6 Skills You Need to Have for Off Trail Hiking!
One of my first hikes involved a moment that would change my outdoor aspirations forever. It would open my eyes to the possibilities of the adventures you could have outdoors.
Travelling along the well beaten track along a popular hiking trail, some hikers emerged from the side, pushing through the thick rainforest vegetation onto the clear, well maintained path I was on. Their clothes were dirty and worn, their age showing in the faded colours and repair patches adorning elbows and knees.
It was clear they had been on an adventure away from the crowds on the marked hiking trail. It immediately piqued my attention and I wondered where they had been. What adventure had they been on?
WHAT EXACTLY IS OFF TRAIL HIKING?
As I later found out, they had been going off trail hiking. And it held its own wonders for those that pursue it.
So what exactly is off trail hiking?
Going ‘off track’ or ‘off trail’ is when you venture off the established or marked hiking trails. It can be to simply explore, or in the case of adventure activities, a way of getting to certain locations to do your thing.
In Australia, it’s commonly known as bush bashing and in the United States, bushwacking. Those names probably more aptly describe the activity of going ‘off trail’ as any thick vegetation you encounter can often feel like a bit of a battle.
But that's the nature of it, as hard work is always required to access amazing places!
SKILLS YOU NEED TO HAVE FOR OFF TRAIL HIKING
Going for a hike ‘off trail’ is a rewarding and exciting experience, especially if you are new to it. But it also comes with some extra risks, and some important things to remember and know before you go. Taking the time and putting in the effort to learn certain skills for it is crucial for you to have a good time, and come back safe.
Before starting, it’s important you already have good hiking skills as this is the most basic skill set required. You can learn more about hiking in my post about it here:
And most importantly for off trail hiking, always go in a group! Never go alone unless you are very experienced, and even then, consider the extra risk of being on your own!
So with that in mind, here are the skills you need to have before you go off trail hiking!
Finding your way around off the marked trail and in the wilderness is about more than just taking a GPS and knowing how to use a map and compass. Developing your situational awareness is key to having a good sense of where you are and where you want to go. Situational awareness will also help you when visibility is low, like thick vegetation or low cloud/fog.
What is situational awareness? Situational awareness, in terms of outdoor navigation, is your perception of environmental elements in relation to you, and your occupation of the surrounding space. It’s about knowing where you are in relation to your surroundings.
Situational awareness is honed through experience. It may come to some quicker than others (some may even just ‘have it’) but it’s important to not give up on it. Everyone can learn it!
Above all however, you need to know the fundamentals of navigating with map and compass, and it’s also a good idea to have a GPS unit with you as well.
First Aid and Survival
Having basic first aid knowledge should be something everyone has. Some countries even make it mandatory to have a first aid certificate for getting a driver's license!
You should of course know the important stuff like performing CPR and controlling bleeding and managing broken bones. But remember to also learn about the extremes of temperature, like hypothermia, hyperthermia and heat stroke.
Survival skills are vital as well. Knowing how to make a fire, build a shelter, read the weather and landscape, and also stay safe from poisonous plants, insects and dangerous animals is pretty important as these are often encountered more often when venturing off the marked trail.
You should always do a first aid course to learn first aid, and try to do refreshers at least once a year to keep your skills sharp. For survival skills, you can read many survival books on the subject, and most things, like building a fire or shelter are fine to do on your own for practice. However, for the most in depth knowledge, a professional survival course is highly recommended!
It’s also a very good idea to have a PLB in your group. In most outdoor locations, mobile phone reception is patchy or nonexistent. When venturing off trail, it's almost certain you will not be able to contact anyone in an emergency. So as well as having a PLB, it's also a good idea to leave your trip intentions with a trusted contact that can raise the alarm if your group does not return.
Doing a risk assessment before and during any outdoor activity isn’t just something outdoor guiding companies do. The more ‘adventurous’ the activity, the more risk assessment will go into it.
But even if we are just hiking we should get into the habit of assessing the risks. What risks and dangers can we commonly expect to face on our trip, and also in a worst case scenario?
Risk assessment in the outdoors is all about thinking of things like:
► What are the dangerous plants, insects and animals of the area?
► Will there be terrain like canyons, cliffs, creeks, rivers and thick forest?
► What’s the weather like? Are there thunderstorms predicted or incoming, or any wind, cold, snow and heat that will affect the trip?
And it’s also about what you are currently doing:
► Is the method of travel safe and efficient for the terrain I'm on?
► How will I make it to the bottom (or top) of that drop/cliff/hill?
► What happens if I lose my balance on a river/creek crossing?
► Can I reverse my path if something were to happen?
Assessing the risk is about being aware of what is happening and what can potentially happen. In mountaineering for example, we often talk about transitional phases. The long slow slog up the valley requires less focus than the short technical section up on the mountain for example.
Knowing when to be aware and focus, and when to be relaxed, will only come to you with practice, experience, and the willingness to pay attention.
Some honesty will go a long way in keeping you safe when you go off trail hiking. Being honest means you stick to turn around times, admit when you need to turn around for some reason, and take the opinions, feelings, and well being of your group seriously and into consideration.
It’s also about avoiding summit fever, that desire to make the goal no matter what. It may be well known in mountaineering, but is also found in almost every other sport and activity. It can be easy to forget about our rules we set before starting, getting caught up in the moment while we are out on our trip.
When moving over terrain off the marked trail, you'll frequently encounter sections that may move beyond your horizontal preference of incline. Being able to deal with steep or vertical parts requires good scrambling skills.
Scrambling is when you often use your hands and feet in combination to progress steep sections, but not so steep that they require ropes and climbing gear. This is entirely subjective in that some people will feel comfortable on something, while others will not.
If you want to find out more and improve your scrambling ability, have a look at this post:
It has lots of useful information and clearly defines what you need to do to improve your scrambling skills!
Leave No Trace
We should already be practicing good leave no trace ethics when we spend time outside, but when venturing off trail, it's even more important! Avoid making new paths and minimize your footprint of your travels. Avoid campfires if they are restricted, and even if they aren't, consider not having one anyway. Leave no trace is really about common sense. Keep it clean, carry out all rubbish, and leave it pristine. You can read more about the leave no trace principles here. This can also be considered for social media and keeping off trail locations hidden. Avoid geo-tagging places you visit.
Having a good base of skills to draw upon will in turn give you the confidence to venture out on your own off trail adventures. If you lack the skills, or the confidence, go out with established hiking groups to learn all you need to know.