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May 2011 Issue
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The How, Where and Why of winter tramping

Winter with its civilized sunrises and dusting of snow can make the most unlikely scenes strikingly beautiful. Photo: Mark Banham
Mark Banham shows how to make the most of tramping in winter

Trampers have a bit of a tendency to behave like the grizzly bears in those old David Attenborough documentaries: through the final days of autumn they gorge themselves, building up a thick layer of fat for the ‘hard times’ ahead. Then, as the onset of winter begins they crawl into the darkest hole they can find to hibernate. When they emerge in spring they’re slow moving and, like the bears, a bit grizzly.

But it doesn’t need to be that way. There are plenty of great reasons to head into the wilderness in winter and with a bit of planning it’s not that hard either.

WHY?

Anyone who’s left behind the comfort of home during winter, from Shackleton to Sheryl at number 5b will have faced this question ‘Why on earth would you do it to yourself?’ Here are a few reasons:

It’s beautiful – If you’ve never seen the dawn light glinting through hoar frost crystals or walked through a snow-dusted mountain beech forest, you’re missing out on something really special. Plus, the shorter daylight hours mean that sunrise and sunset take place at a more civilised hour.

Fewer Bugs – Bugs are cold-blooded, which means when the temperature drops, they go away. So if you hate mosquitoes, sandflies and wasps then you’ll love winter tramping.

Fewer people – Oddly enough, it seems the fewer people you meet in the wilderness the more likely you are to strike up a conversation with them. So, strange as it sounds, winter, with its deserted trails and quiet huts, is a great time of year to get out and meet new tramping buddies.

The weather’s often better – Traditionally July sees a period of calm, clear weather that skiers call ‘dry July’ – it’s terrible for skiing, but fantastic for tramping.

It’s good for your head – The one sure-fire cure for the winter blues is to get outside into the sunlight and do some exercise (true, large quantities of pharmaceuticals work too, but outdoor exercise is better for the rest of you). Paradoxically, doing something that many consider crazy tends to make you a little saner.

It’s good for your body – If you’ve spent all summer getting trail fit, don’t lose it just because it’s a bit cold! Keep up the adventures through winter and you’ll be fighting fit for when spring comes around!

HOW?

The fine art of staying happy and warm in the outdoors isn’t as hard as some people think. All it takes is a few key ideas, a bit of extra gear and practise.

The exercising body is a furnace – Anyone who’s ever walked up a hill will have witnessed this principle in action. If you’re sitting around feeling cold, you can easily warm up with a few star-jumps, or better yet, pick up your pack and hit the trail.

Sweat is the enemy! – Peel off layers before you start to perspire, that way when you get cold again, you won’t be trying to warm yourself with a wet jumper.

If you’ve got cold feet, put on a hat – Your body warms itself as a whole, so often the best way to keep your extremities warm is to get your core temperature up, then let your circulatory system do the work for you. Having said that, you can make that job easier by minimising the amount of heat loss via your extremities by reducing convection, radiation and conduction – in layman’s terms: a decent pair of gloves, boots and a hat.

More doesn’t necessarily equate to better – Resist the temptation to throw on an extra pair of socks to keep warm. Usually this’ll just end up constricting your circulation, making matters worse.

Watch out for ‘the umbles’ – Hypothermia is a big concern for winter trampers. The key to preventing a nasty situation is to spot it early. The best way I’ve found to do that is to watch out for anyone – including yourself – displaying the umbles: If they grumble (crankiness) fumble (loss of dexterity) mumble (slurred or mumbled speech) or stumble (lack of coordination and/or balance) then there’s a good chance they’re developing a case of hypothermia.

Don’t be afraid of the dark, but do take care navigating at night. Photo: Mark Banham

Don’t be afraid of the dark

You’ve still got plenty of time – Yes, the daylight hours are shorter in winter, but even in Fiordland the shortest day of the year sees about nine hours of daylight. If you travel at an average of 4km/h that means you should be able to cover 36km in a day!

Don’t bury your headtorch in the bottom of your pack – This seems obvious but I’ve seen it done (and done it myself!) but when it’s dark isn’t a good time to be emptying the contents of your pack onto the trail searching for a light-source.

A bit of planning goes a long way – Plan a trip that has an easy finish: hiking down a wide trail in the dark is fun, fighting your way through sub-alpine scrub not so much. If you’re an obsessive-compulsive sort of planner you could even organise your trip to synchronise with the full moon.

Take a moment to fix your location – When dusk approaches, use the last daylight wisely. Stop for a moment, make sure you know where everyone in your party is and then make sure you know where you are and where you’re heading.

Keep morale in mind – If you’re out with not-so-experienced trampers, framing things in terms of an adventure rather than an ordeal makes a huge difference. Now is a great time to break out the chocolate and the bad jokes – anyone heard the one about the brown-paper cowboy?

Do be (a bit) afraid of the snow

Welcome to avalanche terrain! – If you’re on a slope steeper than 25 degrees and with enough snow to cover up the grass then you’re in avalanche terrain. You may have set off on a tramping trip, but now you’re mountaineering. If you don’t have the appropriate skills and gear for snow, then this is a very good time to start thinking about plan B’s and/or making an orderly retreat.

Fortune – and snow – favours the well prepared – Having said that, the skills and gear required for snow travel aren’t all that hard to get; to get started you just need an avalanche transceiver, probe and shovel for each member of the team. As far as getting the skills required for snow travel goes, in my experience the best way is to enrol in one of the Mountain Safety Council’s snow craft courses. These will give the basics of getting around in the snow.

When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.

Most trampers are minimalists at heart, but when it comes to winter tramping there are a few bits of extra gear that are well worth shelling out for.

A down jacket – Having compact, lightweight warmth available when you need it will make your winter tramping experience a whole lot more fun. If you can afford it, get one with a waterproof shell – they’re much easier to look after.

A great beanie – Go on, treat yourself! Beanies are one of the best value bits of outdoor gear and make all the difference in terms of warmth. I usually bring two – one nylon-fleece beanie for on the trail and a woolly ‘yak-herder’s’ beanie with big ear flaps for inside the hut.

Polypropylene gloves – These should set you back about $10 and are worth every cent. Throw them on as an outer-layer when it’s just a bit cool, then use them as a wicking baselayer beneath thick gloves when it’s really cold – either way they’re worth their weight in gold!

Neck sock – The trouble with most warm layers is that they have a hole in the top (the one your head pokes through) that lets a good amount of the heat out. If you make an effort to seal up that heat-leak you can drastically improve the thermal efficiency of your clothing. I find a Buff around your neck, under a jacket equates to wearing an extra layer.

A warm sleeping bag – Don’t discount the importance of a good night’s sleep! You can also put your down jacket in your sleeping bag’s stuff sack for a deluxe down pillow.

A high-output headlamp – Think about getting one with a red filter – this will mean it only produces a quarter of its unfiltered output, but it means you keep your night vision, so you can see the stars and the trail.

Food – Burning calories will keep you warm, but you can’t burn what you didn’t eat! On a winter tramp you’ll want to pay extra attention to your calorie intake. On the trail, make sure you’ve got something to eat (like a bag of scroggin) within reach at all times. If you constantly nibble as you go, you’re less likely to experience a mid-afternoon energy crash.

Never, ever leave home without chocolate – Especially in winter. It’s not just a sugar kick, chocolate contains theobromine (a bit like caffeine), anandamide (a cannabinoid also naturally produced in the human brain), tryptophan (a mood regulator), phenylethylamine (a neurotransmitter from which amphetamine is derived, sometimes described as a ‘love chemical’). When you consider its ingredients, it’s amazing the stuff is legal!

The Routeburn Valley. Trails like this, which in summer are the busiest in the country are all but deserted in winter. Photo: Mark Banham

WHERE?

There’s not really such a thing as a winter tramp, just a tramp you’re prepared to do in winter. Aoraki/Mt Cook has been climbed in winter, people have skied the Routeburn Track. But there are a few, which – in my humble opinion – are some of the forgotten gems of winter hiking in New Zealand.

Welcome Flat

It’s a solid 8hr to get to the hut – which means you’ll definitely want to keep a head torch handy. Beautiful west coast forest combined with spectacular swingbridges – and of course the collection of hot-pools near the hut is a great incentive.

Location: West Coast

Difficulty: Moderate

Days: Two (or four if you continue up to Douglass Rock Hut)

Remember: Your togs for the hot pools!

Humpridge Track

If you’re looking for a ‘real’ multi-day round trip adventure for winter, the Humpridge is a great option. It’s open as a ‘winter freedom walk’ during most of the winter months which means there’s only essential services at the sub-alpine lodge and accommodation at Port Craig is in the DOC hut – but it’ll only cost you $45 and a hut ticket.

Location: Southland

Difficulty: Moderate

Days: Three

Remember: Keep your eyes peeled for hectors dolphins on the beach walk sections

Routeburn Falls Hut

The complete Routeburn Track is a fairly full-on undertaking in winter, but Routeburn Falls Hut is still open for business. It’s an easy X hour stroll with a 45-minute climb at the end.

The hut has a pot belly stove, but it’s worth bringing some kindling (and coal if you’re feeling strong) as there’s frequently a shortage of timber near the hut.

Location: Otago

Difficulty: Easy

Days: Two

Remember: Bring some coal for the stove!

The Hump Ridge Track’s proximity to the coast makes it a great snow-free winter tramp. Phto: Mark Banham

Bob Lee Hut

If you’d rather embrace the snow than escape it, try a cross country ski tour to Snow Farm’s Bob Lee Hut. The folks at Snowfarm can run your camping gear out to the hut on a snowmobile so you can travel light but still luxuriate at the end of the day.

Location: Otago

Difficulty: Easy

Days: Two

Remember: The schnapps!

Green Lake

This tramp boasts scenery (and some cool geological history) that rivals the great walks – but it’s somehow stayed under the radar, remaining a bit of a locals’ secret. Its maximum elevation is less than 1000m but that’s high enough to get a bit of snow – so make sure you remember your gaiters!

Location: Otago

Difficulty: Easy

Days: Two

Remember: Borland Road is usually closed through winter, so don’t hike out via the northern route!

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