Nearly everything has been mapped, and almost as much has been developed. For most, outdoor adventures will involve reading guidebooks for recommendations, hunting for permits to camp in predetermined spots, and hiking on established trails. Most of the time, it’s important to stay on the trail and camp in designated locations (both for your safety and the health of the environment), but in a few select places, you can step off the beaten path and strike out on your own.
Exploring away from charted trails and campsites is one of the best ways to really immerse yourself in the wild. To do it, you’ll have to make your route through the landscape, find your own campsite, and deal with the environment in its raw, natural state.
Who Should Do This?
First things first: Going off-trail isn’t for everyone. Trails make it easier to travel and navigate, and they make it easier for rescuers to find you in an emergency. To bushwhack, you’ll need to be able to navigate in all types of terrain and weather (with GPS as well as a map and compass), find food, water, and shelter on your own, and handle any first-aid issues or other emergencies that might arise.
Not sure if you’re up to the task? Work on these skills at home and on established trails before venturing into the wilderness destinations below. Regardless of your experience level, exploring off-trail requires a lot of pre-trip preparation and planning. Before you set off, get as familiar as possible with your destination from maps, satellite imagery, and other relevant information on the area (notably regarding weather forecasts and hazards).
1. Denali National Park
Land managers build trails and encourage people to stay on them in order to limit the damage humans do to the backcountry. But Denali is different. The park is massive, it sees relatively few visitors, and it’s not dominated by a handful of “must-see” destinations—meaning that land managers can best preserve the landscape by encouraging visitors to spread out, no trails required.
Denali National Park has very few established trails, and none are viable backpacking routes. Anyone backpacking in the park must come prepared to make their own route. If you visit, don’t expect to find bridges over glacial rivers, paths cut through alder groves, or much beyond animal herd trails to follow. And you won’t find much information online, either: The Park Service discourages visitors from sharing detailed information after their hikes.
Instead, expect to spend a lot of time in front of a map imagining your route, and even more time picking your way through it. The end result: a true wilderness trek where you’re a whole lot more likely to see a bear than another person.
Start Here: The national park is huge and options are basically limitless, but for a good intro to backpacking in Denali, consider exploring Unit 26 and Primrose Ridge from the Savage River Gate for open tundra and accessible alpine views.