Rule number one: Don’t venture off-trail unless you’re an experienced hiker and confident in your navigation skills. Rule number two: Only hike off-trail where it’s permitted. Check and check? Great, because hiking off-trail is a wonderful way to find solitude and explore the wildest corners of the wilderness. Here’s how to get off-trail safely and appropriately.
Do: Your Research
Before you strike out, do your research to make sure off-trail hiking is allowed. While in some areas it’s allowed, encouraged, and even required to get around, there are plenty of areas that do not allow off-trail hiking. As a general rule, big wilderness areas are more likely to allow off-trail hiking, while small or heavily used parks do not. Sometimes off-trail hiking is prohibited for safety reasons, or to protect vulnerable plants and animals. Regardless of the reason, if the rules say stay on the trail, stay on the trail.
Don't: Go Off-Trail to Save 20 Steps
Hiking off-trail gives you an opportunity to explore seemingly untraveled areas. It is not an excuse to save a few steps by cutting off a switchback or forcing a shortcut. These actions can ruin a trail and encourage other hikers to do the same thing. This will lead to a confusing, potentially dangerous, maze of official and unofficial trails that exacerbates erosion and other damage.
Do: Follow Leave No Trace Principles
As with all outdoor activities, you should hike off-trail only while following Leave No Trace principles to protect the wilderness. For off-trail hiking, that involves traveling on durable surfaces and avoiding damaging sensitive vegetation. Stay away from fragile ecosystems like wet meadows. Keep plants safe by seeking out areas with sparse vegetation or hardy, dry grasses. Spread out while walking in a group to disperse impact.
Don’t: Think You'll Be As Fast as You Are on Trail
Hiking off-trail will invariably slow your pace. Rather than hurrying, make sure you allow more time. How much? Assume you’ll travel at about half the speed as you normally do on trails.
Do: Bring a Map
When you’re off-trail, it's even more important to know where you are. Check your map (or GPS) regularly to know where you are, how far you've gone, and how far you have to go.
Don't: Rely Fully on Your GPS
GPS technology is great, but like all electronics it can fail you. If you run out of battery power, lose a signal, or break a screen, you are in a bad spot, unless you have other means of finding where you are. Practice your orienteering skills in a safe location until you are confident in navigating with a map.
Do: Start Slowly
Start your off-trail exploration with hub-and-spoke trips. Leave a campsite or car and do an out-and-back trip, returning to your car or campsite. Become comfortable with this navigation before you try to travel from one location to another off-trail.
Don’t: Step Without Checking
When you’re walking through tricky terrain, like across boulder fields or through a forest with downed trees, tread carefully. Check the stability of a rock or tree trunk by stepping lightly on it before committing your full body weight. Be light and nimble and ready to move should things shift beneath you.
Do: Create Efficient Routes
If you're trying to get from one place to another, your map with its topographical information has a lot of helpful information to keep you moving quickly and efficiently. The fastest route is not always the straightest route. Most trails curve and turn to give you an efficient path. You should think similarly while you're walking off-trail. Look for obstacles to avoid, like ridges or steep valleys, and seek out long, gentle slopes rather than steep, short sections. Watching how water moves through the landscape will give you insights into efficient paths.