Backpacking in the Superstition Mountains Wilderness

How to Bushwhack in a Wilderness Area


Bushwhacking is a slang term that backpackers use when they navigate off a trail blazing their own path through a wilderness area.  For me it means exploration.  Bushwhacking allows you see areas that few have seen and you may find something that has been lost in time.  Wilderness backpacking is an adventure and bushwhacking only serves to enhance the experience.

Before you decide to bushwhack I highly recommend that you are up to date and proficient on your land navigational skills.  I also strongly advise that you preplan your adventure and research the terrain, wildlife and plant life before you enter any wilderness area.  

I recently posted an article on how to prepare for a wilderness backpacking adventure and you can click on the following link, How to Prepare for a Backpacking Adventure, to review that article.  I have also posted some land navigational articles here on my website under the Backpacking Blog (Land Navigation).

I will discuss 3 methods I use when I go bushwhacking.  Those methods I call:

  •  The Line of Sight Method
  •  The Trail to Trail Method
  •  The Terrain Method

**The above three methods use your compass and a topo map with a GPS unit as your backup.  Relying on your GPS alone without having a compass and map is very risky and dangerous.** 


Hells Canyon Wilderness
I am pointing to a Hilltop.

Line of sight is exactly what it means.  You are on the trail and you see something in the distance, (some type of landmark such as a hilltop), and you decide that you want to check it out.  You first need to find your location on your topo map.  If you are not sure where on the trail you are try to find a trail intersection or marker near you that you can identify on your map to assist you in pinpointing  your location.  Shoot an azimuth/bearing to that point and begin walking.  

As you walk use your pace count to determine how far you have traveled from the trail.   Stay on course till you reach your destination. As you walk mark your path every 25 yards, (Less or more if you need to), with a rock, stick, or other object for identification if you need to back track.  Orient your map to the major terrain features around you such as mountains, streams, etc.

When you get to your final destination mark an identifiable landmark (Tree, outcropping of rocks, Boulder, etc.).  This landmark will be what you use to shoot your back azimuth  to your starting location.  This method is simply to use and it allows you to explore interesting landmarks that you may see off the trail.  These points may be structures, terrain features, or other natural points.  

How to Bushwhack in a Wilderness
Line of Sight Method for Bushwhacking

 As you travel to your landmark, you may come across an awesome area where you may want to set up a basecamp.  One advantage in using this method is that you will see the landmark you are traveling too. The hard part is going back if you have not properly identified where you are starting from and a compass azimuth/bearing to your landmark.


Gila Wilderness (Land Navigation)
Gila Wilderness (NM), I am using a map to plot out my bushwhacking course

This method uses trails on your topo map as linear points that you navigate from to another trail. You basically are bushwhacking from one trail to another.  You should first plan your route on a topo map.  Find an area you want to do some bushwhacking through with a trail that is close by.  Navigate to that trail and then find an adjoining trail.  That trail may parallel the one you are on. Shoot an azimuth/bearing to that trail from the trail you are on.  

When you are ready to get off trail make sure you can identify your current location on the topo map.  Stay on that azimuth/bearing as you explore the area and terrain.  If you stay on that course you will run into the next trail which you should be able to identify on your map.  You will also want to mark your path as you walk in case you need to back track.  Keep track of the distance using your pace count.

You may choose to setup a basecamp somewhere on that course or do some exploration before reaching the trail. If you do stop to explore or setup a basecamp mark a good land mark, (use a Bright vest, a colorful air mat, etc.) so when you are ready to head to that second trail you have a good reference point. You can modify this technique in different ways.  You may parallel that second trail knowing that it is a specific direction from you, (North South, East or West).  When you decide that you are ready to head to that second trail head in the cardinal direction of that trail.  

If you decide to use this method make sure that you can identify where you started from. You may want to use a pencil and draw some lines on your map identifying your route from start to finish. Make sure to keep your map oriented using your compass and terrain features around you.

How to Bushwhack in a Wilderness
Trail to Trail Method for Bushwhacking


Backpacking in Kalmiopsis Wilderness
Kalmiopsis Wilderness (Illinois River) I am using the River to navigate

This method is my favorite and can be used in many wilderness areas.  This method allows you to use the natural terrain as a navigational point.  I find that using rivers, streams, and creeks, work the best.  As you do your pre-planning find a terrain feature such as a river and use it as a navigational tool when you get off the trail.  You will not get lost as long as you keep that terrain feature next to you.  

I used this method in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness using the Illinois River as my terrain feature.  You may choose to use a lake, valley, or even a group mountains or a ridge.  I would recommend if you are just starting out that you use a river, stream, or creek.  Using a set of mountains or a ridge line can be difficult if you are not proficient in your land navigational skills.

Land Navigation
How to Bushwhack in a Wilderness


The above three methods will keep you on point when getting off the trail.  Remember to have your GPS with you and make sure that it is on and tracking you.  If you need to use it to get back then by all means do so.  Make sure when you get to your destination to mark it with something that you can use as a reference point to navigate back to your starting point or to another location.  As you are bushwhacking you may see a great location to set up a basecamp.  

Make sure you have a small notepad and pencil with you so you can write down your pace counts along with your azimuths/bearings.  This is especially important if you plan on staying in the area for an extended period of time.   If you have never bushwhacked start off slow.  Maybe go 100 yards off the trail at first.  Then work your way up to larger segments.  

Terrain will dictate these methods.  You may have to adapt and overcome situations where the terrain makes travel difficult or impossible to traverse.  An example would be if you come to a cliff.  You will have to back track and recalculate your course. Preplanning is the key to bushwhacking. Look at the terrain before you head out to insure you have a reasonably clear and safe path. Bushwhacking is what a true wilderness backpacker should do to make their trip an adventure.

Bushwhacking in the Wilderness