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Why Bushwhack?

Most people don’t realize that hiking trail design is a spin-off from landscape architecture where trail designers deliberately plan vistas and trail features to heighten our experience of natural beauty. Given that background, some element of the pleasure we experience hiking and backpacking has been pre-programmed by a human mind and may not be entirely natural.

Instead, bushwhacking or off-trail hiking, may be the only way to truly experience the White Mountains as they are.

These are deep thoughts, but I’ve been thinking a lot about bushwhacking, ever since I got lost near Owl’s head a few weeks ago and had to use my compass to bushwhack out to a trail. I kept my head and knew what I was doing, but it felt a lot different from my normal hikes, even in the challenging terrain that I frequent.

First off, bushwhacking requires a level of situational awareness that is uncommon in hiking a trail. For example, how often do you consult your map to match the features in front of you? How carefully do you plan a walk? Do you normally carry a compass out of your pocket and in front of you to stay on a bearing?  How many animals do you actually encounter on a trail hike?

Compare this to the experience of bushwhacking where you are very likely to come across animal tracks, in forest which is not trampled by heaving day hikers. Where you need to train your senses to perceive and track your progress across the lay of the land, where direction ceases to be ordained by the eyes, and you need to rely on a compass or GPS to find your way. Where the forest fights back, scratching, cutting and bruising as you penetrate it’s depths, and where common sense is eclipsed by thirst, sweat, and determination.

Why bother?

By bushwhacking, you can find vistas that most people will never see, climb unnamed peaks, and camp beyond perception. You cease to observe and become a participant in the comings and goings, the buzzing and the chirping, the courtship and the dance. You bleed and curse, twist and fall, sweat and fart, at one with the spiders, toads, the ferns and moss around you.


  1. I definitely feel that there is a deeper, visceral pleasure/contentment from bushwaking. Nature is unfiltered by others trail building effort, leaving you and it. Your own abilities, and the fickleness of nature become much more real.

    Beyond that, I think there is a playful aspect to bushwaking. It is filled with curiosity and creativity; it is far less structured than linear trail hiking. That playfulness leads to a new level of appreciation of nature, stimulates use in new way (like you mentioned), and is just plain fun.

    • Thousands of hikers use their hiking poles to bushwhack or knock down trees and create hikes or hiking paths. This has destroyed ecosystems and forests and frightened and killed wildlife. Research shows that encounters with wild animals were also more frequent. Hiker rescuers say locating hikers can be problematic and hikers get lost. Finally, if every hiker bushwhacked new trails in the parks, then the forests would be a mess. If you want to bushwack a new trail, get involved with organized trail building/maintenance groups and stop tearing up our forests. Bushwhacking results in unnecessary wear and tear on our forests, and can lead to broken tree limbs, crushed plants, unnecessary erosion patterns and other damage. As the number of people who use our trails increases, the impact of those people also increases. A trail is a narrow ribbon through a fragile ecosystem, and it is crucial to remember that we are guests of the forest.

  2. As much as I agree with this post, you have to heed a little caution as, at least in the united states, in more populated areas, you are most likely hiking on a trail that is on private property, and those access rights can easily be stripped away if the land owner believes that you are not respecting their land.

    The other caution is, watch what you step on, whether alpine level or not, your footstep is beVy, and can alter the land or kill anything below it.

    But other than those considerations, bushwhacking is fun, exhilarating and a completely different experience

  3. "…the pleasure we experience hiking and backpacking has been pre-programmed by a human mind and may not be entirely natural."

    This makes it seem like humans are somehow separate from the natural world. Are we not part of it, and our thinking a natural sort of thinking for our species?

    Quite apart from that, I've done a fair share of bushwhacking because I tend to get lost or think a shortcut would be a clever idea. And although it's enjoyable (usually after the fact, when I am un-lost again), I share Mek's concern for the health of the trodden place. Isn't that why we use trails? To preserve all the rest of the space?

    that's as deep as my thoughts go on this one. thanks for sharing yours.

  4. This definitely runs counter to the idea of treading lightly. I think respecting the trails to keep the natural views untrampled is far more beneficial to nature and to the enjoyment of the environment. There's nothing worse than seeing a blazed trail branch off into three or four new trails so people can avoid getting their shoes muddy, turning the entire area into a flat mud pit. Newly trampled plant life can take decades to recover; please stay ON the trail.

  5. I understand Erick, but that's not what I mean by bushwhacking. I abhor overuse and would never bushwhack in any area that has been marred by it. I think proper bushwhacking probably fits your definition of treading lightly to a T and that it can be respectfully practiced. I doubt anyone who has a clue about bushwhacking would be caught dead churning up new growth to create a mud pit.

    I should also say that I'm sitting here with a monograph about the history of trail development in the white mountains from 1840-1980. It shows that trails come and go, and that old routes, closed because of overuse, are often replaced by "wild" routes created by fishermen and hunters. I guess, I'm just pointing out that your notion of a trail is too static. Many of the major trails near me were created by people who were bushwhackers. You can't have it both ways. :-)

  6. Mek – it is a balance, and one would hope that bushwhackers would be experienced enough not to destroy delicate alpine or other growth. On the otherhand, maybe that is asking too much. But I think about Moose up here. They go wherever they damn well please and trample the undergrowth more than I ever could. Is my passage any less justified than theirs?

  7. I think we all have to practice restraint when tempted to bushwack depending where we are. Some plants are part of very fragile ecosystems and take years to recover from seemingly insignificant footsteps. A few examples would be meadows in the Sierras or even simple lichen. It's one of the reasons many trails require dogs be on leashes. Of course in getting lost one must get unlost, but please tread lightly. 8-)

    BTW, Phil, do you have a high res version of that image on the front page. It would look great across my dual monitors at work.

  8. I don't know how you can wax so poetic about an often harsh and unpleasant experience. If you want to restore your appreciation for the old blaze to blaze trudging on a well maintained trail, just go hiking through some thick rhododendron, greenbriar and rockfields with an extra dose of deer ticks and rattlesnakes on a hot, humid day.

  9. I'm psyching myself up. I'm really not a bushwhacker yet, but I could see becoming one. I have to finish the trail-less half of my Catskill 3500 someday.

  10. Nothing makes you appreciate a trail, human or animal, as quickly as bushwhacking. Bushwhacking is good in early spring and best in late fall when the under story is not as prominent. Thin, durable, protective gloves are my most important addition for bushwhacking. Without them my hands take a beating. Cleaning up my brush profile was also important, nothing protruding from the pack or my clothing. I learned bushwhacking by hunting and using game trails instead of human trails. I still prefer game trails. In the boreal forest I can manage one mph on them. Off trail it takes two hours to cover a mile. Of course it depends on where you are walking. On open prairie it would be very different.

  11. I have been bushwhacking for years and I highly prefer it to trail hiking (although trail hiking has its moments). Instead of drifting off into a self-induced "zone" of semi-consciousness, bushwhacking requires a much higher state of awareness to keep a bearing, pick a path, avoid obstacles, etc. Bushwhacking is especially appealing to the independent, the willful, the stubborn and those with authority issues, since the individual determines their own destination rather than some government agency and/or official (most trails exist within some government owned wild area from my experience). That begs the question: Are more independents and Republicans bushwhackers than Democrats?

    I do not think bushwhacking has much of a negative impact on most vegetation, since only a very small percentage of hikers will ever contemplate long bushwhacking trips let alone ever actually perform one. Plus, large animals are traveling through the forest on a regular basis (e.g. moose, deer, bear, etc.) and yet these forest areas endure. I always try to be careful and not crush any fragile plants but I realize I am having a negative impact on individual plants as I trek though the forest. But I doubt I am having much effect on the forest as a whole.

    I am not dubious of the idea one can spot more wildlife while bushwhacking though. I have discovered more animal tracks and had more actual encounters on trails than I have ever had bushwhacking. The leaves and branches crushed under the weight of heavy duty hiking boots combined with the lashing of branches, the swearing, the cursing and the occasional stumble (the farting occurs regardless of whether a trail is used) while bushwhacking appears to be an excellent alarm for most wildlife to evacuate the area well before the bushwhacker has a chance to see anything of interest in my opinion.

  12. Does bushwacking necessarily involve struggling through dense forest and undergrowth? Does it not cover any movement off a marked path or trail? Need it, therefore, be unpleasant as 'lostalot' suggests? The UK has huge areas now denoted as 'Access Land', which is easily discernible on any Ordnance Survey or Harvey's map, where the legislature has, in effect, said "yes, the footpaths and bridleways remain, but all of this land is now open for you to use and you need not stay on the footpaths or bridleways". I think it's a brilliant idea for teaching navigation and being able to see more of the UK's amazing countryside, rather than simply what everyone sees on the main footpaths. It resolves the private land issue and it's always been really annoying to me that someone can actually own so much land that the rest of a nation is barred from enjoying what it just as much their country's terrain.

  13. Unfortunately the lack of a nobility has screwed with our property laws and we can only bushwhack in national parks. I wish the US had open access laws, but I doubt it ever will. Until then it's a great driver for UK tourism. It really is exceptional to be able to walk and camp anywhere. Go to Scotland if you want to really learn how to use a compass.

  14. Well, outside of Scotland and Dartmoor NP, wild camping is illegal without the permission of the owner but that's so often impractical that, if done sensitively, it is tolerated. And, sadly, access land is not everywhere but certainly it's more prevalent. I agree – there's no better place to learn to navigate than Scotland but not everyone can get there and there are other places to cut your teeth & test micro-navigating skills. In lieu of the Bonny North, they'll do well but they're not exactly wilderness!!

  15. Bushwhacking is probably a useful term in areas where either there is a lot of undergrowth (i.e. northeastern US) or an area described as "the bush" (e.g. Australia). In other areas the term "off-trail hiking" is probably a much better term as there is not undergrowth or dense forest to struggle through.

    As far as having places to bushwhack other than national parks, that is definitely not so in New York since we have an abundance of bushwhacking opportunities. Almost all publicly-owned land (mostly state-owned) is open to the public for bushwhacking. This includes such extensive areas as the Adirondack Park and Catskill Park. In addition, much of the privately owned forest land (those with conservation easements) is open to the public too.

  16. I think I'd much prefer bushwacking or off-trail hiking in the US as sometimes I feel trails are just too much like being herded into seeing only one side of an area. Backpacking in any forum is about freedom.

  17. Great post, and a fun subject. I love bushwhacking, and do a lot in the Fall and Winter. Less in the Spring and Summer. It's a great exercise for map and compass skills.

    Though I'm normally reluctant to get mushy or poetic, I must say that some of my most sublime moments have been in spots found while bushwhacking. There is something primal, and incredibly peaceful about finding oneself in a beautiful spot, miles from any road or trail.

    Even in less remote spots like the Mt. Tom State Reservation, near my home in MA, bushwhacking can reveal more than one would ever see on the trails.

  18. Interesting topic. I have done quite a bit of off-trail stuff during the past couple of years and I find it much more interesting (notice I didn't say fun) than being one of herd on the trail. As more and more large groups clog the trails and the summits, sometimes going off-trail is the only way to connect with nature.

    I listen to arguments from people who think that going off-trail will ruin the landscape and lead to the demise of the entire wilderness. I realize that every step off trail has the potential to cause damage, but I am also aware that large groups trudging up to a summit along a mud-filled trail will likely cause more damage than me.

    Why, because some in the group will likely head off-trail at the first sign of mud to avoid getting dirty and wet. All this does is damage the area around the mud and cause further damage. Furthermore, the idea of actual route-finding and staying in the middle of the trail in many of these large groups is limited – I have seen entire groups walk on the edge of the dirt instead of walking on the rocks that are clearly the middle.

    I would argue that when you compare the number of people who can't follow good trail hiking and stay in the middle of the actual trail to the number of people who actually go off-trail for something other than to simply avoid the mud you will find that bushwhackers actually cause less damage.

    Go to any popular trail near you and see how wide the route is and how many times there are several trails running next to each other because people couldn't stay in their "marked lanes".

  19. In fact, most of the hikes that Steve Smith, author of The White Mountain Guide, writes up on his blog are bushwhacks.

    I don't have any reservations about bushwhacking and there are a lot of clubs like the Catskill 3500 club which require it. I think people on the east coast have been brainwashed into thinking that you need to stay on trails because there is so little open land left here. I think it's a little different out west.

    But the truth is, fewer people do bushwhacking because it is harder, and more dangerous, and you need to navigate. That's fine with me: Less people to run into.

    And you're right about the fact that people who do hike on trails, don't stay on them anyway – at least at popular spots, which we probably both avoid.

  20. Victor – I was at the Notch Visitors Center last weekend and also thought that it'd be a great place to bushwhack, especially towards Granby. Just got to get some maps. Easy to find your way back to with a compass bearing, but equally interesting to explore and not too dense. There's nothing like off trail navigation to make you feel smart (or dumb).

  21. Being a Leave No Trace trainer (I’ll become a Master Educator this summer) I “travel and camp on durable surfaces”, which means I tend to stay on trails. Except when the trail is old and disappears and I get lost looking for water, (don’t ask… lol) then I do a fair amount of bushwacking. It’s always a good idea to check yourself carefully for ticks, afterwards, though.

  22. Indeed, to triangulate where Here is, relative to whence [ origin] & whither [goal], by use of map, landmarks, or both is something that the lucky few learn to do as they grow up. Slopes, ridges, high points,all are part of the mix.: keeping an account of how they fit together is a must,along with orientation, even if relative to a ridge or river. This is not rocket science, merely applied common sense: if one go forth down-slope, to the right; he must return up-slope & to the left. This is too much for some to fathom, apparently. Also, the shadow of Sun or Moon, or the various constellations, give the accustomed eye as much information as he may need. Even two or three stars in the clouds give a good indication of direction. The main thing is to keep an eye on the big picture of the trail blazed.

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