Backpacking Made Simple

Greg French offers some basic advice for would-be adventurers

Recently, in the face of the Tasmanian government’s push to privatise our national parks and wilderness areas, I’ve been taking a lot of journalists and activists into the heart of the Western Lakes. Most have previously done commercial hut-based expeditions, even helicopter fly-outs, but all say that tenting it with a bunch of mavericks has been the best experience of their lives. They also express surprise at how easy DIY bushwalking can be — most people think you have to be super fit, but you have to be well below average fitness or have a major medical condition before you have a legitimate excuse for not enjoying it. Nowadays, when most of us grow up in cities, far removed from nature, ever more people are losing confidence in being able to do simple things for themselves and many are beginning to rely entirely on commercial operators for outdoor exploration. The problem is that over-commodification dramatically dilutes the essence of the experience. As David Scholes once said, the best thing about wandering into the bush under your own initiative is ‘the feeling of treading unknown paths like that of the explorer’. Safety FIRST Even though I personally enjoy being cavalier, safety seems to be a big concern for would-be bushwalkers. Here’s how you can lower the risk to near zero. (All the advice I give relates to temperate environments: I’m a trout fisherman, and trout don’t live in the tropics.) Statistically, the biggest risk is walking alone. Going with at least one friend is the best safety precaution you can take. The next biggest risk, especially in New Zealand, is wading swollen rivers. If you get stranded in ugly weather, don’t take chances. Flooding rivers can rise very quickly, even while you’re crossing them. Walk to a suspension bridge, or sit it out. Then there’s hypothermia. The secret is to stay warm and dry (see below for tips on clothing), and to eat sufficient amounts of high-energy food. There’s plenty of good advice on the internet on how to recognise symptoms and on what to do if one of your group succumbs. Drinking water? Most of the places I visit are quite clean and I usually drink straight from the lake or stream. If you are worried, simply carry a battery-operated UV steriliser. Dangerous animals? Well, we don’t have bears in the Antipodes, and they are the only animals that make me nervous. In Tasmania, virtually no one gets bitten by a snake unless they are attacking it. If you’re bitten, you won’t die if you carry a compression bandage and know how to use it. In New Zealand there aren’t even any snakes. Getting lost? If you aren’t confident in using a map and compass, you can always carry a GPS or EPIRB, or both. The bottom line is, walking is as safe as you want it to be. Camping equipment FlyLife readers know that I am the polar opposite of a gear freak. Nonetheless you do need a good camping kit. Durable, lightweight equipment is most likely to be found in specialist bushwalking shops, where you’ll also get excellent free advice. Bear in mind, though, anglers’ needs vary slightly from other walkers’ needs. On one hand you are bound to carry more gear, on the other you probably won’t be breaking camp every day. (Anglers typically walk to a central location, set up a basecamp, and do day trips from there.) Modern backpacks are adjustable, and it pays to have them fitted to your body shape by shop staff. I prefer 70-litre packs and deliberately choose models with bugger-all bells and whistles. My current pack is a single tube with a large back pocket and two side panniers. I carry a plastic liner to protect my sleeping bag and essential clothes (most expedition-sized packs are not properly waterproof). And I also take a fully waterproof daypack for daytrips from basecamp. Most bushwalkers recommend a maximum load of 18 kg for an adult male, and many aim for much less. I can put up with a fair bit of discomfort though, especially on a short 6–15 km walk to a basecamp. When I’m staying out for four or five nights, I’m perfectly happy with 25 kg or more. Most of the extra weight comes from fresh food and the overflow from my friends’ packs. The handicap system, Frances calls it. If you’re nervous, do a couple of daytrips with a 15 kg load and see how you go. I have a strong preference for two- or three-person dome tents, mainly because they are self-supporting and don’t require much pegging down (this matters more often than you think). I have always selected ones that have at least one roomy vestibule capable of sheltering the main door from rain even when fully unzipped. I like models that allow me to keep the outer fly attached to the inner during assembly. And I like them to be roomy enough to sit up in. Many of my friends prefer super-light single-person tents, such as the Macpac Microlight, but my friends rarely stay out in bad weather as long as I do. Your sleeping bag needs to have a high four-season rating and be condensation-resistant (trout live in temperate climates, remember). Mine is made of DryLoft material, filled with high quality down and can be zipped to Frances’s to make a cosy double. A camping mattress is essential when sleeping on cold ground. I use a very basic Therm-a-Rest, Frances prefers a down-filled Exped. As for pillows, we just use our bags of spare clothes. Other essentials include a headlamp, batteries, matches and lighters, a toothbrush, sunscreen, a basic first-aid kit (mainly for blisters) and toilet paper. The usual recommendation is that you toilet a hundred metres from any watercourse, and use a trowel to bury your waste. Problem is, toilet paper tends to be dug up by animals. I usually burn mine, and if that’s not an option I double-bag it (zip-locks are the go) and carry it out. Clothing Always take a windproof rain jacket (Gortex is my material of choice). Then, if you have a good windproof Polar Fleece jacket (or down-filled puffer jacket) and thermal underwear, you will be comfortable and safe no matter how cold and wet the weather. Anglers tend to rely on their waders rather than using waterproof over-trousers. Mind you, once the weather warms up in early summer, I prefer to wet-wade in drip-dry polyester pants or polypropylene thermal leggings. A beanie can be good for warmth at night. Gloves too. Specialist lace-up walking boots are usually recommended, but I find them akin to walking in ski boots and much prefer my elastic-sided Blunnies (which double as my wading boots). The most important thing is to break-in new footwear before you go on a big bushwalk. Other than that, I carry a spare shirt, spare thermal underwear, and lots of socks. I have no idea what gaiters are for. Map and compass I recommend using paper maps (1: 50,000 or 1:100,000) and a compass. There’s no quicker way to get a proper feel for your place in space. I concede that a GPS is a useful safety backup, and a good confidence-builder for novices, though for me, an overreliance on technology feels like cheating. Modern Tasmaps – print and digital – are inaccurate with respect to connecting streams, especially in the Western Lakes. The most accurate maps were the original mile-to-inch series printed in the 1950s, and reproductions are now available from Tasmap for $75 each. Trophy hunters should seek out the Great Lake, Du Cane, Middlesex and St Clair sheets. Cooking equipment I recommend using a Trangia methylated spirit stove. Meths only emits carbon dioxide and can therefore be used in huts (even in ventilated tent vestibules if you are super vigilant with fire safety). Trangias require almost no maintenance and never fail. They work well at high altitude – in the Americas and Europe I commonly use mine at 3000–3800 m – and fuel can be easily obtained all over the world. (In Patagonia, go to a ‘farmacia’ and ask for ‘alcohol puro’. In Europe just make sure it’s pure ethanol, not the 93% variety.) Because it’s so easy to control the heat on Trangias, especially if you use a wok, they are perfect for cooking fresh meat and veggies. Fuel consumption? In addition to cooking, I drink lots of tea and coffee, and even if I don’t light a campfire, a litre of meths will easily cater for me and a friend over two nights. Other stoves, like MSRs, boil water much faster than Trangias and use much less fuel. However, they require constant maintenance, often fail, burn too hot for conventional cooking and give off carbon monoxide (meaning they can’t be used in enclosed spaces). Finding fuel can be problematic too, especially in Patagonia, Asia and sometimes Europe. Disposable fuel-canisters are an environmental nightmare. I carry a melamine cup, an enamel plate (which doubles as a lid when I’m cooking on a wok), a spatula, a bread-and-butter knife, a fork, a spoon and a sharp filleting knife. I make a point of cleaning my utensils without soap. A bit of grass or other vegetation works fine as a pot scrubber (though this isn’t recommended in high-use areas). Food You could write a book on cooking in the bush, and many people have. Buy one. Typically, my breakfasts comprise muesli with fresh fruit and yoghurt (powdered milk is fine), or eggs and bacon on toast. For lunches I pack bread, crackers, cheeses, olives and smoked meats. Evening meals are mostly stir-fries, pasta dishes, soups or steak and veggies. I’m also partial to fresh-caught fish, either as sashimi or fried with Cajun spice. I carry ample lollies and chocolate (for instant energy), as well as tea, coffee and wine. You can dramatically reduce weight by using commercial dehydrated ‘trail meals’, which are available from outdoor shops and said to be much tastier than they once were. But because I find cooking such an integral part of the experience, I never bother with them. Keep food inside your pack to protect it from animals, and place the pack in ventilated shade to keep perishables fresh. Fishing gear You really need a 4-piece rod with a lightweight rod-tube. Other than that, take care to minimise your gear. You need fewer fly boxes than most people think. I prefer a lanyard or small bum-bag to a vest, and only take waders in cold weather. If you’re not taking photos for publication, you can get away with using a mobile phone. But ask yourself if you really want to ‘stay connected’ while on a bushwalk. Destinations If you are nervous, do a few daytrips first. In Tassie I recommend Shadow and Forgotten lakes, the Hartz Mountains, Mt Field, Flora and Odell’s, and Lake Skinner. The best overnight trips for first-timers are along relatively flat, well-formed tracks. In Tassie I recommend the Christys Creek Track, the Julian Lakes Track (especially when it’s closed to vehicular traffic in spring and early summer), the Tin Hut Lake Track and the Lees Paddocks Track (to the upper Mersey River). You might want to follow these up with trips along slightly more indistinct tracks like the ones to Blue Peaks and Lake Explorer. Then, why not go for a bit of aerobic exercise by clambering up the Lake Myrtle Track to lakes Meston and Junction. After that, it’s cross-country time. The North Island of NZ is blessed with innumerable well-benched, low-gradient tracks. My favourite destinations include Lake Waikareiti and rivers like the Koranga, upper Mohaka, Taruarau, Wairoa, Ruakituri and Waiohine. On the South Island, I love the Hope, Greenstone and Poulter valleys, but there are dozens of others. As for mainland Australia, you can’t do better than the Kosciuszko region, Coxs River, the Bogong High Plains and the Howqua River. Remember, all of these waters – and many others – are detailed in back issues of FlyLife. Happy searching. Just do it Once you’ve bought your basic camping kit, bushwalking is as cheap as chips. Better still, venturing into the backcountry with no one but a close mate or two offers an unrivalled sense of freedom and personal achievement. In modern society, who doesn’t need more of those things? No excuses now, get out there and tread your own path to fly fishing nirvana.

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