Contributed by Mike Melnick
Many teams dread trekking while making their own way through the woods. Besides the obvious navigational challenge of not being able to see landmarks, many people find it difficult psychologically due to the lack of progress and the sometimes claustrophobic feel of tight trees. Are there ways to speed up the progress? Are there techniques to better handle dense foliage? What about gear, is there something that can be added to a team's inventory that would help?
The best way to speed up the progress of bushwhacking is to keep your team in sparse bush. “Duh” you say? Well, consider these pointers:
- Drier is better. Ground that dries out quickly once the sun is on it typically won't support lush forest cover. That means, avoid stream beds, stick to South and West facing slopes and ridge tops.
- Avoid deadfall. Fallen timber is extremely hazardous and will slow a team's progress to a crawl. Literally. Avoid river edges, marsh edges, and recent forest fire remains.
- Use swampy areas as a last resort. Although they can be much more open, swampy areas can claim shoes and socks and sometimes even ankles.
- Overgrown cutlines. Surprisingly, cutlines are sometimes more heavily covered than the forest directly next to them. If the path you're trying to follow is thick, try just to the side of it.
Inevitably, the bushwhacking will catch up with you and it will be thick. A few techniques that can help you through it:
- Stay positive. If you couldn't find a path on the map, then chances are that most teams are toughing it out the same as you. Relax, take solace in the fact that for the early explorers, that's all they did!
- Single file. Follow your teammate's path. By the time the final teammate comes through, it will be almost like a beaten trail. If you can follow another team, all the better, but if they start going the wrong way or begin slowing down, be ready to make your own tracks.
- Watch your face. Wear glasses because when a branch snaps back on your face, the last thing you want is to lose an eye. Keeping back from your teammate will help and having a hand up in front of your mug will make a difference as well.
- Stow the poles. If you trek with poles, collapse them down and stow them as tight as possible to your pack. Get primal, you want to move through the forest with all four of your limbs helping you out. Keeping the poles tucked as tight as possible is essential to minimize the amount of snagging that happens.
- Get those knees up. For really thick stuff, you'll want to have your knees up as high as possible before pushing forward for another step.
- Remember the jungle gym from kindergarten. Crawl, climb, get dirty and you'll find it's a tonne of fun wiggling through the natural obstacle course.
So now that you know how to keep the bushwhacking manageable and how to deal with the tougher stuff, what tools can you employ to help you out.
- Aerodynamic backpack. No, not because you'll be going that fast, but because you don't want the twigs to snag it.
- Shin pads. Sticks hurt. Pretty self explanatory.
- Full lower leg gaitors. If you can't find shin pads, they'll help.
- Not shorts. Even if it's really hot out, wearing shorts will leave your legs hurting by the end of a bushwhacking section. Light quick dry pants will help minimize the inevitable cuts and scrapes and they'll help you slide your legs past branches.
- Glasses. If it's dark out, then clear lenses, but not having glasses can not only hurt, but could injure you badly enough to end your race.
Although it's not necessary, it certainly helps if your entire team has the same level of gear. If one person is outfitted with all the doodads, then put them in the front to plow the trail. Anytime that you have to deviate from the bearing to avoid an obstacle, be sure to ease back to your original path to keep your bearing.
There are a few other miscellaneous tips that will help your bushwhacking experience be a successful one.
- Keep it short. If you have to add a km of travel on a road or an animal path to save yourself 500 m of difficult bushwhacking, then do it.
- But don't be afraid of light bushwhacking. Ok, but how light does it have to be before it's advisable? It's a math problem. How fast is your team on a typical trail? How much distance will you save by bushwhacking instead of following the trail? And finally, how fast do you have to cover the distance through the forest in order to make it pay.
- You're not as far as you think you are. Traveling in the woods takes longer than you think and estimating your speed is difficult without external references like a trail crossing or a mountain.
- Stay the course. Make your plan, follow your bearing, and don't change it unless you're absolutely sure you should be doing something different. Changing your plan without solid justification is a quick way to get lost.