Thursday, September 9, 2010

A Primer on Adirondack Bushwhacking

The ways to enjoy the outdoors in the Adirondacks are legion. A pleasant drive through the mountains, a relaxing day by the lakeshore in a state campground, a soothing canoe ride along a slow-moving river or a vigorous hike on one of the many state-maintained trails are just a few ways to take pleasure experiencing the outdoors within the Blue Line. But few outdoor activities allow for the freedom to experience the Adirondacks on its own terms like bushwhacking does. Bushwhacking, or off-trail hiking, permits the exploration of almost all of the environments within the Adirondacks as long as they are accessible via foot travel.

Bushwhacking is defined by Merriam-Webster as “to clear a path through thick woods especially by chopping down bushes and low branches”. The Adirondacks surely has its share of thick woods with bushes and low branches (witchhobble and American beech saplings come to mind) but it is illegal to perform any chopping of live vegetation on public forest preserve property. Fortunately, a machete is completely unnecessary within the Adirondacks where the vegetation is never so dense as to require such extremes. Instead, bushwhacking should be defined within the Blue Line as navigating through natural terrestrial environments (i.e. forests, wetlands, beaver vlys, etc.) without the aid of any human-constructed landmarks such as roads or trails.

In the Adirondacks, bushwhacking only requires the use of a map and compass, a sturdy pair of hiking boots and a desire to explore areas where few have tread. If you are more comfortable with modern technology then a hand-held GPS navigational device can be substituted for the map and compass. Some find navigating with a GPS device to be tedious and prefer to learn orienteering skills to navigate through the landscape. Regardless of preference, map and compass skills should be mastered be everyone adventuring off-trail into the backcountry as GPS devices can cease functioning or run low on battery power. GPS devices equipped with digital topographical maps can be useful especially navigating during wet weather where paper maps quickly become saturated and disintegrate.

If extensive multi-day adventures are desired then traditional backpacking equipment will be required too. When purchasing backpacking equipment for bushwhacking purposes keep in mind the gear should be rugged, well-made, and lightweight. Bushwhacking inflicts greater wear and tear on your gear, so emphasizing rugged and well-made equipment will ensure years of use. Since bushwhacking is typically more arduous than traditional backpacking (e.g. the ground is less level, more obstacles to climb over or around, continuously being poked and prodded by sharp branches, etc.) it is advantageous to lighten the load on your back as much as possible. This can be accomplished by either leaving home unnecessary equipment or replacing heavier articles with lighter weight equivalents.

There are essentially two different navigation methods while bushwhacking. The shortest-distance method entails taking a direct bearing between two geographic features on a map (i.e. a hill, a stream, a lake or pond, etc.) and staying true to the bearing as much as possible as you travel over the landscape. Detours often are necessary to find an adequate stream crossing, avoid a steep section, etc. Dog-legging is the second navigation method, where one travels shorter distances and at different bearings in an attempt to avoid more difficult features on the landscape. Usually a combination of the two methods is necessary to efficiently bushwhack through the diverse topography found in the Adirondacks.

The Adirondacks affords almost infinite bushwhacking opportunities from state-owned forest preserve to private properties with recreational easements. Extensive areas devoid of trails or roads offer the greatest bushwhacking opportunities but trails and dirt roads can be useful to gain access deep into the backcountry. Herd paths (unmarked foot paths created either by human or animal activities) can be found in abundance in areas where gaining access to certain landscape features is popular. Trails, dirt-roads and bushwhacking can be combined to produce lengthy adventures over varied landscape often found in the Adirondacks.

Bushwhacking provides a multitude of opportunities for enjoying the outdoors in the Adirondacks regardless of whether one is interested in forests, wetlands, wilderness lakes or rugged mountain peaks. So pick up a map and compass, learn how to use them and get out and experience the Adirondack as only bushwhacking allows.

Photo: Old logging road by Dan Crane.

Dan Crane blogs about his bushwhacking experiences at www.bushwhackingfool.com.

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Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.




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