Hiking Guides

What Is Bushwhacking? Introduction to Hiking Off-Trail


Bushwhacking, the practice of heading off-trail on a hike (and typically on a path that isn’t distinctly cleared), is a great way to amp up your next hike.

If you’re new to the hiking world or are eager to push yourself a little, bushwhacking could be for you.

In this article you can expect to learn about:

  • Necessary gear and essentials
  • Step-by-step guide for your first time
  • How to prepare for an emergency 
  • Tips for a successful bushwhack

Keep reading to find out all you need to know about bushwhacking.

what is bushwhacking? Introduction to hiking off-trail

What Is Bushwhacking? 

Bushwhacking refers to traveling through dense, overgrown, and sometimes difficult terrain, such as forests, brush, and swamps, where there are no trails or established routes. 

It involves navigating through obstacles like rocks, fallen trees, and steep inclines, often requiring the use of physical strength, agility, and problem-solving skills.

One of the main benefits of bushwhacking is that it allows adventurers to explore areas that are off the beaten path, and therefore not easily accessible to other hikers or outdoor enthusiasts. This can lead to unique and rewarding experiences, such as discovering hidden waterfalls, caves, or wildlife habitats. 

Bushwhacking can also be a way to challenge oneself physically and mentally, by testing endurance and problem-solving skills in a natural environment.

Additionally, bushwhacking can help improve one’s sense of direction and spatial awareness, as it requires constant attention to the surrounding terrain and the use of navigational tools like maps, compasses, and GPS devices. 

It can also promote a deeper connection with nature and the environment, as hikers may need to use their senses to identify and avoid potential hazards like poison ivy, rocky terrain, and dangerous wildlife.

However, it is important to note that bushwhacking can also be dangerous and requires proper preparation, including proper gear, navigational tools, and knowledge of first aid and survival skills. 

It can also have negative impacts on the environment if not done responsibly, such as damaging fragile ecosystems or disrupting wildlife habitats. Therefore, it is important to engage in bushwhacking only in appropriate areas and with caution and respect for the environment.

Bushwhacking Gear and Essentials

A topographic map with a compass and worn hiking boots placed next to it.

Bushwhacking Navigation Essentials

When going bushwhacking, you must have the gear necessary to be able to navigate your route. 

Going off intended trails can lead to unexpected scenarios, and being able to navigate your way out of a tricky situation is a skill every bushwhacker should know.

Maps – The most common map used is a topographic map, which features physical details of the earth’s surface such as mountains and rivers. This is shown through contour lines and scale, which measure the height of the land. 

This is a necessity for bushwhacking as you can either avoid or be sure of upcoming obstacles.  

There’s also a general reference map– your typical map without extra features. This map is useful when accompanied by a compass and topographic map. 

Compass – A compass is a primary tool for your safety. A compass functions without batteries, can be used with any map, and works by detecting the Earth’s magnetic fields with its magnetized needle.

A compass can help you maintain your orientation and avoid getting lost. It provides a reliable reference point for your direction of travel, allowing you to stay on course, even in challenging conditions like thick fog or dense vegetation.

If you get turned around or disoriented, a compass can help you find your way back to your starting point. By keeping track of the direction you’re facing and the direction you came from, you can easily retrace your steps and find your way back.

GPS – A global positioning system can give you a reading about where you are, where you’ve been, or where you want to go. 

There are many different GPS devices that can specify different information depending on price. For example, the Barometer/altimeter gives you more accurate elevation data and also allows you to read the weather.

There are many GPS apps available that are useful when navigating. The positives are that your phone will take up less space and locate where you are easily. 

In saying this, hikers strongly recommend using paper maps and GPS devices alongside your phone. This is in case your phone battery dies, or your cellular service becomes out of reach.

Bushwhacking Emergency Supplies

Bear spray self-defence attached on the outside of a man's hiking clothing.

Food and Water – Bushwhacking is more intensive and physically demanding than regular hiking. Adequate food and water supplies are a must for any planned bushwhacking excursion.

Snacks like trail mix, dried fruit, and energy bars are good options to stay energized!

If your route is sparse on fresh water, plan accordingly and bring extra water with you.

First Aid Kit – Forcing yourself through bushes and discovering unkempt terrain can potentially lead to wounds. This is why it’s necessary to carry a first aid kit with you. 

Twisted ankles and cuts to your legs are common. Self-sufficiency is key to bushwhacking. You won’t be seeing other hikers along your path, because there is no path.

A first aid kit can also help prevent minor injuries from becoming more serious and potentially life-threatening. It is important to carry a first aid kit and to know how to use its contents to provide prompt and effective care in case of an emergency.

Sewing and Repair Kit – A lightweight sewing kit will come in handy for lots of repairs, including clothes, sleeping bags, and backpacks.

Bushwhacking can be extremely harsh on your gear. Repairs along the way may be necessary to help get you through.

Bear Spray – If you’re in an area that’s known for inhabiting bears, you and everyone in your group must carry bear spray (and know how and when to use it).

Your bear spray should sit on the outside of your clothing or backpack, where it’s easy to reach. However, it should only be used if a bear is charging at you. 

It’s always safer to make your presence known before turning corners or wandering off silently. 

Bushwhacking Clothing

Man on top of the hiking peak after a successful bushwhack.

Long-Sleeve Shirt – A breathable, long-sleeve shirt is ideal for bushwhacking as you’ll want to protect your arms from gashes while still being able to move and sweat comfortably. Cotton is not recommended; opt for wool, nylon, or polyester materials instead.

Hiking Pants – You’ll want to find pants that are loose, quick-drying, and light to avoid overheating. Durable, water-resistant fabrics such as spandex or nylon are ideal.

Hiking in jeans may sound suitable for bushwhacking, but I would avoid it. You’ll need hiking pants that are light and easy to manoeuvre in.  

Hiking Footwear – Durable, hard shoes are important when hiking, especially when climbing over rocks and uneven terrain. Nylon, split-grain leather, and suede are recommended here. 

Hiking Hat – A brimmed hat is useful for protection from the sun, deflecting rain, or even keeping your head warmer in colder areas. Not only that, your chosen hat may prevent you from getting whacked in the face with branches.

Blaze Orange / Safety Orange / Bright Colours – Blaze orange (otherwise known as safety orange) should be considered if it’s hunting season. You don’t want to end up in the sights of a hunter while you’re out bushwhacking.

If it’s not hunting season, you should still consider bright clothing as this will help your hiking partners spot you through the dense undergrowth.

Bushwhacking Accessories

Man at the end of his bushwhacking hike, using trekking poles.

Eye Protection – You should look for a pair of sunglasses that offer special UV-blocking lenses. Polarized lenses are also recommended when protecting your eyes from harm. They will also prevent stray sticks and branches poking you in the eye.

Gaiters – Gaiters protect the area between your trousers and shoes. They are excellent at blocking debris and water from entering your shoes — some types are water-resistant, and ideal on wet hikes.

Trekking Poles – These are useful for hikers when bushwhacking because they provide extra support and stability on uneven terrain and can be used to clear brush or other obstacles from the path.

They can also be used to probe the ground for hidden obstacles or unstable footing, which can help prevent falls and other accidents.

Additionally, trekking poles can help hikers maintain their balance while crossing streams, climbing steep inclines or descending slippery slopes.

Gloves – Having to muscle through unruly paths means using your hands to tackle obstacles. Gloves will protect your hands from sharp surroundings and cold weather.

Guide to Bushwhacking

two men at the start of a bushwhacking hike.

Prepare Yourself and Your Gear

Before setting afoot, you want to make sure you have assembled all the right gear to keep you safe and comfortable. 

Be sure to brush up on your navigation skills. Can you read a topographic map? Do you understand how to use a compass, god forbid your GPS breaks mid-hike.

Bushwhacking is about fending for yourself. It will be extremely unlikely that you’ll meet a fellow hiker while off hiking off-trail.

Select a Destination

When selecting the location, consider weather conditions and possible terrain. You can trade gear in and out based on weather conditions and certain environments.

Strategize Your Route

Outline what route you’re wanting to take by using your compass and maps. 

You can also access off-trail routes on certain location websites. This will help to avoid getting lost as you refer back to this route. 

Begin Trekking

Confirm on your location equipment that you are starting at the correct spot, and that you have marked where you will end up. Then, begin your hike!

Adapt to the Terrain and Conditions

You most likely won’t be able to walk in a perfectly straight line (despite it being attempted by Tom the GeoWizard on YouTube), but follow your route as closely as possible and note where you need to veer off. 

Bushwhacking Tips 

Start with Small Destinations 

If you are new to using your equipment and bushwhacking, start with smaller excursions.

Bushwhacking is a skill that can take time — make sure to pace yourself. 

Keep Track of Your Pace

Keep a slow pace and refer back to your map. It’s important to note how much time it takes to get to a certain distance so you’re able to successfully estimate your journey.

Bushwhacking will take significantly longer than regular hiking. You will not be hiking similar distances in the same time as you’re used to.

Hike with a Partner or Group

Taking hiking partners with you is necessary for your safety. By doing so, you can distribute gear among yourselves, validate your location with each other, and alarm one another of any danger. 

Key Takeaways 

Although intimidating at first, bushwhacking is incredibly rewarding with the right knowledge, gear, and preparation. There’s a reason hikers rave about bushwhacking, after all.

Before veering off-trail, you must research your desired route heavily by utilizing a compass and maps. 

You’ll also want to make sure you are fully prepared, taking friends with you for safety and dressing appropriately for the weather conditions. 

Start with smaller routes, pace yourself, and consistently check your maps. Once you have reached the end of your route, you’re sure to feel unstoppable. However, always keep in mind that preparation is key!

Mitch Taylor
With over 20 years experience with camping and hiking, I've taken it upon myself to share my insights. From common camping and hiking questions to gear recommendations, your adventure starts here.

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