Eastern Bushwhacking: The Challenge of Being a Contrarian

When tackling the most popular peakbagging lists of the East, there are no significant off-trail challenges to speak of.  All but one of the Northeast’s 109 4,000-foot peaks have trails to their summits while in the South the challenge increases only a little: Nine of their 36 6,000-foot peaks do not have trails to their summits, but these off-trail routes rarely exceed a half-mile.

Let the traditional peakbaggers have their trails to their summits.

The peakbagging contrarians who greatly expand their lists by lowering the cutoff elevation – pursuing the Northeast’s 770 3,000-footers or the South’s 198 5,000-footers, for examples – are forced to take a walk on the wild side by bushwhacking up scores of trailless peaks.  Anyone who has completed one of these expanded lists probably has more war stories than a World War II veteran.  Tales of struggling through stunted forests, crawling under blowdown, and fighting through briar fields are commonplace.  And the storytellers rarely embellish for a simple reason: They don’t have to.  Off-trail travel in the East is exciting enough as nonfiction.

Schlimmer on trailless 5,380-foot Sugarland Mountain, Southeast

What follows are, in no particular order, the ten most challenging characteristics of Eastern off-trail travel.  Fittingly, below that descriptive list are the ten most important things to do while traveling through the “thick of it.”

The challenges

  • Blowdown: Born in the Northeast from windstorms and in the South from invasive species that kill trees, these toppled forests can be stacked up to ten feet high and cover acres of ground.

Blowdown and spruce, Northeast

  • Spruce thickets: Pushing through these dense forests is like pushing through a carwash that scrubs your car with wire brushes instead of cloths.

Pushing through a spruce thicket, Northeast

  • Cliffs: These can be spotted and evaded while ascending, but by the time you encounter them while descending, it is too late.  You’ll have to climb back up and attempt to descend another way.
  • Swamps: There are thousands of these to skirt in the Northeast.  Swamps also serve as breeding grounds for billions of biting insects.
  • Obscurity: The sub-4,000-foot peaks of the Northeast and sub-6,000-foot peaks of the South get no press in guidebooks or online.  These mountains are terra incognita.

Dense second-growth hardwood forest, Northeast

  • Scree fields: Found mostly in the Northeast, these boulder fields are composed of microwave- to couch-sized rocks, many of them unstable.
  • Remoteness: In the Northeast, obscure peaks are approached via long, desolate dirt roads where you might get crushed by a speeding logging truck.  Some Southern peaks in Great Smoky Mountains National Park require up to twenty miles of hiking.

Traveling through recovering clear cut, Northeast

  • Winter: It gets cold down South, but surely nothing like the Northeast.  If tackling Northeast peaks year-round, be prepared for subzero temperatures, biting wind, and deep snow.

Deep snow burying blowdown and spruce, Northeast

  • Rhododendron thickets: The antithesis of Southern hospitality, these thickets, sometimes dubbed “hells,” may be too dense to penetrate via hiking.  Crawling on your hands and knees on wild hog paths may be your only option.

Beginning of rhododendron “hell,” Southeast

  • Briars: There is nothing quite like thrashing through acres of briars while wearing a long sleeve shirt and work pants when it is 80 degrees out… thank goodness.

Wall of briars, Southeast

Do it

  • Carry two maps:  Losing your only map while in a trailless wilderness is like losing your paddle on You-Know-What Creek.  Carry one map in your pocket and another in your pack.
  • Tell someone where you are going: To be honest, they possibly won’t ever find you, but they’ll at least know where to try to find you.
  •  Wear long pants: No matter how hot it is, just do it.
  •  Know how to use a compass: Don’t rely on global positioning systems, which can break or die.  Compasses are sturdy instruments that are rarely unreliable.  Like maps, carry two of them.
  •  Know how to find direction by using the sun: A backup to your compass, sometimes you can navigate wholly by the sun, which is a valuable, rewarding skill.
  • Be in great shape: Bushwhacking is tough business for tough people.  As a general rule, five miles of bushwhacking feels like ten miles of trail hiking.
  • Carry communications: When traveling solo, it is a good idea to be able to reach emergency personnel if you become injured.
  • One peak at a time: Remember why you are out there – to go where few have gone and to see things few have seen.  Also, when tackling a list that is hundreds of peaks deep, your goal can seem too far away; nearly unobtainable and more discouraging than exciting.
  • Be prepared to spend the night: Always bring extra clothing, rain gear, headlamp, tarp, fire starter, and extra food in case you’re caught by sundown.
  • Have style: Since you are being bold by going off-trail, be bolder and pick routes that are rarely climbed, are more remote than others, or offer dramatic scenery.  You’ll thank yourself later.

By Erik Schlimmer

– Erik Schlimmer completed the Northeast’s 770 3,000-footers in 2004 and is three peaks shy of completing the South’s 198 5,000-footers.  More on his adventures can be found at erikschlimmer.com

3 thoughts on “Eastern Bushwhacking: The Challenge of Being a Contrarian

  1. A well written article. For most of us, we could collect all of our trail guides on our book shelves, and Eric will have hiked more trails than in all our guides that are listed! He’s one darn tough hiker, and I wouln’t want to see his shoelace budget.

  2. I have an idea. Instead of being surprised by cliffs, would it hurt you to look at a topo map in advance?

    Also, good idea to spray clothes with permethrin and leave out the night before hiking. Also protective eye great for briar patches. No one needs a thorn springing into their eye.


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