I first met Swami on the PCT in 2012. SweetPea and I got to know him more when he stayed with us for a few days later that year as he passed through the White Mountains near our home while hiking the AT (his final trail in the 12 Long Walks hike). Swami has more hiking miles than anyone we know and accordingly, tons of experience in the back-country across the globe.
What Swami has done, that is of particular interest to me lately, is create routes outside of the long distance hiking trails that most of us are familiar with. Many of us have spent time bushwhacking for part or most of a day, either planned or not….but putting together a multi-week trip across terrain that has no guidebook, less than ideal maps, nor blog posts about where to resupply – that is another animal.
When did you start creating your own routes for long distance hikes, instead of hiking established trails? What drew you to these kinds of hikes?
In the 1990’s; although I wouldn’t say “ instead of hiking established trails .” I’ve always enjoyed doing both. Heading out into the boonies and exploring is something I’ve loved since I was a kid growing up in Australia. As a consequence, I became proficient with map & compass at a relatively young age. When coupled with a lifelong wanderlust, the process of creating my own routes became a means by which I could experience off-the-beaten-track places.
How do you decide where to hike next? What factors go into choosing your next destination?
I don’t have any specific formula or preferences. Sometimes I look for pure wilderness experiences. Other times I’m drawn by historical, cultural and culinary elements. From an environment perspective, over the years I’ve tended to mix things up in regards to alpine, desert, coastal and jungle trips.
I would imagine that one of the challenges to navigating your own route, would be estimating your daily travel distance and food needs. Any insights on how you have been able to figure thisout?
Experience. Time spent in all types of conditions (e.g. snow, bushwhacking, mud, boulder hopping, swamps, soft sand, flat easy terrain etc.) will teach you how fast (or slow) you can hike in any given environment. The trick is paying attention, taking note and then planning your resupplies accordingly.
Hiking your own routes likely provides for a more solitary experience. Is this something you seek out or do you see it as a drawback to this kind of hiking?
Personally speaking, I find there’s a heightened sense of freedom and connection that comes with solo hiking in remote areas. It’s something I’ve always loved and have never considered it a drawback.
Are there extra safety precautions you take when you hike an unmarked route?
I generally leave a more detailed description of my proposed route with friends or family before setting out. For someone that is relatively new to offtrail backpacking, I would recommend erring on the side of caution in regards to food, water, sufficient layers, distance estimates, etc. You may also consider carrying a personal locater beacon, such as a SPOT or Delorme inReach .
Have you found yourself in a situation where the reality on a self-navigated route was much different than expected/planned; and if so, what was the situation and how did you change plans or adapt?
Sometimes this has been weather/seasonal related, other times it was due to a lack of topographic detail in the maps available. Occasionally a combination of both factors.
A good example was the Copper Canyon Traverse in 2013. On that particular route, Justin Lichter (my hiking partner on the CCT) and I were forced to alter our original plans, when the 1:50,000 maps that we were using lacked the necessary detail to predict with any level of accuracy some of the deeper and narrower sections of the canyon system (e.g. impassable pour-offs, cliffs and/or waterfalls).
When combined with the historically high water levels we encountered due to a heavy previous rainy season, there were a couple of occasions in which we were forced to backtrack and bushwhack 5000 ft up and out of a particular section, only to drop back into the canyon further along at a point that we deemed (or at least hoped) would be passable.
As I mentioned earlier, the keys in these types of situations are preparation, adaptability and objectivity. If you aren’t sure that a particular area will be navigable, always have a Plan B just in case. Never be too wedded to a particular course; as I like to say, “Mother Nature doesn’t have a copy of your itinerary.”
What compass do you use?
Suunto M2D. To the best of my knowledge, this model is no longer in production. The closest current equivalents look like the Suunto M3D or the Suunto M3G.
What kinds of maps do you use? What Scale? Have they been difficult to get? How much do you study the maps before starting?
In western countries such as the United States, it’s easy to find great topo maps (e.g. USGS 1:24,000 series). In developing nations, it’s often a very different story. Over the decades I’ve made do with everything from 1:250,000 overview sheets to a sketch map on the back of a napkin from a waiter in Arequipa, Peru (Volcan Misti hike, 1996).
In regards to prehike “study”, I always try to be as prepared as I can before setting out. I’ll go over my proposed route several times, identifying notable landmarks, challenging stretches, potential camping areas and possible exit routes in case of an emergency.
Do you start your hike with a very specific route mapped out, or just a general route?
Almost invariably I’ll have a specific route in mind. However, depending on the conditions, I’m always open to adapting on the fly.
Since hiking more of your own “created” routes, do you find hiking a marked trail to be less enjoyable?
No. As I mentioned above, I’ve always enjoyed doing both. They’re just different variations on the same theme. That being said, when I do hike on established trails, I usually try to avoid the crowds by hiking outside of peak season.
What is a favorite book that you have read lately (or current favorite podcast)?
“Three Cups of Tea” by Greg Mortensen & David Oliver Relin.
What is your favorite way to relax?
Yoga, reading, listening to music and spending time outdoors.
Favorite Trail Town (USA)?
Stehekin (PCT), Hot Springs (AT), Salida (CDT), Ashland (PCT), Grand Marais (MN)
Favorite restaurant or bar on the trail (USA)
Timberline Lodge (PCT), Stehekin Bakery (PCT), Ming Garden (AT), Bob’s Seafood Chowder (PNT), Joe’s Burger Shack (Hayduke, UT). In regards to bars, either the “Inn at the Long Trail” (AT & LT) or the saloon in Atlantic City, WY (CDT).