Exploration Beyond The Trail

Exploration Beyond The Trail:
A Guest Blog post contributed by “Yosemite_Guy” at HighSierraTopix.com, July 2004

Do you always stay on the trail?

I’m not talking about cutting switchbacks or stepping away from the trail to fish at a nearby lake. I’m talking about going cross-country — aka off-trail — a mile or more. After many years of backpacking the trails of Yosemite, I got tired of the crowds, the noise, and the worn-down trails. (Anybody seen Lyell Canyon lately? It’s been like that for at least 40 years, and getting worse each year.)

About 15 years ago, I decided that not only was I going to keep my trips in the 2-4 day range, I was also going to keep them shorter in distance traveled. And no more trails. By this point I’d been backpacking solo for about 10 years, (and with my dad and/or brother for 10 years before that), and was very comfortable being alone. I got out my topo maps and looked for an interesting area…

My first such trip was an easy one. Part way up the Cathedral Lakes trail, then cut off at the base of Cathedral Peak and headed towards Budd Lake. From there I went up and over the saddle at the south base of Cathedral Pk. and down to Upper Cathedral Lk. I was hooked. I love this cross-country stuff. No people, no noise, no trails, and entirely different viewing angles of the outstanding Yosemite scenery. (True, there are people and trails at both those lakes, but this was a simple, “beginner,” trip for me. I started and ended on a trail, but did as much of the trip off-trail as I could.)


The nearest trail is on the other side of that far ridge.

Recently, I corresponded with some fellow backpackers from High Sierra Topix and another forum. Both are very experienced backpackers, but only one is an avid soloist (as I am). One likes it when there are other people around; the other — like me — prefers his own company, especially off-trail.

The vast majority of backpackers hike with others and never leave the trail. Of course, not everybody is comfortable being by themselves, and not everybody wants to be two miles away from the nearest human or the nearest trail. But if you want to give off-trailin’ a try, here are some tips:

Rule #1: Never go alone. (OK. I admit; I’ve been breaking that rule since 1978.)

Rule #2: Know your limits. Going cross-country isn’t for the beginner backpacker. Lots of pack-time and experience with a topo map — and preferably a compass — is a must.

Rule #3: Know how to read the terrain (or the “lay of the land” in Louis L’Amour-speak). Yes, take your topo maps, but you have to know how to get through the area you’re looking at.

Is it open forest, heavy undergrowth, small streams, large rivers? Is it steep, is there a cliff? Are any of those rocks in the boulder field above you going to use you as a bowling pin?

That open rock face on the side of the mountain you’re heading down: Is it covered in loose grit, was it ground smooth by the last glacier that passed by, or will all those shiny little exposed pieces of quartzite provide the traction you need? “Slippery when wet” takes on a whole new meaning if you slip on wet granite and bash your kneecap or tailbone to mushy pulp. Open forests and small streams are great; heavy undergrowth and large rivers are a pain. Plan your trip on your map, but when you actually get there, look ahead. Think about how you’re going to get through that next section.

Trails are frequently built in fairly straight lines, following the easiest route. The trail builders were nice enough to move all those annoying bushes, trees and boulders for you. But when you’re not hiking on a trail, you’re going to be zigzagging all over the place trying to find your own way around all those things.

Rule #4: Be prepared. For anything. The further away from the trail you are, the less likely you are to see other people; so don’t get yourself into a situation where you’re going to need some of those people. Be as self-sufficient as possible, constantly aware of where you are, what’s going on around you, and where you’re going next. Don’t become a statistic. (e.g. Don’t push your way through those tall bushes without knowing what you’re going to step on when you get to the other side.)

Speed: You’re going to go a lot slower than you’re used to. Figure ¼- to ½-mph in rough terrain, and 1- to 2-mph if it’s flatter and/or more open. Note: some of you were in the military and may have “humped the rucksack” (carried a heavy backpack with full combat load — about 80 lbs) over a couple of mountain ranges each morning before breakfast. That’s not what this is about.


I haven't made it to the source of this creek yet, but one of these days I will.

I haven’t made it to the source of this creek yet, but one of these days I will.

Distance: You don’t need to go too far to “get away from it all.” I like to go in a couple of miles, set up camp and do some day hikes, and just generally laze the days away. Other types of cross country trips might include cutting from one major trail to another several miles away, or (another of my favorites) even something as simple as following a stream to its source.

Most of us take walking for granted. Obviously, on the trail you must watch where you place your feet. Roots, rocks and ruts take great delight in tripping you. (Who says rocks are inanimate objects? I’ve seen ‘em move, jumping right out in front of my feet.) However, when you’re walking where there is no trail, you have to pay even more attention. That flat rock you’re about to step on may tilt to one side, sending you tumbling; that pine needle-covered rock looks solid – until you post-hole your leg up to your thigh. (That happened to me several years ago. I was going downhill and had gotten into some extremely dense, overgrown forest with heavy undergrowth. I finally found a dry creek bed and was debating following it. Years of build-up of branches, twigs and pine needles had carpeted the rocky embankment, making it look like an easy walk. I stepped on what I thought was solid ground between two boulders (rookie mistake) and my leg went right through; I was fortunate that I didn’t fall forward and snap my leg like one of those dry branches.)

Topo map: If possible, get the 7.5-minute map for any area you’ll be in. It’ll show the most detail; elevation contours are usually 40 feet. If you’re familiar with the area, (as I am with the Yosemite backcountry), you can probably get away with not taking a compass with you. If you’re not, take one – and use it. For those of you more technologically advanced than I am, a GPS unit can be a good idea. Remember, though, that it should notreplace your map and compass, merely complement them.

Keep constant track on your map of where you are. Stop often and look around, especially behind you. Knowing where you came from is just as important as knowing where you are going. After all, you can lose your map just as easily as your GPS unit. (I always keep track of prominent landmarks; one or two up close and one in the near distance. I can almost always pinpoint exactly where I am on a topo map.)

Goals: Trail hiking is usually goal-oriented; the High Sierra Camp loop is a prime example: 5 camps for a 5-day trip. Happy Isles to Half Dome, Tuolumne Meadows to Vogelsang, etc. Most of us plan our trips according to time available, water sources, mileage and preferred campsites. For cross-country, we have to change our expectations a bit:

  • A 3-day trip is a 3-day trip, but forget about doing 36 miles in those 3 days.
    Many trails follow streams, or were purposely built to be near lakes. Off-trail, you’re going to have to ensure you get water wherever and whenever you can.
  • Mileage? I call it yardage. Stop often, look around, check your map.
    Camping near a water source is always a good idea, but make sure there’s one where you are going. If you need to stop after only 3 miles because the next water is a few miles further on, then stop. More than likely that first 3 miles took a good portion of your day. Overdoing it off-trail is a good way to lose your concentration and perhaps sprain an ankle.

Illness/Injury: You get hurt, what do you do? Cell phones are unreliable in the mountains. Make sure you have a good first-aid kit, and know how to deal with the types of injuries you’re likely to encounter. Scrapes from falling; slicing a finger open with your knife; burns from a campfire or your stove — or even spilling your boiling


I love camping near small creeks like this one.

 dinner-water onto your foot. Simple dehydration can lead to making bad decisions, or to heat stroke. Drink small amounts of fluids frequently, but not so much that it sloshes around in your gut. A bad sunburn can make you sick and drain your energy. It may not feel hot at higher altitudes, but slather that suntan lotion on anyway. A broken leg can kill you if you’re miles from help; know how to splint it then use a makeshift crutch to head back out. (While climbing a steep slope one year, I lost traction and slipped, getting scraped up a bit. A few years later another guy fell in the exact same location, breaking his leg. It took him 3 days to get to where somebody could hear him holler for help. He had no food, water, or first aid kit with him.)

I always carry a fanny pack when I go backpacking — on trail or off. In it I keep my first aid kit, snacks, a wool shirt, and suntan and mosquito lotion. That, along with the canteen on my belt, will allow me to survive the night if I get hurt and immobilized — or lost — while away from my pack or campsite. (Last year I wandered down to a pool near my campsite – and kept going. Went around the pool, crossed the creek, climbed the rocks and was standing at the top of the cascade waterfall looking down at that pool before I realized I didn’t have my emergency gear with me. A 5-minute walk can be a 24-hour crawl if you get hurt away from your campsite.)

As you zigzag your way around the backcountry, always know where the nearest “exit” to civilization is in case you need to leave in a hurry due to illness or injury. (On one memorable trip, I was buzzed several times by a helicopter. I found out later that they were on a search-and-rescue mission – for two different people. A couple of miles downstream of me a woman had gotten separated from her family, inadvertently stepped off the trail and got lost. Several miles upstream of where I was camped, a young man had gone for a day hike — and left the trail. She found the trail the next morning. His body was never found.)

Serious Injury/Death: This scenario has been played out countless times in the movies, (and it’s usually done wrong). If it’s you that’s badly injured or dying, take some pictures of your injuries and do your best to write a note explaining what happened. If it’s your hiking partner that’s hurt, you’re going to have to take some things into consideration:

  • How bad is the injury? Will he live or die if you leave him? How long will it take you to get help — and could you find your way back?
  • If you think he’ll survive until you get back, treat the injury as best you can, treat your patient for shock, and make sure he’s in shade with food and water within reach.
  • You should only consider carrying your partner out if he/she is considerably smaller than you, and you are relatively close to a major trail or road. If that’s the case, protect your food (canister or hanging method), take only minimal survival gear — snacks, canteens and space blanket — and leave the rest.
  • If he dies, take a picture of him right away, (the Sheriff’s going to want to see it), and some close ups of the injuries. Wrap the body in his sleeping bag and place him in a shaded area if possible. Leave his gear, but take yours with you. Take all the food, too. Make sure you ask the SAR guys to grab the gear when they go in to retrieve the body, otherwise you may have to hike back in to get it yourself.

Cross-country backpacking isn’t for everyone. Going solo is for even fewer people. For those of you thinking about trying it, ask yourself if you’re ready to go slower, make your own way, and truly test your mettle, your independence, your knowledge, and your self-sufficiency. Over the years I’ve enjoyed some serious solitude miles from the nearest trail or human. For me, that’s Heaven on earth.

Some final thoughts: The normal rules apply: let someone know where you’re going to be and when to expect you back. (Personally, I leave a note with my wife of my starting/ending points/dates, as well as the names of any lakes, mountains, or streams that I’ll be going by. That way if she has to call SAR, she can just read them my note.) It may be tempting, but follow the “camp 200 feet from water” rule. Use existing fire rings, if any. If you make one, dismantle it when you leave. Make double-sure your fire is “dead and out.” If your route will take you through a thin patch of soil where flowers and grasses are struggling to survive, go around. Don’t be a slob and ruin it for the rest of us.

There’s a lake I like to go to. The first mile is on a trail and takes about 15 minutes. The next mile-and-a-half is straight up the side of the mountain, and takes me 3 hours. The lake is nestled in a hanging valley, which overlooks another, perpendicular, hanging valley, which has a great view of… Well, if I told you, you might figure out where “my” lake is. Nothing personal, but I like it better when there’s nobody else there.

Tread lightly.

Off Trail Hiking

Author’s daughter on her first backpack trip. Not surprisingly it was off-trail. Photo taken approximately 1 1/4 mile from parking lot.