A step off the trail is a step into a changed world. By taking that step you are going places that most people don’t. We have become a species of roads and trails, shopping malls and limited access highways. Here in the states our trails are clearly marked with false routes blocked off with branches and markers giving distances to destinations, Off trail you decide which way is best and how far until you get there.
Moving through the woods is not as difficult as it might seem, animals do it their entire lives, many of them bigger than you. By having to avoid marshy places you learn what type of trees and bushes indicate the presence of water, which side of the hill holds the most deadfall and underbrush.
Any scuff mark or track you see is from a wild animal, any scat, every bone fragment, every tree scratch or tuft of hair, all have a tale to tell if you can piece together the story. When I’m off the trail I know where I am relative to the hills and creeks around me, there is a continual mental map in the back of my head that is constantly redrawn as the terrain shifts or I catch glimpses of far off hills through the trees. Power lines above Yellow Jacket Pass below Flat Tops Wilderness Area. Power lines are a long, manmade landmark that cut scores of miles across the countryside in relatively straight lines that can be seen from far away.
Off the trail I always am aware of where I am, on a trail my mind thinks only of the trail.
Off trail you are guaranteed to have the woods to yourself, there is no one else there. No loud conversations about work, no barky dogs, no electronically connected ear buds. No joggers or geo cachet, no mountain bikes or ATVs. Often I never even set foot on the trail at the trailhead, I just simply head off into the woods even if it takes longer.
The wind, whether it is a barely felt movement of air, or a strong breeze, either alerts others to my presence or hides my approach depending on which direction my smell is carried. Subconsciously I accommodate the wind direction in my thoughts knowing that I could well walk up on an animal unannounced or alternatively shoo them from my path before I ever get there. A big wind will mask all noise making me and all other animals in the woods slightly nervous, we can’t hear anything else that is wandering around. Bear!!
I wouldn't be caught dead in camo but I do wear dark greens and grays. No blue at all as it appears very bright to ungulates. When I have to cross a trail I try to do so carefully at right angles, I’ve no idea why I don’t want to be seen. If hikers or bikers appear simply standing still will make you almost invisible, they are looking at their next steps, not into the woods.
A couple weeks ago a friend's dad went squirrel hunting. First day he brought back ten. Second day he got eight but when he tried to walk back to his car he realized he was lost and called his wife. This guy grew up hunting squirrels in the hills and fields of his village. As a captain he commanded an infantry company on the Plain of Jars. That was then, this was now.
I’ve no tips on how not to get lost. Leave early? Turn around at noon? Maybe bring a compass and figure out on a map before you go which way to get out to a road. One thing I do know, don’t depend on a GPS. GPSs can be fickle, great tool, but you should be able to find your way around in the woods before using one. Be aware of which rivers or natural landmarks border the area you are to be walking in.
Don’t break a leg. Bring enough to spend the night. I bring two ways to make a fire, extra water, rain poncho, warm coat, and down the bottom of my pack a space blanket. Also bring your senses. Not only a sense of realism, the ability to correctly gauge your abilities and possibilities but also an open pair of eyes, ears that listen, nose that smells.
Dipterocarp Forest above Muang Sing PDR Laos