Hiking a Route vs. Hiking a Trail: Part 2 – How to develop the skills for route-finding.

Part 2 of my Routes vs Trails is up on the MSR – Mountain Safety Research blog! Thanks to some badass fellow hikers, I think we came up with a good list of suggestions on how to progress your skills to start hiking more routes. Maybe I’m biased?? 🙂

My heart lurched as I scanned the snow-covered forest floor looking for any hint of a path through the trees. The hiker whose footsteps I was following knew where they were going, right? When those footsteps made an unexpected turn in the snow, doubt crept in. Had the footsteps lead me astray? Was I lost? I pulled the map from my pocket, determined that, wherever I was in this thick forest, if I headed north I would intersect a road…eventually. I followed my compass bearing for almost an hour before crossing a dirt road draped with melting patches of snow. Yes! I did it! Now I set to the task of finding my next landmark to figure out where on the map I had ended up. I’m not lost! Just not exactly sure where I am…

Route Finding | The Summit Regsiter
Photo by Quoc Nguyen

My backcountry navigating skills were put to the test again and again when I hiked the fledgling Arizona Trail nine years ago. Even though I was hiking a developing trail, many sections required route-finding. In times like these having the skills to find yourself again is crucial.

If you want to hike a route, you need a solid backcountry skill set. Developing those skills will open up new possibilities for spending extended time in the backcountry.

In part 1 of this series, we looked at the differences between a route and trail. Now, we’ll look at how to acquire the route-finding skills needed for that off-trail hiking.

As the Oregon Desert Trail Coordinator, I spend a lot of time helping people feel comfortable and confident with off-trail travel. For this piece, I polled some of the most accomplished route creators and hikers I know for their advice. Liz “Snorkle” ThomasCam “Swami” HonanJustin “Trauma” LichterSage Clegg, and Paul “Mags” Magnanti all have extensive experience and play an active role in educating hikers new to the trails and the backcountry.

How to develop your skills

  • Take a navigation class: Learning how to navigate with a map and compass from an experienced instructor is a great start. Your options include watching online tutorial videos, taking a class at your local outdoor store, and signing up for a guided field trip.
    Route Finding | The Summit Register
    Photo by Renee Patrick

Trauma took an outdoor education class in college that had him wandering around the canyon country of southern Utah for three months, for which he got college credit. Sage learned to use a map and compass at 14 when she enrolled in an Outward Bound course. Mags took an Appalachian Mountain Club course in “the wild, remote lands of Rhode Island” just prior to his AT thru-hike.

  • Practice: “Once you feel comfortable with the basics, it’s time to use those skills,” explains Mags. Practice your navigation. Then practice again BEFORE you head out on a challenging route.
    • Practice on trails: “To learn, I always carried a map on hikes that are ontrails, and frequently checked the map to make sure I always knew about where I was,” Snorkle says. “Following along on the map, I got a feel for how topo lines translated into hills or ridges so when I really needed those skills, like on cross-country sections or when the trail disappears, I had a better idea.”
    • Practice NEAR trails or very visible landmarks: “Practice in a place you can fail,” Sage suggests. “Go off-trail between two easy-to-find ‘handrails’ like a river and a road, or between two established trails. If you get off course you can always bail to familiar turf by traveling towards the handrail.”
    • Practice micro-navigation: The art of making small route choices on the ground, or “micro-navigation” is just as important as the skills you learn in navigation classes. “What is the best way to get around that gap before the pass? Should I go left or right on the talus slope? This type of navigation mastery can only come with experience,” Mags explains.
    • Practice in an urban setting: Snorkle suggests, “Put together a complicated walking route with lots of turns, go for a trip, and practice with a paper map. If you’re really lost, you can always check your phone or find a ride home.”
  • Anticipate the terrain: Beyond knowing where you should be on the map now, look ahead and predict what you will do next. Will you cross a creek right before you need to make your turn? You can be on the lookout for the creek that will indicate your next move. Study your maps right before your hike to get a lay of the land, and repeat at each break.
  • Go with more experienced people: “I started hiking off-trail before I was ever a thru-hiker,” Snorkle says. “I went with more experienced hikers, watched what they did and learned from them. I followed along on my own maps, made educated guesses, and then checked in with them for confirmation.”
  • Learn on maps before GPS: GPS devices and smart phones have become incredibly common and utilitarian, especially when hiking off-trail. However, it’s still important to have the analog skills of map reading and navigating. Devices can break, technology can lead you astray; it’s vital to always carry paper maps and know how to use them.
  • Scout the route before your hike: Swami says, “I’ll go over my proposed route several times, identifying notable landmarks, challenging stretches, potential camping areas and possible exit routes in case of an emergency.” If your route has a GPS track, upload it to Google Earth and review the trip with detailed satellite imagery.
    Route Finding | The Summit Register
    Photo by Sage Clegg
  • Build skill development into your objective: “Each adventure can be a learning experience, as much as it is an opportunity to visit a new place,” Trauma explains, “I try to add a skill that I can improve on into the core goal for each trip I take. This also helps create a challenge that keeps me interested and inspired.”

Other considerations

  • Take extra safety precautions: “Prior proper planning prevents piss poor performance,” Trauma advises. Err on the side of caution regarding the amount of food, water, clothing you will carry and the distance you plan to travel per day. On routes, these variables are often quite different from backpacking on an established trail. “I leave a detailed description of my proposed route with friends or family before setting out,” Swami says. “Consider carrying a personal locater beacon, such as a SPOT or Garmin inReach.”
  • Be aware of private public land issues: It is your responsibility to know the rules and regulations on public lands, Each land management agency has different protocols regarding caching, permits, access and more. Do your homework. It is also your responsibility to know how to avoid going on to private land. Not all fences indicate private land, and not all private land is fenced. Many GPS apps have private land layers, and hunting unit paper maps often show private land parcels.
    Route Finding - The Summit Register
    Photo by ONDA
  • Be willing to adapt: “Mother Nature doesn’t have a copy of your itinerary,” Swami likes to say. “The keys to hiking a route are preparation, adaptability and objectivity. If you aren’t sure that a particular area will be navigable, have a Plan B. Never be too wedded to a particular course.” Carry a map of the entire area you’ll travel through, so you’re able to find a new route if plans change.

Once you have the experience and skill level to head off the beaten path, being successful in remote backcountry settings falls to making good decisions. Listen to your body, observe the terrain and weather, carry the resources you need to make route decisions in the field, and remember to enjoy yourself! Taking a rest day, or a side trip for ice cream, are good decisions if they keep your morale high and your feet happy.

When you’ve mastered your backcountry skills, I hope to see you out on the Oregon Desert Trail! This 750-mile route through the most scenic places in Oregon’s high desert will challenge – and reward – you.

Route Finding | The Summit Register
Photo by Randy Aarestad




Day 3 and beyond

The Oregon Timber Trail basecamp on Winter Rim was epic

If I don’t write these hiking journals while I’m on the trail life intercedes and it gets away from me. It’s been 2 weeks since my Section 7 hike and in between I helped lead trail crews for bikepacking route, the Oregon Timber Trail, of which the ODT shares 50 miles of single track in the Fremont-Winema Forest, and then led trail work for a group of Oregon Natural Desert Association volunteers in the Badlands Wilderness for National Trails Day, and now I’m down near Denio, NV scouting a way around the brushy and fantastically frustrating bushwack in Denio Canyon and meeting with some landowners in the area.

Whew. This is my job!

I stayed the night at the Running G Farm near Denio Canyon with an awesome couple, Katie and Garrick. They rent out a bunkhouse to hikers and others, and as I found out, that stay may come with a steak fed from the grass right outside the window. So delicious. (check out the town guide I put together for info on the farm and a ton of other places to stay and visit in SE Oregon http://www.onda.org/OregonDesertTrail it’s on the Plan a Trip page under Trail Resources)

Also the Diamond Inn in Denio is open again. It’s been closed about 6 years, but Jeff the owner just got it going about 2 weeks ago. I felt welcomed right away when I stopped in, and before I knew it the rest of the patrons were buying rounds and filling me in on some local history.

I missed seeing Dirtmonger by a few days on his Mexico to Canada Desert Trail hike (the Desert Trail overlaps with the Oregon Desert Trail in the Pueblo Mountains and Steens Mountain). He will be the second person to ever thru hike this route that’s been around about 40 years.

Lots going on, and when trying to decide what I wanted to do for my birthday this weekend, I think instead of the usual camping trip or outdoor adventure I might just play it close to home and have a Bend birthday. When I’m out all the time for work. It’s a luxury to be home!

The trails will disappear if something doesn’t change

Remember in my last post where I lamented the state of trails and the lack of funding for our federal agencies to maintain them to the level they need?

Well I was listening to Emory’s By Land episode with friend Clay Jacobson from the Idaho Trails Association and they got into much more detail.

Listen here

If you are a hiker who wants to continue hiking trails, a trails advocate who wants more actionable stats or a policy maker who can make a difference regarding federal budgets, give it a listen.

We can’t keep relying on volunteers to maintain the bulk of our trail systems, and hundreds of miles of tread are being lost each year as is.

On another note I’m down near Fields this week and had the great pleasure of running into team UltraPedestrian on their epic hike from the Idaho Centennial Trail to the Oregon Desert Trail to the Pacific Crest Trail to the Pacific Northwest Trail… A journey of close to 3,000 miles.

Amazing! I knew when I started working on the Oregon Desert Trail that it would be a natural next step to connect into other trail systems. And here they are, the first to do it!

Oregon Desert Trail Section 7 – Day 2 – 20 miles

Not a good night of sleep, but that is my normal on night one now. Sigh.

I whipped up a meal replacement drink for breakfast, just to try it out… and I decided that I will continue to eat solid foods. I really like eating, and drinking my calories just doesn’t do it for me.

My legs felt heavy and slow, probably the lack of sleep and minimal breakfast, but I was still moving at a decent pace. When I took my first break I gave Kirk a call, he had been rafting on the John Day and we missed each other before I left town. The morning was hot so I took off some layers to get a little sun on some white skin, but it looked like the clouds were moving in. A quick check of the weather confirmed that, in fact rain and lightning is in store for the whole week… That could make for some interesting trail work.

a tiny patch of snow was still clinging to the trail

the views…

I had lunch at Moss pass, and after about a mile the trail tread started to go downhill. Literally and figuratively. The next 5 miles or so were in poor shape, at times the tread completely covered with vegetation. It’s daunting to stay on top of this stuff! The Forest Service has a hint of the budget they really need to be able to do their job like trail work, and they rely heavily on volunteers to make up the difference. A lot of the trails aren’t hikeable because the maintenance has been deferred so long. Many of them around the country were built by the civilian conservation corps when the government put people to work around the time of the great depression, and we have this amazing legacy of trails now. I would love to see a modern CCC so we could maintain them. Or we could adequately fund our land management agencies so they can do the jobs they are mandated to do…

More hiking. I didn’t get rained on, but walked into an area that must have gotten hammered because everything was soaking wet and I was sliding around in the mud. I got some water from a cow infested creek before climbing up a little to find a camp spot.

I only left home yesterday but I smell like I’ve been out for weeks, I’m muddy, sweaty and bloody from a few scrapes… it doesn’t take long out here and I’m even dreaming of pizza even though I didn’t earn it yet!

Oregon Desert Trail Section 7 – Day 1 – 16 miles

The air is so soft! Slight whiffs of sweet blossoms met me right out of Paisley, and the low clouds lend a sense of moisture in the air. It’s not humid per say, but it’s not the usual dry parched air either. It’s soft, and envelops me as I walk the 8 miles of road along the Chewaucan River this morning.

I’ve found more reasons to come out and hike another section of the Oregon Desert Trail this week… (funny how that happens!) this time to hike the trail between Paisley and Lakeview. I’ll be leading a trail crew out here next month, and I came to scout out the conditions prior to the trip. Since my volunteers will probably only work on about 3 miles of trail, why am I hiking 50? Well after my hike I’m meeting up with a group from the Oregon Timber Trail, a bike route from California to Washington, that shares the tread with us and the Fremont National Recreation Trail. I will be helping that group out to maintain a section of their route that continues where the ODT veers east, on top of the epic Winter Rim. If there is extra time the crew might backtrack to the section I’m hiking to clear any trees I might find, and/or I’ll be able to pass the list of needed maintenance in to the Forest Service who might send their own crews back out this summer. I’ll also hike past the trail work that we’ve been able to fund for the Lakeview Alternative high school this year and last. I’ll be able to scout out their work and identify what could be done in the future.

Multiple reasons for a 50 mile hike!!!

After lunch at Chewaucan crossing, I crossed the bridge for trail… the next 60 miles are primarily trail (with one big section of road that the Timber Trail and Forest Service want to turn into trail… I’ll be walking the proposed section with them later this week). It is a slow meandering climb, and the only living things I saw were pronghorn, lizards and birds. Ahhhhh, so nice.

Lots of water, even more than is on our water chart, and the afternoon passed lazily by as I made my way south. I wasn’t out to crush any miles, so took my time and made camp on the side of a slope hidden from the trail and tucked under a huge ponderosa pine. The ground was drying out, enough that I wasn’t making any footprints, but some horseback rider had been through and sunk a good 6” into the trail. Grrrrrrr. Don’t travel on muddy trails people!! Especially a heavy horse or a bike (there were a few bike tracks that had sunk in an inch or two, but the major transgression was from the horse.) I hiked about half a mile of the trail that my ONDA volunteers cleared last year, but it wasn’t very apparent. Bummer. Again horse hooves and new green growth in the tread. At least there was only one new down tree so far in my hike.

The imminent wet weather is supposed to hold off so I’m cowboy camping tonight.

mmm, dinner!


I wrote an article for MSR’s blog the Summit Register. I’ve been wanting to write this for at least 2 years, as a lot of what I do is help people figure out how to hike a route like the Oregon Desert Trail.

This one was fun as I was able to poll some other route creators (and incredible hikers, and pretty awesome people): Liz “Snorkle” ThomasCam “Swami” HonanJustin “Trauma” LichterSage Clegg, and Paul “Mags” Magnanti.

Give it a read!

Routes vs. Trails Part 1


Oregon Desert Trail Section 25 – Day 3 – 8 miles

I slept so well down tucked out of the wind and exhausted from sub-par sleep from the night before, and the miles of yesterday. Before sunrise it started to rain again, and I knew our agreed-upon start time of 7am was less and less likely to happen. While on a thru-hike the need to constantly make miles despite the rain is really important, but on shorter hikes that need kind of goes out the window….however I wanted to usher people back to the shuttle cars waiting at Leslie Gulch before making the 3 hour drive back to their cars at Lake Owyhee State Park, and then home. Some hikers came out from SW Oregon & Portland, long drives!

I made coffee with my woodburning stove instead of getting up for the hot water Tim has been making us in the mornings…it’s nice to be self sufficient, especially when it’s raining! I packed up and was under Tim’s big shelter by 7am…and saw all the other tents still up. Oh well. I sat down to drink some more coffee and watch camp slowly come alive when the rain petered out.

We were walking by 8:30.

In the first few miles it looked like I could take a short cut between two waypoints, so climbed up and over a ridge, to see we would have a steep-ish sidehill to get down the other side. The problem with shortcuts and topo maps is that you don’t always see those minor 5-10′ cliffs that the topo lines don’t show. We maneuvered down the slope carefully and started walking up our long ascent of the day. We would climb 2,000′ to the top of Juniper Gulch, before descending steeply down to Leslie Gulch. We took a break at the start of the steeper section of canyon, and relaxed a bit before the climb.

The rocks were stunning along the unnamed canyon, and I suggested that the hikers come up with a name for this canyon, as there was nothing on the map. We started up the more cliffed out section, but soon the canyon widened out enough that the climbing was quite gradual and much easier than I anticipated. Andrea picked up a rock and came up to us  in excitement, a thunder egg! Being the good geologist she is, Sarah had been carrying her rock hammer, so Andrea pulled it out and cracked open the rock as we all looked around in anticipation. It wasn’t a thunder egg, it was a geode! Beautiful crystals inside…Andrea said she found it in the drainage, so it probably washed down from some feature in the high rock walls. So cool! The geode broke into pieces, so many of us hiked out with a piece, and I saved one for MJ, one of the board members for Friends of the Owyhee who had been helping set up camp and such..it was her birthday. How about a birthday geode!

We hiked on, following very well defined cow trails. The cows made a better path than we could, and each time we came to a bend in the canyon, the cows would find the straightest line between canyons, making for a very efficient path. Now cows are a mixed blessing. I’m starting to monitor for human impacts along the ODT this year, but am finding many more animal impacts. I’m not sure how we will be able to determine that human feet made a path on a cross country section versus animal feet. I guess it’s easy to see from the poop who is using the trails!

We stopped for lunch, but it was raining again, and it wasn’t long before everyone was shivering and we wanted to keep moving. The last of the climb went up an unnecessary few hundred feet according to the waypoints, but I followed them, and soon realized my error as the group was slowing and getting more and more tired. I could have kept following the drainage around before the climb, saving us a descent…another protip to hiking a route: hike smarter, not harder. If you see a better way that isn’t waypointed, go! We continued up the near-by drainage to the original ODT waypoints, and the group was slowing. I pointed out the last of our climb up to the right of a pointy rock formation, but it was still 1,000′ up. We took our time, again on some steepish sidehilling. There is lots of sidehilling folks! Be prepared….

Finally we crested the ridge and dropped our packs by the lone juniper tree at the top. Someone still had energy, for Andrea climbed up to the highpoint with camera in tow and motioned us over. AND the group named the canyon we just climbed up…”Let ‘er Rip” canyon. I’ll include that in the next update 🙂


Views for miles!


This is why we are here.

We had less than two miles to the cars, but a very steep descent had us slow going. The canyon is gorgous and the urge is to look around, but if you looked up from your feet, that could land you on your butt.

We inched our way down, and finally most of the group took off for the cars, and cold beer in the cars.

And success!!!!! We made it through without any major mishaps, lots of sore legs and feet, a few blisters, an epic adventure, and possibly some folks interested in doing another section.

I gave MJ her geode, and unfortunately she discovered a screw in her tired, so they had to change her tire before we could shuttle back to everyone’s cars. Another board member, Sammy, came out, so it turned out I didn’t need to make the shuttle run. I was headed to the Nevada border to meet an Outward Bound group the next day down in the Pueblo Mountains who has been hiking a section of the ODT, so it would save me hours of driving if I could just head south. We all said our goodbyes, and jumped in our cars for distant destinations.

Section 25 done! I plan to come back this fall and hike the other Owyhee sections I haven’t done yet because of my paddle trip in 2016, and perhaps we’ll offer Section 24 as a hike to folks next year. Stay tuned…

Oregon Desert Trail Section 25 – Day 2 – 12 miles

The wind flapped our tents and tarps all night long and the full moon made the night seem like dawn for most of the hours we all tried to sleep. In the morning we were all a little blah with the lack of sleep, but the day promised mostly downhill terrain and the epic painted canyon and three finger gulch… A bit of incentive to get going.

I overshot one of our first waypoints, but hiking a parallel route gave me the opportunity to share route wisdom: you don’t have to follow the exact waypoints…the beauty of a route is that there is no one way, the waypoints are a suggestion of travel… so now let’s figure out how to reconnect! We found a road that wasn’t on the maps that led right to the next water source, and in fact I think we saved .2 or .3 miles with the altered path.

There is no “one way” on a route, find the path of least resistance

The mystery road


We got to painted canyon late morning and soon we were taking off packs and down-climbing multiple pour overs. Huh, I didn’t know we were in store for the scrambling, but it was fun even though it did take us a long time to get through. The colors were amazing and once the canyon opened up it was simply astounding. I want to come back with a week of food and just explore.

We have to go down what?


I felt bad hurrying us along as the area was so epic, but we needed to keep moving to get to camp. We were definitely not going at my usual pace, and I was finding it was a little challenging to figure out how fast we were going to get through some sections.


But we motored after a nice extended break, and even though we were supposed to be walking a cross country section, the wild (feral) horse and cow trails were so well defined it seemed like a real trail. The late afternoon was all downhill, and once we got to Three Fingers Gulch and the canyon choked up with rocks below the towering walls of rock, we were all feeling the miles. There were rock corrals and walls going up the steep canyon walls, and it was definitely one of the coolest areas we’ve hiked. A highlight of the ODT for sure.

Right before we got to our camp spot where Tim had once again driven in, it started to rain a cold rain. We hurried to see he had started a fire and had a big shade tarp up that everyone was huddled under.

Home for the night


So good.

By Land

I had the opportunity to take part in another podcast recently and the episode was just posted yesterday. I talked with Emory from the By Land podcast about the Oregon Desert Trail, hiking philosophy, barriers to entry and a whole lot more.

I really enjoyed the conversation and think this captured a lot of unique angles on walking long distance, especially as Emory is a newer hiker, and I’ve been doing it so long sometimes I forget everyone is not as immersed in it as I am.

We talked about:

  • Introduction to Renee and the Oregon Desert Trail
  • Renee’s background prior to being the Trail Coordinator for the ODT
  • What the Oregon Desert Trail offers and its history
  • How the ODT compares to other trails in the US
  • How Renee began backpacking and what made her start long distance backpacking
  • How Thru Hiking has impacted Renee’s backcountry trips
  • What Long Distance backpacking means to Renee
  • How the ODT manages relationships with land owners to retain access to the trail
  • Where and how to begin planning a hike of the ODT
  • Renee’s thoughts on the future of hiking
  • What Renee has learned about backpacking after all these years
  • How Renee has changed since her first long distance trail
  • The future of the Oregon Desert Trail
  • How to find and support the ODT

Here are a couple of different ways to listen :



Google Play


Oregon Desert Trail Section 25 – Day 1 – 8.5 miles

In 2016 it was my plan to packraft to Leslie Gulch and hike the final 30ish miles to the Eastern terminus of the Oregon Desert Trail at Lake Owyhee State Park. Temps well over 100 degrees changed my mind, so I ended up paddling the last stretch to the dam. So there are some miles I haven’t hiked yet in the Owyhee and this year it is my plan to complete the Owyhee section on foot.

The perfect opportunity arose to finish section 25, or the final stretch of the route, this April. I’ve been working with Tim Davis and a group he founded, Friends of the Owyhee, for while. Last April I came out and led a hike with him for a group of interested folks around Leslie Gulch. This year we decided to step it up a notch and I would lead a group of 12 on the final 27 miles for a 3-day backpacking trip.

I met Tim and 2 of his board members, MJ and Becky, on Thursday evening after I drove down from La Grande where I had given an ODT presentation the night before at Eastern Oregon University. We camped in Leslie Gulch under a huge moon and got up early the next day to drive to the park. Three of us left our cars at the end of the section so we could run shuttle on Sunday, and drove the 3 hours around to the start. Yes, that’s right folks, a 27 mile hike had a 3 hour shuttle.

We met the group in the parking lot of Indian springs campground and all hiked out to the rock jetty together, the finish (or start) of the route, depending on how you want to go.

We put packs on and immediately made a route change. We had 2,000’ to climb up, and could either walk the original route up the steep Birch Creek Canyon, or walk a road along side that was slightly longer due to switch backs. I personally wanted to walk the road because of the warnings of poison ivy other hikers had warned me about (I’m extremely sensitive… I hate that plant) and the others were more than happy with that decision. As we walked up and saw how brushy it was we were all glad.

Our group was a mixed bag, some had hiked a lot, but never cross country, and others had not hiked much and soon thought they had bitten off more than they could chew. I had only planned 7ish miles for the day, so kept encouraging water, breaks, and an easy pace.

When we made it to the top of the first climb we broke out the map and compass and did a little practice at setting a bearing to reconnect to the ODT route and talked about route choices, micro adjustments, and fence hopping. We would cross a few fences, all on public land, but that required some finesse.

We were joined by Sarah and Andrea who were geologists for the Vale BLM district, and they talked rocks while we took a break, I learned some stuff!

The last few miles were on a gentle uphill, but folks were fading and we slowly made our way up. A few clouds gave us some relief from the heat, and by the time we made it to our high point at 4,800’ the wind was crazy strong.

Owyhee clover

Tim and MJ drive some back roads and were waiting for us at camp with coolers full of cold drinks, and hot water for our dehydrated meals.

Ahhhhh. First day backpacking for me of the season… Feels so good.