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.