My fellow hikers, especially those of you equipped with a particular zest for posting indignantly on the interwebs, let’s gather ‘round the metaphoric campfire for a little chat. What I’m about to share is done in the spirit of kindness and with an understanding that you just want to protect what you love; having reached a sort of saturation point with online misinformation, however, I feel the need set the record straight:
It’s okay to hike off-trail. And it’s not only okay, it’s pretty damn great.
Before we dissect this supposed heresy, let’s exclude a few things from my definition of “off-trail.” I’m not talking about:
• Strolling through pristine meadows (or, uh, non-pristine meadows)
• Hiking to the side of and thus widening a wet or muddy trail because you are afraid that your boots, which are made for being outside, might get some outside on them
• Plowing through cryptobiotic soil like a Gore-Tex-clad Godzilla
• Being That Person who ignores signage clearly stating that users must remain on trail to protect plants, water sources, cultural resources, or perhaps animals who deserve a little space of their own in which to make sweet, sweet love
• Cutting switchbacks
Instead, I’m talking about traveling cross-country (on durable surfaces like granite and sand, of course) to venture beyond the confines of a trail. Please believe me—I am no trail-hating heathen. I love the things so damn much that I wrote an entire book to help other people experience the magic of the Pacific Crest Trail. I’m an ambassador for the American Hiking Society. I’ve not only participated in trail restoration, but I’ve headed up an entire twelve-person trail crew. And I volunteer a lot of time not only teaching outdoor skills (including the hallowed principles of Leave No Trace), but also taking people out for what is often their first hiking or backpacking trip.
Trails are amazing—hell, even animals know this, considering their own use paths bisect the landscape along with the human variety. Trails lead to wondrous sights and special places. They help concentrate use so that we can enjoy pristine meadows without a dozen human cattle paths marring the surrounds. They provide access to folks who may not have the skills, knowledge base, physical capability, or inclination to move across the land without a bit of guidance.
So why advocate for off-trail travel? Someone once asked what I like about trails and I responded that I think a trail represents “possibility”—a path to discovery of self and far beyond the self, and I believe that with all of my heart. But I also think that same possibility exists—and for myself and others, to a much higher level—when one leaves the boundaries of a trail in order to push their own. To engage well-practiced skills of navigation and route-finding. To gain perspective and feel small in wide, open spaces. To be fully present and immersed in the landscape. To contemplate big questions in places that have been impacted by little more than footprints. To go deeper, if you will.
In many places, in fact, it’s necessary—encouraged, even—to strike out from the well-trod path to venture further afield. Untethered, you can find joy by sinking into a desert crack while canyoneering, scrambling atop an alpine summit in the backcountry, or exploring choose-your-own adventure trips like the Hayduke “Trail” and Sierra High Route. You’ll even find plenty of places where trails are nearly nonexistent—self-sufficiency is the rule at Bears Ears National Monument, Denali National Park, Great Sand Dunes National Park, and other wild and wonderful public lands.
Of course, cross-country travel is not allowed everywhere, nor is it for every person. It requires an understanding of how to leave minimal impact, knowledge of map and compass use (and use of common sense to route-find), the ability to self-rescue in case of emergency, the physical capability to move across uneven and often downright difficult terrain, and often, a whole lotta patience as you slowly study the map, read the landscape, pick your way around obstacles, and choose your path forward.
But that slowness is part of the magic—the land dictates my pace. For me, it’s an opportunity to not only chase solitude, but an invitation to discover peace and quiet my mind. It’s a chance to reconnect with my wild self—my real self—and remember that there’s more to life than flashing screens and crowded highways. Off-trail, I feel like I’m part of the landscape, instead of just a visitor.
I often think about my experience on Mount Morgan, a trail-free 13er located in the Sierra, just southeast of Mammoth Lakes. Bothered with digestive issues, I sat for a spell on the peak’s northern shoulder, enjoying the views—down to the sapphire-dotted Little Lakes Valley and across to the serrated ridgeline beyond. Then I spotted movement on a small ridge nearby—a herd of about a dozen bighorn sheep delicately picking their way down its sheer face.
I nudged my hiking partner and we sat in awed silence, watching as the sheep continued their dance on the talus below. We were the only human witnesses in this moment. In a way, I wish the rest of our group could have enjoyed what we saw, but it also felt special, almost spiritual in the near solitude, watching the natural order of things unfold as it always had, long before a single trail had been carved into the ground.
In-text photos by Shawnté Salabert; top photo: Patrik Michalicka