4 Tips On Tackling Your First High Route or Cross-Country Hike
By: Paul "Pie" Ingram
Getting away from the crowds and instead hiking high routes or cross-country routes can be a magical experience. But, it’s quite different from hiking on established trails. I enjoy the social experience that comes along with hiking on the “big three” trails or other popular hikes. But, I also thoroughly enjoy hiking in small groups away from the masses on untrodden terrain.
In 2019, I hiked 400+ miles on the high routes in the Sierra. It was some of the hardest hiking I’ve ever done and a huge growth experience. There were some hard-won insights from that trip, and it’s a pleasure to share four of them with you here in case you’re planning a similar trek.
1. Brush Up On Your Navigation Skills
This is tip number one for a reason.
I assume if you’re reading this, you spend a decent amount of time hiking, and maybe you’ve previously tackled a multi-week or multi-month hike in the past. This puts you in really good stead for an off-trail trip, but probably doesn’t equip you with adequate navigation skills.
Most high routes and cross-country routes require good map reading skills used in conjunction with helpful mapping apps, such as Gaia GPS.
Before our 2019 trip, we loaded waypoints into Gaia via the Caltopo website. This enabled us to have rough tracks to follow using the GPS and maps built into the Gaia app. In the group, we also had a full set of USGS maps of the area and a reliable compass.
With no trail to follow, we constantly checked our position on the app and referenced that on our maps to confirm our route and plan how to navigate through the passes and basins of the Sierra. This process is more mentally tiring and it inevitably slows you down.
This constant need for navigation is very different from established trails where you can check easy-to-use navigation apps sporadically, such as Atlas Guides, and just follow the trail in front of you.
If this kind of intensive navigation intimidates you, I get it – it intimidated me at first, too. I highly recommend diving into Andrew Skurka’s comprehensive series of articles on navigation.
2. Consider That Your Normal Hiking Gear May Not Be Appropriate
Given the different conditions on this type of a trip, there are some additional considerations you should make about your gear.
Use Tough Gear
Lightweight backpacking is for sure the way to go, but be aware that this kind of off-trail trip can be hard on delicate gear. Sliding down talus fields and bushwhacking through thorns takes its toll. A pack like the Silverback is set up to take that kind of abuse. It may weigh a little more than my go-to Gorilla, but it’s a trade-off that I think is worthwhile.
Wear Long Pants
I always hike in the summer in lightweight running shorts and foolishly thought they would work in the High Sierra. My legs got chewed up. Miles of dense bushwhacking felt like death from a thousand papercuts, and loose talus led to grazed and dented shins. The protection a pair of lightweight hiking pants would have offered would have been well worthwhile.
Have Some Traction Ready
We only really needed our ice axes and microspikes a couple of times, but it was important to have them along. You never know exactly what conditions you’ll be dealing with, as on high routes you don’t have the benefit of hikers in front of you passing back beta.
A pair of grippy shoes with pronounced lugs help keep you safe and provide good grip on loose, uneven terrain. I highly recommend the Altra Lone Peak series, but find a grippy shoe that works well for your feet.
3. Prepare Yourself Physically for Harder Hiking
High routes and cross-country travel often means the hiking itself is more physically demanding. You’re not hiking on groomed, used trails, so each step is more taxing. Often, off-trail routes also don’t take the easiest route between two areas like more approachable trails do. You might be forced to tackle a challenging pass to get into the next basin and continue on your way.
In the Sierra, and on many high routes, you are dealing with the effects of elevation. As someone who lives near sea level, I definitely felt the effects and was glad to be in good physical condition to minimize its effects.
There are lots of things you can do to get in shape, but these few tips will give you a good “bang for your buck”:
Long walks are the foundation of my pre-hike training. It can vary from a 30-minute walk around town up to a weekend of hiking in the woods with a fully loaded backpack.
You don’t need to be a marathon runner, but a short to medium-length run once a week does wonders for your endurance.
Walking up the seven flights of stairs in my apartment building (sometimes with a full pack on) builds legs that are ready to hike. Listening to Black Sabbath whilst doing it is optional.
Yoga and Foam Rolling/Mobility Work
Being supple and flexible before a hike reduces the chance of injury. Regular yoga workouts and a mobility practice will help recover from training and prevent you from going into a hike with pre-existing hot spots. I highly recommend Doctor Kelly Starretts Methods on mobility and tissue health
4. Be Safe
Sounds like an obvious thing to say right? Well, yes and no. Hiking cross-country routes or high routes presents a different set of risks than on established trails with lots of traffic. Good backcountry practices and the tips that preceded this one will put you in a good place for being safe, but there are a few more things to consider.
Expect to see no other hikers and act accordingly
On the high routes in the Sierra, we saw very few other hikers. In comparison, on the John Muir Trail, we crossed paths with several hikers per hour. Although you should never rely on other people, hurting yourself on a busy trail means help is closer at hand. On cross-country routes, you should hike conservatively inside your skill level. That leads to my next point.
Water Crossings, Treacherous Passes, and “Untrodden Terrain”
Traveling on trails means you are passing in the exact same spot as the people before you, and the people who built the trail picked that area for its ease of passage and safety. On routes where you are following a rudimentary GPS track, you’re not afforded that luxury. The responsibility is on you to find a safe spot to cross a river, the safest way to ascend and descend a tricky area, and where exactly you will place your foot with each step. Take care.
Bring An Emergency Communication Device
A device that can call for help (that isn't a cell phone) is important for all hikes. But, it's even more important when you are out away from other people. Most models weigh fairly little. Costs vary, but the best options are expensive. However, you can’t put a price on safety.
Now, Go For It!
Hopefully, these tips give you good insight into some of the extra challenges these kinds of trips entail. It can, of course, be quite daunting, and these tips may make it seem a little scary. However, I believe a little fear leads to more preparation and is “useful fear.”
With that said, go for it. You don’t need elite technical skills or gear to handle the majority of these trips. You just need the right understanding of what's involved and the positive mindset to get it done.
To read more about the details of my Sierra trip in 2019, check out this post and leave me a comment if you have any questions. I’d be happy to help.
Paul "Pie" Ingram is a Brit living in Finland and hiking long distance trails all over the world. He’s hiked the AT and the CDT and will be setting out on the Pacific Trail in 2020 to finish the Triple Crown. He runs www.pieonthetrail.com and a YouTube channel where he talks about ultralight backpacking, thru-hiking, and all things gear related. In the summer of 2019, he’ll be linking together a series of trails in the High Sierra.