The Road Less Travelled – Off Trail Hiking

For people who’ve only ever walked on defined tracks and trails, the concept that there’s a whole other world of exploring and adventuring out there, may come as a shock. It’s the world of off trail hiking.

I know it came as a shock to me when early in my bushwalking club days, I signed up for a day walk that in the description said, “includes 1km rough off-track section”. I honestly didn’t really understand what that meant.

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Even though I enjoyed bushwalking, without realising it, I’d built invisible walls each side of tracks or trails that I walked upon. Remember Wonder Woman and her invisible plane? Well these walls were kinda like that!

The shock I had that first day breaking through that invisible wall happened when we stopped at a certain point on what was a perfectly good single-track and the leader (after checking map and compass) declared, “Here we go… into the great unknown!”

We turned to our right and proceeded to walk, push, haul ourselves through thick scrub up a ridge to emerge a kilometre later onto a firetrail.

Hiking Bushwalking Australia
Knowing how to navigate is essential when moving away from tracks and trails.

I remember feeling like I was being re-born from the birth canal of nature as I tumbled out onto the firetrail.

After getting over my initial WTF expletives and as the wounds began to heal, I realised that in a way I had been re-born and baptised all at the same time. To quote another religious phrase, literally, ‘my chains fell off, my heart was free’ and I could see for the first time that there really were no walls to the ways in which I could experience wilderness and nature.

I had a lot to learn before being able to lead myself and others in this style of adventuring which I do now, but I knew I wanted those skills.

Hiking off trail
Exploring off-track after bushfires can be easier… just expect to get covered in charcoal!

Yet again, my adventure gland nurtured through a childhood love of The Famous Five and The Lost Islands was sparked and came alive as I realised that my adventures didn’t have to be ones that someone else had had before me, laying down their own path and dictating the ways in which I must tread.

In Australia we use the term bush-bashing (bushwhacking in the US) which I do find quite humorous given that it’s generally us walkers who get bashed more than the bush… which generally bounces back quickly, whereas our wounds take longer to heal.

Hiking off trail
A good sense of humour and a great group are keys to an enjoyable off-track adventure

This leads to one of the issues that need to be considered when venturing off track and that is environmental issues. I consider off-track walking should be done in line with other Leave No Trace principles. Essentially, make it very hard for someone to see if you’ve been there first. This means:

  1. Keep groups small. (I personally think that even though in NSW NPWS guidelines for wilderness areas are 8, if I’m going off-track, I prefer 4-6.)
  2. Don’t create ‘new’ tracks, build cairns, snap twigs unnecessarily (scout style) or leave markers.
  3. Know how to navigate through traditional map and compass methods, route finding and reading the ground in addition to carrying a GPS and a PLB.
  4. Don’t make navigation choices that can’t be reversed. Always have a contingency plan.
  5. Avoid off-track in sensitive areas such as hanging swamp or places where the plants are easily damaged.
  6. Avoid going off-track near popular tourist tracks or areas which could encourage people without the skills to follow you or establish new tracks.
  7. If you don’t have the skills and equipment… don’t do it until you do. Joining a bushwalking club is a great way to learn.
  8. Check maps to ensure you’re not trespassing.

It’s not all about pushing your body endlessly through hakea like scrub in a medieval like flagellation ritual though (although I did get a reputation in my club for some particularly memorable – scar inducing – trips!). When you learn some of the basics like sticking to open ridges and avoiding gullies,  you’ll find that walking in this way can sometimes be easier than an overgrown single track or fire trail.

Hiking off trail
Even though there’s no tracks, sticking to ridges can mean fairly open terrain

The thing I love about venturing off the path more travelled, is entering the unknown and being in a place of discovering something new. Learning about a new place and it’s terrain as my feet touch it and become part of it’s story.

Spending hours beforehand analysing contours on a topographic map, wondering if a ridge or cliff line will actually allow us through (or “go” as we say) without technical gear and then finding yourself at the base of it and through trial and error (sometimes many trials and many errors) actually getting to the top.

Hiking off trail
Ridges can replace tracks in wilderness terrain. Avoid those dark gullies inbetween! [Coxs River & Wild Dog Mts, Blue Mts NP]
This kind of adventuring calls for many life skills such as problem solving, contingency planning, people management, risk assessments and a bloody good sense of humour, all tied up with a massive dose of curiosity, inquisitiveness and sense of wonder.

If you are wanting to take your walking to the next level and try something adventurous, then I thoroughly recommend giving it a go.

I rate it.

Writer, producer and content creator by trade, search and rescue volunteer by passion, Caro Ryan started to inspire, teach and encourage people to get into hiking and the outdoors safely.

It’s all about connecting people to wild places in meaningful ways, so they can look after themselves, their mates and these precious places we visit.

She teaches wilderness navigation, authored the book, ‘How to Navigate’ and hosts, ‘Rescued - an Outdoor Podcast for Hikers and Adventurers.

In the bottom of her pack you'll find coffee grounds, instant noodles past their used by date and an insatiable curiosity.

Bushwalking & Hiking Tips from an Unexpected Outdoors Chick

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