Off Trail Backpacking Advice (In densely wooded areas)

Forum Posting

A Membership is required to post in the forums. Login or become a member to post in the member forums!

Home Forums General Forums Philosophy & Technique Off Trail Backpacking Advice (In densely wooded areas)

Viewing 12 posts - 1 through 12 (of 12 total)
  • Author
  • #3679905
    Zack L
    BPL Member


    I’ve been backpacking for years now but have been wanting to get into more offtrail trips. Mostly just to up the adventure and to add some challenge. I want to start with a buddy on some shorter (3-5 day) trips near us first, maybe to some scenic areas and back out or maybe just from one parking area to another. We live in PA/NY so most of our backpacking trips are in PA or the ADKs. To backpack offtrail seems challenging here given how densely overgrown everything is. Aside from the challenges of travel, the visibility makes it hard to do terrain association and navigation without constantly looking at the GPS. Intuitively a fix seems to be to gain elevation to get above treeline and work from there, but the elevation around here doesn’t often break treeline (at least for very long). I was wondering if anyone had any experience with stuff like this that could offer some advice? Thanks for any help you have!

    Zack L
    BPL Member


    I should add, particular areas I’m looking for advice is trip planning

    What time of areas and terrain should I be looking for to base a trip off of?

    How to tell off Google Maps, Gaia etc, if terrain will be navigable?

    Rules of thumb for route planning in general when there are no trails

    Paul Wagner
    BPL Member


    Locale: Wine Country

    It’s hard.  We use a compass, which gives direction, but not distance traveled.  We’ve aimed for creeks and then followed them either up or downstream towards our destination.  But we usually hike out West, where we can see where we are going…

    Greg Pehrson
    BPL Member


    Locale: playa del caballo blanco

    I highly recommend taking a hands-on, bushwhacking specific map and compass class as an entry point. I took one with the Appalachian Mountain Club (Boston chapter) a number of years ago that was fantastic, and tailored to the dense forests we have here. Closer to you, I see that the Adirondack Mountain Club offers such a course too (they just had one in late September).  There’s a ton of learning that can happen in a weekend of learning the techniques then going out with highly experienced bushwhackers. Plus, it will introduce you to a community of folks who could be potential bushwhacking partners. Good luck! It is an exhilarating and rewarding way to move though the landscape.


    Link .
    BPL Member


    obx hiker
    BPL Member


    There was a discussion somewhat relevant last winter in this thread

    Geoff Caplan’s recommendation about the Lyle Brotherton book is worth noting.

    I’ve worked pretty hard for so many years using google maps to plot routes that my younger brother busted on me by posting this video:

    Sheesh ;)   Anyway re vegetation. for eastern terrain one can usually tell predominantly hardwoods/deciduous from predominantly conifers/evergreens especially since most of the really clear high pressure low humidity days that are best for clear sat photos are in the winter. The thing I cannot determine here in NC is the location of “laurel hells” and I’ve tried to get a ‘signal’ looking at spots in person with heavy laurel and then looking on google. Not enough resolution on google.

    Out west in the Rockies I can pretty much make out treed areas vs. areas with shrub or willows; but it’s interesting how often patches of vegetation near tree-line that look like heavy shrubs turn out to be trees and sometimes pretty good camping spots.

    Short vertical or very steep pitches of @ 40-60 feet can often be difficult to determine.

    I guess google maps/earth is like getting good with a compass. Takes time and practice.

    BTW in the eastern forested mountains the native American routes mostly followed ridges. Streams can be subject to pinch points, drop-offs (waterfalls – fun!) plus they are also subject to big u turns around ridges and it seems you always wind up on the side of the stream that ends up walled off and you have to either go over a steep ridge or cross an often deep and swift stream. In other words following the drainage can be risky; sometimes even when the valley seems somewhat broad and flat. It’s what you can’t see that gets you. A lot of the nice trails in the Smokies that follow drainages were narrow gauge rail beds, so those guys had stuff like dynamite. In fact old RR grades/beds of this type are all over the place and can still be located on older USGS topo maps but now are hard to find or see on the ground. The old wounds heal.

    Adam G
    BPL Member


    On the advice of the prior thread, I bought Lyle Brotherton’s The Ultimate Navigation Manual. I recommend the book. He has a whole chapter about this. The take home message is that it’s really, really hard.  Here are his suggestions:

    You’re going to be moving really slowly. He says 200-300 m / hr, no more than 1 km / hr
    Travel in drainages and ridges
    Take photos along the way of prominent landmarks with important notes  (direction you are facing, known coordinates, etc).
    Take a lot of notes about what you’re doing, what type of terrain you’re crossing, etc in a paper logbook
    Use a GPS

    BPL Member


    Locale: Colorado

    I do a lot of off-trail hiking, but even in the Rockies, bushwhacking can be extremely slow going below timberline because of deadfall, especially in recent years because of beetle-kill. One needs to be prepared to navigate by dead reckoning and sometimes step-counting, which is incredibly slow, and not very fun. And it’s important to have the humility to backtrack if necessary; sometimes it’s the safer and more efficient strategy. As mentioned by @obx hiker, even above timberline, you can run into unexpected difficulties with willows and short-but-steep vertical faces that don’t look like much on a quad. As a solo hiker with some physical limitations, I have become more conservative about taking risks off-trail in remote areas.

    Nevertheless, off-trail hiking can be extremely rewarding, and I like your idea of exploring nearby wilderness areas that way. You will find all sorts of things that you never experienced before, and get to know those “backyard wilderness” areas in an intimate way. I don’t think you need more than a map and compass, and a good attitude. You may want to consider more protective footwear than is often recommended on this forum, and your greatest asset will be a mindset that prioritizes the joy of exploration over covering lots of miles.

    MJ H
    BPL Member


    “laurel hells”

    The thing I’ve learned about plants from hiking in Pennsylvania is that the average state forest has more Rhododendron than I had previously thought existed in the whole world. If there’s no trail through a dense patch, you’re not moving at more than a crawl.

    obx hiker
    BPL Member


    ” you’re not moving at more than a crawl”


    Including slithering on your belly like a snake. Really hard/impossible to do with a pack. ( I have ended up going ‘over the top’ in desperation. Limb to limb which is really uncomfortable, almost comically awkward, super slow and somewhat risky.  For you PNW folks it’s worse than alders. (also really no fun at all)

    Laurel Hells are to be avoided pretty much at all costs. Linville Gorge is full of them.  BTW Hells and Laurel Hells is a traditional southern mountain name. I didn’t make it up.

    obx hiker
    BPL Member


    This short article is on topic

    Why do Humans Walk in Circles?

    When lost in the desert or a thick forest terrains devoid of landmarks people tend to walk in circles. Blindfolded people show the same tendency; lacking external reference points, they curve around in loops as tight as 66 feet (20 meters) in diameter, all the while believing they are walking in straight lines.

    Why can’t we walk straight?

    Only recently have scientists begun to make gains in answering this age-old question. By conducting a series of experiments with blindfolded test subjects, a group of researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybergenetics in Germany have systematically ruled out several plausible explanations for loopy walking. For example, body asymmetries has been posed as one theory, but the team found no correlation between factors such as uneven leg lengths and right- or left-side dominance and walkers’ veering directions.

    The researchers also ruled out random physical errors, such as incorrect gauging of how you need to move your legs to walk straight, arguing that these would cause walkers to meander back and forth in a zigzag fashion rather than to trace out circles.

    he researchers believe that loopy paths follow from a walker’s changing sense of “straight ahead.” With every step, a small deviation is likely added to a person’s cognitive sense of what’s straight, and these deviations accumulate to send that individual veering around in ever tighter circles as time goes on.

    This increasing curvature doesn’t happen when external reference points are visible, because these allow the walker to frequently recalibrate his or her sense of direction. When walking down the street, for example, the looming presence of a nearby building (as seen in your peripheral vision) prevents you from curving into it. [How Does a Compass Work? ] (emphasis mine)

    As of yet, no one is sure where in our inner workings the accumulating deviations arise. However, as detailed in the July 2011 issue of the journal Experimental Brain Research, the Max Planck team thinks the brain’s vestibular (balance-maintaining) and propioceptive (body awareness) systems combine to enable regular spatial updating and it may be the vestibular system in the inner ear that malfunctions in the absence of visual clues. “We will continue to work on these issues in the near future,” Marc Ernst, group leader, told Life’s Little Mysteries.

    Roger Caffin
    BPL Member


    Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe

    We have something similar to Laurel Hells here in Oz.

    ‘Hori’ or horizontal jungle, SW Tasmania. Well known.


Viewing 12 posts - 1 through 12 (of 12 total)
  • You must be logged in to reply to this topic.
Forum Posting

A Membership is required to post in the forums. Login or become a member to post in the member forums!