In Praise of Bushwhacking

In Praise of Bushwhacking

Page Type Page Type: Article
Activities Activities: Hiking, Mountaineering

In Praise of Bushwhacking

Huckleberry HeavenDense huckleberry bush approaching Warden Peak, Vancouver Island. Look carefully, there are four climbers in this shot.

From the perspective of the true outdoor enthusiast, “wilderness development” is an oxymoron. Development implies progress and how exactly can encroaching urbanisation, mechanisation, bijou wilderness lodges and the like and even signed trails properly be regarded as development when applied to real wilderness? Nothing truly belongs in the alpine environment except the mountain and its natural bastions of forest, river, cliff and glacier. Can anyone claim to have truly climbed a mountain who has used a gondola or an aircraft as a significant part of his or her approach strategy?

Much has been written on SP and elsewhere about the need to protect the planet’s ever diminishing wilderness resources from the evils of civilisation. And yet many of the same authors who advocate protection of the wilderness seem to have no problems about the inclusion of man-made trails in their own wilderness experiences. Let’s be honest. Once that first trace of the presence of man appears it’s thin-end-of-the-wedge time. A use-trail becomes an engineered trail and leads to the accelerated presence of more and more human visitors. Soon alternate routes appear and, in no time at all, the appellation “wilderness” becomes moot.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no holier-than-thou hypocrite. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” as the old biblical saying goes and I’m as guilty at the next man when it comes to using decommissioned logging roads to drive as high as I can on my chosen objective before hefting that damned 50 lb pack full of food, camping gear, and, of course, climbing paraphernalia. 

Driving SF900
On Vancouver Island even a mechanised approach requires bushwhacking.

Our need for wilderness is as well documented as the need to protect it. Who does not feel the need to get as far away as possible from modern society with its jaded and trivial values? It only takes a couple of weeks of self-serving politicians, newscasts from Afghanistan/Zimbabwe/Iran or wherever else yet another thug is busy brutalising millions for the sake of personal enrichment, or just simply a single trip to the mall, before I need to pack my gear and get the hell out of Dodge.

In his recent article In Defense of the Wild SP member magicdufflepud informs us eloquently that if “Civilization ….. is the presence of noise and light…….wilderness is the absence of both”. Well put indeed. But where do we go to find those places where noise and light are absent and which are so essential to the spiritual nourishment we crave? Trails might mean the presence of others. Gondolas, airplanes, huts and the like most certainly do. I urge you to dispense with all such artificiality. Eschew trails. Refuse mechanised assistance. Scoff at gondola access.

Take to the bush.
This is what a very large...Devil’s Club, oplopanax horridus, an essential component of any B3 and above bush thrash. Photo by Andy Dewey.
Inspiration Peak - ApproachSlide alder, alnus viridis, this time providing a helping hand on the approach to Inspiration Peak, Washington State. Photo by rpc.

The dictionary definitions of the verb “Bushwhack” are twofold. Webster’s and the Oxford are, for once, in agreement on this. You’re either ambushing someone or you’re hacking your way through dense undergrowth. The origins of the word are less clear. The term has long been in use since the colonisation of Australia and the westward spread of Europeans from the east coast of North America. I rather think that the original meaning in the US was to ambush someone whereas the other usage applied in Oz but am happy to be corrected by those more knowledgeable than me. Whatever the origin, we’re obviously dealing with the second definition of the term. This is important to all of you SP-ers out there who include such expressions as “we couldn’t find the trail so we bushwhacked directly across open slopes” in your TRs. If there’s no greenery involved, by definition, it ain’t bushwhacking. However, such a mode of travel is a worthy start to true bushwhacking. As a British High Court judge once so famously said of a case in the 1960's in which a gay (not the term used in those days of course) man was accused of molesting a woman, (and I kid you not here), it’s “A step in the right direction”. 

Old Slash and Second Growth
Immature second growth hiding the dangerous industrial cousin of bush, logging slash. Vancouver Island, BC.

My home turf is Vancouver Island where tangled and dangerous logging slash leading into dense west coast bush is a simple fact of everyday alpine life. In fact it’s so commonplace that, rather as Inuit have many names for snow, we have “bush grades”. For the dedicated Island aficionado there’s bush and then there’s bush. The grades were originally proposed in a tongue-in-cheek manner by Phillip Stone in his excellent guide Island Alpine. Nowadays they serve as a useful scale when providing approach beta to someone contemplating a new Island objective. So, before you rush out there, imbued with the new spirit of purity that this article is bound to instill in you, consider what you’re in for.

Bush Grade B0

Climbing Harston
Open going on Mt Harston, Saunders Island, Falkland Islands. B0 bushwhacking. No trail, no problem.

This is for all those folks referred to above who consider simple off-trail travel as bushwhacking. Good on yer mates. It’s a great start. Hopefully you’ve left the hoi polloi behind on the trail and you’re already improving your navigational skills as well as your ability to recognize and profit from advantageous features of the terrain around you. You’re on open ground, can see your feet at all times and, except for the need to stop and take a GPS/compass reading every so often, you’re moving at trail speed. The only plant life around having influence on the outcome of the day is the lettuce on your sandwiches.

Bush Grade B1

Open Old Growth
Beautiful open B1 bush on the approach to Crown Mountain, Vancouver Island.

Travel in B1 bush is an absolute delight. On the Island this means open old growth forest and the definition can, I’m sure, be readily extrapolated elsewhere on the planet. Any vegetation is knee height or less. There are no meaningful impediments such as deadfall and certainly no noxious species (see below) to deal with. You can see your feet almost all of the time. Travel remains at trail speed or only slightly below it.

Bush Grade B2

Let s look cheerful about it
Chest high B2 bush en route to Warden Peak, Vancouver Island. No real problem. The climber's grin says it all!

Vegetation is still light but is now chest high. There is significant deadfall but, in the main, it can simply be stepped over. On occasion you can’t see your foot placements and do so by feel. Travel is not impeded but now definitely slower. The first noxious plants begin to appear: slide-alder, huckleberry bush and thorned species such as Devils Club. However, at B2, they are easily avoided or passages through are short and problem free. Early in the day expect a heavy dew bath.

Bush Grade B3

Pinder Peak; Bushwhack descent
B3 bush descending Pinder Peak, Vancouver Island. The climber can just be seen in the centre of the shot.

You are now in dense, head height vegetation meaning that the feet cannot be seen a lot of the time. Deadfall is now very significant and frequently you find yourself climbing over or crawling under it. Travel is definitely impeded and constant route finding becomes essential. Frequent entanglements in huckleberry, regular discoveries that slide-alder always points downhill as your feet shoot out from under you for the umpteenth time and occasional scratches and skewerings from hidden thorns are now the order of the day. However, on occasion, you find that hauling on the vegetation has actually become necessary in order to make forward progress.

Bush grade B4

Climbing a tree chimney
Serious B4 bush approaching Elkhorn, Vancouver Island. Struggling up in the half-light by climbing deadfall directly.

Just when you think it can’t get any worse you run into thick, entangled vegetation such that the feet can't be seen most of the time. In fact, you’re wondering if you still have feet. You’re now “thrashing” (and being thrashed) in the truest sense of the word. You’re fighting for every inch of forward progress, hauling yourself over the almost contant succession of fallen logs etc using the very vegetation that’s trying to resist your passage. You don’t care (or even notice) that you’re wrapped up in huckleberry, whether the alder has you on your arse or your elbow and, boy, are those Devil’s Club impalements going to get infected later on. And did I mention that you’re doing all this on a 50° slope?

Islanders also tend to include negotiation of the industrial cousin of bush, namely logging slash, in categories 3 and 4.

Bush grade B5

Bushwhacking ROCKS!
SP-ette MountaingirlBC in the beginning stages of becoming one with the biomass.

This is it! A higher plane of existence. Negotiation of B5 bush requires you to actually meld with the biomass. And I don’t mean just mind-meld à la Spock. You must become one with the plant world in order to communicate and negotiate passage. Bio-supremacy between plant and animal is not at issue here. You must concede supremacy in order to progress. Be proud in recording the first co-species ascent of your objective. Don’t forget to pollinate the summit register.

Becoming One with the Bush
Transmogrification complete! You may now pass through B5 bush.

So that’s it. You’ve read all the arguments and you must agree. No more trails, no more helicopter assists and especially no more gondolas.

Revel in the solitude. Discover complete self-reliance. Hone those navigational skills to new heights. Above all, see the mountains in the way that First Nations and early explorers saw them. Virgin, unsullied, pristine, unspeakably lovely.

This is how we will succeed in protecting our last wild places. By going there on their terms.

Enjoy also the attached "Bushwacks" album and do feel free to add your own images. The uglier the bush, the better I'll score your photos!

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dan2see - Dec 28, 2008 6:46 pm - Voted 9/10

The new

Your grading system is simple and logical, and it's about time somebody came out with a standard.

Maybe "bushwhacking" means you're whacking the bush, but usually it means, it's whacking you!

Here in the Eastern Rocky Mountains, the vegetation is a different mix. Not as lush and leafy. Instead I get a lot of twigs scratching my legs, so I can measure the "B" grade after I get home.
Also we get a lot of deadfall, which means you can never get there from here, so route-finding has an extra challenge.


lcarreau - Dec 28, 2008 10:28 pm - Voted 10/10

It drives a man like me,

(part Canadian), to go into a bushwhacking frenzy!!!

Arizona has a lot of Cats Claw and cactus - going from Point A to
Point B never felt better, because it HURTS so good!


vancouver islander

vancouver islander - Jan 2, 2009 2:42 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: It drives a man like me,

Thanks Larry. Good to see you desert dwellers seeking the off-trail option too.


lcarreau - Jan 2, 2009 3:32 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: It drives a man like me,

Actually, we have a plant called "Shin-dagger" growing amongst the
rattlesnakes. You have to like blood and snakes to truly enjoy the
"wilderness" experience of AZ!!!! Like I said, it hurts so good!!

Bob Sihler

Bob Sihler - Dec 28, 2008 11:46 pm - Voted 10/10

B3, maybe B4

That's as far as I've gone. Yeah, I'm one of those hypocrites who loves solitude but hates bushwhacking! Actually, bushwhacking itself isn't so bad; I've done it often and enjoyed it. I think the real pain is mental-- when you feel that you're getting nowhere and that the slog will never end.

Fun read! You'd get along with my friend in the Bitterroots, thephotohiker. He loves punishing himself this way!

vancouver islander

vancouver islander - Jan 2, 2009 3:19 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: B3, maybe B4

Thanks Bob.

In order to enjoy bushwhacking, you've got to give yourself up to the biomass. Once this particular state of Nirvana is attained, you won't feel that "the slow (grind) will never end". In fact you won't want it to end.

Happy trails in 2009!


Bob Sihler

Bob Sihler - Jan 2, 2009 3:29 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: B3, maybe B4

I actually meant "slog," but I'm glad you spotted that!

Arthur Digbee

Arthur Digbee - Dec 29, 2008 1:52 pm - Voted 10/10


I love the way you equate bushwhacking with wilderness. But is it cheating to follow an animal trail?

I'd be curious how well the grades apply outside a temperate rainforest, though. Here in the Midwest, winter travel is almost always B1 at most.

vancouver islander

vancouver islander - Jan 2, 2009 2:36 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: amen!

Thanks Arthur.

No - certainly not cheating to use a game trail. The crafty beggars go on 4 legs and, therefore, slide happily under stuff that we have to thrash through.


dan2see - Jan 2, 2009 11:09 pm - Voted 9/10

Re: amen!

No matter where you are, you must face the land on its own terms. That's what makes it such fun.

I do a lot of off-trail exploring in the Rocky Mountains, and I find a lot of areas where there are absolutely no sign that humans have been anywhere near. Not ever.

My number-one rule is, "Don't damage the land." and my second rule is "Take the easiest route". Well these hills are steep and fragile, I get a lot of scree with junipers and flowers growing in the rocks. The surface of the whole hill, and even larger rocks, are unstable and ready to get knocked down.

But the sheep and deer who live here have developed a network of trails going everywhere. I can always find one of their trails, and I know that every trail leads somewhere. The trouble is, those trails go where the animals want to go, not where I want to go.

The route-finding is still pretty uncertain, mind you! It's a giant puzzle, like Alice in the garden -- you never really know where you're going to find yourself!

As for the grade? Well of course a pre-made trail is always easier. I'd say that some hills I explore would be B2 - B3, or even worse, except the animal trails give me B1's. But by my rule #1 and rule #2, that's the way to climb a mountain safely, reach the objective efficiently, and have a great outing!

So I think it's smart to follow the animal trails.


kamil - Dec 29, 2008 4:44 pm - Voted 10/10

What a fun read read...

... and so true :)
I'll surely refer to your article in my coming-soon TR from Montenegrin/Albanian mountains (one day of B4 bordering on B5).
Happy New Year!

vancouver islander

vancouver islander - Jan 2, 2009 2:39 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: What a fun read read...

Thanks kamil - I'll look forward to your Balkan mountains TR. It'll be interesting to compare your conditions with ours on the other side of the world.


visentin - Jan 5, 2009 4:41 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: What a fun read read...

No need to go so far ! as far as I know there is some fine bushwhacking to do in Poland in our "kosodrzewina" :)
Fortunately offtrails is forbidden !


kamil - Jan 7, 2009 3:43 pm - Voted 10/10


Eric, I know! :) Here I once wrote: 'Those who have ever done it know that dwarf pine-whacking is actually a more advanced and sophisticated form of bushwhacking.'

vancouver islander

vancouver islander - Jan 7, 2009 5:18 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: kosodrzewina

Well known on the west coast of NA as "krumholtz"


kamil - May 16, 2010 6:40 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: What a fun read read...

Posted the mentioned TR, somewhere in the middle I described that bushwhacking day :) No good photos from there unfortunately, I was solo and too busy fighting...


silversummit - Dec 30, 2008 7:36 pm - Voted 10/10

Great read, full of fun!

I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article! Mixed with your humor is an informative grading system for bushwhacking which I have some experience in doing.

I used to love it as a kid, wandering the hills around my house but at Outward Bound, I think they made us do it just to test our map skills. It was definitely B3 and a royal pain in the arse, especially by hour 6 in the rain. You can only stand getting smacked in the face by rhododendron on steroids let's say 100 times a day max!

Now that I am, let's admit it, over age 50, I claim a bushwhack exemption!

Good job putting some definition to a rather unmanageable subject!

vancouver islander

vancouver islander - Jan 2, 2009 3:22 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Great read, full of fun!

Kathy you're 50 - you're just a kid. 50 is the new 30!! Get off the trails and back into the bush. No exemption granted :)

Thanks for reading my stuff and so glad you enjoyed it.



Sarah Simon

Sarah Simon - Jan 2, 2009 6:26 pm - Voted 10/10

Here! Here!

Bushwacking is surely one of my favorite passtimes. Thanks for pulling this piece together.




MoapaPk - Jan 4, 2009 1:58 pm - Voted 10/10


Now that I live in the Southwest, bushwhacking has taken on a different meaning. No longer is my body bruised from negotiating thick tangles of balsam; now it is cut and pricked by cacti, scrub oak, agave, and catclaw (though manzanita does some bruising reminiscent of balsam).

Still, when people ask me how the brush rates on a trip, I may say, "2 on an Adirondack scale of 1 to 10".

Viewing: 1-20 of 64



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