Though intuition and luck play a role, wilderness travel along trails, around bush, over snow, and across rivers and streams also requires some specific skills and experience to surmount the possible hazards and hurdles that await you on the trail.
Try to gather as much relevant information as possible during the planning stage of your hiking trip. Take time to research the climate and geology of the area you’ll be hiking in (especially if it’s more or less unfamiliar to you). Keep in mind that each mountain, for example, has its own peculiarities making it (possibly) different than any other mountain you’re familiar with. Gather detailed information about your route from maps (road maps, aerial maps, and topographic maps), guidebooks, and online resources (outdoor websites, hiking blogs, forums, local/state agencies, and interactive maps); check weather forecasts. You can also obtain up-to-date information from backpackers who have made the trip as well as from locals who know the area. They can describe landmarks, hazards, trail conditions, and route-finding difficulties (such as snow conditions and the best places to ford streams).
Traveling in the wilderness is like wandering in a foreign country. However, if you’re well prepared, have sufficient personal experience, and you’re aware of the key features of the terrain, you will be able to skillfully travel over different terrain and to comprehend the clues that the wilderness offers as you go.
How to cope with various terrain
Hiking on rocky slopes and trails
Mountains constantly crumble, dropping rock fragments that pile up below as talus, scree, and boulders. Talus consists of the larger fragments big enough to step on individually, while the size of the smallest stones known as scree varies from the size of coarse sand and gravel up to tennis or baseball-size rocks. Boulder fields are formed of the largest rocks that have fallen off cliff faces and are normally formed under the cliff they detached from. Crossing these fields can be tricky as you need to test each step for unstable boulders. They can easily tip you over so you must be very careful and try not to slip. The most commonly traveled boulder fields are usually much more stable than the unfrequented boulder fields.
Talus slopes build gradually over the ages. There are basically two types – older and younger talus slopes. Soil and vegetation fill the spaces between the rocks in the older slopes, while talus can be loose on volcanoes and younger mountains since the rocks haven’t remained in place for a long time. The biggest danger comes from large rocks that can roll. Hopping and shifting your weight onto an unstable rock can be very dangerous. Move nimbly on talus (short, quick steps), take your time and make sure that the rock you are stepping on is solid before you shift your full body weight onto it to avoid moving rocks and injuries. Plan four or five steps ahead and vary the leg you use for takeoff and landing to prevent repetitive stress injuries. Be extra careful on wet talus.
Scree accumulates on slopes beneath cliffs and ridges. Climbing, descending, or crossing scree slopes can be very difficult, exhausting, and hazardous. For every step you take up, you often slide at least a half step back down in the loose rubble dislodging stones. Going up diagonally than trying to go straight up reduces the chance for rocks to come down from someone directly above you. If you hear “Rock!” never look up but cover your head with your pack or your hands. Be careful of locking your knee or suddenly hitting solid ground when walking down scree slopes. Wear gaiters for scree to keep bits of rock out of your boots. Keep your speed controlled to maintain balance and avoid falling head over heels. You usually need lots of patience to deal with scree slopes.
Treat rocky slopes with caution. Take your time and stay balanced to avoid falls. Balance is the key to walking through rough terrain and steep slopes of stones and boulders. You can use trekking poles to cross rough terrain, however, make sure they don’t get caught between two rocks. If you are not comfortable crossing boulder fields or scree or talus slopes, retreat and look for a safer way.
Walking downhill is easier aerobically as the pace quickens without increasing fatigue but it can also be very strenuous on your body and lead to many injuries if you lose focus. When you walk downhill, your body and pack weight place a lot of strain on your legs, knees, ankles, and feet. Your toes smash repeatedly into the front of the boot when your foot slides forward in your boot. In addition, the jolts travel up your spine and jar your entire body. As a result, a host of injuries such as blisters, sore toes, blackened toenails, knee cartilage damage, and back pain occur. You can avoid them by using one or more of the following tricks:
- Trim toenails before starting out
- Maintain a measured pace take small controlled steps
- Lace your boots tightly to reduce the movement inside the boot
- Bend the knees slightly to absorb the shock
- Place each foot lightly and step carefully to reduce the stress on the feet
- Use trekking poles to reduce the stress on the knees and to improve and maintain your balance and provide additional stability
Hiking on snow and ice
If you’re traveling to mountain areas, make sure you have the proper equipment and training to cope with the terrain and deal with the hazards that await you there. However, if you have to traverse icy snowfields in summer and you don’t have an ice ax or crampons, you can use your hiking sticks to keep your balance and reduce the chance of falling. Hiking on snow and ice is somewhat similar to traversing rock slopes. However, keep in mind that:
- As the slopes get warmer, the snow softens. This increases the risk of rockfall and icefall thus it’s often best to climb in the early hours of the day.
- North-facing slopes get less sun than south-facing slopes. This keeps them harder longer during the day. Based on where you are going, the terrain, the extent of snow cover, and the time of day, one slope may be better than another to hike on.
- Kick steps into the snow and avoid walking up flat-footed on steep and slippery slopes. If the snow is soft enough you won’t have problems applying this technique but if the snow is harder, you may have to cut steps with your ice ax or use crampons.
- The plunge step is more efficient on steep snow descents when the snow is relatively soft. Land heel first on an extended leg and let your body weight drive the heel down into the snow. With your foot at the correct angle, you create a platform just like when you kick steps going up. This way, you can descend very quickly but don’t forget to keep your speed controlled (using an ice ax if needed).
Hiking through thick forest or brush (bushwhacking)
Thrashing through thick brush and scrambling over fallen trees is called bushwhacking. Brush thrives in young forests or in wet subalpine areas and obscures the peril of cliff, ravines, and boulders. Hiking through brush can be a backcountry horror – long, difficult, dangerous, and grueling travel across country while thorny bushes tear at your clothes and pack. There are areas where you can cover a mere kilometer or less per hour of bushwhacking. Try to avoid bushwhacking if possible because it’s probably the hardest form of walking. Usually, it’s much better to climb high above dense vegetation and wade up rivers just to avoid brush. Use some basic techniques for hiking through thick forest or brush:
- Use trails as much as possible; avoid unmaintained trails since they can quickly become overgrown.
- Move slowly and deliberately.
- Don’t make the mistake of wearing shorts in areas with dense thickets of thorny bushes and small trees.
- Look for game trails because animals usually follow the path of least resistance. Stay alert and if you see signs of bear activity in the area, make some noise to avoid accidental encounters.
- Look for big trees as they block sunlight and restrict brush growth.
- Choose the shortest route when bushwhacking.
- Don’t follow one another too closely, if hiking with a group, to avoid people being slapped in the face by whiplashed branches.
- Minimize gear hanging on the outside of your hiking pack.
- Use fallen trees as elevated walkways.
- Push and pull the bushes apart to make a passageway; use shrubs as handholds on steep terrain.
Crossing rivers and streams
Always plan and execute rivers and streams crossings. They can consume huge amounts of time and energy and present major hazards, especially for novice and inexperienced backpackers. Water can be very powerful even in placid looking streams and can cause potentially uncontrollable and dangerous situations during your trip. The speed of the current and the depth of the river are the two most important factors that can lead to dangerous situations. Other potential hazards include cold water and hypothermia, foot entrapment, undercut banks and rocks, swirling eddies, chutes where the water speed increases, and submerged branches that might hold a person swept against them. Take your time to examine the river carefully in order to determine what potential hazards exist in crossing. Get a careful view of the river to decide whether to cross, where to cross, and how to cross. It’s best to pick up a shallow stretch of water free from boulders, floating logs, partially submerged branches, and other obstructions. Be extra careful and think twice before crossing if the river is moving very quickly, there is a strainer or a waterfall near the crossing site, the water is over your knees or you can’t determine the water depth, the color of the river is muddy or the water is extremely cold. Also, try to avoid crossing at a bend in the river. There are too many potential dangers such as deeper and faster water on the outside of the bend, steep and difficult to climb banks, strainers, etc.
When choosing the crossing spot, look for the widest part of the river. The current is slower there. In many cases, you can safely cross barefoot, but the cold water makes it easy to injure your feet without knowing. So, it’s probably better to keep your boots as they will protect your feet and provide ankle support (put the socks in your pack to keep them dry). Keep your pack on but be prepared to throw it away if necessary. Move slowly taking small steps. Use trekking poles for balance and to probe your way for dropoffs and rocks. Be careful when walking on logs or boulder hopping since they’re often too slippery. Avoid loose clothing, especially baggy pants that offer greater resistance to the water and increase your chances of being pulled over. If you do get swept off your feet, jettison your pack, and float downstream on your back to prevent foot entrapment. Don’t try to stand up but float on your back (swim backstroke) to shore.
Sometimes river crossings can be easy. Sometimes they aren’t. Don’t take unnecessary risks and don’t try crossing rivers and streams if you have to go in rushing water that is over your thighs. Water can be dangerous so take your time, avoid potential hazards, and be especially mindful of the environment.
Traveling in the wilderness requires relevant knowledge, experience, and skills. It’s really important for a hiker to have the right knowledge and skills needed to travel over a variety of terrain types because coping with various terrain and surfaces is a part of the hiking experience. Never underestimate the risks and dangers associated with traversing rock slopes, bushwhacking, hiking on snow and ice, and crossing rivers and streams. Always plan ahead, don’t take unnecessary risks, be mindful of the environment, and don’t forget that safety always comes first.