The ethics of off-trail hiking

From Berkley

As is my workday habit, I listen to Colorado Public Radio while pushing bits and bytes.

One of my favorite segments is the Colorado Matters show that covers many local Colorado issues.  Be it issues of the outdoors, legalized marijuana, or the pressures rural areas of Colorado face, I’ve always enjoyed these extensive and well-done interviews.

A recent segment discussed the popularity of 14ers and the impact all the users are having on these iconic Colorado peaks. And the efforts to rehab the trails to be more sustainable for the increased amount of users.

A brief portion of the interview mentioned how the trails should not be left.

As the person being interviewed means this mandate in the context of 14ers, there is no disagreement.

However, I’ve noticed this a commonly held belief among many for trails in general.  People will often ask the questions of  Is it allowed? Is it safe?

And at a Colorado Trail talk, I gave last year; someone gently chastised me because I mentioned my enjoyment of off-trail hiking. Furthermore, she stated that I should not mention off-trail pursuits.

In short, people view off-trail hiking with skepticism even beyond extremely high use areas.

The question, therefore: As an active outdoors person, should I be hiking off-trail or even advocating it?

My answer is a hearty yes, but with caveats.

First, I make a distinction between off-trail hiking and bushwhacking. All bushwhacking involves off-trail hiking; not all off-trail hiking involves bushwhacking.

The entry-level for off-trail hiking is harder than most people may want to experience.  There is nothing intrinsically difficult about off-trail hiking per se for the experienced outdoors person.   But most hikers are more comfortable with a defined path and route. Even looking at maps to find ways that use existing trails is an activity that is not in the comfort zone for many.

In short, merely mentioning hiking off-trail is not going to make the Colorado masses leave the existing trails to go off-trail. Route finding, map reading, performing micro navigation, and comfort with leaving a defined route behind are skills not common for many outdoor users.

I enjoy off-trail hiking as I get to see intriguing areas beyond the familiar paths. And I feel my outdoor skills are honed more by getting off the beaten path. In the increasingly crowded Front Range Urban Corridor, going off-trail lets me explore pockets of wild places. I find places that are beyond the five-mile radius that is the characteristic length of the more popular day-use demographics.  (Though, to be fair, even on-trail, most hikers seem to be within five miles of the trailhead at the most. Perhaps even 2 or 3 miles more likely.)

However, a person who enjoys off-trail hiking has some obligations to respect the wilderness and other users.  Perhaps more so. Our actions can impact the places we love in many ways.

  • The utmost point is to respect the local regulations of the area.  Such extremely high use areas as some famous 14ers have local jurisdictions that discourage or outright ban off-trail hiking. Likewise, certain fragile areas such as wetlands, wildlife corridors, historic districts, etc. do not allow off-trail hiking.  These local regulations supersede any desire to hike off-trail.   And areas that do allow off-trail hiking sometimes require a permit.  Do your research, plan accordingly, and follow the regulations as appropriate.

From the National Park Service website.

  •  Do you have the correct preparation,  skill level, and fitness for the route selected?   These points apply to any outdoors endeavor, of course. But when going off-trail, where people are scarce and SAR may have difficulty reaching you, having your outdoor skill set dialed in is very important.  An off-trail tundra ridge walk is no more challenging, and sometimes even more relaxed than most trails.  A  Class 3 scramble with route-finding may not be in your comfort zone.  Only do what is safe, comfortable, and enjoyable for you or your group.  Remember, the skill set needed must not exceed that of the least experienced member. You may have done solo free climbs of Gnarly Rock, paddled the Amazon, and rescue puppies from burning buildings.  But you may have people on trips who have never even hiked across tundra off a trail.  Be aware of the needs of the group overall. Or go solo. See the first point about being prepared if solo travel is safe. 🙂

  • If you are organizing a group trip, keep the group size small.  I was part of an outdoor group in the past that, much to my to chagrin,  did not always follow this precept.  And we’d get the stink eye from other outdoors people. 🙂  When I started organizing outings of my own, I’d try to keep the size smaller. As the years went on, my groups became even smaller to the point where anything more than four is too large for me. 😀  A bit more seriously, there is no magic number for the optimum group size. A rule of thumb? See what the local land agency allows for group size and cut that number it in half for off-trail travel. In other words, if the local management agency states no more than twelve people total, perhaps allow six people at most for off-trail pursuits. This rule of thumb seems about right.



  • Then there’s the philosophical part with no easy answer: How much to publicize off-trail endeavors?  The absolute and most straightforward solution is not to write any darn thing, of course.  But for a mixture of both selfish reasons (I enjoy writing, it is a healthy outlet for me, and helps me organize my thoughts) and for selfless reasons (I enjoy educating, people seem to enjoy this crap and find it useful)  I will continue to write. Many of my fellow outdoor enthusiasts who write, I suspect, have similar reasons.

But there has to be a balance. From the start, I was almost always vague about detailed information for off-trail routes. I did not know the skill level of the person reading my entries. I also did not want to bring too many people to an otherwise underused area or I am too lazy to write very detailed guidebook-like descriptions in complete honesty.  As the years progressed, this vagueness has become more of a trend for me with all jaunts.

Another view: A friend of mine publicized a well-known route he put together. His balance was keeping the route information just to the basics and without the specific breadcrumbs.  But, even he was a bit surprised at the relative amount of people now hiking this route.

The key is finding a balance between entertaining, informing, and assisting, without changing what was enjoyed about the area in the first place. What is the balance? Somewhere between giving the specific steps (here are the campsites, look for this rock to get over the pass, walk 500′ and then turn) and absolutely no information at all.  Each person has to find the balance for themselves. And write accordingly.


So, is off-trail hiking ethical? Absolutely. It is a way to see some unique areas away from the more popular and busy areas. But it must be done only where allowed.  And the person hiking off-trail must be mindful of their group size, safety, abilities, and the impact they will have on the area itself.

And that is how to keep off-trail hiking ethical.

Happy Off-Trails!


12 Replies to “The ethics of off-trail hiking”

  1. I grew up experiencing the outdoors growing up hunting in Pennsylvania. I don’t think I walked many trails until I moved to Colorado in the early 90’s. Today, I hike many trails and also do a lot of off trail navigation. I still hunt and most often the game does not hang out on busy trails, especially elk.

    There is an immense sense of awe in discovering new areas (new to me) and then knowing an area so well as to understand the patterns of those that live in these areas day and night, for months at a time. To see how wildlife impacts the environment is interesting. I also see how man impacts it. But I see much greater impact of man along trails where his footsteps are concentrated than a very occasional fire ring deep in the backcountry off a trail. A fire ring that I’ll typically dismantle and always look to bring out the trash that I can.

    Thanks for your perspective on the subject. I agree, big groups can potentially leave larger signs of use. Happy trails.

  2. In the Sierra Nevada, wilderness permits are required for overnight stays. On the permits, you have to give an itinerary of where you will be staying each night and the trail you will use. As a former SAR team member, almost all of the people we searched for did not stick to their itinerary and went off trail. Being in a group helps but if someone is injured, rescue is made more difficult. Going off trail is more of a risk for the individual and for those who search for them when they are lost and/ or injured. How does potentially putting others at risk by going off trail fit into your ethical equation?

    1. EDIT: As you probably missed, or ignored, this point:

      ” Do you have the correct preparation, skill level, and fitness for the route selected? These points apply for any outdoors endeavor, of course. But when going off-trail, where people are scarce and SAR may have difficulty reaching you, having your outdoor skill set dialed in is very important. “

      All of life is a risk. Not having the skill set, knowledge or preparation is both foolish and unethical. And, I would argue, the people who decided to not follow their on-trail itinerary did not have these traits. AS you probably know, being an SAR person, National Parks allow off-trail routes for backpacking once a ranger is satisfied that the person’s skill set and the plan is reasonable.

      Obviously, the people you went looking for did not follow this procedure otherwise they would not have been off their submitted plan.

      If the backcountry office feels my plans are ethical for off-trail travel and have permits in place for this type of travel, I’m going to say I feel just fine with my ethics.

      1. Thanks, Paul, for setting up those parameters. I belie3ve you are 100% correct. I would bet most people who needed rescue didn’t have the skills needed for what they attempt. I also totally agree with you: mentioning off-trail hiking won’t bring in the hoards. Most people see the unfamiliar and call it ‘unsafe’. Safe and Unsafe are such vague and relative terms. High rise constructions workers work in an ‘unsafe’ workplace – unsafe to those unskilled. Handling a pistol is ‘unsafe’ to those who have little experience.
        I have found that trails often don’t reveal the best of outdoors. I experienced one of many examples the other weekend where the trail was on top of a peninsula created by a river. Once I left the trail and scambled down the 180 ft of cliffs, a whole world of cliffs, caves, and springs opened up. I bet I was one of 10 people who visited the area this year.

    2. Is it also unethical if my planned trip is.completely on trail, but due to overzealous mileage estimates or natural obstructions that I was unaware of, I end up camping at sites other than those on my itinerary or need to change my choice of trail to avoid that steep ice field or raging river ford?

        1. But is the mere act of off-trail hiking a risk? I would say, no. And the NPS agrees over a person who advocates sticking to trails only. And, it is certainly not less ethical.

          1. “But is the mere act of off-trail hiking a risk?” It is not a risk in and of itself, however it is more of a risk than staying on the trails. I never said you should not go off trail. I said when you increase the risk (and this is where we disagree) by going off trail yourself, you potentially increase the risk for others including those with you and those who may have to rescue someone. That may have ethical consequences. Simply keep this in mind. I personally know of several cases where folks were far off trail and one person was injured. By the time the other person was able to get help, the injured person died. I use a sat phone. To me, it is an important tool for those who want to go off trail. Knowing your limitations means reappraising your limitations yearly and making adjustments. In my 50’s I used to run trails in Kings Canyon and Yosemite with a tee shirt, shorts, a flask of hammer gel and water pills. I didn’t see it as risky then. When you are 72 years old, like me you will think differently about lots of things. Since you are so comfortable off trail and obviously a good navigator, maybe you should consider volunteering your time to a SAR team.

            1. I am going to take the NPS and their standards over some person I do not know. Standards which you ignored as you backpedal and repeatedly reword what you stated in your initial written castigation. FYI: I already volunteer with outdoor groups.

            2. I ain’t stopping when I am old.. Why? ===> “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”

              ― Hunter S. Thompson

  3. I assume it’s ok to tell folks where you are headed and include, Do Not send any SAR folks after me if I go off radar. No need to risk SAR lives hunting for me. You younger folks may not understand this one.
    It would be nice if every person knew their limitations. Some folks really believe that they can climb Mt Everest because they stayed in a Holiday Inn Express last night.

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