Challenges and Risks

“Against the Grain” is the unofficial slogan of the Pacific Northwest Trail with good reason. The 1,200 mile route climbs over seven mountain ranges using a combination of pathways which form the Crown-to-Coast route of the PNT.

Some of these pathways present unique risks which mountaineers and climbers may be more familiar than hikers and equestrians typically are. Where these areas occur, the PNTA has taken care to call attention to them on our map set.

Those uncomfortable or unprepared for the situations described here can plan to avoid these areas and explore other portions of the trail that are more accessible. All users should “Plan Ahead and Prepare” — safety is never guaranteed on the Pacific Northwest Trail.

Scrambling is part of the PNT experience. Photo by Julie Hotz. All rights reserved.
Scrambling is part of the PNT experience. Photo by Julie Hotz. All rights reserved.
Bear Safety
Coastal Travel
Scrambling and Climber’s Routes

Bear Safety

The Pacific Northwest Trail travels through some of the wildest lands in the US, home to both grizzly and black bears. Hikers can expect to see bears, or bear sign, in all but 70 miles of the 1,200 mile trail corridor.

In much of the lower 48 states, a bear sighting has become special and rare. Many of these animals have been lost to local extinction. With a relatively small remaining habitat, seeing a surviving grizzly bear is part of the very special experience offered by a trip on the Pacific Northwest Trail.

Put bears and safety first, by carefully reviewing the information here and reading safety tips on our partners’ websites. Following these regulations will help ensure a safe and enjoyable trip for both you and the special wildlife on our public lands.


Understand the Risks

Traveling and camping in grizzly and black bear habitat involves risk, and it is essential to “Plan Ahead and Prepare” for any trip where bears live.

While rare, bear encounters have resulted in serious injuries, even death, in the Northwest. However, modern food storage techniques, and other precautions, have greatly minimized the risk to backcountry visitors posed by bears.

Food storage methods developed in our National Parks have been very effective in preventing bears from associating humans with an easy source of food, and this has reduced unsafe bear-human encounters. The cooperation of backcountry visitors with park rules and regulations has greatly reduced the number of tragic bear encounters over the last fifty years.

All too often, the saying, “a fed bear, is a dead bear,” is unfortunately true.

Put bears first on the Pacific Northwest Trail, and do your part to keep the backcountry safe for everyone by following food storage orders and other regulations on our public lands.


Where Do Bears Live on the PNT?

From the eastern terminus in Montana through Eastern Washington, approximately 400 miles of the PNT travels through grizzly bear country (PNT Sections 1 – 3). It is also possible, but not likely, to encounter grizzlies in the North Cascades Ecosystem.

Black bear habitat includes nearly the entire trail corridor, with the exception of 70 miles of trail through the Puget Sound Region of the trail.


Use Proper Food Storage

With bear habitat along 94% of the Pacific Northwest Trail, proper food storage is critical to protecting bears and the safety of human visitors alike. It is every PNT hiker’s responsibility to follow these instructions to keep the PNT safe for future generations.

While hiking, never leave food or your pack unattended, even for a short period of time.

In camp, use proper food storage techniques. Follow the instructions of the local land manager, or bear-hang, and use a bear proof container, like the Ursack. Odor-proof storage bags, like the Op Sak are also strongly recommended; bears have a hyper-developed sense of smell, and can detect food from great distances.

In certain areas of Olympic National Park, like the Seven Lakes Basin and the Wilderness Coast, bear canisters are required.

Do not risk having a bear encounter in the confines of your shelter by sleeping with your food, garbage or scented items. If you do encounter a bear, never let the animal get your food.


Carry Bear Spray

Bear spray is highly recommended in grizzly habitat. Some choose to carry bear spray for the entire trail to protect themselves from a possible black bear encounter.

Bear spray is a highly-concentrated non-lethal pepper spray deterrent. Aerosol cans typically spray a distance of 30 feet for seven to nine seconds. It is intended to be sprayed in the face of an aggressive bear. However, wind-direction and other factors may reduce its effectiveness.

Bear spray is no substitute for other bear safety precautions, such as proper food storage.

Studies have shown bear spray to be effective 93% of the time in causing bears to cease aggressive activity, where firearms have been found to be significantly less effective. Bear spray is also non-lethal, relatively inexpensive, and lightweight.   


Avoid Grizzly Bears
  • Trail running in grizzly bear habitat is highly discouraged.
  • Hiking at night, dawn, or dusk is highly discouraged.
  • Hiking alone is highly discouraged.
  • Contact the local land manager to learn about bear activity in the area and food storage regulations.
  • Occasionally trails and campgrounds may be closed due to bear activity. The NPS, USFS, and PNTA share this information on their websites under Trail Conditions and Trail Alerts pages.
  • Be aware of your surroundings, scan the area ahead of you and learn to recognize bear signs like scat, tracks, and diggings along the trail that might give clues to recent bear activity in the area. Bears are attracted to berry patches and carcasses, which can give off strong odors.
  • Keep a safe distance; Glacier National Park recommends keeping a minimum safe distance of 300 feet between you and a bear.
  • When bears might have trouble hearing you, such as near rivers, make noise in advance to avoid surprising a bear.
  • In grizzly habitat, it is highly recommended to hike in groups to significantly reduce your chance of a bear encounter.
  • Where dogs are permitted, keep them on a leash at all times. Off-leash dogs have caused their owners to be attacked by agitating bears and causing them to take chase back to the owner. While visiting grizzly habitat, consider leaving your pet at home.



Bear Encounters

Glacier National Park makes the following recommendations for bear encounters within the minimum recommended safe distance:

If you encounter a bear inside the minimum recommended safe distance (100 yards / 91 m), you can decrease your risk by following these guidelines:

  • If a bear or other animal is moving in your direction on a trail, get out of its way and let it pass.
  • If you can move away, do so. If moving away appears to agitate the bear, stop. In general, bears show agitation by swaying their heads, huffing, and clacking their teeth. Lowered head and laid-back ears also indicate aggression. Bears may stand on their hind legs or approach to get a better view, but these actions are not necessarily signs of aggression. The bear may not have identified you as a person and is unable to smell or hear you from a distance. Help the bear recognize you as a friendly human.
    • Talk quietly.
    • Do not run! Back away slowly, but stop if it seems to agitate the bear.
    • Try to assume a nonthreatening posture. Turn sideways, or bend at the knees to appear smaller.
    • Use peripheral vision. Bears may interpret direct eye contact as threatening.
    • Continue to move away as the situation allows.
  • If a bear appears intent on approaching you, your group, or your campsite in a non-defensive manner (not showing signs of agitation), gather your group together, make noise, and try to discourage the bear from further approaching. Prepare to deploy your bear spray. If you are preparing or consuming food, secure it. DO NOT LET THE BEAR GET YOUR FOOD!
  • If a bear approaches in a defensive manner (appears agitated and/or charges), stop. Do not run. Talk quietly to the bear. Prepare to deploy your bear spray. If contact appears imminent and you do not have bear spray, protect your chest and abdomen by falling to the ground on your stomach, clasp your hands around the back of your neck, and leave your pack on for protection. If the bear attempts to roll you over, try to stay on your stomach. If the attack is defensive, the bear will leave once it recognizes you are not a threat. If the attack is prolonged, FIGHT BACK!

For more detailed information, watch Glacier National Park’s Bear Safety video.

The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committe provides guidelines for bear safety, here.


The purpose of this guide is to help PNT users to understand what to expect during off-trail travel. Understanding the additional safety concerns and added responsibilities visitors have under Leave No Trace will help to ensure a safe and fun trip.


Off-Trail Travel on the Pacific Northwest Trail

Bushwhacking and scrambling are both modes of off-trail travel. Sometimes these activities seem indistinct from one another. The Mountaineers climbing organization provides a definition, which describes, “fighting one’s way through dense brush,” as part of the activity mountaineers may call alpine scrambling. From a mountaineer’s perspective, this definition works —one may switch between crossing boulder fields without vegetation (scrambling) and “fighting through brush” (bushwhacking) many times during the approach to an alpine summit in areas where no trails exist.

At lower elevations which are not particularly rocky, the term “alpine scrambling” is less commonly used by outdoor enthusiasts. Off-trail travel in these situations is usually described by hikers as “bushwhacking.” Equestrians may describe this as, “bucking the brush,” but bushwhacks describe situations not limited to “brushy trail.” Fallen trees can cause serious impediments to those on horseback, while hikers have greater mobility to climb over, under, or around these kinds of obstacles.  

For most outdoor enthusiasts, off-trail travel is rarely desirable or necessary. Constructing and maintaining a clearly defined path allows trail users to observe an untrammeled landscape with minimized impact on it.


Why is it necessary to bushwhack on the PNT?

A bushwhack describes off-trail travel through a wide variety of forest types. The term “cross-country” travel is often used to describe off-trail travel through open areas such as grasslands, fields, and parklands.

On the PNT, it is sometimes necessary to bushwhack to travel between established trails to form a continuous route. These in-between places or “trail gaps” include areas where no trails have ever existed and areas where trails and forest roads have been nearly reclaimed by nature, and only a faint vestige of the original infrastructure remains. Some refer to the former as “lost trails.”


Where is it necessary to bushwhack on the PNT?

Known bushwhacks on the Pacific Northwest Trail are called out on the PNTA mapset and are indicated with dotted lines. However, PNT users should be advised that the trail maintenance season on the PNT is even shorter than the hiking season — in some remote areas of trail, thru-hikers should expect to enter areas which may not have received recent maintenance. In these areas, brushy vegetation and fallen trees may obstruct the trail until they are removed by trail crews later in the season. Like terra incognita, this fine grain information about trail conditions may not be available before the hiking season has opened. For PNT thru-hikers, these areas should be considered part of the experience of “hardy PNW hiking,” which has always been a part of the unique character of the Pacific Northwest Trail.


What is it like to bushwhack?

Unlike scrambling, there is no objective classification system to describe the risk and difficulty posed by bushwhacks. Instead, bushwhacks may be subject to vague, subjective descriptions which are not helpful to anticipate conditions in the field.

A hiker can infer conditions, to some extent, based on topography, elevation, and knowledge of local plants and trees. For example, lower elevation “lost trails” could involve bushwhacks through vegetation like blackberry brambles and stinging nettles, while higher elevations might involve pushing through stout subalpine fir. Some areas may be thick with growth, while other areas of forest could have an open understory where progress is easy and visibility is improved.

All bushwhacks should be approached with caution, and a hiker should expect to make slow progress. It is highly recommended to travel with a partner who will able to assist you in the case of an accident.

Strong navigation skills are a must. Following a straight line compass bearing between points may be complicated by numerous obstacles to avoid, which can cause disorientation. It is helpful to check your position frequently and keep a positive attitude even if you find yourself temporarily off course.


There are a wide range of potentially hazardous situations hikers may face off-trail. Large diameter fallen trees and tall log piles can present obstacles which place hikers at a distance from the ground sufficient to cause serious injury in the case of a slip or fall.

Any number of minor hazards like rocks, roots and holes lie along the forest floor which may be hidden by tree litter or brush. Higher angle traverses through areas with loose debris can also create the potential for a host of lower body injuries.

Animal encounters during bushwhacks should be avoided. Where visibility is reduced by brush and vegetation, extra precautions should be taken to alert animals to your presence. In Glacier National Park, it is required to “maintain a safe distance of 100 yards between yourself and bears, and 25 yards from moose, wolves, and other wildlife.” Adopting these precautions in other areas of the Pacific Northwest Trail is recommended. Without care, animal encounters in dense brush are more likely to occur at an unsafe distance, and could result in more aggressive behaviors. 

Hikers are advised to avoid encounters on bushwhacks by traveling in a group, making noise, and being aware of their surroundings. You can learn more about recommended precautions in grizzly bear habitat on this webpage and on the website of the IGBC.

Keeping your first aid kit up to date is also recommended – stinging insects can trigger anaphylactic reaction and plants can cause histamine and other responses in the body that could be serious.

Are their any benefits to bushwhacking?

For those unaccustomed to off-travel travel, the hazards and difficulty presented by bushwhacking make it undesirable. However, many PNT thru-hikers have expressed a newfound appreciation of trails and trail maintenance after navigating a bushwhack; it can be easy to take these things for granted.

Others appreciate bushwhacking as a test of their skills and determination. After succeeding at off-trail travel, they are filled with the confidence and experience which prepares them for new outdoor activities that do not rely on trails, like: mountaineering, hunting, or volunteering with a search and rescue team.

On trails and roads, we experience nature at a remove, and it is possible to ignore the diversity of plants and animals which make our public lands so special. During bushwhacks, we make direct contact with nature, and become intimately more acquainted with the diversity of life found in America’s last wild places.

Coastal Travel

On the Wilderness Coast, Section 10 of the Pacific Northwest Trail, the hiking is rugged, and in some areas would better be described as scrambling. The unique challenges along the coast make for a memorable PNT adventure. Never underestimate the Pacific Ocean and always keep an eye of the sea for hazardous objects.

Olympic National Park provides important information about Coastal Travel, here.


Headlands and Tides   

The PNTA mapset identifies 15 headlands that require low tides for passage. Other headlands along the coast can never be rounded safely. In these situations, the PNT leaves the beach and climbs steep trails over land. Careful planning is needed to take advantage of the low tide and to safely traverse the PNT in Section 10. Be aware that storms can make areas of the PNT along the coast completely impassible. Fatalities have occurred along the Olympic Wilderness by those attempting to beat the tides.


How to Use a Tide Chart

Carry a tide chart, a watch, and PNTA maps or another detailed topographic map which shows tidal height. A tide charts predict the time of day of high and low tides and shows their height in feet. If the tide at a given time of day is lower than what is called out on your topo map, it is safe to cross. If it is higher, that area will be impassable and dangerous until the next low-tide cycle. Note that low tide may be several hours from the present time.

The safest time to round headlands is one to two hours before the low tide. Incoming tides, can be dangerous when rounding headlands. In foul weather, strong winds and off-coast storms can elevate tides beyond what is shown on a tide chart. Elevated tides may make some headlands completely impassable.


Beach Terrain on the Coast

Because careful timing is needed to take advantage of low tide while crossing headlands, accurately estimating hiking pace is important on the coast. Adding to this challenge are a variety of terrain conditions. Rocky areas of beach may make for slower progress than sandy areas. Ocean-polished boulders covered in slippery kelp can also make for a slow go. Conservative planning and carrying extra food and water can help to ensure a safer and more enjoyable trip in this area.


Headland Trails

High visibility, red and black “wheel” symbols show where the Pacific Northwest Trail leaves the beach and climbs headland cliffs in Olympic National Park. These trails can be quite steep (even by PNT standards) and may have fixed ropes and cable ladders to aid in climbing the muddy, rocky terrain.

Scrambling and Climber’s Routes

Sections 1, 2, and 3 of the PNT include relatively short stretches of Class 2 and 3 scrambling. Some of these scrambles may be minimized or extended by route choice selection, others, such as both routes of the PNT through the Selkirk Mountains in Idaho, are unavoidable to thru-hikers.

Scrambling is a means of off-trail travel that falls between rugged hiking and technical rock climbing. It involves off-trail travel on a wide variety of rocky terrain conditions that require balance, agility, knowledge of alpine terrain, and often, the use of one’s hands.

For those who are prepared, scrambling problems can offer variety and challenge to a trip in the mountains. Although many climbers and hikers view scrambling as a fun challenge, it should be noted that serious injuries have occurred on the Pacific Northwest Trail that have required medical evacuation. Even experienced climbers can have accidents – risk is inherent with this activity and being prepared in the event of an accident will help to ensure a safe and enjoyable trip on the PNT. 



Hazards posed by scrambling can be very serious. By definition a Class 3 scramble poses risk of serious injury where falls could be fatal. Due to the remoteness of these alpine areas, self rescue and search and rescue efforts are made more difficult than in areas accessed by trails. Therefore, hiking with a partner is strongly recommended; if one party becomes injured, a partner can serve as a first responder or seek assistance.

Risks posed by weather may be more serious during an extended scramble. As these areas typically occur above treeline in alpine areas, there may be additional risks of exposure posed by lightning, wind, and inclement weather. Always keep an eye out for approaching storms. If there are signs that the weather might change for the worse, avoid entering areas exposed to lightning, by taking a lower route, or by staying within the shelter of tree line or other structures.



It is recommended to earn experience and increase your sense of comfort by learning scrambling skills on shorter, beginner scrambles (Class 2) before attempting more advanced (Class 3) scrambles. Be aware that the weight and size of a full backpack will be far more challenging on a scramble than a light daypack.

An average hiking speed is three miles per hour, but much slower progress should be expected while scrambling. Expect to travel approximately one mile per hour or less and plan accordingly. The ~10 mile long Lion’s Head Crest alternate in Section 3 has been known to take upwards of an entire day to complete. In addition to the speed of travel, route-finding can slow forward progress, because time may be spent exploring dead-end routes before a path forward is discovered.

A ‘climber’s route,’ which may simply be referred to as a ‘route,’ differs from a trail in that its location is not precisely fixed on the ground. These routes are called out on the PNTA mapset as dotted lines and should be interpreted as a general pathway through an area. Changing conditions in an alpine environment, impacted by snowpack and rockfall, as well as an individual climber’s judgement, based on personal ability and risk-assessment, will ultimately determine the precise route an individual chooses to take on a ‘climber’s route’ and NOT a GPS track or a symbol on a map. Be prepared to backtrack as needed if you encounter a climbing problem you are not comfortable with and search for a route with less exposure to risk.



What is Scrambling?

The Mountaineers climbing organization defines alpine scrambling as follows. Note that the definition provided describes a wide range of situations, some of which might also be described as bushwhacking:

Alpine Scrambles are off-trail trips, often on snow or rock, with a ‘non-technical’ summit as a destination. A non-technical summit is one that is reached without the need for certain types of climbing equipment (body harness, rope, protection hardware, etc), and not involving travel on extremely steep slopes or on glaciers. However, this can mean negotiating lower angle rock, traveling through talus and scree, crossing streams, fighting one’s way through dense brush, and walking on snow-covered slopes.

The Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) is a three-part system used for rating the difficulty of walks, hikes, and climbs. It is primarily used by mountaineers in the United States and Canada. The Class 5 portion of the Class scale is primarily a rock climbing classification system, while the Classes 1-3 are used mainly in hiking and trail running.

  • Class 1: Walking with a low chance of injury, hiking boots a good idea.
  • Class 2: Simple scrambling, with the possibility of occasional use of the hands. Little potential danger is encountered. Hiking Boots highly recommended.
  • Class 3: Scrambling with increased exposure. Handholds are necessary. A rope should be available for learning climbers, or if you just choose to use one that day, but is usually not required. Falls could easily be fatal.
  • Class 4: Simple climbing, with exposure. A rope is often used. Natural protection can be easily found. Falls may well be fatal.
  • Class 5: Is considered technical roped free (without hanging on the rope, pulling on, or stepping on anchors) climbing; belaying, and other protection hardware is used for safety. Un-roped falls can result in severe injury or death.

Class 5.0 to 5.15c is used to define progressively more difficult free moves.