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 across 94% of the 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.

Our privilege to visit these places comes with the responsibility to protect them. Be prepared to put bears and safety first while visiting the PNT. 

1. 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.

Put bears first on the PNT. Learn more about these special animals and how to minimize the risk of an encounter and to prepare for one on our bears webpage.

2. Use Proper Food Storage

Food storage regulations protect bears, people, and the backcountry experience we enjoy on the PNT.

Over the last fifty years, the number of hazardous bear encounters on our public lands has been greatly reduced. This is due to the cooperation of backcountry campers who use the modern food storage methods developed in our National Parks and Forests after tragic accidents in the late 1960s.

Please do your part to keep the backcountry safe for everyone. Learn the regulations of the local land manager before your visit. Know that regulations will vary across the Pacific Northwest Trail and may be very different from other public lands you have visited before.

Learn more about food storage regulations across the PNT on our Food Storage webpage.


3. Learn How to Avoid an Encounter

Since the PNT was first thru-hiked in 1977, there have been no documented conflicts between bears and the trail’s users. Don’t cause the first! Learn how to avoid a close encounter on our Bears webpage.

Most outdoorists know that hazards can change based on factors like environment and weather, but they may not be aware of the hazards that local animal populations may pose to them. Fortunately, land managers have the experience and local knowledge needed to provide expert advice to ensure your safety — and protect wildlife.

While relatively rare, grizzly bear attacks can be hazardous or even fatal. PNT visitors should be prepared to learn about the risks and how to minimize them. They may need to alter their camping routine, take special equipment, and avoid certain activities. Night-hiking and trail running, for example, may be relatively safe to do elsewhere, but are considered high-risk activities in areas where grizzly bear encounters are possible.


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.