The middle stage of developing your backpacking skills, between Summer time backpacker and Winter backpacker, involves developing your off-trail skills. Once you begin to travel and explore safely off the trails during Summer time, you are laying the foundation for traveling along your own self-selected and identified trail routes during Summer and Winter time.
This happens with the application of time, experience, observation, analysis, and adjustments.
Your first task, once you begin to backpack the long trails, is to to begin scrambling. Each section of the trail between resupply points is as full of scrambling opportunities as your eyes, imagination, and supplies allow. Bring an extra day's food to establish a campsite next to your proposed scramble. Kick back, rest, recover, and read your maps. The next day is your "off" day to accomplish your scramble. It could be a nearby peak, a hanging valley full of lakes, or just getting up to that gap in the Sierra Crest Line to see what's on the other side.
As opposed to scrambling, where you will explore the surrounding mountains and terrain from an established campsite, Off the Trail Backpacking involves creating your own route through the terrain as a stand alone trip or as a section of a longer backpacking trip.
This can involve following an unmaintained trail across rough terrain, following one of the many informal routes across the Sierra backcountry, or exploring and finally crafting your own routes across the Sierra.
This level of backpacking requires that you build "boots on the ground" familiarity with the local terrain and trails. Walk the trails through and around all points of your proposed off-trail excursion.
For instance, Let's examine one of my upcoming scrambles. if you are planning to hike cross country Goddard Canyon through the Ionian Basin to Lake Wanda or the Black Giant near Muir Pass, rather than hiking through Evolution Meadow and Basin to Muir Pass on the Standard John Muir Trail route, I strongly suggest that you become familiar with the terrain Northwest of Muir Pass, the terrain near the headwaters of the San Joaquin leading into Goddard Canyon, and the standard route of the John Muir Trail / Pacific Crest Trail to the East of your scrambling route.
This will give you experience and perspective on your route, and give you some degree of familiarity with the terrain at the beginning and end of the cross country route.
Don't just "jump in" to a difficult off trail route without building your knowledge and experience as if you are putting together a puzzle of natural beauty, piece by piece. The final piece of this puzzle will be actually doing the route.
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