Sidehilling? What is it?

January 17th, 2023 by Carl D
Sidehilling our way up Harry’s Gulch

What is it?

I’ll tell you what it is.

It’s something we need a new term for.

The word “Sidehilling” just doesn’t really convey what it is. It certainly doesn’t convey how it actually FEELS.

When I talk to people about a trip and I use the word “bushwhacking” , they generally get it. 

It doesn’t sound fun. It doesn’t sound easy. It sounds, to most ears, downright hard.

And it can be.

But sidehilling just doesn’t carry that ominous ring to it.

Yet it’s absolutely one of the hardest parts of backpacking in Alaska.

So What is it?

It’s harder than you think it is. That’s what it is.

Maybe ten years ago we were on the Southern Traverse, one of the most glorious treks in the state, and definitely one with its share of adversity. I’d suggest it’s the most difficult route we do. And a LOT of that is due to sidehilling. 

The route has some brush, but nothing heinous (if your guide gets their lines right). It has river crossings, but they’re not terribly challenging. It has some distance to it, and has some elevation gain and loss. 

But it’s the sidehilling that gets ya.

Thing is, I’m not sure what else we SHOULD call it. Sidehilling does refer, after all, to hiking along the side of a hill. That’s it.

But after a day or so, you feel it all over. Ben, on the Southern Traverse trek mentioned above, one of the strongest, fittest hikers we’ve had on a trip, turned to me as we approached camp one day, grinner and said “Man, Alaska just beats you up, doesn’t it?

I think that’s the most apt description of backpacking here I’ve heard.

It’s just hard. 

Some of the most inviting looking terrain on any trips, once you actually walk it, can really challenge even a strong backpacker.

So I’m not sure what we SHOULD call it. I do know that most folks I speak with about a trip, when I discuss the various challenges, generally get a sense of what we’re talking about. But without question, when I mention “sidehilling”, it’s apparent they really don’t see that as a “thing”.

Let me tell you, it’s definitely a thing. 

We backpack over moraines, boulders the size of a car, climb steep mountains and descend even steeper ridge lines, traverse scree slopes and wade rivers, crawl our way through  Chugach alder and willow so thick you literally can’t see the person 30’ in front of you.

None that, and I mean none of it, will beat you up like a day of sidehilling.

Even just a few hours of sidehilling, on just the right angle, will wear your joints and bones out like you didn’t foresee.

Trust me.

Take it slow and don’t bite off more than you want to chew when you pick a route for your Alaska backpacking trip. Your knees will thank you for it.



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