What Is Cross Country Hiking

The particularly adventurous hiker may sooner or later discover that regular hiking trails no longer satisfy their needs of exploration. However, no matter how familiar you are to your local hiking trails, they still have plenty of things for you to explore! 

After all, going cross-country allows for so many new hiking opportunities!

What Is Cross Country Hiking?

Cross-country hiking basically is hiking where there are no hiking trails. In this sense, cross-country hiking is similar to cross-country skiing where skiers move across snowy terrain without the use of ski lifts or other kinds of skiing assistance.

While cross-country hiking brings plenty of new challenges and dangers into hiking, it’s a great way to experience an already-familiar hiking area like never before. Even if you were stuck with just one hiking trail option, cross-country hiking could provide you with new things to explore for the rest of your life.

But since cross-country hiking implies going off into poorly-explored areas, you will need to be extra careful when venturing off the trail. It’s easy to stay safe on a well-known trail which has been maintained for years, but it’s completely another thing trying to cover miles of wildlands off the trail.

With that said, if you are intending to do cross-country hiking in the near future, make sure to read the tips below to ensure a safe journey.

Things to Do Before Your Cross-Country Trip

Because cross-country hiking isn’t quite the same as regular hiking, there are a few additional preparatory steps you will need to take before the trip. Below, we want to talk about 5 key things that you must do while preparing for your hike.

Choose a trail for cross-country hiking

Believe us, it isn’t the best idea to veer off the trail in a random spot and start exploring the wildlands. You sure are going to find plenty of new things, but you will be unprepared for the challenges that may be awaiting you along the way.

So first of all, you have to choose a safe trail to do cross-country hiking at. You may do cross-country hiking anywhere, but it would be best if you did at a relatively safe trail where you don’t run the risk of coming across a bear or dangerous terrain.

Research for the safest trails online. Even though you will be hiking off the trail, you will need to check where the entry and exit points of the trail are, how easily the trail can be accessed, and how easily it can be navigated. If there are any safety alerts for the trail, then make sure to take them into account.

Not only that, but you may check the map of the trail to see what there is in its environs. Is it just pure vegetation, or maybe someone lives along the way? These are important questions since social amenities or people living nearby can literally save your life in an emergency.

Try to check how the terrain is on the trail. Namely, check out its elevation since it will significantly affect your ability to cover long distances.

And finally, do pick a hiking area that is suitable for your skill level. Know your limits and do not select a poorly-documented or challenging area if you are inexperienced.

Train for the cross-country trip

Before your very first cross-country hiking trip, you should dedicate a good chunk of time to becoming better on regular hiking trails. Remember, hiking trails are specially adapted for easier walking. You won’t have the conveniences of adapted trails off the route.

The 2 key things that you should become better at are:

  • Covering more distance.
  • Resource management.

When it comes to covering distance, you should aim at around 20-30 miles once or twice per week for two months before your trip. Depending on what you are expecting from your cross-country trip, you may try to train for 20-30 miles a day (which is difficult) or spread it out between several days. 

Ideally, you should do the practice hike in conditions close to what you are expecting to get off the trail, but this will only be possible if you have enough information about your cross-country route.

Resource management is no less important than being able to cover a lot of land in a short time. Among the things that you have to become efficient about are:

  • How many hours per day you will be hiking. It may seem that giving the most at the early stages is the best strategy, but in reality, you have to spread out your journey equally so that you don’t get exhausted in the first two days.
  • Your speed. You shouldn’t focus too much on going quick. Instead, you should pick a moderate pace that you can maintain throughout the journey. Being efficient about your speed is even more important off the trail since the terrain can be much rougher out there, and it’s okay if you aren’t able to cover as much distance as you would on a regular trail.
  • Your eating and resting routine. You will need to learn to take breaks relatively frequently (once every 2 hours). While it may seem that frequent breaks won’t allow you to cover as much land, you will be less exhausted throughout the journey.

Not only that, but you will need to eat and drink healthily so that you get a proper amount of energy for the hike.

  • Equipment. You will need to take only what you need since a heavy backpack will weigh you down and force you to spend more energy to keep up the pace. Aside from that, you will need to learn how to pack your gear properly so that it occupies minimal space.

Gain survival knowledge

Survival knowledge is necessary on regular trails as well, but it’s much more important off the trail since you will most likely be left on your own in an emergency. Or, assistance won’t be able to arrive quickly, and you will need to perform some basic first aid procedures.

First off, learn the common symptoms of dehydration, hypothermia, heatstroke, and other ailments that you may come across outdoors. Most importantly, learn how to deal with them.

Speaking of dealing with ailments, you must learn how to perform basic first aid. Out in the wild, you are very likely to receive cuts and bruises or perhaps something much worse.

Then, find out what kind of animals you may find along the way and how you should behave if you encounter them. Not only that but learn what to do in bad weather and how to protect yourself from the cold.

Learn navigation

Needless to say, off the trail, you won’t have signs or maps to assist you throughout your journey. This obviously means that you will need to learn how to use navigational tools correctly (check out My Open Country’s guide to learn more).

First and foremost, learn how to use a map or your GPS navigator. These will most likely be your best options for navigation, so you should do some in-depth practice before the hike. You may not have phone coverage at the hiking trail, and even if you do, your mobile maps may not be able to provide you with enough information.

Of course, you also need to make sure that the desired hiking area is well-detailed by your navigation tools. However, since imprecisions are highly likely, you will need to know how to navigate with only general landmarks.

You may also take some classes for orienteering before the hike. This is a highly recommended option if you have the time and money for it. Orienteering classes will teach you how to handle a map and compass.

Learn how to use a tent

If you are going to hike cross-country overnight, then you will have to take care of your sleeping needs. Well, your best bet is a tent and a good sleeping bag.

If you’ve never slept in a tent before, then you will need to practice in safer conditions well before your actual cross-country trip. You may make use of the camping sites present at some hiking trails, or you may just set up your tent in your backyard and practice using it there.

It would be great if you were able to practice in a wide variety of conditions, including wind, rain, or maybe even snow. And ideally, your practice should mimic the actual trail conditions as closely as possible.

And yeah, don’t scrimp on a good tent or sleeping bag. Make sure to get proper gear that will be able to provide you with protection and warmth during the cold nights out in the wild.

Cross-Country Hiking Checklist

You probably have a checklist for your regular hiking trips. All of your checklist items will find use in cross-country hiking as well, but there are additional things that you will want to take with you.

Map & GPS device

As mentioned above, traditional means of navigation most likely won’t be able to assist you off the trail. You will thus need to buy a detailed map of the area, preferably made from waterproof materials. Services like Green Trails may not be able to provide you with maps detailed enough for navigation.

You may also bring along a GPS device. While you can navigate with just a map, a GPS device will make things easier for you. Some people don’t take any GPS devices though since navigating by map allows them to get more involved with cross-country hiking. But if you aren’t too experienced with navigation, we highly suggest that you take both a GPS device and a map with you.

Personal locator beacon

A PLB (personal locator beacon) is a must-have since local emergency services may not be accessible off the trail.

PLBs are intended to indicate the location of a person in distress when normal emergency services are not available. PLBs send their signal to satellites which then assist rescue personnel with locating you.

Trekking poles

You may already be using trekking poles on your regular hiking trips. They can be quite helpful on trails, but they will be much more useful off the trail where the terrain isn’t adapted for hiking.

Do make sure to pick a good pair of trekking poles that will be able to withstand the challenges of the journey.

Ice ax

An ice ax is going to be a handy tool if you encounter perennial snow patches out in the wild. Alternatively, you may opt for traction devices for your boots.


You may need to grab onto shrubs or branches to clear your way. Well, to protect your hands, you should bring along a good pair of gloves. A good option is leather gloves that are tear- and abrasion-resistant.

Long pants

Again, you may already be wearing long pants to protect your legs from dense brushes, but if you are not, make sure to invest in long and durable pants that will protect you from cuts and bruises.


Just like long pants, gaiters can really come in handy since they will keep dirt and stones out of your boots, allowing you to stay comfy throughout the journey.

Remember About Hiking Etiquette

When going hiking cross-country, you will need to pay special attention to hiking ethics. The Leave No Trace principles address what you should do no matter where you hike. And since you are dealing with untouched lands, you should put the effort into keeping them as pristine as possible.

You aren’t the only backpacker whose mind may be crossed by the idea of cross-country hiking. Other cross-country hikers are very likely to follow the same route you’ve covered, which would end in the creation of new trails. This puts the perhaps already endangered area at a greater risk.

Feel free to cross-country hike wherever you want, but make sure that your impact on the area is minimal. Erosion, pollution, damage from campfires – these are the things that trails suffer the most nowadays. And if you want to preserve the vast yet quite limited natural variety available to us now, then do make sure to make responsible choices when hiking off-trail.

You can read more of our hiking articles here.