Off Trail Advice

marquiri

Member
Joined
Jan 15, 2018
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Good morning all. I'm looking for some advice as to how to best develop my skills for off-trail hiking.

First off, I live in Florida, and only get to do 1 backcountry trip per year (for now). I started backpacking in 2018, and have a total of 37 nights in the backcountry. Our longest trips were a pair of 10 day trips in Yellowstone. With the exception of 5 miles of the second Yellowstone trip being off-trail, all of our travel was on trail until this year. This past September, we did a Wind River (Lee Lake) route that I got from @Bob that included a couple of days of off-trail travel. I was fortunate to have Nancy Pallister's book, and, more importantly, @Bob's GPS track from his trip.

I carry both an Inreach and my phone (using the Caltopo app), so even when the route became difficult to follow, I could look at my phone to get us back on track. I'd prefer to not have to constantly be looking at my phone. My group wants to do longer trips in the Winds, and I know that is going to require substantially more off-trail travel.

I know there is no substitute for experience, but, given my current constraints, can anyone share any tips for improving off-trail skills? I have my eye on a couple of books (Wilderness Navigation by Bob Burns and NOLS Wilderness Navigation), but I'm sure you can only get so much from a book. I'd also like to learn a bit more about mapping an off-trail route. I spend a lot of time on Caltopo looking at and mapping routes, but aside from looking at slope angles, contour lines and other similar metrics (to avoid cliffs, etc.), I'm curious how other hikers go about putting an off-trail route together on Caltopo. Thanks everyone.
 
there is no substitute for experience
Experience is a clear and distant #1 on this.

I think you're on a good path though - starting with off-trail trips where you already have a route and significant beta. I'd just push your comfort zone slightly with each successive trip. And if you have a chance to hike with someone more experienced - especially in the specific area - jump on it.

Years ago when I lived in Texas I'd go out to state parks and practice my map/compass skills and try to get lost on purpose - it was fun and probably helped a little, but there's really nothing like the "real thing".

When getting started drawing "new" routes yourself I think the trick is to look at existing routes as a guide for what terrain "goes" in a particular region - it'll definitely be hit-or-miss when you're first getting started, so draw up a few options including at least one "safe" one. Eventually you just get a feel for it, but keep in mind that it'll vary pretty significantly by region. Even comparing the Absarokas and Winds - right next door - terrain quality is quite different and therefore different routing is ideal.
 
Thanks so much for the feedback. I do all of the research, mapping, etc. for our group of 4. I guess it's fortunate that I enjoy staring at maps and satellite imagery 11 months a year. Right now I'm looking at Route #44 in Nancy Pallister's book (Northeastern Headwaters). It would certainly be a bit further out of my comfort zone than the last trip was, especially assuming I don't have a GPS track from another hiker to fall back on.

Based on Nancy's description of the route, there are only a couple of segments that sound like they will present a challenge (both from a route-finding and exposure perspective). As you said, though, that's how you grow as a backpacker.
 
100% agree on weather Bob. We were camped in the South Fork of Cascade Canyon in the Tetons for that snow/wind storm in September of 2020. That was not a pleasant night.
 
if you have a chance to hike with someone more experienced - especially in the specific area - jump on it.
Best option I've found, for either on or off-trail. Other than that, just experience. Been pushing my limits a little every year. Got "temporarily misplaced" once while solo. No electronics at all. Wet sleeping bag and weather deteriorating. What paths I'd passed on the way in covered in snow. 15+ miles from the trail head. Not fun at the time but best experience ever. Traveling off trail with @Bob was very instructive. Much better at finding micro-routes than I am.

Now carry phone with Caltopo maps as well as compass and paper maps. Knowing position in poor weather conditions saves going up the wrong canyon or pass with nearly parallel bearings on the map. Mark route of least resistance on Caltopo, have alts, verify with Google Earth. Still have to pick route on the ground and that may not match up with marked route exactly. That's why Nancy did not provide GPS files for her routes. May come down to decisions as to which boulder do I jump to next? Why am I on this boulder field to begin with?

Always have an alternate as backup or for escape.... Weather can change the game.
Sage advise. Weather nearly always changes the game for me. When solo, I'm extra conservative. Was forced to get an inReach Mini to calm concerns of friends and family. Useless for navigation, but can get a weather update.
 
I use my inreach mainly for weather updates and so that my wife can keep in touch with family. Agreed that it's useless for navigation. The weather can change so quickly, though, that sometimes it can provide a false sense of security. The night of the wind/snowstorm in the Tetons I had been keeping an eye on the weather for two days prior to the storm. I knew it was going to be windy, but the snow was way more than was forecasted. We actually encountered a ranger about 12 hours prior to the start of the storm, and asked him what was going on with the weather. He told us that we wouldn't be up high enough to be worried about bad conditions. So much for that. We had at least seven trees down in our campsite.
 
I use my inreach mainly for weather updates and so that my wife can keep in touch with family. Agreed that it's useless for navigation. The weather can change so quickly, though, that sometimes it can provide a false sense of security. The night of the wind/snowstorm in the Tetons I had been keeping an eye on the weather for two days prior to the storm. I knew it was going to be windy, but the snow was way more than was forecasted. We actually encountered a ranger about 12 hours prior to the start of the storm, and asked him what was going on with the weather. He told us that we wouldn't be up high enough to be worried about bad conditions. So much for that. We had at least seven trees down in our campsite.
Yeah, all weather forecasts have their limitations. Found that out in my most recent Winds trip. The updates in the backcountry are helpful for looking at trends.

Had intended to lead a group backpack in the Winds the day after that 2020 storm. Saw the weather news in town where we were acclimating and said "no way". With that strong a system it's going to get really nasty up there. Delayed a day, but didn't realize it would destroy the trailhead (and the backup trailhead). Sometimes the best decision is to bail. Wound up on a short but exciting backpack from a less used trailhead.
 
Right now I'm looking at Route #44 in Nancy Pallister's book (Northeastern Headwaters). It would certainly be a bit further out of my comfort zone than the last trip was, especially assuming I don't have a GPS track from another hiker to fall back on.
Solid section - and the narrative description should help you a lot. Also a good mix of trail, simple off-trail, and few places with more precise route-finding. Definitely read through the Klondike Lake section closely and pay attention to the proper route on the north side of No Man's Pass.

Good practice for route design might be to draw up a Caltopo route based on Pallister's narrative and then compare to your actual route when you get home.
 
Print out your CalTopo maps and make a point of sitting down in the field and lining up peaks and valleys and lakes, use your compass. And then pull out your phone and CalTopo and "check your work". If you can identify the peaks around you on a map, then you have a pretty good idea where you are. I grew up in SW FL (no topography) and do the majority of my outdoors stuff in the SE Appalachians (no views). I am frequently surprised at how far you can see out west. Sometimes it is hard to match up the views with the map.

I've only been to the Winds once, but I found Pallisters maps and route descriptions to be pretty accurate. I agree that transferring her info to your CalTopo map is a good idea if nothing else it will make you a little more familiar with the geography.

For weather on the InReach you should check out https://wx2inreach.weebly.com/ This gives you the NWS forecast vs what ever Garmin uses. I have it set as my 3rd auto message which makes it easy to get a weather report.
 
For weather on the InReach you should check out https://wx2inreach.weebly.com/ This gives you the NWS forecast vs what ever Garmin uses. I have it set as my 3rd auto message which makes it easy to get a weather report.
Awesome! My wife will appreciate this, as I won't have to message her to send me a weather update from weather.gov anymore (I've never really trusted the Garmin weather service).

And I agree with the Pallister/caltopo suggestions. It's hard to imagine a better way to hook someone on off-trail backpacking.
 
All good advice here. The only thing I would add is that when you are planning for off trail you should reduce your estimated speed by at least half. That's not only because it's harder to hike off trail, it also requires more stopping, looking, and thinking.

And I can't count the times I've had to backtrack at least a bit as a correction...
 
There's a lot of good advice in this thread.

I would add that when you're hiking off-trail, there is no such thing as a perfect route. I've found that a lot of off-trail routes can be made safer and/or more scenic with surprisingly minor changes, and it's important to be willing to take the time to experiment with a route, particularly as you build up experience and confidence. For example, there's an off-trail route in Zion NP that has a miserable bushwhacking section. Using satellite imagery and topo maps, I saw an alternate route that added ~1 mile to the total distance, but it had no bushwhacking and looked scenic. I tried it out, and it was a huge improvement over the standard route. And every time that I take that alternate route, I'm still able to find new ways to refine it.

My final piece of advice is that even experienced backcountry hikers will sometimes make a wrong turn, reach a dead end, and have to backtrack. There is no shame in this, and don't be discouraged if it happens to you. The important thing is being able to recognize the error before getting oneself into a predicament (like descending into a canyon with no safe way to get out). When I'm hiking off-trail, I'm always prepared to turn around if I have anything less than full confidence in my ability to safely continue.
 
I used to live in Hollywood, Florida, graduated HHH, Hollywood Hills High. There were no hills other than the bridge over the intercoastal canal. Florida is Atlantic Plain. The mountain systems and intermontane plateau systems of the west are where it’s at.

Go to the San Rafael Swell, the Reef side and proceed off trail to a destination. You will not be able to travel in a straight line for more than ten feet. It will be up, down, right, left, 180° backtrack and then choose one of the previous opptions over and over. Take all the water you can carry and if you survive you can show all the fantastic things you saw, dinosaur tracks, pictographs etc. it is similar in Capital Reef. Almost anywhere in canyon country is like this.

You will definitely gain experience but it mostly tells you that you can easily die doing this and they might never find a body. They are still looking for old Everett. None of this means you will survive the next one.

As you cross a difficult canyon (after canyon after canyon), mark the intrance and exit points with map and compass and or gps. Look around as you go, back and forth. Things look entirely different during a retreat. Never slide down something you can’t climb back up. Ahead there may not be a route that goes. Partial retreat is often the only option. Folks become stuck and dehydrate.

If you happen to survive the oxygen will feel so sweet. Enjoy it.

Read books like Early Days in the Ramge of Light where the author retraces the routes of the major explorers in the Sierra equipped with the gear they had access to. Grand Obsession: Harvey Butchart and the Exploration of Grand Canyon is another. Both deal with the most serious offtrail route finding imaginable.

I wouldn’t call this activity safe but it is addictive.
 
This is all tremendous advice, and I really appreciate all of you for sharing. My group puts a lot of faith in me to get us back home safely (as I'm the only one of us who does any research/planning/mapping). I spend months studying, but I have lots of room for improvement.
 
This is all tremendous advice, and I really appreciate all of you for sharing. My group puts a lot of faith in me to get us back home safely (as I'm the only one of us who does any research/planning/mapping). I spend months studying, but I have lots of room for improvement.
From a safety perspective, if you're leading a group, it would probably be a good idea to see whether you can get at least one other person involved with planning and navigation. I find it to be stressful (and a bit risky) when I am the only person in a group who knows a particular off-trail route.
 
My hiking..... It's he who organizes the route is the boss..... Then he gets the good and bad blame..... But it's good for others to know/and have the route so they know what's going on......
 
This is all tremendous advice, and I really appreciate all of you for sharing. My group puts a lot of faith in me to get us back home safely (as I'm the only one of us who does any research/planning/mapping). I spend months studying, but I have lots of room for improvement.
Know the stress! Particularly when I had 15 people of my local hiking group depending on me for a detailed plan. You've done a lot of work to make it safe and have options for whatever arises.

One point of safety is stay in sight/sound of the trail boss if you're off trail or at least have a preset rendezvous pt. My group did not. Could have been a bad situation as I couldn't find them and had to head back to camp by myself. Luckily, they spotted me on the other side of the lake.
 
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