Beginning Hiking

(or hunting). Too many people are ‘gear junkies’ or ‘gear snobs’. However, remember this: Grandma Gatewood completed the Appalachian Trail (twice – at 67 the first time!) equipped with a shower curtain as a raincoat, a home-made duffel bag (& etc). I’m sure John Colter and Daniel Boone crossed the continent with considerably less – though they may have carried a rifle. Many folks in the past coped splendidly with much less than what may be considered de rigeur today.

Often I see novices crying out for advice on various forums – usually in the form, ‘What should I buy/’. They are almost universally answered with expensive alternatives which must at least work as a disincentive for many to begin the wonderful sports of hiking or hunting – which otherwise would be of such benefit to them, and great fun! Essential to both anyway is developing the skills required for camping out overnight safely, but what to take – not what to buy?

The traditional advice to young brides seems appropriate to me: ‘Something old something new, something borrowed and something blue’. (Incidentally, blue is a really good colour for small camping equipment as there is practically nothing blue in the bush – save things found in bower birds bowers – so that if you drop them they will be easily found, at least by bower birds anyway!) In any case don’t rush out and buy everything ‘new’. Your purchase decision is almost certain to be the wrong one. You will have wasted money, though you may have learned something about whose advice it is best to follow!

If you should visit a ‘hiking’ store’ with such a question in mind, be sure to have a very full wallet – and a strong back, as you are likely to come out with a camel’s load of expensive junk you almost certainly do not need. Few such shop assistants will know (or care about) how much the items weigh for example, or even have any extensive experience themselves with such equipment.

It is also quite true that you have something ‘old’ lying about which will do. Take Grandma Gatewood’s shower screen raincoat as a case in point. You really don’t need the latest ‘ultralight’ $500 rain coat when you are unlikely to venture out (the first time – if you are wise) when it is going to rain anyway!  A pocket sized space blanket which you will find somewhere for $2-4 is quite waterproof (and warm) and will keep you quite dry – as well as doubling as a ground sheet. It is a bit of a nuisance holding it closed at the front – but so is parting with $500! You can worry too much.  Still, you may prefer one of these: You probably already have a $5 umbrella which will suffice anyway.

There are plenty of things in your cupboard will do fine for your first (warm weather anyway) hike. I camped for many years with just a wool blanket on the ground or in a hollow log if it was raining, and a billy. Not much else – and I am still here. The swagmen of yore rolled all their possessions in such a blanket and carried a billy in their hand – and there were once hundreds of thousands of them. Such a ‘swag’ was called a ‘bindle’ in the US.

One advantage of a wool blanket is how it will save your life in a forest fire if you roll yourself in it (and particularly if you can wet it down) and get yourself eg into a hollow in the ground – when all your friends with their synthetics will die horribly, poor dears! When the disastrous fires occurred here (I mean coming as close as 200 yards away from us) in 2009 (and killing lots of people) an old man in his nineties (just over the hill from us) saved his own life a second time in this way. In a street where several people died and all the houses burned down he rolled himself in a wet blanket and lay in the same drain he had in the incredible 1939 fires. ‘Live and learn or you won’t live long’.

We were better prepared than that. We were able to sit on the verandah, drink beer and watch it all burn. Lots of fire pumps, generators, dams, sprinkler systems and acres of short green grass surround our house once you move outward from our lush green garden of mostly introduced trees. Friends and children flocked around to help out, mostly with the beer as it turned out!

If you don’t own a blanket, you almost certainly have a quilt. For a beginner’s mattress try this idea or this. If you must buy something, try a search above right for ‘quilt’, ‘bag’, ‘mat’, or ‘pad’. You will find many cheaper ideas which are also very light.

Shelter is essential. I have already posted about several cheap options starting with a blue poly tarp for $10, a very serviceable tent (for two) delivered for $50, and many other DIY choices.

For cooking, the 3 stone fire has worked fine for centuries. Where there is plenty of wood, it will still do, but be careful. Don’t burn yourself and don’t let it get away. People are always trying to improve it, people like me: – and you have to watch out as some stones explode! Or, you can spend hours of fun and enjoyment playing around creating your own alcohol stove.

You can carry the alcohol in a used soft drink bottle (lightest option) or you can use a Platypus bottle as I do (more durable, less space). I saved a medicine measure from the hospital when I had my back operation in 2013 which I use to add just exactly the amount of alcohol I will need to boil eg 1 cup of water (7 mls when I use a windscreen). I tote up all my meals and cups of hot drink before I set out and take just the amount of fuel I will need. This measure replaced one I had borrowed from an unused pack of herbicide saving me a few precious grams actually. Both were free anyway – the best kind of gear!

DIY New Fancy Feast Stove

For free gear Jim Woods’ genius ‘super cat’ stove is a good place to start, as is Ray Garlington’s Yacc stove you can make from an empty soft drink can with just a pair of scissors. You can start with a billy made from a large used can (such as a coffee can) and a coat hanger as the swagmen and hobos did, or an inexpensive aluminium one for under $10 say from Aussie Disposals where I bought my first one – which I still have sixty years later (in a drum up the bush at one of my winter camps actually).

These caches are such a delight to me. When I open one it is a trip down memory lane. I find a teaspoon I used to feed my first-born – or my last! A poncho I bought thirty years ago. A worn enamel plate which dates back to my childhood and my parents’ bee-keeping days, and so on. I often become nostalgic when I am camping alone in the bush a few days’ walk from any other soul – I can’t imagine why. Old is good. On every hiking trip I am still using the same plastic cup I bought over 20 years ago from a $2 store (for $1). I am yet to find a lighter one, though I could do this I suppose.

Only you know what you have in the cupboard or can ‘beg, borrow or steal’, so I will leave that up to your imagination. Most people already have a backpack of some sort, for example. If it is just an overnight hike (which your first should be) 25-40 litres is going to be quite adequate. If you do not, a duffel like Grandma Gatewood’s will suffice, or even a simple bedroll – or swag.

I go away for 7-10 day trips carrying all my food and necessaries in just a 50 litre pack which weighs under 400 grams empty! If my wife Della is with me (as we both prefer anyway even after 50 years) she carries a pack of only around 30 litres. Between us we might have 15-18 kgs at the absolute max at the beginning of a 10 day hike (with no tracks or huts). I bought these quite serviceable 40+ litre packs from Amazon for under $20. If you do a search at the top of the page for ‘cheap’ and ‘budget’ and ‘DIY’ you will find many other ways of saving money. I just did, and believe me, you are in for some surprises! I have been busy! You will find several cheap lightweight shelter/tent alternatives, sleeping mats, sleeping ‘bag’s, etc, etc. Have a look.

It will certainly save you money if you don’t plan to hike/camp out when it is wet or cold. Once the temperature gets below freezing the danger obviously increases so that the level of your preparedness needs to be better. It is also crucially important to stay warm and dry – or at least warm. It is the rate of heat loss which is a danger, not the temperature or even how wet you are. And I cannot repeat too often you must practice lighting a fire in such conditions again and again until you are certain you can both light and maintain a fire in the wet.

I know an old (late) friend Ray Quinney told me that he spent a night marching in a river in near freezing water during the Korean War because his sergeant had worked out that our soldiers would be warmer and survive better there than in the monstrously cold blizzarding air inadequately clothed – as they were; Australia (everyone probably) has a record of sending their soldiers off in emergencies without quite the right equipment. Napoleon’s (lost) army in Russia (and Hitler’s) are cases in point. I found Ray’s story hard to believe, as I would have thought that water would strip heat from you quicker than air, but I guess they were clad in wool which insulates pretty well when it is wet, so if perhaps the water was not very cold as compared with the air – and if they were wet anyway…Whatever, he lived through it. I did not!

It is preferable to stay dry. There is no reason to add yourself to a statistic by freezing to death, which is much less likely to happen in the warmer months. Still and all, I always prepare for sub-zero conditions, as I usually walk (off-track) and camp eg in the Victorian mountains whose changeable weather is notorious, and whose weather bureau’s forecasts are just as notoriously unreliable!

Where you live might be similar. I have encountered the coldest conditions (relatively) on a ‘warm’ autumn day at Wilson’s Prom Vic, coming back from the lighthouse where we were walking in shirt sleeves one minute and then in freezing rain the next. It was pretty much the only time my fingers have gone white with cold even though I have been outdoors in winter weather all my life (being a farmer), and frequently in snow. A quick slip under the tea-trees for shelter, a bit of a rearrange of gear (for one of us) a change into my spare dry clothes and emergency poncho – an expensive ‘guaranteed’ raincoat failed dismally), a hot cuppa and we were right to go again.

I know my wife, Della nearly ‘froze’ in a light drizzle that came up one warmish day when we were climbing the South face of Mt Whitelaw on the Baw Baw Plateau across the valley from here. I had to get downhill and a shelter up quickly and a fire going to thaw her out. Again it was highly unexpected. Having a tarp or poncho which you can use for shelter, (or being able to construct one) and light a fire are essentials. I repeat you need to practice these skills in some local bushland in poor weather conditions before you venture too far from home – eg before you set off on something like the South Coast Track in Tasmania (which will take you 7-8 days). In an emergency you can use your raincoat as a shelter. It may save your life:

I recommend camping in your backyard first. I always test out my ‘new’ – ie home made – gear by sleeping a night or two in it first before I take it off somewhere perhaps several day’s walk from help. At least if it fails (as is sometimes the case) you can go back inside and snuggle up to your wife to get warm again. You will find (I hope you don’t actually) that expensive (bought) tents stay up much worse than any of my home made ones (strange looking as they may seem). I know this from erecting several alongside one of my own (the Forester Tent or the Poly tent, for example) then observing which one fell down first (and why). Usually I find that my own tents (which go up easily but go down hard) are the ‘only man standing’ after a rough night (in the backyard). It would be much worse if this situation should befall you in the wilderness!

Some places (like Fiordland) it is very difficult (if not impossible) to light a fire, so you have to be able to get a shelter up quickly and use body heat and clothing etc to warm up. This is one reason why I often travel (in such places) with a light tarp (150-200 grams) and a hammock of a similar weight. I always sleep on an insulated inflatable pad of some kind anyway. Once you are under the roof, up off the ground, out of the wind, on top of the mat and snuggled into your clothes and sleeping bag you will be alright. I have encountered such conditions (and employed such a strategy on (and off) the Dusky and South Coast Tracks in Fiordland, for example in my search for the elusive moose. A blue poly tarp will do as a shelter, and a cheap hammock will also suffice. You need to learn how (not) to tie it to a tree, otherwise you will be leaving it there. (Check out some of my posts about hammocks).

If you already own some solid wool clothing, though it might not be ultralight it is also likely to be ultra-safe when you are alone in the wilderness. You do not need to overdo clothing. Here is an idea what to take:

Choosing where to go. As you probably realise I almost never walk tracks or trails (with a few exceptions – as previously mentioned). I prefer off-trail travel which guarantees greater freedom and peace of mind (if crowds are not your thing). They are certainly not mine! I have been doing this since before I went to primary school – over 65 years now! My advantage here is that I grew up on a farm surrounded on all sides pretty much by trackless bush. From when I was a toddler I was allowed to just roam at will, and to find my own way home when I was hungry. The older I grew the further I traveled – and I always managed to get home by tea-time!

If you are just starting out you will have to learn a few skills that I mastered before I was in kindergarten! Not staying lost is the most important lesson. If you begin your explorations in a patch of bush nearby which has clearly defined boundaries you will (eventually) find your own way out at the same time as finding out a thing or three as well – one with a river or stream at the bottom will be best so you will have water for your evening cuppa.

Sometime you should invest a little money in some topographical maps (our Vicmaps are only A$8 ea to download to your phone and can be paired with the Pdf maps – as explained here). Other countries/states have other systems, but something comparable. In any case it is a good idea to get a feel for the lie of the land at the same time as familiarising yourself with navigating by map. Backcountry Navigator is another excellent App.

Start without a map first though. Go somewhere with defined boundaries and wander around in it getting a feel for the lie of the land. Though I usually have a map on me (as above) I hardly ever consult it. I have enough experience I can always point the direction to eg where I started (whether days ago), or some other point of interest, eg where we saw that large stag, where I fell in the river, where we had lunch, etc. It is much better to train your mind and body to do these things than to rely on some artificial crutch. I know I astonished ‘The Deer Hunter’s Apprentice‘ by being able to just walk right up to an exact spot I had not visited in  years without consulting anything at all except what was in my head. You can (and should) develop this ability. Practice.

You might on your first trip plan to circumnavigate a largish valley, say one something like 3-5 kms long. If you can chose one which as a road or 4WD track at the top a stream at the bottom and a number of ridges running more or less straight down to the stream that would be excellent. There are millions of spots which fit this description.There is very often a tiny flat at the bottom of a ridge or adjacent to the main stream. The topographic map will indicate this.

If you start out with the hammock + tarp I recommended before you will be either able to camp in the trees or on the ground. You might take a small saw or a machete to make a clearing big enough for a tent. If the fishing is good, you will probably be back! Remember the water in your drink bottle is always level. Use that fact to select a (parallel) level(ish) spot to camp. You don’t want to be sliding down the hill or rolling sideways all night.

How to carry a Saw

You might walk down one ridge the first day, camp at the river or stream at the bottom the first night (catch a few fish or crays – or both), then travel up or down the river to the bottom of the next ridge and walk back up it to the road at the top, thence back to your vehicle. This should guarantee a pleasant peaceful couple of days away from people and away from tracks. I hope you begin like this instead of starting out as a track walker. Too many never progress from track walking. If the weather is cooler and the bush not too dry, you can even have a cheery fire to warm your camp – and cook your fish. Do take some Alfoil to cook them in – much lighter than a frying pan! You might progress from this beginning to becoming a Gully Walker.

Have a great time. PS: The links in the text are there for a reason, just like the ones below. They will lead you to many other posts with advice for the novice, or the person on a budget. I have been on a budget all my life which is one reason why I make so much of my own gear – besides ‘making do’ is both fun and character building.

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