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Clubbing together to gain skills

River safety skills are a crucial piece of bushcraft courses. Photo: Antony Pettinger
Two years after the Mountain Safety Council quit providing skills courses, tramping clubs and alternative providers have stepped into the breach. Meghan Walker looks at the options

For Dunedinite Tania McMillan, tramping was getting a bit boring.

The wide, safe tracks of Great Walk-style tramps just weren’t holding the appeal they once did, but she felt she wasn’t quite ready for the ‘real’ backcountry. She wanted navigation skills, and the confidence to go out on her own and off the beaten track.

“I really wanted to be able to go and do some new routes, but I knew very little about map reading and how to use a compass, so I thought, right, I need to go and sort those skills out,” she says.

McMillan found the Otago Mountaineering and Tramping Club (OTMC) website, and discovered there was an upcoming bushcraft course organised by the club. She signed up right away, joining a group of more than 60 people for the course.

“They showed us, they told us, and then they allowed us to go and do the practical skills. What really impressed me is that they kind of sat back and watched from a safe distance, making sure we didn’t get into trouble while we were learning these new skills,” she says. The river safety portion was particularly helpful, and she was impressed by how much she enjoyed the social aspect of it. Previously, tramping had been a solitary activity; a way to get away from it all.

“I went along thinking it’s a short course, I’ll get in there and get the skills that I need and I’ll be away again,” she says. But, that’s not what’s happened. She discovered a new group of trampers in her skill level, and has already been out on tramps with people who did the course with her.

Dunedin trampers are quite lucky to have the OTMC offering affordable outdoor courses to people who want to gain skills for the backcountry. Their bushcraft course was just $25, and included four evenings and two full days of instruction. Tramping clubs are now one of the few ways trampers can get low-cost training.

Navigation skills are part of every bushcraft course offered at OTMC. Photo: Antony Pettinger

It’s been two years since the Mountain Safety Council (MSC) halted training in its 30 branches around the country. The decision was said to be based on low demand and questions about the effectiveness of the courses.

In the last year of offering courses, MSC trained 2500 people in outdoor safety. “This is about 0.01 per cent of those who experience the great outdoors annually. To help more people stay safe, and to encourage more to get into the outdoors, we need to work out how to reach more of them,” MSC chief executive Mike Daisley said in a statement.

“The demand for courses is out there. It hasn’t gone away. If anything, it’s increasing”

– Heather Grady

Today, MSC focuses exclusively on producing safety messages about land-based outdoor activities; from tramping to mountaineering and information such as trip-planning tools, river safety guides, and avalanche awareness videos. MSC regularly shares stories, safety videos and infographics on its Facebook page, which has around 11,500 followers.

As soon as former MSC Manawatu branch chairperson and instructor Heather Grady caught wind that MSC was going to cut its training courses, she started networking to set something up in its place.

“We knew we needed something to replace it because there’s definitely a need for running courses,” Grady says. With a few other instructors, she started Outdoor Training New Zealand (OTNZ).

Of the 30 MSC training branches around the country, OTNZ kept four of them going and for two years has been slowly reopening once-closed MSC training centres. So far, they have a third of the branches active again, and are seeking more.

“There’s still a gap, and it’s regional,” Grady says. Manawatu was lucky in that OTNZ filled the gap straight away, maintaining its network of instructors. In areas where the courses stopped altogether, “instructors felt disenfranchised – they didn’t know there would be anything for them,” she says.

While instructors heard OTNZ might pick up where MSC left off, they didn’t know when, and many wanted to wait to see if the organisation would work.

“There was a lot of drift,” Grady says of the instructors, “partly because there was a gap in delivery because each branch took time to get itself off the ground. Some of the branches are willing to start up again, but are having difficulty finding their niche. Others are struggling to get an instructor pool to be able to offer big courses to get interest from clients.

“The demand for courses is out there. It hasn’t gone away. If anything, it’s increasing,” Grady says.

One recently rekindled training branch is in Auckland, headed up by Alex Warriner, who volunteered with MSC for 20 years as an instructor. With MSC, he taught bushcraft, outdoor first aid and risk management, and his students ranged from scout leaders to school teachers, tramping and university club members, and outdoors people from all walks of life.

Warriner now works as the health and safety advisor for Scouts New Zealand. He says it was tough when MSC closed his branch.

“There was a bit of a vacuum, like, what do we do now?” Warriner says, adding that it created a gap within the community for noncommercial, basic training.

Getting the Auckland branch going has been a slow process.

Participants in OTMC’s buhscraft course get practical experience of crossing rivers. Photo: Anthony Pettinger

“We’re starting small,” Warriner says. The branch currently has about seven instructors that Warriner is training. “I’m building the experience and expertise of the people interested in coming along,” he says, adding that he’s even helping them to gain official Skills Active instructor qualifications.

“A couple are ex-MSC people, some are just interested trampers, or PE teachers, or people working with Duke of Edinburgh,” Warriner says.

Warriner has already led a number of river safety courses, taking participants to Karangahake Gorge for a one-day training. They spend the morning learning hydrology, river crossing techniques, and planning.

“In the afternoon, we get wet,” he says. Warriner teaches participants to have awareness of the power of a river, how to look for hazards, and how to make logical decisions.

“The standard three questions are: do I need to cross, where do I cross, and how do I cross. I’ve had people saying that they had come up to rivers in the past and walked straight through and never thought about risks associated with it. River safety gives you awareness,” Warriner says.

Many tramping clubs are also picking up where MSC left off. Antony Pettinger is a member and bushcraft instructor for OTMC, which is one of the most active tramping clubs in the country. It has been running bushcraft courses for decades.

Pettinger says he’s seen a spike in interest in courses at his club. For the last two years, they’ve had 60-70 participants sign up for bushcraft training.

“I think people are just keen to get outside more,” Pettinger says, adding that their low fees also help attract participants. The OTMC runs courses out of their own clubhouse, which allows them to keep the costs to just $25 a head versus fees ranging from $50 (basic bushcraft) to $85 (advanced bushcraft) at OTNZ.

The once-a-year course runs for four evenings and two weekend days, during which members learn the basics of navigation, river safety and outdoor equipment.

“There’s a handful of young people every year, and people in their 30s and 40s. Sometimes it’s people who have had a family and now have some free time on their hands, or people who have done the Great Walks and are looking for where to go next. Those people come to our club to get some skills to gain confidence so they can go and do some different trips with their own groups of friends,” Pettinger says.

Pete Cammell teaches snowcraft courses for the New Zealand Alpine Club. Photo: Supplied

“In the last couple of years the club’s really picked up in activity, and it’s doing really well. We’re getting more people on day trips, more people on weekend trips, more people at meetings – it’s just a good time for tramping clubs,” Pettinger says.

“I pitch our course as one run by volunteers who just love the outdoors. We don’t have any qualifications, we just have a lot of experience in the hills and we’re trying to pass it on. It’s an informal course, it’s easy to get on with, it’s not too strict, and it’s friendly. And, people seem to enjoy it.”

Another club experiencing huge demand for courses is the New Zealand Alpine Club. Their entry-level snowcraft course – perfect for trampers who wish to learn how to move safely on the snow – is booked solid every year.

Pete Cammell is an instructor for the Auckland section of NZAC. Like tramping clubs, NZAC can offer cheaper courses than are typically offered by commercial providers because they’re run by volunteers.

“Pete Cammell teaches snowcraft courses for the New Zealand Alpine Club”

– Alex Warriner

“The trend we see is people wanting to go on a course rather than learn themselves,” Cammell says, adding that the popularity of their courses means there’s a need for more instructors.

“There aren’t enough courses for the demand, and one of the things we struggle with is volunteer burn-out.” And, because the alpine club’s courses provide quite technical skills training, the instructors need to show they have strong core competencies.

“If we don’t have enough volunteers, we’ll top up a course with professionals, because the absolute core reason the alpine club was formed in 1891 was to transfer knowledge to others,” Cammell says. To that end, he’s passionate about putting as many resources into the club’s training programme as possible.

“It’s a virtuous circle if you get it right. If you get a bunch of novices on an instruction course and you teach them good practices that they then take into their personal climbing, they’re more likely to come back and contribute to the committee, and then they’re more likely to come and instruct courses because they had such a good time,” he explains.

In order to attract more volunteer instructors, the club offers incentives. For example, they’ll cover flight costs for a volunteer to go to the South Island for training. Each year, they train up to 30 new instructors, whose ages range from mid-20s to late 50s.

“They get a really good three- to four-day adventure, seeing new terrain, improving their climbing and their instruction skills. We see that as a really important incentive to rewarding volunteers for putting in their time and effort.”

Cammell is familiar with the importance of having skilled, competent instructors on a course; he also works as a safety auditor for the Adventure Activity Regulations.

Gaining new skills has been life-changing for Tania McMillan’s tramping career. Photo: Supplied

“It’s really difficult to get affordable quality training,” Cammell says. The best options for people are at club level; either university clubs or tramping clubs offer the cheapest courses.

John Beech is a teacher at Feilding High School and president of the Manawatu Tramping and Skiing Club. He’s also the Duke of Edinburgh leader at his school, where they’ve just signed up 22 new students for the programme.

As part of the programme, DoE students have to complete trainings each year, and OTNZ is currently their best option.

Beech says they’re lucky to have a number of courses to choose from in their area; Manawatu OTNZ is one of the most active branches in the country, with 40 instructors teaching everything from river safety to bushcraft and risk management.

There’s now an online option for training for students. “It’s much easier to do [the online training] than to go and spend a weekend away, but I have my doubts about how effective it is.”

One element of bushcraft is learning how to use a campstove. Beech says he heard from a colleague that students who did the online training were a bit clueless when it came to using the real thing.

“They didn’t know one end of the stove from the other,” Beech says. “You can look at pictures and do the course with Power Points, quizzes and slideshows, but when you’re doing practical stuff like setting up a stove – particularly those white spirits ones – you do that wrong and you end up with a fireball.”

Beech questions MSC’s new direction, saying their decision to cut courses hits the young adult age group hardest.

“Where are these people getting their skills? I tend to think they’re probably just getting them as they go, or they’re going out with friends and just hoping for the best. It’s not ideal,” Beech says.

“If you’re a young person, are you going to join a club where the average age is 50 or 60? Possibly not. So where do these young people get their skills? And if MSC is just going to put posts up on Facebook and say, ‘oh, you should do this’, or ‘you should do that’, I don’t think that’s going to cut the mustard.”

While young people aren’t necessarily rushing to join their local tramping clubs, the availability of club courses – such as OTMC’s bushcraft course – means that trampers aren’t left without guidance. Tania McMillan’s experience has been life-changing for her tramping career.

“You’re learning not just physical skills, but mental skills as well. You learn to believe in yourself that you can do it, and to do that under the safety of your leader is just invaluable.”

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