The How and Why of Bushwhacking on a Hike

...other than torture. Don't say I didn't warn you.

This is what bushwhacking feels like. Photo (c) Rebecca van Ommen / Getty Images

Bushwhacking -- that is, crawling, weaving, or otherwise bashing your way through torturously thick, head-high undergrowth -- is pretty much the summer equivalent of postholing. Both are downright miserable ways of spending a hike, but limited stints can be endured if they're followed by a fantastic reward.

There are lots of reasons not to bushwhack, even if it means taking a longer, more circuitous route.

It's all too easy to lose your bearings while bushwhacking, and your backpack, clothing and even exposed skin will become magical magnets for poking branches and poisonous plants. Drop anything small during a true bushwhack, your window of opportunity to spot and retrieve said object before it vanishes into the green will be about .005 seconds long.

Besides, the contortions necessary to crawl through thick undergrowth just aren't much fun.

With that said, there are a few legitimate reasons to go bushwhacking in limited doses. If it's the only way to get where you're going and you're sure the destination is worth the effort and you're sure you can get there without getting turned around, tangled up or hurt, here's how to make things go as smoothly as possible:

  1. Streamline the outside of your pack and clothing. Your goal is to leave nothing protruding to snag on branches.
  2. Scope out the route beforehand. Unless it lengthens the bushwhack to an unacceptable degree, choose what looks like the path of least resistance. 
  1. Choose something to orient on. A series of easily visible landmarks -- say, a giant tree or a particular mountain -- are ideal. Failing that, steer by the direction of the sun or, in areas with high winds that blow in a consistent direction, by orienting on the growth patterns of the tree limbs.
  2. Beware the treacherous ground. In truly thick greenery, it's all too easy for the plants to conceal irregularities in the footing. Dense bushes can hide a steep drop-off so convincingly that you won't know it's there until you're falling through.

    So you're going for it, are you? Good for you! Bushwhacking is rarely fun while you're doing it -- but sometimes it'll take you to the most fabulous places. And if you make it through to the other side (or sometimes even if you don't), it usually makes a great story after the fact.