Walk on the wild side - the New Zealand outdoors

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With so many beautiful parks, rugged mountains and lush, green forests all around the country, many are keen to go into the wilderness and enjoy the landscape.

Tramping huts are comfortable and it is everyone's responsibility to keep them tidy.

Be warned though – the natural environment can surprise newcomers. New Zealand is beautiful, but can also be unpredictable, harsh and dangerous. Here are some basic tips to make your first experiences in New Zealand bush memorable for all of the right reasons!

Go with a group

There are tramping (also known as hiking) clubs all over the country. Joining some of their trips will give you the chance to see how the Kiwis do it and learn from them. It will also mean that there are other people around if you get hurt or lost, which makes it much safer for you. You’ll also get to meet new friends who share your interest in the outdoors! Most trips take place over weekends, and are arranged so that people who work regular hours can join them. Over holidays there are often longer trips too.  

Preparing for your trip

Whenever you are planning to go tramping, either by yourself or with others, make sure you tell someone who is staying in the city. This can be a family member, friend or work colleague. Write down where you will be going, the route you are taking, and when you should return.  The Adventure Smart website has forms you can download and print or email. Leave instructions to call the local police if you don’t reappear from your tramp as so that a search and rescue team can look for you.

Many of New Zealand’s walkways and trails are marked with orange triangles or poles to help you find your way. While these are useful, you should never rely on them completely. Sometimes markers are missing, or there are several trails in one area and you can get onto the wrong one without noticing. It is always a good idea to have a proper map of the area where you are hiking, and a compass to help you find your way.

Risks when in the outdoors

Hypothermia

Hypothermia is a potentially fatal condition where the body temperature drops after exposure to the cold, especially in wet and windy conditions. The symptoms of hypothermia are feeling cold, shivering, tiredness, lethargy or anxiety, clumsiness, slurred speech and difficulty seeing, a sense of unreality, and irrational behaviour (which can include removing warm clothes!). If anyone in your group experiences these symptoms, find shelter, change them into dry clothes, give warm, sweet drinks, and lie them on their side.

Food and drinking water

The risk of food poisoning increases in the outdoors, as the environment is more difficult to control. Remember to clean your hands and cooking area, cook food thoroughly, cover food when not eating, and chill any perishable items. A chilly bin and ice packs are good for this in the outdoors.

There are parasites found in many rivers and lakes which can cause serious stomach illnesses. You must boil (for at least three minutes), chemically treat, or filter any water that is going in your mouth.

Weather

It may be a beautiful, sunny day when you start your tramp, but that doesn’t mean it will stay that way. Weather can change quickly, especially in the mountains. No matter how it looks when you leave, always bring warm layers and rain gear in case the weather changes. Make sure that your extra layers and sleeping bag are protected from rain and river water, as they are not much good to you if they get wet. Remember too that the high levels of ultra-violet light in New Zealand mean skin burns easily, in as little as 15 minutes.

Water

Drowning is the third highest cause of accidental death in New Zealand, so water safety is a priority. At the beach always swim between the red and yellow flags. Know your limits and never swim alone.

Rivers can be dangerous even when you are just walking across them. Many walking tracks around the country require you to cross unbridged streams and rivers. Check the depth before deciding to swim or cross. Trying to hop from rock to rock can cause a nasty fall and it’s safer to walk through the river. If a river is flowing fast or very high, never cross it. Turn back instead, or find another route.

Things to know

Most trampers in New Zealand sleep in backcountry huts maintained by the Department of Conservation and tramping clubs. Using huts means that you don’t have to carry a tent, and you can spend the night protected from the elements. When using a hut you buy hut tickets from the Department of Conservation, leave your tramping boots outside the hut and if you use wood in a hut stove replace what you used.

Check whether there is a fire ban in the area before starting a fire. Keep any fires you do use small and contained – fires can spread easily and destroy large areas of land. Use only dead wood from fallen trees or branches. Be sure that your fire is completely extinguished before you leave it.

Without adequate ventilation, camping stoves and lamps can emit poisonous carbon monoxide. Use these appliances outside if possible. If using inside (such as in a tramping hut), do so near an open window or door. Empty canisters should always be changed outside.

More information

Tell someone where you are going | Adventure smart

Learn outdoor safety rules | Adventure Smart

Find a tramping club | Federated Mountain Clubs of New Zealand

Find a tramp | New Zealand Tramper 

Topographic maps | Land Information New Zealand 

Weather forecasts | Metservice

Hut fees and bookings | Department of Conservation

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