Exploring off trail can be liberating.
But it can also be deadly.
Every year thousands of search and rescue operations are conducted, and in the majority of these cases, it involved someone who ventured away from a main trail and got turned around. In Wyoming alone, nearly 400 were conducted in 2021 that involved the use of a helicopter as part of the operation.
This is why it’s important to master how to use a map and a compass. The mountains don’t how much you think they are calling you; they will never love you back. If you make a mistake, it may cost you your life.
As daunting as it may seem, exploring off trail is exciting and liberating. And you can do it safely. But every step needs to be intentional and you need to understand the second and third order of effect with each one.
Knowing how to use a map and read a compass is a process that takes time to build confidence, but you don’t have to be in the military or be a wilderness survival instructor to test your skills.
Find a good topographical map of your area and move to a known point on it. Get your gear set, and determine your distance and direction to a grid coordinate. You don’t have to plot a point (though you can do that too) – you can use the corner of a grid square if you need to.
Read the map and see what you should expect on your journey – roads, rivers, elevation, vegetation, or structures. Step off and move until you believe you are at the intended point. Then, use a GPS device or application to determine your exact location. How close are you? What were your lessons learned? What would you have done differently?
Doing self tests like this is free and costs you only time, and you mitigate a lot of risks associated with off trail movement, because of some basic planning on the front end and the tools and equipment you have. You don’t have to travel far – even 100-200 meters is fine and acceptable (especially if you are a beginner).
Exploring off trail opens up a whole new world. And when done so methodically can open up the wilderness in ways that can’t be done on the trail.