An adventurer taking a time out on a trip. This is not me, but it could be. (Photo: DOC; annotation author’s own)
An adventurer taking a time out on a trip. This is not me, but it could be. (Photo: DOC; annotation author’s own)

TravelFebruary 2, 2021

Long-time walker, first-time hiker: What newbie trampers need to know

An adventurer taking a time out on a trip. This is not me, but it could be. (Photo: DOC; annotation author’s own)
An adventurer taking a time out on a trip. This is not me, but it could be. (Photo: DOC; annotation author’s own)

Some people have an ‘appreciate from afar’ approach to nature. But this summer, with all the encouragement for New Zealanders to explore Aotearoa, more of us are biting the bullet and heading into the great outdoors, writes the Department of Conservation’s ‘anonymous DOC blogger’.

First published on DOC’s Conservation Blog.

It’s not that I don’t walk. I do. I walk home from work, I go on walks around my city, I spend most Sundays meandering along the waterfront stopping to pat strangers’ dogs. I’m reasonably adept at all those.

But there’s walking, and then there’s walking.

Earlier this year in Aotearoa, Covid-necessitated lockdowns prompted a new appreciation for the great outdoors.

My job pertains to nature, but I’m one of the office-bound ones, not the rangers with the amazing work stories, or scientists with the awesome field innovations. A good day for me is when Outlook loads all of the folders.

But as the great Joni Mitchell prophesises, you don’t know what you got til it’s gone.

Locked down in my very urban, very concrete abode, I missed nature a lot. Being able to live stream the Northern Royal Albatross colony helped, and so did the really awesome nature soundscapes that went out on DOC’s social media, but still I found myself jonesing for muddy tracks, panoramic views and the opportunity to scold a kea for trying to steal my stuff.

Photo of kea with 'stop thief' on it
Kea reaching for a hiker’s shoelace (Photo: Andrew Walmsley; annotation author’s own)

Which is weird, because as I say, how could you miss something you’d never had?

But I missed the idea of it. I pictured myself exploring Aotearoa’s Great Walks, Day Hikes, Short Walks and the little-known gems in between. Skillfully climbing hills and popping selfies. Simultaneously.

I’ve been out adventuring in nature before (and was inspired to write about having your period in the wilds as a result,) but I’ve always stayed quite close to home and never done a big big trip.

Luckily, among my colleagues there are a number of outdoor experts, many of whom must enjoy the idea of my continued existence on this planet because they gave me a lot of advice for staying safe on Public Conservation Land.

Or, more likely, they just don’t want anyone getting injured in nature. Both things can be true at the same time, right?

Godley Head view, Banks Peninsula
The view from Godley Head, Banks Peninsula (Photo and annotation: author’s own)

Here’s the advice I gleaned in preparation for my first attempt at proper tramping.

Book sharp

I watched with keenness when bookable huts and campsites opened up and made my summer plan accordingly. Not all of our facilities are bookable, and many of the ones that are get snapped up very quickly. But the Bookings page on DOC’s website saw me right.

Move over Bear Grylls, there was a new explorer in town.

Plan well

The first rule for planning an adventure in nature isn’t to ensure you have snacks (although that’s key) and to tell someone where you’re going (definitely do that too). Those things come later.

The first thing is to know your limits.

I’m a newbie adventurer. There’s no way in 2020 hell that I should be anywhere near a track that is categorised as Expert, Advanced, or Intermediate. I simply don’t have the experience or the fitness.

Two hikers on the Tongariro Northern Circuit Track
Two hikers on the Tongariro Northern Circuit Track, which is an Intermediate level track, AKA not for the likes of me (Photo: Daniel Deans, DOC; annotation author’s own)

The kinds of walks I’m suited to right now are categorised on the DOC website under Easy or Easiest. Luckily that’s a filter I can apply.

Adventurers make their own decisions about where they’re at – after all, no one knows your abilities better than you. But you need to be honest with yourself. Don’t bite off more than you can chew.

Most of all, don’t think that because someone else shared an amazing shot on Instagram of them nailing a difficult alpine ridgeline track, it’s all a breeze. Because it’s definitely not, as search and rescue callouts prove.

Plan well. Plan honest. And refer to our handy ranking guide for clarity.

Get your gear

My next new hurdle was the not-so-simple matter of gear. Because of course, I had none.

Undeterred, I set about borrowing from all and sundry. Friends I hadn’t spoken to in years (let alone kept in touch with during lockdown, when my social circles rapidly shrunk to the few people I could still talk to for hours despite a clear lack of anything to say) got a Facebook message from me, asking for various items.

Items typically packed for a hiking trip
Hiking pack flatlay (Photo: DOC; annotation author’s own)

There are plenty of resources on our website, as well as packing guides and listicles.

Me, I love a list. I have lists for everything – groceries, chores, potential dog names (I don’t have a dog) … you name it, I’ll list it.

There are lots of tools to help you make your packing list for heading out on a hike.

Follow these tips

You can only have dogs in some places; your drone needs a permit on public conservation land or near marine mammals; and fires are pretty strictly regulated so check before you light.

The weather is fickle – sometimes friend and sometimes foe – so make sure you check it; pack more food than you need in case of emergency; and having a distress beacon can save your life.

Plus, the uncomfortable truth of this outdoor business is that I might have to carry my business. It’s important to make use of the loo when there is one, and if there isn’t, dig a hole well away from people and water, or bag it up. The options are spelled out here.

A DOC toilet block
L: toilets in the bush, R: a path near a stream (Photos: DOC; annotation author’s own)

The best outdoor tip I’ve received is not necessarily the most important (because obviously they’re all important) but it’s the one I never would have thought of on my own: take a real map. I’m very used to relying on my phone, but phones can die, so I’ll be taking a paper map as a backup. Local Visitor Centres are used to helping with map requests.

Accept your newness

If you’re new to outdoor adventure, or it’s been a while, there’s no shame in that. You can still get your adventure on as long as you stay safe. Be new, not a moron.

Read up on what you need to know and take sensible precautions.

A seasoned tramper cautioned me about “bush feet” (which apparently is not a fungal infection, even though it sounds like it). I’ll let her explain:

“Even if it’s a good track, new trampers are a lot slower than they think they will be because they don’t have the acquired reflexes to quickly choose where to put their feet on rougher terrain. I call it ‘bush feet’. A tip for newbies (and for when you’re getting tired) is to follow a more experienced person and walk in their footsteps. Makes it much easier on the brain and feet for thinking about where to go.”

– Experienced DOC hiker

Immediately after getting all of this advice, I felt very overwhelmed and had to go and scroll through our Instagram to reinvigorate myself vis a vis the whole nature situation.

And now that I have made my lists and done my bookings and scaled my expectations, here’s where I landed:

  • Be prepared
  • Understand the weather, it can change fast
  • Pack warm clothes and extra food
  • Share my plans and take a distress beacon
  • Stay home if I’m sick
  • Give wildlife space
  • Follow the rules about fire

Start here

My ultimate advice is to go to the DOC website for good information about tracks, preparedness and places to go.

There’s heaps of information to be ferreted out on our site (I’m so sorry colleagues, but “kiwi’d out” doesn’t have the same ring) and if you’re a newbie like me, you simply must start on DOC’s what you need to know for summer page.

Happy adventuring.

Stay safe.

Trident Summit in Kahurangi National Park, New Zealand
Trident Summit in Kahurangi National Park (Photo: Crystal Brindle, DOC; annotation author’s own)

This story was made possible thanks to the generous support of our members. If you value what we do and believe in the importance of independent and freely accessible journalism – tautoko mai, donate today.

Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

Get The Spinoff
in your inbox