by Melanie Ball (this post is based on an article written for and published in Royal Auto in 2010)
As Simon and I set off on a 9-week walking-focussed road trip around NT, WA and SA, the time seemed right to remind myself and others how best to keep safe on foot.
I love bushwalking. Because it stimulates every sense – a sandstone cliff lifts my gaze to an expanse of blue sky patrolled by a whistling kite, fingers trace an insect’s scribble on a tree, each step intensifies the smell of eucalyptus, or rainforest humus, or seaweed – and nothing compares with the self-satisfied weariness after a day on foot and the guilt-free pleasure of sating an exercise-fuelled appetite with high-calorie treats.
But bushwalkers also break limbs, suffer hypothermia and dehydration, and become lost and spend unplanned nights outdoors, their rescue engaging numerous people and making headlines, and some die from their misadventures. However there are ways to limit the risks to life and limb (and self-esteem) that don’t detract from the fun of going bush on foot.
Books and web sites repeat mantras such as “always plan for the unplanned” and “expect the unexpected” but some people do not even expect the expected or plan for the likely; just look at Mt Kosciuszko! It’s a fairly easy 6.5km walk from the Thredbo chairlift to the top of Australia (2228m) and you’re rarely alone on the metal walkway on a sunny summer’s day. But alpine conditions can change suddenly and dramatically so why do people – even teachers leading school groups! – ignore the warning signs and set off in coffee-shop attire when dressing sensibly and carrying water, a muesli bar, and a waterproof jacket might save their life?
The biggest mistake bushwalkers make, says Sgt Ian Colles, Coordinator, Blue Mountains Police Rescue Squad, is insufficient planning and preparation. “They don’t take enough equipment, they don’t know where they are going, and they don’t have basic navigation skills.”
WHAT, HOW & WHEN
Choosing an Australian hike is like visiting a lolly shop. The assortment, from city-fringe stroll to remote multi-day trek, can tempt you to take on too much. Don’t! Select a walk that suits your group’s experience, age and fitness; and that doesn’t necessarily mean one that everyone completes without raising a sweat, just one that doesn’t test limits of endurance and enjoyment.
Research the walk’s grade, length and profile (climbs and descents). Check track conditions (with park authorities), weather, and fire danger ratings before departure, and cancel/postpone if extremes are forecast. Download a map of the track and buy a topographic map for longer hikes – and learn how to read a map and use a compass.
Four is the optimum minimum group size, because someone can stay with an injured walker while two seek help, but coordinating four people is sometimes impossible. Solo bushwalking has unique risks (and pleasures). When doing a remote day walk or overnight hike, tell someone your plans and contact them on your return so they don’t raise an unnecessary alarm.
Fill in walk registration logs where provided and/or leave a note on your car. You can download a “Trip Intentions” form, with safety hints, from Victoria Police’s Search & Rescue Squad webpage. Blue Mountains walkers who register their intentions with authorities are asked for information about medical conditions, intended route, etc. so that the police don’t have to waste time asking for this if you make emergency contact.
On the trail, don’t make or follow shortcuts because this leads to erosion and plant damage and increase the risks of injury and becoming lost. Only go off-track if you’re experienced at wilderness navigation. And if you do become lost (or injured), and a brief scout around reveals no obvious way to safety, stay put. Make your position visible, relax and conserve energy, food and water.
The worth of what you wear and carry becomes clear only when something goes wrong. Footwear is a vital piece of hiking kit however the variety can bamboozle. While walking sandals suit many situations, including hikes with water crossings, because they grip while allowing your feet to breathe, and ankle support is important on rougher tracks and when carrying a pack, one of my close friends wore elastic-sided boots in all conditions and some people still swear by Dunlop Volleys!
“I could list a whole lot of attributes that I think a hiking boot should have,” mountaineer and adventurer Peter Hillary told me when I interviewed him for this article, but if you find boots that lack in some areas but are really comfortable, they are the boots for you. “If you’ve got uncomfortable feet your great adventure has got serious limitations.” Always wear in new boots/shoes at home and treat hot spots as soon as they develop; blister pain can be dangerously debilitating. WARNING: gruesome blister photo further on.
Socks affect comfort (and safety) too. Some hikers advocate wearing two pairs, others one (you can buy socks with distinct left and right for a perfect fit). Only trial and error will reveal what your feet prefer.
And although they provoke repetitive quips about lost skis, hiking poles can lessen jarring on hills and improve balance on slippery stepping stones. Swinging the poles forward as you walk can also stop fingers swelling.
Unless you are into nude bushwalking, and there are websites and at least one designated trail for those inclined, what else you wear depends on climate. Cotton is cool in warm weather but is cold when wet so jeans are downright dangerous in alpine country – take note Kosciuszko summitters! Outdoor shops are full of synthetic-fibre layers that keep you warm even when wet. How you put them together is personal choice. I wear cotton leggings in hot weather to limit heat rash and allergic reactions to foliage and in cooler temperatures hike in thermal underwear and modesty shorts. A windproof and waterproof jacket should be in your pack whatever the weather.
As for clothing colour: I wear rainbow stripes to decrease my risk of being run over by a snowplough and increase my chance of being seen and rescued should I lose my way. But my colour preferences are unusual. “I don’t know why they [walkers] want to wear blue, grey, black,” says Sgt Colless, because such colours make lost and injured walkers difficult for air crews and ground crews to see. “Black and dark blue is nearly invisible in the bush,” he says. “Wakers should wear high visibility clothing.” And don’t worry about scaring off the wildlife; you don’t need to wear boring environmentally-sensitive colours to have welcome encounters with birds and animals. (Bright colours also look better in photographs.)
In addition to sunscreen, sleeved shirt and shading hat, warm-weather hikers need to carry sufficient water. I prefer a collapsible, bladder-like bag with tube and mouthpiece rather than a water bottle I’d have to stop to retrieve and uncap. And even on short walks you should take energy boosting snack bars, just in case. A notebook and pen, a compact head torch, a box of matches in a waterproof container, and a whistle (for attracting attention), are other lightweight items that could get you out of a pickle.
A first-aid kit is a must on long and/or remote walks. Blister-specific treatments used early can make the difference between a wonderful walk and a nightmare: hikers’ wool protects suspect spots and cutting a hole in adhesive padding puts some space between your boot and a hot spot/blister. Insect repellent, anti-itch cream and antihistamine tablets can keep bites and stings in check. Elastic bandages work for sprains and snake bites. And you never know when you’ll be glad of your first aid training.
As in everyday life, technology now plays an integral part in adventuring and few bushwalkers step out without some electronic link to the world. Many walking tracks have limited or no mobile network coverage you have to hike up a ridge to make an emergency call. A popular alternative is the Personal Locator Beacon (PLB or EPIRB), which emits a signal that is detected (conditions allowing) by satellites and aircraft and relayed to a rescue coordination centre. PLBs should only be activated in life-threatening situations when no other communication system is available and penalties apply for unnecessary use. PLBs with integrated GPS cost from $400, however the Tasmanian government hires them through Service Tasmania for $40 per week, and a free hire system operates in the Blue Mountains. You can also hire them on line with Australia-wide delivery. The Blue Mountains beacon loan system is part of the “Think Before You Trek” initiative between the NSW Police Force and the National Parks and Wildlife Service. “The beacons get all the attention,” says Sgt Colles, “but we push people to plan and prepare so, hopefully, they will never need to use the beacon.”
We put too much emphasis on technology, says Peter Hillary, who made satellite-phone calls from atop Everest fifty years after his father scaled the mountain. “I was interviewed by CNN on the summit. It was bizarre when you think of it in terms of 1953 [four days passed before England learned of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s success] but technology is here to stay.” The danger is people relying on technology over planning and preparation. Hillary thinks the GPS is a marvelous aid but should only be used in conjunction with the more traditional, older navigational system – map and compass.
Off all the hiking equipment available now, though, Peter Hillary’s favourite is a stove. “It’s survival,” he says. “Melting snow and ice, bubbling water, it’s life… a very happy sound.” Carry a hiking stove even on a day walk and you can boil water for a cuppa with a view!