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#77634 - 08/06/07 10:09 PM Trail or No Trail?
MattnID Offline

Registered: 06/02/07
Posts: 317
Loc: Idaho
So I've been thinking about what I like better, using a trail that plenty of folks have been on and see or going off of the beaten path and finding my own way. I am in a way at a crossroads because both have their ups and their downs in my opinion.

Trail +'s- Probably the best and easiest route. Probably the most scenic route. No real need to be overly concerned with LandNav. Readily made information on the trail, its condition, terrain and other useful info.

Trail -'s- Encountering people when you're trying to be by yourself. Going where others have gone and gone often. Lack of LandNav skills necessary.

No Trail +'s- Finding your own way using skill and know-how. Going places most folks don't go. A challenge in many ways really. Solitude.

No Trail -'s- Possibility of getting into a spot and having it harder for you to be found in a timely manner. More difficult bushwacking it compared to following a trail.

I'm sure you all could come up with more and will surely express your own thoughts. I like both truly. I know in places like Denali NP there are no backcountry trails so you don't have any choice but to do it on your own. I'm interested in what ya'll have to say about it and add to it.
In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.-Aristotle

#77635 - 08/07/07 12:04 AM Re: Trail or No Trail? [Re: MattnID]
NiytOwl Offline

Registered: 11/06/04
Posts: 501
Loc: California
It does depend on where you are going. In the back country I've followed a game trail and been rewarded with my own private little spring.. But where there's a lot of visitors I stay on the trails to avoid erosion.

To add to your list:

Trail - Having to use the established camp sites or face the wrath of the local ranger, scarcity of firewood (assuming you burn) in those sites.

No Trail or off-trail - Camp where you want to. Little likelihood of the ranger coming by, but if you stealth camp, do it well enough - fines suck. Plenty of down wood but avoid the tell-tale smoke.

Trail - Animals know where the people are and tend to avoid those areas. Does not apply to bears, racoons, chipmunks, squirrels, skunks...umm, did I just say animals avoid areas with people?

No Trail - You may be eaten by a bear, a mountain lion, or Big Foot. Most likely you will just be eaten by mosquitoes. You did go off trail to be one with nature, right?

Trail - Stays within the public areas.

No Trail - Might end up on Hiram-the-hiker-hater's back forty or stumble into someone's pot field (I'd take the former any day - those growers shoot and ask questions later).

Trail - If multi-use, mile after mile of horse/mule/cow droppings can really spoil the hike.

No Trail - Pay attention to the droppings! If you see fresh bear scat start jingling your bear bells. If you see fresh bear scat with little jingle bells in it, turn around and run the other way!

Trail - May be mundane, but someone else tried the other routes, got stuck, got thirsty, got hungry, got bit, got poison oak/ivy, and that's why there's a trail now.

No Trail - Maybe you like getting stuck, thirsty, hungry, bitten, itchy in the name of adventure!

#77636 - 08/07/07 11:27 AM Re: Trail or No Trail? [Re: MattnID]
Keith Offline

Registered: 01/04/02
Posts: 1667
Loc: Michigan's Upper Peninsula
Interesting topic. I think a lot depends on who you are and what you bring to the experience. For myself, I am inclined to on trail experiences because I have too many things to "figure out" in my regular life. Being on trail provides a break from a life that in many ways doesn't have a clear trail.

I can see that if I had a regular, boring job that required little creativity, then I'd be more inclined to do more off trail stuff.

Also, my experience is that once you get a few miles from the trailhead that the hordes clear out pretty fast. I don't mind nodding to someone else out there that far or chatting for a moment about what's ahead on the trail. What I don't like are those encounters with the clueless that leave an unsettling feeling for hours later. For example:

The lady in the coctail dress and flippy shoes but no pack or water at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. How did she get there? Will she make it out? Should I tell someone?

Or, meeting a family "hiking" into an area managed as wilderness with the two late-elementary-aged boys riding their bikes. The parents just "couln't say no" because the boys didn't want to walk. !?!? <img src="/forums/images/graemlins/mad.gif" alt="" /> <img src="/forums/images/graemlins/tongue.gif" alt="" />
Human Resources Memo: Floggings will continue until morale improves.

#77637 - 08/07/07 01:16 PM Re: Trail or No Trail? [Re: MattnID]
Haiwee Offline

Registered: 08/21/03
Posts: 330
Loc: Southern California
I do quite a bit of off-trail hiking in the Sierras, mostly to get to off-trail lakes. If you fish, as I do, lakes off the beaten path usually hold more and larger fish. Some of the best golden trout lakes in the Sierras are off-trail.

Also, camping off-trail affords a degree of solitude I can't often find when camping close to the trail. My favorite aspect of the wilderness experience is solitude, particularly when I'm hiking solo.
My blog on politics, the environment and the outdoors:

#77638 - 08/07/07 05:17 PM Re: Trail or No Trail? [Re: Keith]
Wolfeye Offline

Registered: 01/11/07
Posts: 413
Loc: Seattle, WA

I can see that if I had a regular, boring job that required little creativity, then I'd be more inclined to do more off trail stuff.

My job and hobbies exercise both sides of my brain quite well, and yet I still prefer off-trail hiking. I still find myself alert whether I'm striding along a trail or following map and compass readings - I usually feel like I'm in a higher state of consciousness in the wilderness than I would be when walking along a sidewalk; there's just so much out there that demands attention, like flora & fauna, photogenic scenery, foot placement, potential hazards, etc. On the other hand, chatting with friends or dwelling on my own thoughts at the campsite have brought me the most peaceful moments of my life.

Trail hiking is good for a change of pace once in a while. It's easier, takes less planning, safer... but trails always make me feel like I'm only getting a tourist's sampling of the destination. All of the best views I've witnessed have been during off-trail hikes, though I can't attest whether the scenery was really that much better or if it simply ~felt~ more beautiful because I had to work so much harder for it. For all my mild distaste of trails, I think they're very needed in highly populated areas such as the lower 48: they decrease trail erosion & disturbance of wildlife, and also often provide easy hikes for recreational hikers who lack the skills and experience to safely hike off-trail.

I like the challenge of off-trail hiking; I like looking at a piece of terrain that seems so rugged that you'd think that no human could ever scale or pass it, and then giving it my best shot. I like planning trips using nothing but a topo map and a tidebook. I like it when I meet people off-trail because it's such an ususual occurance that you simply must stop and chat with them to see why they're out there.

#77639 - 08/08/07 08:35 AM Re: Trail or No Trail? [Re: NiytOwl]
ringtail Offline

Registered: 08/22/02
Posts: 2296
Loc: Colorado Rockies

Trail - May be mundane, but someone else tried the other routes, got stuck, got thirsty, got hungry, got bit, got poison oak/ivy, and that's why there's a trail now.

Good post.

No body clears the blow down on game trails.

Watch out for dense boggy willow thickets.

It is very difficult to predict the time between water sources, etc.

Macro navigation is not that difficult off trail, but efficient micro navigation takes some experience.

#77640 - 08/08/07 09:52 AM Re: Trail or No Trail? [Re: MattnID]
Berserker Offline

Registered: 05/10/04
Posts: 493
Loc: Lynchburg, VA
Along with what the others said it also depends where you hike. I primarily hike here in the SE, and unless I'm in an area with sparse or no foliage (of which there aren't many) I'm staying on the trail. I have bushwhacked a few times, and it is just too much work for not a lot of return around here. In most places the foliage is just so darn thick that is can almost be physically impossible to get through it.

Now if I lived out West where I could desert hike or hike above the tree line I would probably do some more off trail stuff for the solitude.

Oh yeah, and I forgot to mention when I originally posted this that "bushwhack" is defined as carefully passing through and un-trailed area with as little impact as possible. Another post on another thread by Bearpaw that defined bushwhacking got me thinking that I didn't want others thinking that I was just barreling through the woods with reckless abandon mowing everything down that got in my way.

Edited by Berserker (08/08/07 02:34 PM)

#77641 - 08/08/07 10:23 AM Re: Trail or No Trail? [Re: Berserker]
Hector Offline

Registered: 12/20/04
Posts: 325
Loc: LA/ARK/TX corner
I have bushwhacked a few times, and it is just too much work for not a lot of return around here. In most places the foliage is just so darn thick that is can almost be physically impossible to get through it

I can identify with that. The Great Piney Woods were once regarded as impassable. I can see why when I bushwhack a bit.

#77642 - 08/26/07 07:43 PM Re: Trail or No Trail? [Re: MattnID]
Paul Offline

Registered: 09/30/02
Posts: 778
Loc: California
It matters a lot where you hike. Off-trail in some places means scrabbling through the brush or trying to navigate in dense forest with no landmarks, while in others it means strolling along a ridge above timberline with great views, nobody around, and easy navigation. I hate to go off-trail in a forest, love to do it above treeline. But let's say the going is good and the navigation easy, then for me the big differencve is in the level of detail. On a trail, I can look at the big picture becasue I don't have to pay attention to where my feet are going, while having to pay attention to where my feet are going when I'm off trail means I see a lot of little details of landscape that I tend to miss when I'm on trail. On a trail, I can think about something besides what I'm doing; sometimes that is good. Off the trail, I have to pay attention all the time to the micro-navigation, so my mind can't wander; sometimes that is good. When it comes to camping, off-trail is nearly always better since it means solitude and also surroundings that are closer to untouched. I get tired of doing one or the other exclusively, the best trips for me are a mix. I also do backcountry ski trips where, of course, it is all off trail since the trails are buried. I find that different from summer off-trail trips, because trails are not an option, which changes the way yuo look at the terrain.

#77643 - 08/26/07 08:59 PM Re: Trail or No Trail? [Re: Keith]
Paul_C Offline

Registered: 07/14/05
Posts: 506
Loc: Beaverton, Orygun
I'm definitely an on-trail hiker, but I am still young (27). The more I see the same places, the more of an urge I have to pull off the trail and see what what I haven't. As it is, I only hike in uncrowded or moderately busy areas, and the busy trails on weekedays or in the off-season.

I like to think about everything, including what's in front of me, along the trial, and in the northwest it takes a little bit of work when hiking off-trail. Well, more than, say, the CA Sierras where it's very open for miles.

At least for me, I'm constantly reading the map instead of just walking. Still enjoyable, but I like to have most of my days just walking, with only one or two or a 4-5 day trip off trail.
Jeeper - NW mountain roamer

#77644 - 08/27/07 01:02 PM Re: Trail or No Trail? [Re: MattnID]
oldranger Offline

Registered: 02/23/07
Posts: 1735
Loc: California (southern)
Most worthwhile trips involve at least some off trail hiking. Just because the trail exists doesn't mean you will not get off trail, so, inevitably, we all become fairly good at off trail hiking. And then there is the case of the neglected, overgrown, more or less abandoned trail which you may be trying to follow - might as well be bushwacking..

I think I really like off trail hiking. That's where the real discoveries are. Very often you discover the excellent reasons why the trail doesn't go there..... <img src="/forums/images/graemlins/grin.gif" alt="" />

#77645 - 08/27/07 07:10 PM Re: Trail or No Trail? [Re: MattnID]
strongone Offline

Registered: 06/24/05
Posts: 166
Loc: North Carolina
Depends on where you go. In the East due to trees and deep valleys GPS is of limited value, most maps are 10 years out of date, and cell coverage doesn't exist. The way back always looks different. Leave some orange tape as you go out and remove as you return, Hansel.

I would suggest you do a combo of trail and short trips off the beatin path. Mother nature is not very forgivin. I sail a boat and I've had times where I ventured into waters I shouldn't have and was glad to be back in the channel.

Leave a plan, time to be back, and a general area for search.

#77646 - 08/27/07 09:01 PM Re: Trail or No Trail? [Re: MattnID]
Dennis Offline

Registered: 01/04/02
Posts: 257
Loc: Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Like many others here, I think it depends on where you are.

- I once spent more than a week hiking the Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier. There I wouldn't want to deviate from the trail, or for anyone else to do so, because of the sheer volume of traffic. If even a significant fraction of the visitors went their own ways the place would be beat to death.

- Conversely, in the Aldo Leopold Wilderness in New Mexico the trails are barely there. In fact trails on some of the older maps have disappeared; too little traffic on them to keep them. Map/compass skills are essential.

Going off-trail is cool, if for no other reason because it means you're less likely to run into other people. If your navigation skills are up to it the only real negative that I can think of is that in heavily used area the entire place can be trashed by rampant off-trail use. But in Alaska I don't think that's going to be a problem.

Some of my favorite outings involved serious off-trail hiking. Ten days wandering the Wind Rivers. Six days in the San Juans, following a line pencilled in on the topo, using compass and the altimeter. Winding our way through the Aldo Leopold, picking our way where there should have been a trail but wasn't. But I have no problem with trails, provided they're not too heavily used. We've also done brilliant hikes in the Alpine Lakes region in Washington State, and in the Mt. Daniel/Mt. Hinman area. The Pecos Wilderness near Santa Fe was trail hiking, but grand country.

Guess I don't have a favorite. Depends on where we're going.

#77647 - 08/28/07 09:53 AM Re: Trail or No Trail? [Re: MattnID]
wandering_daisy Offline

Registered: 01/11/06
Posts: 2797
Loc: California
I like to use a trail to get into the mountains quickly, then go off trail because it is more interesting and I love to explore. When "off-trail" I actually am often on game trails. The critters know where to go! I just got back from another 12-day trip in the northern Wind River Mountains, and we were primarily on game trils. Just followed the elk poop!

Even if you are "on trail", just go off about a mile for camping and you will find much nicer sites.

I think you need to be an expert at navigation regardless of if you do on or off-trail travel. Off trail travel is slower, but I like that. I actaully see more because I have to really look at the environment to navigate.

I also do not agree with the statement that trails go to the most scenic areas. I have found this just not true in many areas. Lots of trails were established historically for other reasons than scenery.

#77648 - 09/05/07 01:04 PM Re: Trail or No Trail? [Re: wandering_daisy]
Earthling Offline

Registered: 02/22/03
Posts: 3228
Loc: USA
I agree with WD because going off trail involoves much more than following the 'dirt path' you should be 100% confident in your route finding skills, not just own a compass and buy a topo. I've rescued lots of folks over the years who were newbies with a compass and map in hand <img src="/forums/images/graemlins/blush.gif" alt="" />

#77649 - 09/28/07 06:43 AM Re: Trail or No Trail? [Re: MattnID]
Hoofinit Offline

Registered: 12/05/05
Posts: 76
Loc: New England
Go trail dude! Minimize impact! If you have one why blaze your own. Just pick a
trail thats somewhat remote and the pressure is usually lighter. Take care of mother nature and tread lightly. Go no trace whenever you can.
Happy hoofin.
" Leave it better than you found it."

#77650 - 09/28/07 09:42 AM Re: Trail or No Trail? [Re: MattnID]
aimless Online   content

Registered: 02/05/03
Posts: 2964
Loc: Portland, OR
I walk trails. I walk off trails. Like wandering daisy I usually start on-trail in order to access the heights more quickly and directly. Off trail is much more inviting once you are into the sparse timber, semi-alpine or alpine areas. Off-trail scrambling is almost too easy in such wide open landscape with good landmarks.

But here in the PNW where I live there are many places where going off-trail is not much of an option, due to the thick undergrowth and extremely limited visibility. You can always bushwhack there too, but your progress will be slow and arduous, with decent camping sites few and far between. That's where a trail is worth gold.

#77651 - 10/06/07 12:40 PM Re: Trail or No Trail? [Re: aimless]
tchiker Offline

Registered: 08/28/06
Posts: 162
Loc: Atlanta, GA, USA
Yes it certainly depends on where you are. If I'm out in the desert or above treeline (like in the High Sierra), I prefer off-trail. In heavily wooded areas, certainly sticking to the trail is preferable to bushwhacking, etc.

It definitely feels like more of an "adventure" when you are off-trail, but whether it turns outo be a grand adventure or an unpleasant one is the question.

Another consideration is that if you become sick or injured, it is better to be on a trail, where someone will probably eventually find you than out in the middle of nowhere where they won't.

Edited by tchiker (10/06/07 12:43 PM)

#77652 - 11/25/07 07:28 PM Re: Trail or No Trail? [Re: MattnID]
Jimshaw Offline

Registered: 10/22/03
Posts: 3939
Loc: Bend, Oregon
Since I am almost always above treeline, I prefer to be on rock instead of trail. I often turn off the trail within 100 yards of the trailhead. It depends on where you bp. Actually the animals all know where the camps sites are and they all visit them nocturnaly. If you camp off trail they don't know where to look for you unless you have a campfire, then every animal for 5 miles knows where you are, for better or worse. Some places you shouldn't cause erosion by being off trail, some places it matters not.
Jim <img src="/forums/images/graemlins/cool.gif" alt="" />
These are my own opinions based on wisdom earned through many wrong decisions. Your mileage may vary.

#77653 - 12/16/07 09:29 PM Re: Trail or No Trail? [Re: Hoofinit]
MattnID Offline

Registered: 06/02/07
Posts: 317
Loc: Idaho
I don't know that I can quite agree with that. I understand the whole "leave no trace" philosophy because I love backpacking in Denali NP and they're adament about that. However, when I hear folks talking about leaving no impact, it kind of drives me nuts. I mean, even if I got off trail, it isn't as though I'm out there with a machete, chainsaw, shovels and other tools tearing the area apart so I can pass through. Speaking for myself, I know that when I'm out and about in the backcountry and I go off the trail, I leave probably as much impact as any animal that lives in the place would by passing through.

I understand that there are a ton of people out there that just don't care and think the place is their backyard or something and they can just set and and redecorate, but I would think most avid outdoorsfolk aren't so destructive as some. And anyway, why avoid trails that are heavily used simply to avoid people when I can go off trail? They are more than likely busy for a reason, most of the time that reason being the scenery, and there's no way I'm missing out on that, trail or not.
In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.-Aristotle

#77654 - 12/16/07 10:11 PM Re: Trail or No Trail? [Re: MattnID]
phat Offline

Registered: 06/24/07
Posts: 4107
Loc: Alberta, Canada
Matt it really really depends where you are.

A whole lot of the places I go off trail here, I'm in complete agreement with you - I make no more
impact than a moose or an elk. I'll go one further and admit that particularely in many remote areas I've no qualms about "less than no trace" aka "burn baby burn" camping...

I do think it matters in some places where there are lots of people - *particularly* where there are lots of people in sensitive spots in the high alpine, which doesn't recover fast - while I may make as much impact as a moose or elk, such places don't normally receive hordes of them in all weather... So there's a point where it ain't supportable by the environment and there needs to be some people control. I can certainly think of a few places in Jasper and Banff that need this. Never mind places like
Yosemite and the other Sierra parks.
Any fool can be uncomfortable...
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#77655 - 12/19/07 03:59 PM Re: Trail or No Trail? [Re: phat]
wandering_daisy Offline

Registered: 01/11/06
Posts: 2797
Loc: California
There is a misconception that the Sierra are crowded. I would esitmate that over 80% of the Sierra including Yosemite NP are NOT crowded. There are some high-use areas and in these, I agree, follow what rules that are required, and that may mean camping only at designated spots but more generally, no overnight camping at all. But these are few and far between. I usually use a major trail to get into the heart of the mountains, and then go off trail where I ofen go up to eight days without seeing a single other person! That is not crowded. The Sierra are a very large mountain range that can absorb lots of people. The permit system in place also restricts use at the more heavily used areas. Because of the open terrain, a large portion of all Sierra acerage is backpack-able so use tends to be more dispersed, than say, the Coast Range, where underbrush is so thick that you pretty much are restricted to trails only.

I see more damage due to poor camping habits than overuse per se. To me the most insideous is the lingering effects of using soap in streams spreads the impact throughout the mountains. There is hardly a Sierra water body that is not polluted by careless campers. On trail OR off trail, bad campers cause more impact. Air pollution is another serious problem in the Sierra, and this is not even caused by those who use the mountains! All of us running around in our cars in the Central Valley are polluting our wilderness areas! Perhaps think more about car-pooling to the trailhead than worrying about off-trail use.

#77656 - 01/07/08 09:51 AM Re: Trail or No Trail? [Re: MattnID]
billstephenson Offline

Registered: 02/07/07
Posts: 3915
Loc: Ozark Mountains in SW Missouri
I'll chime in here. I use both.

I don't believe that most trails I've hiked on were designed to take you along the most scenic route. I'm not sure what criteria is used in the routing decisions, but I'm convinced that "most scenic" is not at, or even near, the top of the list. That's one reason I hike off trail so much, because that is at the top of my personal list.

I also tend to go to places that are not made for the masses and not to go to places where hiking off trail is discouraged or against the law.

I think trails, for the most part, are great for those that want trails, would get lost without them, and for getting to popular scenic spots quickly.

I would never advocate a "Trail Only" policy unless it was absolutely necessary to protect very sensitive environments.

I mostly use trails to quickly lead me to good spots to head off trail. For me, that's the real purpose of any trail.

I've been attempting to "Leave no trace" for many years now when bushwhacking. I've not always been entirely successful, but that's always the goal. Every now and then I run into something that reminds me that I'm not in as remote of a place as I thought I'd be, but I've never run into anything that was obviously intentionally damaged as a result of careless backpackers out in the "middle of nowhere". I wouldn't say it never happens, but it is rare around here.

I got back from a long, two day bushwhack a few years ago only to find I had left a plastic water bottle out in the forest. Guilt compounded daily. A few months later I retraced my route with my GPS and found it sitting next to a fallen tree by a creek where I had stopped to rest on the way out.

One time I found a tin of "Beanie Weenies" way out in the middle of nowhere. The label had long ago worn off but the can was still in good shape. Curiosity got the best of me and I opened them up. Believe it or not, I swear those weenies looked as good as the day they were put in there.

I took the can and left the weenies.


#77657 - 01/07/08 02:09 PM Re: Trail or No Trail? [Re: billstephenson]
ChrisN Offline

Registered: 01/04/02
Posts: 136
Loc: Vancouver, BC, Canada
I love hiking off-trail. You are less likely to meet people or to see any trace of human presence. But even in the most remote places, someone has been there before you and you can sometimes find what mark they left. Because of this, I always minimize my own signs of passing thru - there will be someone after me and it would be nice to maintain the illusion for them too. This summer, I went on a 12 day hike thru a relatively remote wilderness. At one point, a day after leaving a trail, I found a moose skull, exposed and sun-bleached on a high plateau. Anyone passing by within a 1000ft radius would have probably found it. Because it was still there after several years, I figured mine were the only human eyes to see it. Half a day later, I rested for a while in a small patch of grass in a forest opening near a creek. Here, even further from civilization than the skull, I found signs of someone before me: two stakes a hunter or guide used to hobble his horses for the night driven into the ground. Later that same trip, on a broad expanse of a massive plateau with no trails, I found a bit of plastic probably from a pulk. In other trail-less and difficult to reach places, I've found part of a ski-pole, a compass, a collapsible cup (made from white metal and probably lost over 50 years earlier), a rusted axe, nesting pots, china plates, empty liquor bottles. No matter where you go, someone has been there before. Which is why no trace is important everywhere.


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