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Learning to travel off trail- where to start?

Backpacking and camping basics and other general trip planning discussion for the uninitiated. Use this forum to learn where to look for the information you need, and to ask questions, related to the beginner basics of backpacking and camping, including technique and best practices.

Re: Learning to travel off trail- where to start?

Postby zwoij » Thu Oct 27, 2016 9:37 pm

What got me into cross country travel was going with a friend. Than I got hooked. Enough to plan my own trips. And make my own mistakes.



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Re: Learning to travel off trail- where to start?

Postby sekihiker » Fri Oct 28, 2016 12:39 pm

Pick an area close to timberline, that has plenty of easily recognized landmarks, and has relatively gentle topography. I think the ideal place to learn is the Red Mountain Basin out of the Maxson Trailhead just east of Courtright Dam and Reservoir.

For a preview of the area, visit: http://www.sierrahiker.com/RedMountainBasin/index.html

One of my daughters had difficulty finding her way around (she could get lost driving across town) but she did well in picking routes in this basin.
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Re: Learning to travel off trail- where to start?

Postby paul » Sun Oct 30, 2016 11:44 am

I would add a little something to my earlier post - I think a person ought to be reasonably experienced in all the other aspects of wilderness travel - staying warm, dry, and generally safe in the mountains, handling the weather and conditions - before heading off the trail. You don't want to be learning how to handle the weather at the same time as you are learning to navigate. And go in August, not October.
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Re: Learning to travel off trail- where to start?

Postby Cross Country » Sun Oct 30, 2016 12:04 pm

What zwoij did I did.
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Re: Learning to travel off trail- where to start?

Postby oldranger » Sun Oct 30, 2016 9:17 pm

I started when I was 15--1962. Another 15 year old and myself were left at TM for a week by my parents. We decided to do a 2 nighter down to Glen Aulin and on the layover day go down to Waterwheel Falls. Met someone who told us about the fishing at Mattie Lake so we said the heck with Water Wheel falls and headed up to Mattie where we had the best fishing of our lives. Did it again the following year. Reading a map and reading the topography just seemed to come natural. a couple of years later I led my dad down to the North Fork of the San Joaquin up to Twin Island lakes back down a bit then up Bench Canyon, over the ridge to Long creek then back to Granite Creek Campground. I always did the planning and food prep. My dad went because that is what I loved and going off trail was just a natural part of my early trips. Oh finally made waterwheel falls 50 years later!

Mike
Last edited by oldranger on Sun Oct 30, 2016 9:46 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Who can't do everything he used to and what he can do takes a hell of a lot longer!
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Re: Learning to travel off trail- where to start?

Postby balzaccom » Sun Oct 30, 2016 9:26 pm

I also picked up a lot of tips via my life sailing. There's something about navigating on water that really helps you understand dead reckoning, compasses, etc. And taking bearings off landmarks is a piece of cake.

All of that is harder to do in a forest!
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Re: Learning to travel off trail- where to start?

Postby balance » Mon Oct 31, 2016 1:22 am

Greetings Npike

Good for you. Going off trail adds a new dimension to your mountain experience. Suggestions:

Study and practice being able to navigate confidently with a topo map and compass. GPS is not a dependable replacement.

You'll be travelling in pristine places. Learn to enjoy the sights and sounds of the night without a fire. Carbon deposits on rocks last for hundreds of years. Let the next visitor enjoy the same natural beauty as you do.

The best book for detailed off trail information is "The High Sierra: Peaks, Passes, Trails" by R. J. Secor.

Don't be too concerned about making mistakes. Some things are going to work out easier than you expected; some will be more difficult than you anticipated. However, be alert when mistakes begin to accumulate.

Example: You hit the trail a little late; then your boots don't feel quite right and that slows you down; next thing you know, your "behind schedule", trying to make it over that high pass, with a thunderstorm rolling in; "all of a sudden" (although the situation was actually brewing for hours) you find yourself in an exposed position, with cold rain coming down and lightening striking nearby.

Let's go back to square one. With the late start and trying to adjust your boots, stop right there and reevaluate your plans. When things go wrong, people get in trouble if they compound things by making more mistakes trying to overcome the difficulty. If you rewind the tape on most tragedies, you usually find events (which could have been corrected with some awareness and judgment) get out of hand and drive people into doing things where they actually know better, but let themselves feel compelled to "make up" for the initial problem. This kind of "brain lock" can be very dangerous in the outdoors. For that matter, losing awareness of reality in the moment can wreak havoc in many situations in our lives. Be here now.

Congratulations and God bless your growing family. Peace.
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Re: Learning to travel off trail- where to start?

Postby Phil_z » Mon Oct 31, 2016 6:17 am

Go get lost in a controlled environment. Something safely blocked in by major trails or roads with manageable distances and terrain. Have your map and compass in-hand and experiment with them. Treat the landscape as nothing more than visual reference for correlating and confirming what you think you see on the map and what you think you read on the compass. When you're done, evaluate what went right, what went wrong, where you might improve. Did what you just walked through correspond with what you read? Could you have walked an easier and safer route? Would something just simply have made more sense? Did you end up where you thought you would? Answer those questions, then go out and do it again in the same place and correct your mistakes. And it's not only about what you did, it's about how you felt with each step and the decisions you made because of it.

Here's a simple and basic compass reading exercise for beginners:

Again, find a controlled environment. It can be a city park, a big flat field with just a few rocks and trees for reference, or it can have a little terrain involved. Get a pencil and paper. Pick any random object as a target. Take a compass reading, write it down, go to it. Find another one and do the same thing. Do it again and again until you've gone back to your starting point. The more, the better, but a circle of whatever diameter you feel like doing, from a few hundred yards up to several miles. Now add up your numbers. A circle will ALWAYS close at 360 degrees, no matter how many segments you break it down into. If your numbers don't add up to that, while you didn't get lost because of it, you didn't read your azimuths correctly, and your basic compass skills still need more work. Practice more.
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Re: Learning to travel off trail- where to start?

Postby Snowtrout » Mon Oct 31, 2016 2:07 pm

Lots of great advice being shared here and this is a good read for me since I am ok at best at going off trail. For me, I study the map of the area I am going into so I have an idea what type of geographic features I may see or face. If in the trees, I try and choose a route that typically follows some type of geographic feature: river, stream, creek, drainage, or head towards some feature I can see through the trees. Above treeline, is much easier since the trees really don't cover and obscure your line of sight to what ever target you want to head towards and it's easier to align your map to what you see around you.

I do have an app on my phone, Topomaps+, that works great at pinpointing your location if you downloaded the maps. Having the technology is nice but I probably should take a map course through the local REI this winter to improve my map skills. Too many people getting lost and disappearing from their groups.
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Re: Learning to travel off trail- where to start?

Postby oldranger » Mon Oct 31, 2016 8:47 pm

Great advice from everyone. That said the key to off trail travel is to pay attention to what is around you and what you are doing. From your map you should have a good idea of the topography. Pay attention to drainages on the map and on the ground. Pay attention to the sun if it is out with a watch you can usually determine which way is n. When choosing specific route attend to what is immediately in front and what is up as far as you can see. Sometimes the easy route immediately in front of you will not lead to the fastest travel for the next 1/2 mile so a somewhat awkward jog might actually lead to a better route. Pay attention to terrain! I hate to loose elevation when I know I'm going to have to regain it and maybe more! But...sometimes the long way is faster. Trying to maintain elevation by doing a long traverse across uneven terrain can be much more tiring than going down and around and up. It really is a judgement call. Google earth, before you leave, can help with those decisions. I traversed from Wallace to Wright creeks this summer and it entailed some hellacious talus. But going down further didn't seem to have much better terrain. Going off trail is not an exact science but always involves almost constant corrections and and adaptations to the terrain as you travel--which is why it is challenging and damn fun!
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