Walking in the woods is a physical and spiritual experience proven to improve your health and mood. There are two sorts of hikers: Those who stick to the path, and those who trailblaze. If you stick to the path you miss out on discoveries. If you take the chance and trailblaze, your chances of getting hurt or lost increase, but so do your odds of stumbling upon some beautiful rewards.
Now, I’m not talking about jumping off a path in a pristine National Park where you could trample on the last of the Truffula Trees or cross paths with a grizzly bear. Please follow the rules of any park you are visiting. But if you’re in an area where you can go off the beaten-path, I highly recommend it. Here are some tips I’ve learned over the decades:
Wear Bright Colors: Especially if it’s hunting season, even if you are in an area “Closed to Hunting.” I’ve found several illegal deer stands hidden deep in the woods. Wear a fluorescent orange hat or vest or at least a loud color not found in the wild. Bright reds, orange, or blue. Some hunters will shoot at anything that moves, and you don’t want to be mistaken for a deer.
Avoid the Woods on Windy Days: I’ll admit, it’s a blast to walk the woods during a thunderstorm. Now that I’m older though, I avoid the woods when the winds are strong enough to heavily bend the limbs. Just look at the forest floor. There are tons of fallen branches and heavy limbs … and many more above you ready to fall. These dead-limbs or “widow-makers” are sometimes just a gust away from breaking. Chances are low, but its better to be safe than sorry. Don’t walk under any half-fallen trees or by termite-infested trunks.
Use a Walking Stick: You don’t need some fancy rod from the Outdoor Store. Just find a sturdy limb on the ground. They are obviously useful when walking inclines and just as useful on flat ground. I use it to test for snakes in small grass, holes in leaf-covered areas, the strength of ice on streams, and sometimes to smack away from heavy brush. And in an emergency, it can be a makeshift weapon.
Watch Wear You Step and Be Defensive: My grandma taught me to always watch where I’m stepping. I don’t think she tripped in 95 years. This is important when trailblazing because there are several ankle-busting limbs and rocks hidden under leaves and brush. Keep an eye behind you too though, to be sure you’re not being stalked by a mountain lion or escaped mental patient (I once crossed paths with a man carrying a shovel and duffle bag. I’ve carried a small knife ever since).
Discover! The things you find deep in the woods will surprise you. Just this year I’ve found beaver dens, an abandoned 1950’s car(?) and spotted several Bald Eagles. Last year the highlight was a baby doll hanging from a noose. The surprises are endless.
Ben North lives and writes from a homestead in Iowa.