Climbing Off-Trail Mountains: A How-To Guide

Cal Topo Table Mtn

With the cooler temperatures here in Phoenix beginning to creep into our collective psyches, its time for Central Arizona peakbagging season. If you are anything like me, you appreciate that there is more to life than Camelback Mountain. Yes, really, there ARE other mountains. Many of them known only to whatever deity you worship. Or not…

So I thought I would put together a sort of how to manual of how I personally hike mountains that have no semblance of trail to them at all. As in NO trail, perhaps past the parking lot or trailhead.

While I certainly have friends in the hiking and climbing community that believe that planning is anathema to a good time, that’s not for me. So if you don’t like to plan, jump ahead!!!


I personally find as much fun in the planning as I do the climbing and hiking. I use a very simple method to plan my climbs. I utilize with two simple toggles, Map Builder Overlay and Gradient Slope Shading. This allows you to visually see both the topographical contour lines but ALSO see the colors that show you steepness. I use Caltopo to see the steepness and to see if a route is already available. In the example above (Table Mountain), a route was not available so I made my own beforehand using Caltopo’s tools and then the blue path you see below is the actual path I took today. Further using the example above, you can clearly see how I chose the path that I did to get to both summits, as the topo lines are farther apart (less steep) and there was less ‘color’ along the path I chose.

So you got to the trailhead, what now?

Become an Indigenous Geologist…

What? There were no native American geologists. Au contraire… Native peoples understood geology just as much as we do. Here is what I mean… You don’t really hike/climb with your feet, you hike and climb with your eyes. Since you don’t have a trail to follow, you’ll learn to look for game trails or areas where water has flowed down the mountain. These tend to be areas that are less steep since water follows the path of least resistance. Now are you following my logic…? Picture yourself as an indigenous person tracking a deer. Yes, this method works. It does!

If you are hiking in an area that it is at least somewhat likely that others have hiked or climbed before, look for visual changes in the rocks that you are climbing over. Often you can see a color shade difference where feet have worn a path over the rocks that you can actually see.

Game trails almost always lead to the summit of mountains. Why, I am not sure, maybe javelina, deer, mountain lion and bears are also peakbaggers!!!

A few helpful hints…

Often, it is better to climb in a zig zag pattern, instead of just climbing straight up. This is because mountains have ridges and are not just smooth surfaces. It would be equivalent to switchbacks on an actual trail. Think of those.

Don’t fear big rocks. In fact, big rocks are great. I LOVE big rocks. I HATE small rocks. Big rocks are easy to climb up and over, small rocks are like ice and slippery.

Often you will summit peaks that have a ‘blind rim’ at the top, meaning that its hard to see over the edge. I often take a crappy white t-shirt and leave it at the exact spot that I came ‘over the blind rim’ so that I can visually spot it when its time to go down. Don’t leave the shirt!

Repeat this mantra… mountain biking is for speed, hiking is for distance, peakbagging is for the experience of the summit. Other than fastest known time peeps, as long as you summit no one really cares how long it took. They don’t.

If you’re afraid, sing. Seriously. I have found NOTHING better than humming an ear worm to calm my fears. The cheesier the better.

It’s OK and even good to be afraid. It’s what keeps you alive. But you will know the difference between crippling fear and discomfort.

Having said that, the mountain is not going anywhere. If you see lightning, leave immediately. If you are shaking with fear, (I have before) I always try to at least make the saddle or be able to see where the summit is. I find if you quit but could see the summit, psychologically it makes it much easier next time.

Use technology but don’t rely on it. Pro-tip… Use your technology on the way up, use your paper map on the way down. This is because you’ll likely be lower in battery after the summit and you will be visually able to see things you’ve already passed. Always take a paper map especially when you are doing off trail routes. Always.

Awesome mountain resources:

Lists of John


Let me know some of your favorite tips and also some of your favorite climbs in the comments section!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s