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National Forests

Can You Hike Off-Trail in National Forests?

Hiking trails is fun and I’ve always enjoyed it. But hiking off-trail through the National Forest? There are few things better in my mind.

Can you hike off-trail in National Forests? While not explicitly recommended by the U.S. Forest Service, hiking off-trail is allowed on the vast majority of National Forest land. Going off-trail requires additional discipline, as navigational skills are much more important. Check with your local Forest Service office for restrictions.

With that being said, there’s a lot more to consider if you’re looking to head off-trail in the National Forest.

You Can Hike Off-Trail Almost Everywhere in National Forests

Brief overview of what will be covered in this H2 section. One or two sentences at the most.

Avoid Going Off-Trail Near Heavily Used Trails

This may sound a little counterintuitive, but please do everything you can to avoid hiking off-trail if you’re hiking along a trail that gets heavy traffic.

There are a few reasons for this. First, the truth is that there is a limit as to how much human foot traffic a habitat can take. Second, if you’re hiking off-trail near a well worn path, you’ll almost certainly inspire some others to do the same.

As such, it’s your responsibility to stick to the trail when in commonly used areas. Otherwise it’s more than possible that the beauty of the trail will only worsen as the nearby plants suffer from the increased traffic.

With that being said, I don’t think that people interested in learning to hike off-trail are that interested in seeking out such concentrated trails anyways.

Generally Not Recommended by Forest Service, but Allowed Almost Everywhere

The truth is that while it is perfectly legal to hike off-trail, it isn’t necessarily a practice that the U.S. Forest Service recommends. This makes sense if you think about it: there’s no way to avoid the fact that hiking off-trail is a riskier activity than staying on the trail. So in order to prevent a certain amount of extra work for themselves, they prefer that people stick to the trails, which is more than understandable.

The implication here is this: hiking off-trail through the National Forest can be risky stuff and it is your responsibility to ensure that you are adequately prepared.

hiking through national forest land in winter with a coat of snow on ground

Another thing to keep in mind is that there may be a few exceptions to be aware of. It’s possible that hiking off-trail wouldn’t be allowed in certain areas like research stations. Therefore, it’s important to read the rules that apply to your local area.

Going Off-Trail is the Only Way to See Much of a National Forest

There’s no way around it: the National Forest covers an absolutely huge area of land, as it is almost 200 million acres in size. While the Forest Service does a great job building and maintaining trails that open up the National Forest to hikers, there simply is far too much land to have it all reachable by trail.

national forest land not accessible via trail with snow on ground

In fact, some of my favorite places in the National Forest require hiking around a half-mile from the nearest trail. You can take my word on it: there’s a lot of really cool stuff out there, and going off-trail is a fantastic way to see it.

Tips and Tricks for Successfully Hiking Off-Trail

Now that we’ve established that you can hike off-trail through the National Forest, let’s get to the more important part of this post: how to hike off-trail successfully.

Introduce Yourself to Off-Trail Hiking With No Leaf Cover

If you don’t have experience hiking off-trail but you’re still interested, please take this next point seriously:

Make your life easier by first hiking off-trail when the leaves are off.

It may sound odd, but having the leaves off makes a tremendous difference when you’re attempting to navigate a forest. Also, for as much as I love hiking in the woods in winter, do your best to avoid that too.

Your best times to dabble in hiking off-trail are in the spring and fall. This helps you avoid the bitter cold temperatures of winter, and allows you to navigate more freely.

As you might be guessing, when leaves are attached to trees in a forest they make a great impact on your visibility. This impacts you in two ways. First, leaves in the canopy of the forest greatly reduce the amount of sunlight that makes it to the forest floor.

hiking through national forest in fall with yellow trees and leaves on ground

Second, immature forests may have leaves that are close to the level of your eyes. This impacts you by severely limiting your view of the forest in all directions. This makes navigation much more difficult and may induce anxiety in less-experienced hikers.

If you insist on hiking off-trail with the leaves still on the trees, do your best to locate a mature forest with a high canopy. This will reduce the likelihood that your vision is blocked while you’re trying to navigate. Remember: while navigation is obviously important for on-trail hiking, it is much, much more important in off-trail hiking.

Take Extra Precautions to Ensure Your Safety

This goes without say, but if you’re hiking off-trail through the National Forest, you really need to take additional precautions to ensure your safety.

It’s a good idea to take your time with your research of the area you’re looking to hike, as any little bit of knowledge could help when you’re out there. Here are some things to think about when planning your hike:

  • What kind of habitat will I be hiking through? Is it mostly deciduous trees, mostly evergreens, or a mix?
  • Are there streams or lakes that I should be on the lookout for?
  • What kind of topography can I expect in this area?
  • Where are the nearby Forest Service roads?
  • Is this a mature forest with trees spread apart or is this a densely treed young forest?

And so on. The point is to have a decent idea of what you might expect, so that you could have any markers in your mind if the hike goes wrong.

In addition, really think about how you plan on navigating while off-trail. Navigational apps and phones are wonderful tools, but you’re in a better position if you’re capable of navigating with only a map and a compass. Treat the phone as a backup solution and you’ll save your battery in case you truly need it later on.

Start in an Area Where You Just Can’t Screw Up

Here’s the bottom line: unless you’re naturally gifted with navigating forests, it is extremely easy to get turned around when navigating off-trail.

Do your best to consciously think about how you want to handle a mix-up when navigating, because it’s almost guaranteed to happen. Maintaining your composure and quickly solving the problem because you prepared is a much better position to be in.

If you’re interested in hiking off-trail for the first time and are trying to figure out where you want to hike, give yourself a break and choose a location that you can’t screw up.

Find yourself a starting point and a destination, where if you went in the wrong direction in any direction, you would come across a road or Forest Service road. This is valuable because roads of any kind are extremely valuable when you’re hiking off-trail and you lose your way.

Concluding Thoughts

I hope you got some value out of this article and you’re considering doing some off-trail hiking through a National Forest if you’re ready. While a bit intimidating at times, there really is something freeing about hiking through the land without a perfect path.

If you need more ideas about fun things to do in our National Forests then check these articles out:

By Drew Meulemans

I've long admired forests and devote much energy to learning about them and exploring. I enjoy sharing what I learn and wish to inspire others to do the same.