Bushwacking Trip Planning

2:44 p.m. on September 17, 2016 (EDT)
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As I take a break from chores this weekend, I am spending time on line going through maps and GIS sites exploring a particular area I plan to go back to in a couple of weeks. It's a wilderness where I tried to bushwack to a neat looking area and had to give up due to thickets and other obstacles. Got me thinking ...what techniques do you use if you are intent on bushwacking? I am getting older, so approach it like this:

  1. First trip I just use topo to pick out areas I might peel off the trail to investigate. Sometimes this works put but often I have to turn back. I prefer a little unknown on a trip so don't over do the research the first time. Just enough to be safe.
  2. Before my next trip back I do a more intensive analysis of the area using seasonal aerial photos, topography, color infrared photos for vegetation, and several other sources and try to pick an end-around route and a couple of alternatives  that look reasonable.
  3. If that doesn't work, I used to just scramble through, but nowadays I just pass it up and look for new areas on future trips.

I would be interested in other off trail folks approaches.

4:10 p.m. on September 17, 2016 (EDT)
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I made a living for a long time going places with no trails where bushwhacking was the norm.  Consider bringing a pruning saw on your belt, and a pair of good pruners.  Your clothes have to be able to take the beating.  So does your psyche.  In SE Alaska it sometimes took all day to go 5 miles.

11:22 a.m. on September 19, 2016 (EDT)
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Sounds very cool.  Navigation tools are a must.

11:26 a.m. on September 19, 2016 (EDT)
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With the recent popularity of through hiking, bushwacking is becoming attractive again.  It is not that hard to look at a 7 1/2 min USGS map and pick a route that will separate you from the crowd.  Look carefully at the slope because that is your limiting factor.  An obscure lake can be ideal because no trails go to it. Just make sure that you can get there safely.

I agree that route finding and navigation become much more important when there is no route.  People seem to get lost a lot on the AT when they leave it.  Dense vegetation makes it even more challenging.  A map and compass are your friends.

4:53 p.m. on September 22, 2016 (EDT)
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True bushwhacking? I wear denim pants and jacket when I go off trail in So Cal mountain scrub - even in July, especially when going into areas with black and deer flies. 

Ppine's advice on garden tools is good, I get through really dense thicket with a pocket saw and small machete.  Since I bushwhack in snake country, I carry along a six foot switch that has a pronounced curve, used to poke around the blind side of bushes to flush any hidden snakes lurking in my path. 

As for research, well, you definitely resort to more sophisticated resources than I.  I do find that prior boots on the ground experience helps refine my skills at reading topo maps covering terrain with similar geography and flora.  For example: the direct route through a narrow gully along an outlet stream to a lake may be a densely populated riparian zone, and require more effort than a secondary dry gully to the same lake, albeit the alternate gully is steeper or climbs higher. 

Ed

6:40 a.m. on September 23, 2016 (EDT)
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Tools are useful and I bring them for work in the field, but tend to leave them behind on recreational trips.  I try to weasel my way into an area rather than leave a trail behind...although I guess that would be appreciated by others. Carrying those tools for work for many years makes it seen like I am not off the job when backpacking...

Ed. ..I use similar thoughts when bushwacking. Riparian areas, where I spend most of my professional time in the field, are often tough so I look for similar drier draws and potential paths. I only resort to detailed analysis if I really want to get to a certain spot and the boots on the ground evaluation hasn't yielded much. Sometimes it's just not worth the effort for recreational purposes and I move on.

11:32 a.m. on September 23, 2016 (EDT)
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I carry tools for trail work when I'm backpacking but don't see the point in using tools on a bushwacking trek.  First off, bushwacks are not on designated trails which makes cutting thru such stuff problematic rule-wise.  Second, you'd be spending more time pruning than bushwacking.  It's called Bushwacking for a reason, not Bushpruning.

One rule I follow when bushwacking, other than having a good topo, is to follow blue lines and streams on my first exploration of an area.  Stick to the creeks and you can't get lost.  And these creeks go a long way and pass thru some very difficult country.

A "real" bushwack means you'll be "lost" or confused for a certain amount of time.  If you know the area and its regular trails well, you can get lost and pop out on a recognizable trail.

2:02 a.m. on September 24, 2016 (EDT)
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Tipi Walter said:

..One rule I follow when bushwacking, other than having a good topo, is to follow blue lines and streams on my first exploration of an area.  Stick to the creeks and you can't get lost.  And these creeks go a long way and pass thru some very difficult country...

This works somewhat out west, too.  But the west has steeper, younger mountain, so chasing a stream out here frequently leads to a point you can't pass without technical climbing gear.  I found following game trails to be more fruitful (when in habitats that support such fauna).  It is an acquired skill, being able to locate such pathways - they often are unintuitive at first glance - but they are usually the most efficient routes through the bush.

Ed

9:48 a.m. on September 24, 2016 (EDT)
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Grrat points guys. I use streams and game trails as well...deer leave a decent path at times but you sometimes end up in "rabbit holes" where you can't figure out how something larger got through.  Most of the time it is a case of misinterpretation of the game trail I think. Streams are useful in the east but as I get older I don't enjoy scrambling over slick rocks anymore. Especially since I go solo most of the time.

Getting "lost" is part of the fun, although I don't really think that term really fits if you stay aware of the topography and have a good map and compass.. Not knowing exactly where you are is different from being lost. I have certainly turned down a ridge a little early and realized later I was one ridge short of the planned route as it ends up going a slightly different course from the planned ridge. With topo, trail, and road knowledge it is really difficult to get truly lost in the east. We just don't have that much wide open space not intersected by a trail or road at some point. I say that as someone who navigates sites by map for a living the last 20 years, so it may not be as inherently easy if you don't do it all the time or have a good sense of direction. 

9:57 a.m. on September 24, 2016 (EDT)
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Many people seem to navigate with trail systems and pay little attention to the topography.  It is much harder for them chose routes.  Last time out 2 weeks ago my hiking partner insisted that we take a bad trail. We went up and over about 1,000 feet that were quite unnecessary.

Walter's comment about pruning, made me realize that I have never carried a saw, but after last winter's trip I wished I had one.

11:26 a.m. on September 24, 2016 (EDT)
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ppine said:

Walter's comment about pruning, made me realize that I have never carried a saw, but after last winter's trip I wished I had one.

 I often hit obliterated parts of a trail and the only way thru is with my saw---


TRIP%20174%20565-XL.jpg
Hit this beauty on a Pisgah trail.  How to get thru with a 75 lb pack?  Start cutting.


TRIP%20170%20293-XL.jpg
Hit this baby in the TN hills.


Trip%20165%20388-XL.jpg
Another tough nut.

4:06 p.m. on September 24, 2016 (EDT)
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You can tell that you are getting into some bushwhacking country when you get tangled up in the brush and your feet are not touching the ground.

5:20 p.m. on September 25, 2016 (EDT)
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ppine said:

You can tell that you are getting into some bushwhacking country when you get tangled up in the brush and your feet are not touching the ground.

..Or your foot plunges through the on-trail flora, taking you on a free fall down a steep slope that was hidden by the foliage.

Ed

10:29 p.m. on September 25, 2016 (EDT)
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Or you're hiking with an external frame pack and the brush pulls out your split rings along with the clevis pins and you find your pack bag hanging off the frame of your pack.

9:42 a.m. on September 26, 2016 (EDT)
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Cool!

11:20 a.m. on September 26, 2016 (EDT)
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Or...

  • your arms and legs look like you were wrestling a herd of rabid cats (if you are in the humid south and prefer that option to thicker clothes)
  • at least one item that was stupidly hanging off your pack is missing...including on differect trips one camp shoe, a bandana drying out, or a copy of your field map somehow pickpocketed out of your pants by a curious branch.
3:43 p.m. on September 26, 2016 (EDT)
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I just checkout the maps and then do a sneak and peak of the area like you..I go back and log way points . I go into it and work around a ridge and area..I found a couple I want to explore at the National Forest..So I'll ask the ranger next time I see her about one of them,..I don't prune anything...I also log invasive species for them when I see them,,,

3:07 a.m. on September 27, 2016 (EDT)
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Tipi Walter said:

Or you're hiking with an external frame pack and the brush pulls out your split rings along with the clevis pins and you find your pack bag hanging off the frame of your pack.

You are a beast, wrestling an external frame pack through the thicket!

Ed

12:38 p.m. on September 27, 2016 (EDT)
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whomeworry said:

Tipi Walter said:

Or you're hiking with an external frame pack and the brush pulls out your split rings along with the clevis pins and you find your pack bag hanging off the frame of your pack.

You are a beast, wrestling an external frame pack through the thicket!

Ed

 This encounter happened in a place I call Lost Valley in Watauga County, NC.  It was truly a lost valley.  Picture a 5,000 acre creek valley filled with 5 to 8 feet high rhododendron.  The only trail is the creek which runs thru the valley. 

The time I lost the clevis pins was when I decided to leave the creek as the trail and bushwack up thru the rhodo. 

My usual route was up the creek which was a real adventure in a cold water creek as it snaked and looped around and climbed up the valley, eventually ending past the creek's source to a ridge and to a high point called Temple of the Gods.  The creek hike was stupendous.  It was common to have to belly crawl in the water to get under a giant hemlock blowdown with my pack.

3:38 p.m. on September 27, 2016 (EDT)
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Tipi,

A few months ago I followed Thunderhead Prong up to it's head waters near Beechnut Gap on the AT in the Smokies (just north of Thunderhead mountain) . It was brutal and as you alluded, required crawling under rhodo in the water, and also climbing a few 15 foot tall waterfalls, wading chest deep pools, etc...

I experienced various levels of regret and despair along the way. After getting really cold, muscle cramped and so forth, I began considering what it would be like to try and carve out a little hole in the adjacent thick rhodo to try and get some sleep. Luckily at my lowest point of despair I recognized the grassy slopes of beechnut gap from a prior top down scouting mission. Wow what a feeling of relief!

8:18 p.m. on September 27, 2016 (EDT)
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Glad to see you're back from Glacier, Patman!  Hope you post a trip report soon.

Your bushwacking experience mirrors mine.  "Levels of regret" about says it all.  One time I backpacked up Ripshin Creek in Pisgah and had my nice topo map torn from my BDU pants pocket and lost forever.  Somewhere in the middle of this hellzone I stumbled and landed on my face in Ripshin Creek and right at eye level was a dayglo orange crawdad.  Welcome to the Piz.

What's really weird is everytime I started this trek the bottom start of Ripshin Creek was guarded by a series of big snakes.  The Gateway to the Rip.

5:12 p.m. on October 4, 2016 (EDT)
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HAHA! Bushwhacking is something I've been doing for more than 40 years and still do. Many experiences but some were OK and others were much less.(rappelling off a peak, down a drainage until we found ourselves looking at a waterfall higher than our rope), or getting to what was supposed to be a beautiful meadow only to find it was bog of pothole lakes(Fernel Potholes) filled with ravenous mosquitos. My tools? First a good head and nose for direction. Stay as high as you can on ridges and such, if you are traversing. The worst is to find yourself in a drainage and have to climb back up. As far as hard tools, it depends on the brush. While it might be useful to have a few items when clearing a portage, when I am just afoot, I can often find a way through without resorting to cutting. I do break some branches or tie grass in case I need to back track. Forest with bigger trees will often have less undergrowth, at least here in the west. Look for game trails. Take them if you can, as the animals are often smarter than we are. Avoid sketchy human trails as they often wander about too much. Really good boots. On descents when I was climbing, we would often make like monkeys, that is to crash downward using the slide alder as ropes. Don't do with an external frame pack. Leather gloves are really helpful, especially when climbing through rose thickets. Avoid old or recent burns. Be aware that the shortest route is not necessarily the fastest or easiest.

7:23 p.m. on October 4, 2016 (EDT)
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In bush Alaska few people wear Goretex or rubber waders in the brush because they get ripped to shreds.  The only trails are game trails.

Slippery clothing like rain gear can get you killed if you fall on steep country with wet marsh marigolds because they are really slippery.  

10:29 p.m. on October 4, 2016 (EDT)
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The only bushwacking I know is with a 50-80 lb pack on my pack.  Bushwacking w/o a pack is just a dayhike.  And with a pack everything changes.

11:24 a.m. on October 5, 2016 (EDT)
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Never tried bushwacking without a pack.  Field work requires a lot of equipment.

10:19 a.m. on October 6, 2016 (EDT)
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I have only bushwhacked with a pack. Sometimes with an external frame. One thing I'd add is the fewer things to catch on that a pack has, the better. That is why an external frame pack has issues. As well many modern internal frame packs have lots of straps and ties which can snare on branches. My internal frame packs don't have much on the outside, except for crampon straps and ice axe loops. Here in the PNW we have lots of slide alder thickets. One key to getting through, is to balance on branches.

9:53 p.m. on October 21, 2016 (EDT)
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I like to use Google Earth to check out new areas. It doesn't always work, due to what time of year Google took the photos but it has helped many times.

8:00 a.m. on October 24, 2016 (EDT)
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Steve - Google Earth is a great tool, especially since the Pro version is free now and you can add in USGS topo etc.  If you want another possible seasonal aerial source, Bing Maps has a Birds Eye view that if you rotate the compass sometimes changes to a different season or year aerial.  Murphy's law is it won't work in the woods as there is less aerial coverage sometimes, but we use it all the time at work for a quick multi-season check of sites before we go there.

6:58 a.m. on November 21, 2016 (EST)
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I was looking back at some trip notes from a couple of years ago as a reminder for planning a post Thanksgiving trip...here is a quote that is quite common in my bushwacking trips:

"Decided to cut down ridge and see if it could connect the two trails...MISTAKE...HELL...2 hrs of thickets, lost map out of pocket, and sliced leg deeper than normal."

Normal slicing fot me is scratches as I stick to shorts in the humid SE unless its cold. Should have worn longer pants this time. The cut was a half inch deep but easily patched. I was rewarded with a good campsite above the second trail and had a great trip, but those two hours were ones I wouldn't want to relive.

January 21, 2020
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