With a little forethought, and a liberal supply of marshmallows, you could be one of many looking back on summer with nothing but wonderful memories, stiff legs and a renewed appreciation of Aotearoa’s beauty.
German philosopher and committed stroller Friedrich Nietzsche once said that all good stories start with quotes and “all truly great thoughts are conceived by walking”. There’s certainly no better way to clear the mind and get in touch with nature than by putting one foot in front of the other, but it also pays to have a few thoughts before you start walking.
Walking isn’t strictly a summer sport, but for fairweather hikers the warmer months are when New Zealanders start to contemplate a few more outdoor wanderings. As a teenager, our family decided to walk the Routeburn in January. Like almost all family hikes, there were bickering parents deciding what we needed to take, regular complaints from me and my sister about distance/steepness/heat/rain/pack weight/soreness/hunger, and eyebrow/head raises to anyone coming the other way. There were numerous sweet things to keep us going, regular stops for food, drinks, photos and swims, an occasional singalong and a real sense of achievement when we made it to the hut each night. Never before or since did a hot chocolate taste so good.
Now, in a beautiful illustration of the power of intergenerational inculcation, I am part of a parental duo that also likes to take our children on family hikes and we get to experience the same heady mix of bickering/complaining/pain/satisfaction.
Even the hottest of hot steppers would struggle to get around all of the walks we have on offer in New Zealand, and there are plenty of stunners that are worth a couple of goes. New Zealanders embraced the great outdoors in great numbers when Covid arrived for its unplanned nationwide tour, and as the economic situation continues to worsen and the temperatures rise, taking a hike is once again looking like a pretty good option – financially, physically and mentally.
So, which walk should I do?
Fifteen kilometres on the flat with a daypack is a lot different than 15km of rock hopping and serious ups and downs in the backcountry carrying a 10kg pack for a few nights away. But the beauty of walking is that you can always find something that fits your fitness (and adventure) level. For those contemplating getting out and about this summer for the first time (or even if you’re reasonably experienced), the NZ Mountain Safety Council’s Plan My Walk is the best place to start.
This free hiking resource has New Zealand’s largest (and growing) database of public walks, which can be filtered by length, difficulty, location and name (for those who feel the need to laugh in the face of the fates, might we recommend one of the two Deadman’s Tracks – either the one in Fiordland or the one in Ruahine Forest Park). There is helpful information about each track and reviews from other users who have completed the walks so you know what you’re getting yourself into.
What should I pack?
As the old maxim goes, it pays to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. Whether it’s a short day walk or a multi-day hike, what you need will depend on where you are, how long you’ll be gone and what the conditions could be like.
While Wim Hof might be able to climb Mt Everest in shorts and talk his foot out of getting frostbite, most people aren’t quite that mentally or physically strong. Hikers often make the mistake of underestimating the speed at which the conditions can change (and how cold it can get at altitude, even on a nice day). The outdoors deserve respect, so you’ll need more than jandals and a t-shirt, especially if you’re heading up Taranaki Maunga or traversing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Plan My Walk takes the guesswork out of packing by providing you with a recommended gear rundown for each walk on the database, so you can go through the checklist and make sure you’ve got what you need, and even customise it by adding your own items.
How do you plan for your first overnighter?
Some say it’s about the journey, not the destination. But when it comes to New Zealand’s hut network, you get to appreciate both. You’ll obviously need a bit more gear for an overnighter and that makes for a heavier pack and a harder walk, but, as the Stoics might say, nothing rewarding is easy. That said, don’t push yourself too hard – for your first, find a walk that isn’t too challenging and acclimatise yourself, and your shoulders, to carrying all your gear.
In the Great Walk huts, you’ll be staying in relative luxury compared to normal backcountry huts. Most of them have gas cookers, but make sure you check before you head off (you might also need to boil some drinking water). When it comes to food, the goal is generally maximum sustenance for minimal weight. Pretty much anything tastes good after a 20km walk, and dehydrated meals have come a long way. It’s always best to take a bit more than you think you’ll need, so chuck in an emergency meal and some extra energy bars.
For longer walks into the wilderness, having a personal locator beacon in your group is a necessity – and they can be hired from some DoC offices or outdoor stores – the NZ Mountain Safety Council have a handy list on their website. No need for bear spray in New Zealand, fortunately, but if you’re walking in Canterbury, maybe take some large mystery black panther spray.
Should I bring my Bluetooth speaker?
No. Let the birds be your music of choice.
Any other tips?
You can control what you take on your walk, but you can’t control the weather. It pays to understand what weather is ahead by looking at the forecast. But it can change fast, and frequently, so even with a good-looking forecast be prepared for anything (even in summer). That doesn’t mean carrying your entire wardrobe, but a rain jacket and a warm (non-cotton) layer is essential on even the shortest walks.
Plan My Walk also showcases track alerts like closures, infrastructure damage or Metservice weather warnings, so it’s always worth checking before you go. And if it’s looking dodgy, it’s probably worth delaying.
If you’re walking with younger kids, doing it with another family is a smart idea, as the kids tend to provide a mutual distraction for each other. Also, bribery will play a key role. While walking a section of the Abel Tasman a couple of years ago, we developed a brilliant strategy that successfully incentivised our three-year-old to walk, rather than sit on my already well-laden shoulders. I surreptitiously handed marshmallows to my older daughters who then placed them further up the trail and the potential discovery of rare and elusive marshmallow bushes kept her going. There is now an expectation there will be marshmallow bushes on every walk we do, but their rarity can be easily explained by the species’ preference for particular seasons and ecological niches.
Why, where and how far and quickly you walk is up to you. You can walk around a lake in an hour, or over a mountain in a few days. You can walk your way to good thoughts, or away from bad ones. You can walk alone, or walk to keep the bonds strong.
Humans were designed to move and being in nature is proven to increase happiness, so it’s always a good idea to get out there and stretch your legs. And there are few places as well-endowed with walks as Aotearoa. There are risks, especially in the backcountry, and people do make mistakes. But many of the accidents that happen are entirely preventable, so the first step should always be to plan ahead so that you can make it back unscathed, ready for the next walk. That’s why Plan My Walk was built.