There are few activities as freeing as moving in the wilderness without the need for trails or signposts. When you think about it we spend most of our lives following in someone else’s footsteps, using sidewalks and roads and following directions people have created or written down for us. Even in the natural world we are usually on worn, flagged trails that are clearly visible.
Off-trail travel should be avoided in fragile ecosystems but if you are mindful you can learn to visit more remote locations and solve the puzzles of the terrain to get there.
Here are some tips to get you started.
1: Everyone Hikes Alone
Whenever a trip is being planned to an area that has no trails to follow I always do the work to plan the trip as if I was going there alone, even if I’m not the one organizing the trip.
You can’t know that you won’t get separated from the group at some point. It is everyones responsibility to understand the destination and understand the terrain and the difficulties that might be encountered. You will need that information if you lose the group or get lost.
2: Understand the Basics of Direction
This might seem straigtforward but I have been surprised on occasion that individuals I’ve been with have had no clue where North was.
North, South, East and West. In the Northern hemisphere the Sun rises in the East, arches through the Southern sky and sets in the West. Always keep this in mind.
If I am exploring a new location in the mountains but I know that it is close to another mountain that I am familiar with I will study where that mountain will be in relation to me as a point of reference (e.g. the mountain I am familiar with will be to the South… etc).
The simple knowledge of understanding which direction you are facing can go a long way to helping you navigate in the wild.
3: Watch your back
Something that can take a lot of new off-trail explorers by surprise is how different the route they took can look when you turn around and need to reverse it. You will be looking at the terrain from a completely different perspective.
At regular intervals while navigating off trail I will turn around and take note of what the terrain behind me looks like. I will make mental notes of landmarks like curiously shaped boulders, tree stumps, small lakes, etc. Anything that I think will be useful for reversing my route later that day.
Watch you back, not only for Bears and Cougars, but for your route home also.
4: Learn to use but not need a compass
I’m going to be honest, I always carry a compass with me but I’ve never had reason to use it. Of the numerous trips I have been on I have never seen anyone I was with using a compass. I view it like a survival tool to use should I get really lost. With tools like Google Earth, GPS devices and online resources now I usually have a good idea of where I am going and what to expect before my boots have even entered the wild.
Study using navigation equipment and software while at home and then learn to navigate with and trust your senses first while you are out there.
5: Designate a Navigator
This point is actually really important. In any group traveling off-trail there should be somebody that is responsible for navigation. While everyone should be aware of the route and the destination there should be only one person responsible for navigating. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been out, following the person walking 100m’s ahead of me only for them to turn to me and ask if they are going in the right direction.
Don’t assume that the person out front knows where they are going. Designate a navigator and if you feel they are off course bring it to their attention and let them make the course correction.
The only times I have gotten slightly lost out in the wild was when there was no clear navigator in the group. In these instances every individual was free to recommend and then lead course corrections, inevitably some of these changes were wrong and we got lost, forcing the need to use GPS to get back on track.
So there you have it. Some simple tips to start you on your way to exploring the natural world. Start small, join some outdoor clubs in your area, and feel the freedom of the hills as only those who leave the trails behind can. As always, have fun, be safe.