9. The Trail

The Trail
Keeping the Trail




The trail is what counts. Camp is very well, but too much time is occupied with housekeeping; the daily objectives, peaks, meadows, lakes, beautiful campsites, have the final, brief pleasure of achievement; but nothing can compare with the wonderful sense of freedom, the constantly varied interest, of travel through mountainous country. Both a good horse and an obedient and well-trained shanks’ mare [traveling by “shanks’ mare” is traveling on one’s own feet] have their peculiar virtues; even the resistance of a heavy knapsack has a certain pleasure. In the city the geometrical lines of streets and buildings are only interrupted with the stale surprises of advertising posters, and the faces one encounters reveal biographies less eventful than most rocks. The mountain landscape is infinitely varied and constantly changing. Movement is free, easy, relaxed; the streams are full of fish, the trees are full of birds, flowers grow by the trail, deer jump from their coverts, even the air is intoxicating. It is the fact that we are on our way that is important, where we are going is a minor detail.

In a sense the trail is the final subject of all this book. I have attempted to cover the problems of camp life briefly, but in sufficient detail to leave the actual hiking or riding free from the worst worries and discomforts. Beginning this chapter, I hope it will be short. I, for one, want no one else’s words in my head when I am traveling through the mountains. During the rest of the year we get plenty of advice and admonition in the offices and factories in which we work.

Camping and mountaineering are a compensation for the inadequacies and restrictions of modern life, but they should be a relaxing compensation. Too many people go to the mountains to surpass themselves. In ordinary life their accomplishments are unsatisfying. On the trail they set themselves difficult objectives, travel on the strictest schedules, attempt climbs beyond their strength and skill, push themselves to exhaustion. This process is known by its practitioners as toughening up. Scientifically it is called a compulsion neurosis, like touching every other lamppost or stepping on the cracks in the sidewalk. The latter are at least harmless; driving oneself through the mountains is both harmful and silly, and turns an experience that should be packed with vital interest into an unreal exercise.

Take it easy. Maybe you won’t go as far as you planned, maybe there will be peaks you will have to leave unclimbed, lakes you will have to visit some other time, but you will enjoy yourself. On the other hand, don’t loaf. Travel a little every day, or if you lay over, busy yourself exploring the country, fishing or climbing. If you only make five miles the first day, that is alright. Lengthen your journey every day, at the end of two weeks you will be covering fourteen or more miles a day with ease.

Probably you will take a camera. Include a flora (Hall’s Yosemite Flora is good for the Sierra Nevada,  [illegible authors name] for the Rockies) and a pocket bird guide. A little information about the wildlife around you, learning the names of the more common species, will tremendously increase the interest of the trip. Learn to distinguish the various wild animals, you may find it convenient someday to be able to tell the difference between the skunk and a marmot. A knowledge of the different species of trees is a big help in building campfires. A little geology is helpful too; if you know how the country was put together, you will be much better able to cope with it. The more of your experience you have been able to identify, the more valuable, and the more indelible in the memory, it will be.

Then too, there are books that have nothing to do with camping, and less to do with the western mountains, that are valuable preparations for a camping trip. Walton’s Compleat Angler is full of misinformation about fish, Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selbourne is primitive by modern standards, Bunyan’s Pilgrim traveled only in his own soul, but I suspect that these are the three best manuals for camping and woodcraft that will ever be written. If you can, read them in the winter as you plan your trip. The works of R.B Cunningham-Graham and W.H. Hudson are more modern and more eventful, but they have something of the same spirit. Tyndall’s Glaciers of the Alps, Whymper’s Scrambles Amongst the Alps are classics of the golden age of mountaineering. Tyndall sometimes calls a spade a geotome, but I suspect, with his tongue in his cheek. Whymper’s book, now in a new, complete edition, is one of the world’s great tragic dramas.

[Rexroth later wrote essays on The Compleat Angler, The Natural History of Selbourne,
Pilgrim’s Progress. See his two Classics Revisited volumes.]

Daily travel, afoot or “ahorseback” is not the most strenuous sport in the world, but it does require effort and stamina beyond that demanded by sedentary jobs. If you are in chronic ill health, continuous travel is not for you. You will probably be able to stand it, but you may return more tired than when you started. Get packed in to some high mountain lake and spend your time wandering over the surrounding country.

However good your health may be, it is wise to visit a doctor for a checkup before you go. And by all means visit your dentist. A toothache in the mountains is a maddening thing. Nothing much can be done about it. (The California Indians used the leaves of the California bay laurel, packed in the tooth or applied to the gum, but you will probably be higher than the range of the trees.) You just have to let it ache, and that spoils the trip for you, and doesn’t make it any too pleasant for anybody else.

Don’t expect to be a Paul Bunyan on the trail if your muscles are completely undeveloped. If you have the opportunity, use as many holidays and weekends as you can for short hikes. Overnight trips will give you a chance to try out your equipment, which is a most wise precaution. If that is impossible, swimming is probably the best training for both riding and hiking, and of course it has very great appeal of its own. Every camper should know how to swim. If you can’t ride, rent a horse and practice in the park, don’t rely on this or any other book to teach you how to handle a horse. Use a western saddle and learn to “sit the trot.” Study the Red Cross Textbook on First Aid, even a little practice with bandages and splints on your family or friends won’t harm you any. Learn the principal knots. And finally, learn to cook food that can be eaten, even if you don’t plan to do the cooking. This advice all sounds much like “Join the Boy Scouts,” but the New Masses notwithstanding, the Boy Scouts have their points. Their motto is “Be Prepared,” and lack of elementary preparedness on the trail can lead, if to nothing worse, to considerable annoyance.


Many of the older camping manuals are filled with very solemn discussions of the merits of the pace of the American Indian as compared with that of the French poilu, the exact relationship of the pelvis of the portaging voyageur to his shoulders and feet, and other weighty questions of that ilk. Personally, I have found such theorizing valueless, or even harmful, in teaching tenderfeet, however entertaining it may be to experienced hikers. Walk naturally and easily. Be sure your clothing and pack fit well, your shoes are roomy and broken in, your heels are low (rubber heels if you are accustomed to them), and nothing is dangling from you or your pack. Never carry anything on your belt except a cup, or anything hung around one shoulder. Keep your body relaxed.

The further rules of good hiking are very simple, but they are important, and for a while it may require a little conscious practice to overcome bad walking habits. First, the feet should always be placed in as near a straight line as possible. Imagine you are walking on a narrow board. Second, the heel should strike first, but never hard, and the ball of the foot should descend immediately after. Imagine you have round-bottomed feet with springs under the tips of the toes and are rolling on them. Third, the toes should point very slightly in. Pronounced pigeon toeing will give very bad balance, any degree of toeing out is equally bad. Fourth, the feet should always be “picked up” sufficiently to clear minor obstructions, small rocks and twigs, but should be lifted no higher than necessary. Continuous stumbling is usually a sign of fatigue. The famous “Indian pace” dear to the manuals is a sort of glide. Fifth, if the foot slips, let it slip until it recovers itself naturally. Never struggle with your feet; this is the secret of successful handling, or rather footling, of rocky trails. Sixth, the entire body should be loose-jointed and relaxed, the knees slightly bent and the head and torso slightly forward. The bend of the knee should be definite, sufficient to allow the sole of the foot to travel almost horizontally, but should not be overdone. Some European armies march “sitting down,” this is a rapid tireless pace, but very difficult to learn. Also, it is better adapted to fairly level terrain. A relaxed bent-knee stride should swing the legs forward; the upright parade march kicks them ahead. Such a staccato pace is characteristic of persons suffering from hypertension or from an exaggerated idea of their own importance. (The two often go together.) Its extreme form is the German goosestep, used by that army solely for the purpose of breaking the soldier’s will. Finally, never try to march at an unvarying pace up hill and down; on the other hand, never run down hill, particularly with a pack on your back, or creep up hill. Always keep your momentum completely under control, and strive to develop and easy and effortless rhythm.

Rest as often as you need to, but don’t malinger, and drink as often as you want to or can (sometimes not the same thing), but drink only small quantities of water each time. Most thirst on mountain trails is due to the parching effect of the dry, rarefied air. Keep your mouth shut. Chewing gum, either of the store variety or the gum of the lodgepole pine, is a great help. The turpentine taste of the latter disappears after the first few chews and spits. No other western tree provides a palatable gum, at least as far as I know. Even a small pebble, as you have likely read, held in the mouth, will relieve thirst to a measure. Don’t chew twigs, slivers in your throat can send you home.

If you function normally, you will sweat profusely. Except when the weather is very warm, chilling must be guarded against during rests and stopovers. Carry a light sweater in the top of your pack and slip it on when you stop. I usually travel nude to the waist, and for years I carried a fine Scotch sweater, which gradually came to consist almost entirely of darning wool, for this purpose. This winter, with heaviness of soul, I saw it go to the rag bag. Never rest in deep shade, or in the path of the marrow-chilling breezes that so often blow down mountain streams. It sounds illogical, but the bright sunlight is by far the best place to rest, at least until you have dried off a little.

Many people suffer from slight, but continuous, dull headaches for the first few days on the trail. If you soak your hat and wet your hair in the streams as you pass, this condition will usually disappear. (Of course, only a good sombrero will stand such treatment.) Bathing the wrists and hands, and even the feet, in cold water will also help. Don’t forget, the altitude has increased your pulse and breathing, and almost doubled your red blood count. Take it easy until you are acclimated.

If you become careless, you can spend a whole morning packing one animal. Learn to pack expeditiously, and start early. Always allow plenty of time for lunch. On hot days it is wise to stop over until two in the afternoon. However, if such stopovers are spent prostrate on the ground, your muscles will become stiff and the afternoon trip will be very tiring. After you have rested a reasonable length of time, fish, swim, or just prospect around.

If you are traveling with several others, keep within speaking distance of your companions, or wait until you are so before attempting communication. The experience of a party is in inverse ratio to the number of “you-hoos” it emits. The quieter you are, the more you will see. Avoid the habit of cutting ahead for leadership on the trail, it throws the party off its pace. This is very annoying, and invariably leads to frayed tempers at the end of the day. Theoretically, the uphill traveler has the right of way, but if you are courteous, you will get off the trail first. Always allow plenty of room to a mounted party, horses frighten easily. The leader of a large group should always keep the pace well under control, and should take special precaution not to allow too great a speed at the beginning of the day or after a stop. Random fits of temper and querulousness are common occurrences in groups of any size. If taken seriously they can be very annoying. It should be borne in mind that, for the first few days at least, high altitudes produce a sort of mild hysteria in many people. During severe climbs to great heights, this can become very pronounced. It is a purely physical phenomenon and there is nothing serious about it. Let the explosion pass and forget it.

Most mountain streams are crossed only by footlogs. If you keep your eyes off the water and step briskly, you should soon learn to negotiate them. But if you have a chronic dread of rushing water, or find it difficult to maintain your balance, or suffer from vertigo, don’t be foolish; sit down and inch yourself along. It is wiser to do this, however unaesthetic it may appear to others, than to wade. Keep your feet as dry as possible.

Never try to walk wet feet dry. If your feet become soaked, take off your boots, put on a clean pair of socks, or at least wring dry the wet ones, and wipe out the interior of the boots. If you have to wade in deep water, change to basketball shoes over sockless feet. Never try to wade barefoot over rocky-bottomed fords. If the water is higher than the knees and very swift, rope in. Each member of the party should have twenty-five feet of rope, and it should be tied securely to their belts. Advance slowly, keeping the rope just tight enough to sag about a foot. The rope is for emergencies only, don’t use it to pull yourself along. Each person should have a pole, about six feet long and stout enough to support him. The poles should be used on the downstream side as much as possible as [otherwise] they might be washed against the rope. Lean into the current, not away from it. Never try to ford swift water above your waist. Hunt for a better crossing or a down log, or fell a crossing log, or ascend the stream until it narrows sufficiently.

If your feet begin to blister, or your laces are too tight, or a sock has wrinkled, stop and remedy matters. You can’t walk out of the mountains on your hands.

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[The brief chapter on “Climbing,” located somewhat inconsistently here in the manuscript, has been moved to the next webpage.]

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The Boy Scout Handbook contains some very pretty pictures, often reprinted, of various methods of marking the trail, blazes for right and left turns, tied bunch grass, complicated little mountains of rocks. It is too bad that few of these ever seem to be used, they would probably be very convenient. Forest Service trails are uniformly marked with a vertical blaze not less than eight inches long, cut through the bark into the sapwood, and accompanied by a smaller horizontal notch cut directly above it. Theoretically, one blaze should be visible in either direction from any given one. Main Forest Service trails are blazed on both sides of the tree, visible coming and going. Subsidiary trails may be blazed on one side only, visible as one advances. Trails in the National Parks are usually not as well blazed, sometimes only with spot blazes, parallel with the trail, or with a rare blaze at turns and other points of possible confusion. Often, where the administration is particularly interested in conservation of the primitive appearance of the park, they are not blazed at all. However, all principal trails in the National Parks are very clearly cut, and the trail itself is sufficient indication.

Where a trail crosses a large meadow and the track is not well defined, its entrance and exit is often marked by exceptionally large blazes, visible from either side. At high altitudes, or in other areas devoid of trees, the trail is marked by small rock monuments called “ducks.” Ducks should be visible both directions from any one, but such trails often twist and turn through the rocks, and of course a region covered with talus or broken rock produces plenty of spontaneous ducks of its own to confuse the unwary. Should the track become lost in such country it can usually be picked up again by hunting for horse manure (rock climbing seems to have a pronouncedly laxative effect on stock), horseshoe scratches, and tracks. Under such circumstances it is wise to leave the stock standing the moment the trail is lost, and reconnoiter carefully on foot. Properly built ducks should have the unweathered side of the rocks exposed, if this has been done and they are not too old, they can easily be distinguished from accidental piles after a little practice.

If the trail seems hopelessly lost and the country is not otherwise impassible, it is best to rely on the topographical sheet and proceed very carefully in the approximate direction. The trail will usually turn up again after a few minutes. If the route is at all steep, rocky, or dangerous the animals should be led, and if it is particularly so the only thing to do is to let them stand and hunt for the trail until you find it.

Most of the mountainous country west of the Continental Divide is fairly open, and its contours and drainage are well defined. Obtain the USGS topographical sheets for the region you plan to traverse and study them carefully. Locate the principal landmarks, high peaks, domes, etc., and form in your mind a picture of the drainage and the elevation and direction of the ridges. Keep the map in your hip pocket, and as you go along, locate yourself on it occasionally. Take a look back every now and then so that you can recognize the trail if you approach it from the opposite direction. Continuous map reading soon becomes a habit, in fact almost a vice; maps are usually brought back from a long trip worn to shreds; but it is one habit whose overindulgence is beneficial. If you know where you have gone every mile of the way, you are not likely to get lost. Careful use of the map is of course essential if you travel off the trail.

Some of the lateral ridges of the Sierra Nevada, particularly the Silliman Crest on the northern boundary of Sequoia National Park, form natural approaches of the most spectacular beauty to the main crest. Intelligent map reading and use of the compass and a little rock work now and then should enable an experienced knapsack party to negotiate such routes with little trouble. Other similar regions in the Sierra are the section of the main crest between Evolution Valley and the headwaters of Mono Creek, the Monarch Divide, various routes in the vicinity of Mt. Goddard, the Brewer range and the Sphinx Crest, and the route from Brewer to Tyndall near that purportedly followed by Clarence King. Only on a trip like this, away from other tourists and campers, does one realize to the full the loneliness and sterile magnificence that constitute the greatest appeal of the Sierra Nevada.

Such knapsack routes are not for amateurs, and should never be attempted on one’s first season in the mountains. If you are new to the country, the main trails will seem wild and rugged enough.

In using the compass, do not forget to observe the angle of declination of the needle from true north given at the bottom of the USGS map. This varies from year to year, but is usually accurate enough for your purposes. If you wish the exact declination it can be found in the World Almanac for that year, and written on the margin of the map. Use a good hunting-case compass with a locking pivot and a standard card. Avoid engineers’ compasses, with east and west reversed, with hair sight and other improvements unless you understand their use. Miniature compasses in finger rings, matchboxes and knives or on the back of watches are very unreliable if not worthless. Don’t forget to loosen the pivot and remove all iron from the vicinity of the compass when using it. By laying the map on a level surface, putting the compass on top of it and then orienting the map, any landmark can easily be located by sighting across the map. In transporting the compass to the mountains, keep it away from the motor and wiring of the car and away from the fuse boxes of electric trains or it may become demagnetized. The compass is usually useless on mountains rich in iron ore or during thunderstorms.

All main trails in the National Parks and Forests are marked with signboards at the principal junctions. Apparently the distances given on these boards were once estimated with only the roughest approximation, and by men who had become used to the route and had only traveled it on horseback. Older signs, therefore, tend to be optimistic. They are gradually being replaced, and the new signs often have surveyed mileages, or at least more accurate ones. Don’t forget though, measured in expenditure of energy and time consumed, mountain miles are often twice as long as level ones. Four miles an hour is a good average hiking pace over moderate terrain, two to two and a half miles an hour is stepping right along in the mountains.

The number of section lines crossed by the trail on the topographical sheet are not an accurate index of the length of the trail. Its minor turns and switchbacks are not shown, and in rough country these may double the distance. Once you have become familiar with the map and are able to form a clear conception of the country ahead, such distances can be estimated with considerable accuracy.

Many manuals, particularly those written early in the century, advise the marking of “personal” trails, the blazing or ducking of one’s way hither and yon over the country. Since then the mountains of the west have become great popular recreation areas, with campers swarming over them in all directions every summer. Obviously, if everybody blazed his way through the woods after deer or ducked his way up and down the mountains, the official trails would soon become confused, and, in places where the track was thin, impossible to follow. Never blaze or otherwise mark any tree, and never build ducks, except possibly on the main trail at points where you feel others might become confused.

In National Forest land, and occasionally in the National Parks, the section and sometimes the quarter section corners are marked by blazed trees, usually four at section and two at quarter-section corners. These blazes are most often in the form of a cross, or a very large oval blaze, with beneath them either the carved letters, BT (for bearing tree) or WT (for witness tree). When these corners lie on the trail, they are a convenience in locating oneself very accurately on the topographical sheet, which shows section lines where they exist. Another common marker is a small sheet of tin, divided into 36 squares with a system of marking as complicated as a Chinese lottery ticket. Where they define a section corner or line they too can be used.


As mentioned above, the topography of the western mountains is usually pretty obvious, and except on the Puget Sound slope of the Cascades, the country is fairly open. Anyone who keeps his wits about him, carries a topo, and pays attention to where he is going is not likely to be lost for long. Very often, after striking across country for a certain objective, and having traveled what I have felt to be the appropriate distance and not finding it, I have momentarily decided I was lost. The meadow, lake or trail should be there, right where I stood, or I should have passed it shortly before. Invariably it has turned up, over the next rise or through a thick clump of timber. From which may be deduced the moral: don’t decide you are lost until the evidence is conclusive.

If, after careful reconnoitering, you still don’t know where you are; or if, as sometimes happens, you suddenly realize that you haven’t the vaguest idea of where you are, sit down and think. Confusion of direction is much like a rattlesnake bite, the more you thrash around, the worse it gets. Keep your shirt on. You should have your topo in your pocket. Orient it with your compass and try to trace your peregrinations since you left the last familiar landmark. If you have no map, trace your movements on the ground with a stick. Usually you will be able to form a fair idea of where you are and usually you will be right.

If you have no compass and the sun is shining, or even casting a shadow, you can find the points of the compass on your watch, if you have a watch (and it is less than an hour or so off). Point the hour hand toward the sun, south lies midway between the hour hand and twelve o’clock. Facing south, north is behind you, east is on your left and west on your right. Supposedly this last bit of information should be obvious, but lost men all too often lose their wits as well as their directions. Kephart advises scratching a small B on the compass case to remind you that the Blue or Black end of the needle points north. A party of us once finally located a badly frightened young lad at ten o’clock at night, who had dutifully followed Kephart’s advice, but unfortunately had remembered the B as standing for Bright.

If you have no compass, and the sky is completely overcast, and you have no map, you just have to guess. Under such circumstances, the best thing to do, if the topography seems meaningless, is to keep steadily downhill or downstream until you encounter a trail. Trails are fairly plentiful and it is almost impossible to “keep going in one direction”; as you are probably aware, lost men usually travel in a circle. These is one place where the downhill solution will not work, and that is along the edge of canyons of the Yosemite type, should you happen to be beyond any of the trails along the rim. It is difficult to imagine anyone not knowing his whereabouts in such a situation, but if you are near a deep, sheer canyon, and the going becomes too rough, turn back and go upstream until something turns up. The rim trail usually lies somewhere on the old valley bed that was there before the canyon was cut, and that separates it from the parallel ridge. (This advice also applies to mountains in the basin and range country, which may slope down to desert.)

If you are still hopelessly lost an hour before sunset, STOP. You certainly won’t get out of the woods in the dark except by the rarest good luck, and you may injure yourself. Select a clear, exposed place, where the light can be seen for some distance, and build a fire. If you have a pocket axe, or a machete, and you are foolish if you haven’t, or even if you have a stout jackknife, you can build a bough bed (see the chapter on “The Camp”). Build a big one, big enough to crawl into and pull the boughs over you, and just enough distance from the fire so that it won’t go up in flames in the night. The best location for such a bivouac is against a large rock or cliff. Heat will be reflected down on you, and your friends can see the glow on the rock a long way. Gather plenty of wood and stack it near the bed. Don’t build an enormous fire, you will need all the sleep you can get the next day, and you can’t sleep and gather firewood all night too. You should have a knapsack and in it some emergency rations; eat supper and go to sleep. In the morning, if your don’t lose your head, you should manage to extricate yourself.

If you have no matches and the night is fairly warm, build as big a bed as you can, in as sheltered a spot as you can find, and try and get some sleep. If it is cold you will have to keep awake, best walk slowly through the woods, conserving your energy as much as possible. If it is raining, you can usually find some sort of shelter, an overhanging rock or a windfallen tree, or a tiny lean-to can be rigged up from your slicker or poncho and some boughs. Never go out in stormy weather, [or] off the trail in unfamiliar country, without either or both these garments in your knapsack. If the weather is below freezing and you have no shelter, keep awake throughout the night, no matter how big a fire you build.

From the preceding discussion, you can see that there is one situation which is pretty bad, the man who has paid no attention to his route, and knows nothing of the country, and is without compass, watch, map, knapsack, axe, knife, slicker or poncho, emergency rations or matches, who is hopelessly astray in the woods at night in subfreezing weather, rain, snow or sleet. Let us hope that he remembers the Lord’s Prayer or the Twenty-Third Psalm and wear either a scapular or a medal or at least an elk’s tooth or a rabbit’s foot. Even he, if he only keeps awake and moving enough to preserve circulation, will probably come out without irreparable damage. In such a fix, or any other very serious one, the great danger is fright, with resulting hysteria and the succeeding lethargy and stupor. No matter how bad things are, keep calm, tell yourself funny stories, sing songs, whistle, play games of chess in your head, anything to keep from losing control of yourself. With but rare exception, getting lost is followed by serious consequences only if the person has become panic-stricken.

Finally, if you are prepared, a night spent lost in the woods will be an adventure, even a pleasant or at least stirring one. Carry a knapsack with an extra sweater, emergency food, axe or machete, poncho or slicker, a few flies and some line, a small first aid kit and a snakebite outfit, keep your watch running, carry a map and compass, and plenty of matches, a waterproof case full and some extra ones in your pockets or the knapsack. You should be thus equipped even on the trail. If you strike across country with which you are not familiar without this bare minimum of equipment, you are more than foolhardy, you are just plain crazy.


Chapter 9 of Kenneth Rexroth’s Camping in the Western Mountains (unpublished manuscript, ca. 1939). Copyright 2003. Reproduced by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.