Bushwhacking: 35 Off-Trail Navigation Skill Tips

Off-trail travel comes with a whole new set of challenges when compared to hiking on the beaten path. In this post, we aim to make sure you are prepared for everything that might await you on the bushy side of the straight and narrow.

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Bushwhacking: to hike one’s way through woods or dense forest by cutting at undergrowth, bushes, and undergrowth.

Adding the ability to navigate off-trail confidently to your backpacking skillset is one that can bring a great many rewards.

While whacking your way through wild, trail-free, testing terrain isn’t everyone’s idea of fun, learning to do so can both open up a whole new range of possibilities about the type of terrain you can explore and also turn out to be a skin-saver on those occasions when you find yourself off-trail involuntarily and have no choice but to “whack” your way back to safety.

In the following article, we aim to help you hone your off-trail travel skills with 35 practical tips.

35 Skills for Off-Trail Navigation

Pre-Trip Preparation

1. Dress to avoid making a mess (of your skin, that is…) by wearing full-length pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and a hat to prevent scratching up your arms, legs, and head. Walking off trail through the bush will quickly take its toll if you’re not wearing the correct type of clothing.

2. Wear protective glasses to protect your eyes from branches if traveling in particularly dense forest.

3. Streamline your kit by making sure your backpack has nothing hanging on the outside and no dangling or loose straps that might get caught in undergrowth. For the same reason, it’s also best to use a backpack without any exterior mesh pockets.

4. Prepare for an overnighter. Timing off-trail adventures can be challenging owing to the lack of route descriptions and the nature of the terrain you’ll be tackling. Even if your hike is a relatively short one as the crow flies, always take emergency supplies (a bivvy bag, extra food, a headtorch) in case you’re forced to spend a night in the wild.

5. Wear brightly colored clothes. This is important as a means of retaining visuals on members of your group and essential during hunting season when blaze orange is the recommended shade to alert hunters to your presence.

6. Leave your loved ones at home. Have a dearly beloved rain jacket or pair of pants? Better to leave them at home—dense scrub and vegetation could easily inflict wounds that will be irreparable or, at best, leave them looking decidedly worse for wear.

7. Double up on the essentials. Make sure at least two members of your team are carrying each of the ‘Ten Essentials.’

8. Leave a route card with someone at home and give them both an expected return time and a time at which they should, if necessary, alert the relevant authorities about your failure to return.

9. Make an early start and give yourself a good buffer of time to complete your hike before dark. While your average hiker typically clocks up between 2.5 and 4 miles per hour, that rate of progress can slow down to as little as 1/2 a mile per hour or even 1/4 mile per hour when the bush is particularly gnarly.

10. Bring bug spray—a bushwhack in dense woods means very little wind to keep the biters at bay.

11. Don’t underestimate the difficulty of the terrain—on your first few bushwhacking trips, in particular; it’s wise to choose shorter routes so you can gauge just how long it takes you to cover different distances when deprived of an easy walking trail.

12. Establish a turnaround time to avoid having to make your way back to safety in the dark (no fun, we assure you!).

13. Bring extra food and snacks—bushwhacking is hungry work, and the chances of walking for longer than you anticipate are higher than when hiking on established trails.

14. Bring plenty of water and a water purification system for when your supplies run out.

On the Trail: Bushwhacking in Action

15. Calculate your rate or speed of travel as you go to get a relatively accurate idea of how long it will take to reach your destination and gauge if it will be necessary to turn back before doing so. Always be honest with yourself as to how fast your walking pace is, otherwise your bushwhack may take a turn for the worse.

16. Search for and use “handrails” such as streams, rivers, or ridgelines to reduce the amount of map-and-compass work you need to do and speed up your progress.

17. Respect private property: depending on where you are in the world, trespassing could result in a fine, arrest, or an angry landowner spicing up your adventure by unloading a few rounds in your direction.

18. Stay within easy hearing distance of your companions to avoid becoming separated and to advise each other of any upcoming obstacles like potholes, slippery rocks, rotten logs, fly-in-your-face branches, etc.

19. Seek the path of least resistance by avoiding time-consuming terrain such as marshes, dense forest, or boulder fields, even if it means traveling off-bearing for a while. Walking longer is going to be a lot easier than walking through or over these type of obstacles.

20. Take advantage of animal paths to minimize the effort you have to put into breaking a trail.

21. When walking, avoid stepping between rocks or roots—a slip or losing your balance could easily result in a broken leg if your foot is wedged.

22. Test the ground before putting all of your weight on it, particularly if stepping on roots, logs, accumulations of vegetation, or potentially loose, wobbly rocks. Always try and search for firm footing when you bushwhack.

23. Go around large fallen trees if possible—by going under them, you risk the tree collapsing on top of you, and by going over them, you may become entangled in bushes on the other side.

24. Save energy by contouring around hills—i.e., using your altimeter and the contour lines on your map to navigate around hillsides at a steady elevation.


25. Use the most detailed and up-to-date map of the area you can find to avoid being disoriented by new roads, trails, buildings, or missing features.

26. Hone your map-and-compass skills before heading on your first bushwhack—here, more than anywhere else, they’ll need to be razor-sharp.

27. Use a waterproof case to protect your map when you read it. Even if it isn’t raining other factors—sweat drips from branches, and drops in mud—could quickly render it unreadable.

28. Start your bushwhack from a location that is marked on your map and which will be easy to find at the end of the day, such as a road, trail, or a significant landmark or feature.

29. Bring an altimeter and GPS device to maximize your ability to pinpoint your location and provide backup in case your map or compass is lost or damaged. (Check out our guide to the best GPS watch for hiking).

30. Break your route down into manageable, short segments with easily identifiable endpoints to avoid straying off course and give yourself morale-boosting and easily achievable goals.

31. Stop walking and buddy-check bearings to make sure they are accurate.

32. Sense-check map readings by correlating any features in the bush with those on the map.

33. Check and update your hiking altimeter whenever arriving at reliable spot-heights marked on the map.

34. Always carry a cell phone or personal locator beacon in case there’s an emergency, such as getting lost. Search and rescue teams will have a much easier time finding you when you’re not on the trail.

35. Use “leapfrogging” to stick to your bearings in low visibility by sending one member of your group ahead of you along your desired line of travel, following them to that point, and then repeating the process until you reach your destination (taking turns, naturally, to do the trail-breaking!).

Bushwhacked? or Excited to Get Out There?

If you fancy avoiding the beaten path and taking an off trail adventure, we hope you’ve learned a lot from our article and have some fun (without getting lost). If you have any great stories about backpacking in the bush or any other comments, then please hit us up in the comments section below.

Last update on 2024-06-20 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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Kieran Avatar

Kieran James Cunningham is a climber, mountaineer, and author who divides his time between the Italian Alps, the US, and his native Scotland.

He has climbed a handful of 6000ers in the Himalayas, 4000ers in the Alps, 14ers in the US, and loves nothing more than a good long-distance wander in the wilderness. He climbs when he should be writing, writes when he should be sleeping, has fun always.

Kieran has taught mountaineering, ice climbing, and single-pitch and multi-pitch rock climbing in a variety of contexts over the years and has led trekking and mountaineering expeditions in the Alps, Rockies, and UK. He is currently working towards qualifying as a Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor and International Mountain Leader.

Kieran’s book Climbing the Walls—an exploration of the mental health benefits of climbing, mountaineering, and the great outdoors—is scheduled for release by Simon & Schuster in April 2021.

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