confident we will be eventually. We both have very good compass and map skills, which were invaluable for finding the canister and bushwhacking after sunset on this trip. Still there are a few lessons to be learned from this trip:

  1. Bring an altimeter for bushwhacks. David had a map-less GPS with an altimeter and it was invaluable for figuring out where we were.
  2. Don’t wear your favorite shell or waterproof pants. Between my crampons and the trees, I shredded an old pair of Marmot Precip full zip pants.
  3. Plan, in advance, the escape route as thoroughly as the hike to the summit.
  4. Look at your compass frequently to stay on a bearing. Much more frequently than you would otherwise.
  5. Allow a lot more time for the bushwhack than you expect. There’s no telling what conditions will be like when you appear in person.
  6. Teamwork is essential. Double-check your partner’s bearings and decisions, constantly.
  7. Get down low to see if you can detect elevation changes under densely packed small trees.
  8. Bring a few extra pairs of fleece gloves (for winter bushwhacking.) You’ll sweat them out.
  9. Be prepared for an unexpected night out.

If you are a bushwhacker, and have some best practices or advice you’d like to impart, please leave a comment.

Recommended Guidebooks and Maps:


  1. Haven’t done this one but have done plenty of whacks – that 1/2 – 3/4 MPH seems about right. The bigger the group the slower you go. I like 3 – 5 people and then I hang in the back shouting directions (eg little more left) as I use the line of people (sometimes I see them and sometimes I just hear them) as a targeting line.

    Michael Blair

    • We were both surprised at how easy it is to get off bearing so quickly, and the contours, which are very gradual on this peak, particularly neat the top, were really hard to read. Going up, we spent an hour at 3100 feet fighting through deep snow and blow downs. If was really hard to figure out where we were (east to west) and how to move uphill.

      The most important things is teamwork, I’d say, and the fact that we both know how to navigate with a compass. We were able to double-check each other constantly, which really helped. I lost a little weight yesterday!

      • I have to say that Monica has a “compass sense”. She is usually in the front and once I set her on a bearing she pretty much sticks to it – even as we navigate through thick stuff and around blowdowns.

        Advantages to being in the back – most of the snow has been knocked off of the trees and you can see where others have post-holed. :-)

        Disadvantages of being in the back – if everyone has post-holed you have no solid footing left. :-(

      • We figured out that the real reason to carry hiking poles on these walks is to knock snow off the trees. I also found that keeping my hood on all the time kept the snow from going down my back.

        Bushwhacking really takes hiking to a new level – even harder than plain old winter hiking. I’m loving the challenge! It was Alex that got us hooked.

  2. Philip – Great report and tips! I just did a post on bushwhacking on Monday. See http://www.offonadventure.com/2012/01/bushwhacking-pleasure-or-curse.html if you want to read it.

    • Your picture of a “little hard to get through” pretty much sums up about 3 hours of our trip yesterday. I fell through a couple of big voids yesterday that would have made great bear caves for hibernating in! Don’t think the thought didn’t cross my mind.

  3. I’m a little rusty with the bushwhacking, but I definitely hear you on the frustration of staying on bearing. On the other hand, winter is definitely the time to do bushwhacks in New England– just imagine how much of that brush was hidden beneath the snow.

    I tend to use a much less accurate method for areas with lots of features, like the Whites. Rather than relying on compass bearings primarily, I try to stick with natural features, and use the compass for a general idea of where I’m going. Worked really well at Little Lyford when I was tooling around there in winter a few years ago.

  4. Welcome aboard… Bushwhacking, The Freedom of the Hills!

    Once you become proficient (and I’m sure you will) a whole new world of adventure will open up to you. My advice to anyone traveling off trail is once you understand the basics of map & compass do not become a slave to your compass. Seek out the path of least resistance. Pay attention to the terrain and allow “hand rails” to guide you. Have confidence that the bearing to the summit is “uphill” and use that to your advantage.

  5. David (aka PedXing)

    I look forward to our next hike Phillip. I generally have a very good compass sense. I usually get a bearing and stick to it and compass checks simply confirm that I’m doing fine, but for one reason or another my internal compass was constantly off. It was an odd experience that we both shared. I haven’t had it wiht early bushwhacks,

    What isn’t clear from the map, which I think does have our approximate return route down correctly, is that for one stretch on the return our course took us uphill, even as we expected to be going steadily downhill..

    • I’m already scoping our next whack David! That was a long day, wasn’t it? I am a zombie today.That uphill section was really weird. It might have been a little farther southeast that what I drew on the map above. That would explain why it took us so long to find the A-Z again on the northbound heading.

      • David (aka PedXing)

        At some point we’ll have to look at a map together. Looking at the map, we came back to the right of our approach route. I think we did come down more down the tounge of that ridge that extends North Northeast from the summit (on the the southeast/downhill side of the ridge) so that down shifted from taking north to south. More careful discussion of our return route in the comfort of the Highland center – with our maps in front of us would have made it clear that this might happen if we drifted even a little east of where our bearings pointed us.

      • David (aka PedXing)

        I think the thorough discussion of the route, or clear agreement on who is the lead navigator, becomes more important on trips like these where landmarks are almost completely out of view and distinct geological features are scarce. I’m also eager to apply what we’ve learned and do some more whacking!

  6. I like looking at he GPS Track when I am done with a bushwhack – it is always interesting to see how well you followed your intended course and where you went off-course. I’ll then look at it as a satellite image overlay for even more perspective.

    Elephant in ME is a NEHH and a bushwhack – some thick stuff on the way up, managed to find a herd/game path on the way down. However, when you looked that satellite image you realized that if we had gone about 30 more yards to our left we could have picked up the path MUCH sooner – and eliminated some of the thickest whacking.

  7. There are very good articles on navigation on the ADK website.



    On my first BW, we ended up having one person take the lead and the other person be stationary direct the lead left or right. Then the lead stopped and the rear person came forward. Overkill maybe but I got nervous and wanted to ensure we were not making a wide dogleg turn.

  8. What kind of Golite jacket is that? And what are you wearing under it?

    • It’s a Golite Roan Plateau 800 parka. I put it on to avoid getting cold when we stopped for a snack at the summit. I’m wearing an event shell underneath, an R1 fleece sweater and capilene 1 shirt. I was plenty warm for without the parka when we were moving.

  9. My preferred form of hiking for many years…One item I found invaluable, especially hiking cross country in the Anza Borrego and Mojave Deserts and in early spring through the snow fields in the high sierra’s, is a pair of Snake Proof Chaps. I bought them via Cabela’s some 20 years ago as protection against Cacti, Snakes and Sharp Granite. And when cutting through the brush saved me from having to constantly replace hiking pants which are easily torn to shreds..The pair I own consist of two separate Leggings that that you slip on and then hook to your belt via a loop and a brass snap…they also have a long boot zipper on the side should you need it..

    I still prefer the old map and compass way of finding and maintaining the correct direction though now I do carry a Spot II just in case……

    My question for earlylite is since you are wearing clear lens glasses in the Photo, what did you use for eye protection to avoid snow blindness?

    • Those chaps would come in handy – the skin on my knees is sore today, I guess from all that whacking.
      I’ve never had any issues with snow reflection in the Whites although it does occur. We were below treeline on this hike and sun wasn’t a factor. Worse comes to worse, I’d just put the googles I keep in my pack on.

  10. I’ve done lots of bushwhacking in Florida and Texas and I don’t know if I could handle winter bushwhacking! Sounds like a fun thing to do when there isn’t snow on the ground—can you tell I am a southerner? (who spent too much time in south Florida getting even more used to tropical weather).

  11. The purpose of the chaps is to keep the bushes from whacking you.

  12. Great article and suggestions! Two weeks ago we climbed 4 of the toughest bushwhacks in the Catskills. At the time I wasn’t very happy, but once we made it to all 4 summits and back to the car, I was planning my next trip. Once we got to the first summit I would try to memorize the terrain to the next summit. While other people in the group where making frequent stops to check their gps, I was kneeling down, below the thick trees, and checking the terrain. This method helped me lead the group to the summit of two of the mountains without any help from a gps.

    • Jon – check out my article tomorrow. I’ve been think some more about the mistakes we made on this hike. In a good way. It was definitely an eye opener. I’ve got 3 more bushwhacks coming up in the next few weeks, including two relatively tough ones.

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