This is a question that everyone should ask before going on their first off trail adventure. The short answer to the question is yes! The caveat is that you will need to gain the appropriate skills before doing so. Going off trail can be fun and lead you to things that other hikers usually do not see. However, it can also be challenging in many ways. For instance, orienteering is a challenge that many experienced off trail hikers seek, but those new to off trail hiking with little or no orienteering experience might find this to be overwhelming. This series will give you advice on how to begin your journey to becoming an experienced off trail hiker.
One of the first things I tell people that are interested in becoming off trail hikers is that they should find someone who is experienced and go on hikes with them. This may sound obvious; especially if you have a friend that is an experienced hiker, but not everyone knows someone who is experienced. If you don’t already know an experienced off trail hiker, you should seek one out on one of the numerous places to meet other hikers. For example, you can find hiking websites that have forums that help you meet other people in your area that are interested in hiking. Earth Off Trail has its own forum, but there are others as well. Florida has another great hiking website called Florida Hikes where you can meet many people. Try searching for a hiking organization with an online presence in your state.
I will offer another bit advice for new off trail hikers that want to hike with experienced hikers. You should realize that experienced off trail hikers have taken a great deal of time to become the knowledgeable, proficient hikers that they are. You should go in willing to learn and be unafraid while in the field with them. Nothing is more annoying than a non-experienced hiker that starts panicking because they don’t know where they are. The experienced hiker knows where you are. You are not lost! I had a former friend that wanted to learn about off trail hiking from me. I took him off trail in a relatively non-challenging area (i.e. plenty of reference topography). After about an hour he started panicking because he thought we were lost. I was frequently checking the topographic map and audibly voicing my thoughts about the topography to show him how to orienteer and he somehow took that to mean we were lost. In his panic, he began questioning my off trail abilities, which at the time had been developed over a period of 19 years. At that point, I promptly took him to the closest trail, guided him to his vehicle, and never hiked with him again.
The second thing that I tell non-experienced off trail hikers is to never, never, never fully rely on a GPS! I have often come upon forests with thick canopies and rough terrain that completely block the GPS signal. You do not want to rely on having to hike to the highest point in the area to navigate. You should definitely have a GPS, but it is NEVER a substitute for having a map and map compass with you. Being able to use that map and compass in the field (aka orienteering) is very important. I will be starting a separate series on orienteering. Stay tuned for the next post in this series, “Hiking Gear.”
Happy Off Trailing!