In Praise of Bushwhacking

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In Praise of Bushwhacking
Created On: Dec 28, 2008
Last Edited On: Apr 9, 2013

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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Viewing: 41-60 of 64

suddendescent - Jan 13, 2009 2:43 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Woodland bugs...

Check out this picture of a bug I encountered on some woodland trail...

By the way; Despite a posting that looks more acceptable than my typical average, nowaadays I tend to look like a grumnpy idiot !

Must bbe those woodland critters !

By the way; any information on the parasites to get once consuming woodland fish ? I read somewhere about some old reports of parasitic infestation in immediate vicinity to Abitibi lake (in Quebec)

To get back to basics ; once bush wacking in what appears as uncharted territory it is wise to check out any information evailable on the area (obviously)which may reveal some noteworthy surprises with regards to the wildlife. In that regard after reading an old account of travels within the northern wilderness (or was it the eastern..) of Quebec I fell on a description of what is deemed as the large bear of the sterile lands. Up to this day there is no account to give further credance to the description of a creature that has the size and behaviour associated with a grizzly...


WoundedKnee - Jan 15, 2009 11:22 am - Hasn't voted

Love the B1 and B2, hate the B4 and B5

We have slightly different variations here in the southeast. No Devil's Club, but a good amount of awful Devil's Walking Stick (he must have moved down here when he got older). On higher summits we have 10' spruce pines that grow so closely together that you have to pry them apart to make headway.

I may be a wimp, but after some of the harder bushwhacking the sight of a trail is an absolute delight to me!


fossana - Jan 15, 2009 3:03 pm - Voted 10/10

entertaining read

You're ready for Barkley:

vancouver islander

vancouver islander - Jan 15, 2009 5:11 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: entertaining read

Thanks fossana.

All that and done as fast as you can!! And I thought I was a masochist!! :)


dan2see - Jan 16, 2009 1:54 pm - Voted 9/10


Here in the Rockies, mosquitos are not a problem. But a lot of Canada supports swarms of them, and black flies too. Well you might not think it's a real barrier to travel, but I think it's serious.

I used to live in Northern Ontario. I have been in sheltered, swampy lowlands where all I could do is get out. Even if I washed myself in bug-juice I felt desperate enough that I'd refuse to travel that route.

To me, any bushwhack route, with mosquitos and black-flies, degrades by at least 2 BW grades, or even 3 if it's a hot day.

So BW-3 can be pretty well impassable at BW-5!

vancouver islander

vancouver islander - Jan 16, 2009 2:45 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Mosquitos

I think we're into a whole new subject here Dan. Of course there's always the option to introduce mixed bush/bug grades in the same way that there are grades for mixed alpine climbing :)

I've lived in ON too and can tell you that they don't have a monopoly on mozzies etc. June-August on the Island can be miserable in the bush and even in the alpine. A head net is pretty well obligatory if you want to keep your sanity. BIG biting deer flies too.

The worst mosquitoes I've ever come across were in southern Oregon. See the Mt McLoughlin section of this TR.


chris_goulet - Jan 17, 2009 12:30 am - Voted 10/10

A tribute to bushwhacking

Brilliant and hilarious article! I relate to that 'sport' totally. I've made up a scale from 1 to 10, and use it in my journals. My level 10 is when my feet are rarely actually on some sort of ground. It's more like swimming over a tangle of pines bushes near the tree line. For example, the upper Swiftcurrent Valley in Mount Robson Park.

Severe bushwhacking vastly adds to the sense of accomplishment of getting to the alpine. Down with helicopters! What a bunch of wimps. They're too busy working to pay for the helicopter, and end up having no time for bushwhacking. So they lose out on bragging rights.

vancouver islander

vancouver islander - Jan 17, 2009 2:23 am - Hasn't voted

Re: A tribute to bushwhacking

Thanks Chris.

Even worse than helicopters are gondolas. There was a TR on here a few months ago in which the author described a near disaster - missing the last lift down the mountain. Give me a break....


CheesySciFi - Feb 8, 2009 8:32 pm - Voted 10/10

Very well written

One of the finest articles I've seen on SP. We have plenty of hostile flora in the Appalachians including poison ivy, stinging nettles, and greenbrier, which is my personal nemesis. Greenbrier is also known as "blasphemy vine" because of all the things that people say when they try to go through a brier patch. Even a winter bushwhack on Oventop Mountain in Shenandoah National Park left me looking like I had wrestled with a bobcat!

BTW, the term "bushwhacker" has been part of the American vocabulary since at least the 1860s. It was a Civil War term applied to soldiers engaged in guerrilla warfare. These individuals had to be well versed in the Australian definition of the term "bushwhack" in order to be effective at the American definition of the word "bushwhack".

vancouver islander

vancouver islander - Feb 15, 2009 9:16 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Very well written

Many thanks for the kind comments as well as the etymological background. I'll modify the text to incorporate the historical perspective when I'm back home on my own system. Right now I'm in NZ.




KingL - May 9, 2009 7:59 pm - Voted 10/10

Wonderful Read

I smiled as I read this as we've had a few of those moments while hiking on the Island! Usually there is prize at the end of the bushwhack that makes me soon forget how we actually got there. Thanks for a fun read!



PellucidWombat - Sep 17, 2009 5:52 pm - Voted 10/10


I've done some bushwacks in scrub oak so thick that my feet were literally suspended off the ground for a full 1/2 hour or more with hard, poking branches above head-height. A trip or a misjudged collapse or springing of the branches would result in flipping upside down, suspended in the air.

What do you think? B4, or B5?

The discovery of a wasp nest or rattlesnake in this terrain makes it even more fun.

Also, would you say brush that requires you to bore a hole through it (e.g. breaking down or pressing aside vegetation with trekking poles or ice axe) is B4 or B5 :-)

splattski - Apr 6, 2013 10:34 am - Voted 10/10

Winter bushwacking

You simply haven't LIVED until you try all of the above while wearing snowshoes.


cowtree - Apr 8, 2013 4:18 am - Hasn't voted

is what it is

bushwhacking through manzanitas out here in cali can be a major pain


Kiefer - Apr 10, 2013 8:40 pm - Voted 10/10


Love the article!! I couldn't agree more that bushwhacking is where it's at. There's just so much more once ya get off the established trail and explore. Discovery is why we do all this stuff anyway!

I remember cornering myself into a narrow ravine hiking up Snowmass Creek looking for the entry to Pierre Lakes Basin. By the time I climbed the damn slope back to the trail, I was covered in spiderwebs, leaves, pine needles and I believe I still had some ants on me from stepping into a rotted log. Ohhhh the F-bombs that were let loose on that trip. :o)
Enjoyed the article!!

vancouver islander

vancouver islander - Apr 10, 2013 9:44 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Beauty!

The criterion is to check your underwear. If you've got forest debris in the crotch of your knickers, you've been bushwhacking :-)


RobSC - Apr 10, 2013 9:45 pm - Voted 10/10

Nice Article!

My wife is still berating me about the B4+ dates that I took her on early in our romance... Thanks for defining all of this in a clear and logical manner! Needless to say we haven't done more than B1 together recently and she is much happier.

Donn - Aug 12, 2014 4:15 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: Nice Article!

How I certified mine too. Waist-deep torrents, snowing to beat the band, and B4 are the real ways to identify "a keeper." It worked!

Donn - Aug 12, 2014 4:14 pm - Voted 10/10

Everyone should try it.

I tend to avoid summer, but when they're forested to the summit, like where I go, bushwhacking is all year 'round. (And I only said "tend to." Oh I do it.)

Nobody ever talked to me about it. I just looked up from the trail to a summit one day; saw on my map there was "no way" up; and asked myself what was up there.

Only one way to find out. Cheers.

P.S. Some of the worst I ever did was catclaw acacia, in New Mexico's Black Range. ON A TRAIL.


dfrancom - Aug 21, 2014 6:19 pm - Hasn't voted

Alaska Bush

Great Article! I'm not too far from your neck of the woods and certainly appreciate "devils club". Lots of that up here. I find there is not all that much deadfall here in Alaska, purhaps because everything is growing so well. But the undergrowth can be crazy thick. The climbing approaches I was accustomed to in the lower 48 are only a dream now. I do appreciate the remote areas here and the effort required to reach them. Bushwhacking heaven!

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In Praise of Bushwhacking

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