From roaming Boise’s foothills to climbing Idaho’s highest peaks, there are plenty of places to hike in the Gem State and plenty of trails to take you where you want to go. While staying on these trails helps protect both you and the land you are recreating on, hiking off-trail is allowed and can be necessary in some areas.
Hiking off-trail will never be appropriate in some places, and some bad habits associated with off-trail hiking — like cutting switchbacks, making shortcuts, trampling across pristine meadows, or ignoring the signage and rules in an area — are never OK. But in some areas, off-trail hiking is allowed or may be the only way to explore an area. In these cases, it’s important to check the area’s rules before you recreate in it and follow Leave No Trace principles on and off the trail to minimize your impact.
I was recently out on a patrol with a hiking group where we saw how easily an area can get damaged by going off-trail. We came across two sections on the Snowslide Lake Trail with significant mangled messes of blowdowns blocking the entire trail.
Oftentimes in these situations, people go off the trail to get around the blowdowns. Since areas of land immediately off-trail are often steeper, much less compacted, and more unstable, navigating around these obstacles by going off-trail can contribute to the erosion and trampling of vegetation of that area. These situations can be hard to navigate, especially if the only other options are stopping, turning around, and finding another hike. This can also happen when you are far into your adventure, when turning around isn’t the best or safest option. So what can you do?
There are many ways to mitigate off-trail damage when avoiding obstacles. First, remain as close to the original trail as possible. Trails are often designed to follow the path of least resistance, so the closer you stay to them, the easier it will be for you. If you have to climb over a few logs, remember to stay aware of your surroundings and be safe!
If staying close to the original trail doesn’t seem like an option, try to take a different route than the obvious one where you can see others have rerouted. When doing so, avoid stepping on vegetation. While this practices disperses foot traffic and leaves less of an impact when traveling off-trail, be mindful that going off-trail is where you will also most likely encounter ground hornets and the like — so be prepared for anything you may come across.
Most importantly, if you travel off-trail for any reason, stay aware and take notice of your surroundings. Pick a unique plant or tree as a landmark, and try to keep your eye on the trail while you are traversing off the trail. If it doesn’t seem you will be able to reconnect with the trail… Just. Go. Back. Keeping yourself and your hiking group safe is always a top priority.