The Masochist’s Guide To Bushwhacking

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“Bushwhacking is like my third favorite thing to do in the outdoors, behind crotch-deep postholing and getting hit in the head by falling rocks,” I said, shoulder-deep in desert foliage, hands raised like a man fending off a swarm of bees, walking forward in sloppy, almost-balanced steps.

I am not a fan of bushwhacking, but somehow practice it more often than things I like to do. Often by accident. It often begins with the utterance of the phrase, “The directions say ‘Find the faint climbers’ trail …’” Perhaps you have had a similar experience while hiking, backpacking, mountaineering, canyoneering: ducking, pushing branches aside with your hands, dead limbs tearing at your clothes and catching your backpack straps, thorns scratching exposed skin, pushing through thick vegetation in hopes of finding open terrain in a few feet. You know, fun.

Bushwhacking, although probably no one’s preferred method of backcountry travel, is a necessary skill, and not even so much a skill as a way of thinking. You are not doing it so much as you are withstanding it. Attitude is important. It is OK to hate it, and it is OK to love it — although if you say you love it, 100% of people will ask you what the hell is wrong with you, which is correct.

There are a couple things I like to remember about bushwhacking, which make it at least tolerable to do, and sometimes funny to reflect on weeks afterward, long after the scratches on your legs and arms have healed:

Bushwhacking is still exercise, and therefore at the end of the day, you can still drink as much beer and eat as much food as you want. Maybe you never made it to the climb you wanted to do, or alpine lake you wanted to sit next to and enjoy a pimiento sandwich with your toes in the cool water — who cares? You battled vegetation, pushing forward in a sometimes foolishly uphill direction, for minutes, even hours. You will have the bacon cheeseburger, fries, and two IPAs, both brought to the table now, thank you. I have spent entire days bushwhacking, completely unable to find a ridge on a peak or a rock formation in the forest. It was dumb, but it was still physical activity.

You are never “lost.” Just as your father, never lost on a family road trip, refusing to stop and ask for directions, you will find your way. Pick a direction and follow it. It will lead to something — a stream, a trail, a lake, a high point from which you can see the surrounding terrain, or sometimes, another hour of bushwhacking, which can be very Zen if you approach it with the right attitude. You will eventually find some feature you can identify on a map. Oh, do you not have a map? Sorry, you actually might be lost.

There is no style to bushwhacking. It’s like postholing, or shoveling dirt. No one will make a four-minute film about your bushwhack for the Banff Mountain Film Festival. No one will stand behind you and give you beta and cheer you on, “Yeah Bob, grab that branch, drop your right knee, step up …” Just get in that shit and start pushing.

When you put your helmet on, real bushwhacking begins. Pretty simple rule here. If you are bushwhacking through thick foliage and you have a climbing helmet in or on your backpack instead of on your head, you are half-assing it. With a helmet on, you gain a third more brute force. It’s like those old snowplows they used to put on train engines. A hard shell on your head beats that soft flesh on your arms any day. Put your head down and go for it.

Vegetation is not quite your friend, not quite your enemy. You will sometimes grab branches to pull yourself uphill, hold them to lower yourself down gullies, and hang on for balance. Sometimes they will hit you in the face. You will pull thorns out of your hands and thighs. You will accidentally break branches, and other branches will repeatedly untie your shoelaces. Do not show remorse or fear. Plants can smell weakness, and they will team up on you like an NFL defensive line until they bring you down. You are better than them. That is why we have a dish called “salad.”

-Brendan

Semi-Rad is brought to you by Outdoor Research.

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25 Comments

  1. April 18, 2013

    Oh Brendan!!! AMEN !!! I would only add the phrase “in shorts” to Your first sentance !!!!
    Blessed are those who Live out their Dreams…

    Reply
  2. Eric O'Rafferty
    April 18, 2013

    Brilliant! Sometimes Kelly Cordes’ Fun Factor scale can be applied to bushwacking: often a miserable experience turns into a fun day out with enough time passage.

    God tip on helmet usage! I also use my pack similarly to back through things.

    Reply
  3. April 18, 2013

    Having a bike with you makes bushwacking much more enjoyable.

    Reply
    • Ryan
      April 18, 2013

      Oh dear lord Jesus. I never though desert bush whacking could become worse. Until I read your comment.

      Reply
    • April 20, 2013

      Nothing quite says ‘surprise!’ like disappearing into a hidden creek whilst scrub-bashing with your bike held above your head.

      Reply
  4. Chris
    April 18, 2013

    BL, There is certainly something to be said for a good bushwhack, that helps to cement the experience in memory. As a kid I like to hike a lot and there are many ascents of mountains that have faded into a hazy memory, but a solo bushwhack up one of the ADK’s 46ers that supposedly had a lovely herd path to the summit sticks vividly in my memory. When, at 16, I lost the trail and ended up deciding that UP would eventually lead to the summit, I found myself in a thick patch of trees that were so dense I ended up about ten or fifteen feet off the ground. Eventually I attained the unremarkable summit, signed the log book and found the much more reasonable herd path on the way down. Had I been so fortunate to just saunter to the summit, that entire trip would have little significance to me. Most often it is the things that happen that are unplanned that make the experience.

    Reply
  5. Craig White
    April 18, 2013

    How to get your girlfriend to hate your sport: Involve a bushwhack. True story.

    Reply
  6. Barkin
    April 18, 2013

    Great post, I especially agree with the helmet part. When bushwhacking, you usually look at your footing. I learned it the hard way that you need a helmet to protect your noggin against the tree branches that are the heavy hitters in the vegetation army.

    Reply
  7. Steve
    April 18, 2013

    One thing that really pushes up the rad-factor in bushwhacking…rain.

    Reply
    • Mtnlee
      April 18, 2013

      Or poison ivy.

      Reply
      • Ryan
        April 18, 2013

        Ugh. And on that thought, I’m staying home this summer.

        Reply
      • Tim
        April 18, 2013

        Don’t forget the pissed-off snake you hear but can’t see.

        Reply
      • tschroe
        April 19, 2013

        Or Devil’s Club. Or Slide Alder. Or both.

        Reply
        • jmh1784
          May 28, 2013

          Gravell Creek Bushwacking! Both Devil’s Club and Slide Alder. Swarms of angry mosquitos, and those little black flies that take chunks of your flesh off when they bite.

          Rotting slash piles and other fun misc. BC bush. Oh, and then strap a pair of skis to ur pack!

          Reply
  8. Aaron F
    April 18, 2013

    Bushwacking to the bottom on Black Canyon of the Gunnison with Poison Ivy TREES was one of the more memorable. That shit was like 10 feet tall!! Ahhhhhh….The memories.

    Reply
  9. Parker
    April 18, 2013

    “No one will make a four-minute film about your bushwhack for the Banff Mountain Film Festival.”

    Challenge accepted.

    Reply
  10. April 18, 2013

    “Just get in that shit and start pushing.”

    I like all of your writing, but in every post, there’s always that one line that comes out of nowhere and totally completes the whole piece. Bravo, my man.

    Reply
  11. kevin
    April 21, 2013

    Geared up properly (snake gaiters, heavy boots and so on..)I showed up for some trail work. Taking down 50 y.o. barbed wire fence that was hidden in shoulder high scrub brush. Upon announcing I had just read this article and was pumped, they annointed me “point-man” and I had to charge into the sheit first. What hell. Snake season in full flow and absolutly no way to see where you’re stepping.

    Next time? Make sure you’re not the ONLY one with snake gaiters.

    Reply
  12. Bob Cort
    April 22, 2013

    Organ Mountains, NM? That’s where bushwhacking dreams (nightmares?) are made of!

    Reply
  13. Patrick
    April 24, 2013

    After a badly marked race route, on a pre-ride this weekend I spent a good two hours fighting through thorns and rhododendron in search of a trailhead. Luckily your helmet trick helped me through most of it. Also irony in the fact that I read this article the morning of the race pushed me through. Thanks for another great article. Pulled second place after making the right turn a few hours later!

    Reply
  14. Karl
    May 10, 2013

    …try it in snowshoes…

    Reply
    • Hayden
      June 18, 2013

      Or skiis,

      Reply
  15. Jakub
    May 13, 2013

    Great story! I just got back from a climbing trip from the island of Corsica and most of our climbing goals were beyond reasonable walking distance, therefore involved alot of bushwacking!! Its, funny, but even though a person thinks they are prepared and have all the information about the climb down, things go wrong. We read the terrain according to how tired and pumped we are at the moment, and then take the fateful wrong turn.. The bushwack begins! If a person does not turn back within the first 5-10meters, then there is NO turning back. I lost alot of blood during my last bushwack to a 250m climb which should have taken only 1 and a half hours to reach. After struggling with vines and other hazards for nearly double that time, we finally made it to the base of the climb, all scratched up and happy to be alive :) The 250m of climbing was easier than the bushwack! Anyway,enjoy all your trips including the bushwacks, they are part of the experience.

    Reply
  16. Jordan
    May 30, 2013

    There is no better bushwacking stories than hunting with your dad who says, “you walk from here and I will pick you up on the other side”.

    Reply
  17. June 10, 2013

    I want to make a film of you bushwhacking, but I’m weird.

    Reply

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