Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Bushwhacking and bikewhacking

In adventure racing the second of the above meanings applies most directly, as racers will often have a strong desire to attack the race director after completing a bushwhack.

Before you read further, if you are at all unsure of your compass skills, review this post on taking and following a bearing.

The tough decision

Take heed my friends, when looking at a map and deciding that you should bushwhack. Think twice...nay, think thrice.

Now, if you haven't had to bushwhack in a race, it probably isn't an adventure race at all. But, you do need to think hard every time that you make the decision to bee line.

Distance, Terrain and coverage

The golden ratio that I have heard several successful teams say is 5:1. Unless your bushwhack is 5 times shorter than a trail, take the trail. Navigating trails is easier, faster and takes less energy.
Don't stop to poop here

If your bushwhack involves...

  • Storm deadfall
  • Water features (lakes, streams, brooks) that are surrounded by low flat land
  • Large water features
  • Wetland symbols on the map
  • Darkness
  • Heavy fog
  • Stinging Nettle (right Wayne?)
  • Raspberry, blackberry or any other blood thirsty bushes
  • Deep snow... and you have no snowshoes
... your bushwhack is going to be terrible and you should increase your golden ratio. 

If your bushwhack includes...
Take a picture and proceed with joy
  • Wide open forests with prancing deer
  • Flower laden meadows with butterflies and birds chirping
  •  Large paved empty parking lots
...or, if you have no other choice...

...feel free to bushwhack with confidence.


If you happen to have a bike under your arse that golden ratio described above should be much higher. I've heard 7:1 as a bikewhacking rule of thumb. However, I've experienced bikewhacking ratios of 10:1 that were definitely a bad idea. There are few things more difficult than pulling a bike through a few kilometers of dense undergrowth or storm dead-fall. Avoid it like the plague.

Navigation tips for bushwhacking

When you make the decision that you should bushwhack, here are some things to consider:

Catching features

Difficult approach
 Whenever you are starting a bushwhack, make sure that you have a solid "catching feature". These features are ones that are difficult to miss if your bushwhack is out by a few degrees.

This picture to the right with the difficult approach shows a person approaching the end of a trail head on. If the navigator is off on their approach by even a couple of degrees, they will probably miss the trail head and pass by.

Easier approach
A perpendicular approach is much easier and let's the navigator make some mistakes and still find the trail. Ideally the navigator will choose an approach to the trail that is also near a secondary feature that can be used to positively identify where on the trail they have exited the woods.

Use features along the way

Ideally the bushwhack will have some features that will help you keep track of where you are along the path. Contour lines, boulders and other prominent features can be used to verify your distance, if they are on the map. Hopefully a wetland isn't your identifying feature...

Don't stare at your compass

Unless your visibility is nil, you shouldn't stare at your compass the whole time you are bushwhacking. Take a bearing, look up and find a feature in that direction, and walk to it. Otherwise you will introduce small errors into your bushwhack that will build up quickly.

This technique also allows you to navigate around difficult features without losing your bearing. (think lakes, large boulders, cliffs, etc.)

Spread out..not too far though

If you have several people in your group, spread out a bit as you approach your destination. Keep within view and speaking distance (and usually races mandate a 100m maximum). Your chances of finding your CP or trail are increased. This also serves as a check and balance for navigation since everyone needs to follow the bearing instead of just blindly following the leader.