That's the term for heading out in the woods without a trail. I didn't know there was an actual term for it until I was almost in my teens. Back when I was a kid, it was just a walk in the woods. Once in a great while I'd come across a trail, then hurry across it before someone came along. It bugged me to see such signs of civilization.
Of course, half the time I was in the woods I had a shot gun or rifle in my hands. Even back then, I sensed that most of the hikers in bright nylon didn't think too highly of my type. I tended to wear wool -much quieter than nylon when ghosting through the trees. Wool stays warm when wet, a big advantage.
Eventually I learned to travel the trails. There were some cool things to see and a regular hiking trail was often the best way to get there. Even then, most of my hiking would be in the lesser traveled paths. The White Mountains to my south were too heavily traveled for my liking. Sure, I've climbed Mt. Washington, but it's weird to hike half the day only to come to a road, railroad and huge building at the top.
The Mahoosucs to my west and the Kilkennys to my east were more attractive. They were less traveled, and that was a good thing. Also enjoy hiking in the middle of the week rather than on weekends. It's a totally different experience. There are a lot fewer people and the ones you do meet tend to be thru hikers on extended hikes -a different breed of hiker.
Even when I'd use trails, it was often just as a jumping off point. I'd see something on a topo map that looked interesting. Perhaps a beaver pond caught my attention. There may be an established trail that comes within a mile or two of it. I'd follow the trail to get near it, but then I'd use map and compass to bushwhack to the beaver pond. Nothing beats fishing in a pond that hasn't seen an angler in years, maybe decades. That has a nice payoff, but I enjoying making my way into the middle of a thick nearly impassable swamp, just because no one else goes there.
Sometimes I'd wander off the trail just because I'd get a hunch. Found a really interesting waterfall that wasn't on any maps. I think following a trail all the time is like following the rules. Now following the rules has its place. However, I've always been the type to bend the rules.
The northern part of New England is heavily wooded. People who try and pitch a tent off the beaten path may have a hard time to find a clear, level, and dry stop. So don't pitch a tent. My favorite way to camp in the woods is in a hammock. There are trees everywhere, might as well used them. I've strung my hammock on the side of steep hill, in wet bogs, and over rocky ground. Over the hammock stretch a rope then hang a green or camo tarp over it. It's a high and dry way to camp, leaves little impact, and is easy to set up.
The only major problem is that hammocks aren't that great for cold winter weather. Cold air blows under your body, and it gets darn uncomfortable. In the winter a good small 4 season tent works fine. It's possible to pitch a tent in the winter where you'd never set up in the summer. The swamps are frozen solid, so you stay nice and dry. Rough ground? Snow fills in rough ground and covers rocks. As long as a good tarp and insulated sleeping pad are used, it's comfortable. Of course, you still need a good sleeping bag and decent clothes.
Wandering off the path requires a few things. The ability to navigate. The gear for the job. An attitude and mindset that is comfortable heading out on your own.
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