Tricks for Hiking Off Trails

Marble Mtn

Trails are great, I highly recommend them, and yet I usually choose not to follow them.  I love the magic and freedom of choosing my own path and wandering where ever I please.  Even if you do intend to follow the trail though shit happens, we know this, so it’s worth getting comfortable off trails even if you’re just trying to find your way back.

Navigating off trails is a skill, not knowing where you are can be challenging mentally and potentially dangerous in the long run…and while you probably can’t learn this skill just through one blog post here are a few tricks I’ve used over the years that can make off-trail travel a little less intimidating…

  • Follow a river! It’s pretty hard to get lost hiking along a river or stream…especially if you go upstream. That way you don’t have to worry which fork you take because returning downstream will always get you back where you started. It’s certainly worth checking a map before you go but unless the river has something real funky going on you should be good. If the river is loud enough you can even follow it by ear, without needing to see it…night hike any one?
  • Find an obvious feature (a mountain top, patch of woods, lake, whatever) and just hike towards that. If you intend to return the way you came make note of an obvious feature where you started (something visible from a distance) so you can find your way back. Try not to use trees though, unless they are the only tree around, because they have a habit of changing shape depending on your angle and distance from them.
  • Uphill and downhill.  Often times these are the only guides you need. Uphill will take you to the top of the ridge, and returning downhill will get you back to the river…just as an example. Always check maps and make sure that nothing weird is going on with the topography (the shape of the land), but this is another really good tool that I use frequently.

A few key concepts…

  • Handrails: these are things you can follow that will keep you on the right track. Backstops: these are things that can keep you from going to far…a road you know not to cross, a river, a sheer cliff, a clearly marked trail, think of this as a boundary line and make sure you stay in bounds.
  • Bending the map: don’t do this! Bending the map is when you decide that something on the map is wrong or weird because the idea in your head or what you think you see is obviously correct and there for the map must be wrong. Okay…this is a huge red flag! Use a map you can trust and stick to it!

You will not always know your exact location, and you’ll just have to get used to this.  Some times I only know which square mile I’m in…but as long as I know what direction I need to go in it doesn’t really matter.

Also, before you wander off following your intuition, think twice. Then a third time, and a fourth time, and make sure all your friends second guess you as well. Your “sense of direction” can be wrong very very easily. Don’t trust it!  Use logic instead, every time, and commit to that, and when ever possible have two people navigating together.

And of course…

  • Keep it simple!!! Try something easy to start…then slowly get more advanced, hone your skills, learn from other people, the internet, books, classes, mistakes…but don’t avoid the start just because the finish line seems a ways away.

If you want to know even more about the nitty gritty details of land navigation just poke around online, find some books, take a class, or send me a message and I’ll point you in the right direction ;)

One thought on “Tricks for Hiking Off Trails

  1. Great common sense approach to off-trail exploring. I’ve only been off-trail once while in Yosemite National Park. We discovered the petrified wood we were searching for and happened upon an amazing elk antler we wouldn’t have otherwise seen. Great blog site! I’m an avid backpacker and working on being a well rounded outdoorsman. Thanks for sharing. Happy Trails!


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