trail– A marked or beaten path, as through woods or wilderness.
For our purposes, when we say Stay on the Trail we’re talking about trails built and maintained by the official land managing agency (Forest Service, Park Service, etc.).
These trails are indicated on official maps, are normally marked with signs (at least at the trail’s start at the parking area), and are regulated for certain types of recreational use.
Beginning hikers or backpackers must beware of, and avoid unauthorized trails.
Only experienced hikers in a group, with expert and practiced navigation skills, should use unauthorized trails or use off-trail travel. Even then, extreme caution must be used!
Unauthorized trails are beaten or established over the years by animals (game trails), or other recreationists. These trails don’t normally show up on official maps, are not maintained, and may not meet the land managing agency’s standards.
Venturing onto these trails can get a hiker in trouble. It’s easy to get lost, since these trails often will proceed for a distance, then disappear. Their rough nature makes it difficult to backtrack.
Off-trail travel is especially fraught with hazards. Those who proceed understand and are willing to accept the risks involved, and hopefully have the training and experience necessary to find their way back to a known location if route-finding fails.
Okay, fine. But this course content is aimed at beginners, so listen up!
Beginning hikers are not in the above category. Beginning hikers should only hike on, and stay on, authorized or official trails!
switchback– A trail that zig-zags back and forth up steep grades (or conversely, down steep grades).
Trail switchbacks provide a gradual grade or incline that is more easily hiked, then say, marching straight up or straight down. Switchback trails also allow for water run-off during rains and at snow-melt without incurring excess erosion.
Land-managing agencies routinely use switchback trails as part of their trail systems, particularly in steep-terrain areas.
Switchback trails are often repetitive and appear to slow progress, but in reality their gradual nature is much easier to navigate than going straight up or down. Some hikers don’t believe this, and are compelled to cut switchbacks by bypassing the sharp back-and-forth turns.
Cutting switchbacks places hikers at risk of injury by sliding in loose dirt or rock, or getting lost if the perceived shortcut gets obscured by brush or other obstructions.
Some official trails, especially those that haven’t been maintained recently, can be difficult to follow. The route may be obscured or overgrown by brush or other vegetation. Game and unauthorized trails may be in the same area, making it hard to determine which trail is the trail.
Beginners are advised to stop and rethink their trip if the trail is in danger of being lost. It’s safest to backtrack (head back the way you came) than risk losing the trail.
Again, this course is designed for beginners, and it’s safety first! Don’t exceed your training and skill level. The adage, “When in doubt, don’t!” applies here.