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Beginner’s guide to hiking

Here’s what you need to know to get started on one of New Zealand’s most rewarding outdoor activities – and walk yourself to bliss

Hiking might seem like it’s for hardcore outdoors people – the sort who know how to build a campfire and semaphore their way out of trouble.

But the truth is that hiking is really just walking, with extras: you’re surrounded by jaw-dropping scenery, and you carry almost everything you need. As with any bach trip or camping holiday, the trickiest part is the logistics.

Once you’ve sorted out the food and some decent footwear and borrowed a top-notch sleeping bag from your cousin, all that remains is to fit it all in the pack and start enjoying the ride.

Winter might be setting in, but now’s the best time to plan your adventures in spring and summer – or try your first hiking foray on a quiet weekend.

Where to go

New Zealand has walking tracks like the Milky Way has stars: about 300 billion. Possibly a couple less. One of the best places for newbies to start is the Great Walks network (www.greatwalks.co.nz), a constellation of eight tracks located in New Zealand’s most oh-my-gosh spots.

Beautiful options include the Milford, dubbed “the finest walk in the world” in 1908 by poet and keen traveller Blanche Baughan, and its equally lovely sisters, the Routeburn and Abel Tasman tracks.

Varying in distance from 32km to 78km, the Great Walks have clear, smooth paths, bridges over rivers, and huts equipped with mattresses. Some also provide gas cookers. Each day’s distance is short enough that if you need to take a rest (or a ton of photos) hourly, you can still arrive at the next hut well before dark.

This ensures plenty of time for exploring the area or making friends with fellow walkers. You can book huts online, but you’ll need to do it well in advance for popular tracks such as the Milford and Routeburn.

A three-day hike may be a bit daunting to begin with, especially in changeable winter weather conditons. But if you’re keen to get out there, why not test the waters with an overnighter?

Start by choosing one of the Department of Conservation’s (DOC) 950 huts (www.good.net.nz/dochuts) and spend a night in the back country before hiking home.

“If you’ve never done an overnight trip before, choose one that’s no more than three to four hours each way, and check the topography on NZ Topo Maps (www.nztopomaps.com) to make sure the terrain isn’t too tough,” recommends seasoned tramper and Idealog editor Hazel Phillips. “And take some Deep Heat and Nurofen, in case of niggles.”

Safe travels

Make the Girl Guide motto your own: be prepared. The Mountain Safety Council recommends taking a day’s more food than you think you’ll need, and stuffing an extra warm jumper into the bottom of your pack – sound advice year-round, but especially so during the colder months.

Make sure at least one person in your group is carrying a decent first-aid kit, and pack an emergency blanket and a torch or headlamp per person. At the very least, torches are useful for finding loos in the dark.

Before you leave, check the latest Metservice weather forecast (www.metservice.co.nz) or the Mountain Forecast (www.mountain-forecast.com) and fill out an Intentions Form (www.adventuresmart.org.nz), leaving it with someone you trust.

This details where you’ll be going and how long you are planning to spend there – so the alarm can be raised if you don’t return. Feeling extra cautious? Pick up an emergency locator beacon from an outdoors store.

Happy feet

The key to enjoying the great outdoors is not being super fit, but super comfortable – so if you’re going to splurge on anything, make it your shoes.

The best type of shoe for you depends on the length of your hike, as this determines what kind of support and protection you’ll need. Hiking boots provide more support than gym or walking shoes because the weight of your pack places extra stress on your ankles, and because you’ll be walking on uneven ground.

Luckily the hiking shoes of today don’t have much in common with the heavy, clunky boots of the past. “The materials we can choose from now are completely different from the ones we had – more athletic, more versatile,” says KEEN shoe designer Jeff Dill.

The first step in finding shoe nirvana is to visit a decent outdoors store that carries a range of brands. “A great retailer is one that will alllow you to try on a lot of styles – they’ll have figured out what the lemons are,” says Jeff.

Listen to friends’ recommendations about durability, but not about comfort, as shoe brands all use slightly different lasts, or fits. For example, KEEN shoes are a little wide in the forefoot.

“The idea is that these are shoes you’ll be wearing for three or four days. And if you have a pack, your foot is a little bit flatter and little bit wider. It gives you room to spread out,” says Jeff.

Don’t assume that leather is best, or that weight equals durability. Jeff admits leather is “hard to beat”, but adds that “some of the better boots have synthetic leathers – sometimes they’re not only cheaper but hold their shape better.”

Invest in top-quality socks and take them to the shoe store, as they’ll affect the fit of your new shoes. Specialised hiking socks range in thickness from super fluffy to slimline merino, and are worth paying for as they’re your first line of defence against blisters.

Hazel recommends wearing two pairs, one thick and one thin, to protect against blisters. “Always wash them before you wear them,” she adds.

Hiking shoes will last years if you take care of them. “Clean them, dry them out – the last thing you want is to let them start growing mushrooms in there,” says Jeff. “Extreme heat is the enemy of shoes. If they get wet, remove the innersoles and add newspaper to help keep the shape.”

Packing a sad You’ll need something to carry that kitchen sink around in – something that’s kind to your shoulders and back.

Asking friends and family usually reveals someone with a pack sitting in their wardrobe, and you can also rent them from outdoors stores – especially those in popular hiking destinations, such as Queenstown.

Buying your own pack is an investment purchase, as they start at around $300 and increase depending on how lightweight, waterproof and fancy they are. They’re measured in litres, with 65L being good for several days’ self-sufficiency and 45L for overnight.

Using a larger pack than you need isn’t a problem, as long as you don’t fill up the extra space so it weighs a ton.

Whether you choose to beg, borrow or steal your pack, it should have a thick, padded belt fastening, so that its weight is borne by your hips rather than your shoulders or back.

Some packs also have a chest strap, which further eases the load on your back. Take time before you set off to adjust straps and make sure the weight is sitting correctly.

Finally, your pack needs a liner – a plastic inner to keep everything dry. Don’t leave home without one unless you really enjoy damp possessions. They cost less than $10 at outdoors stores, are usually orange or yellow (handy if you’re lost) and can double as an emergency bivvy bag to sleep in if trouble strikes.

What not to wear

“There’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing,” declared the great British explorer Ranulph Fiennes. Cold or rainy moments are where ‘technical’ gear comes in – garments that are designed to be lightweight, breathable and quick-drying.

Think merino, polypropylene or gym clothing and avoid cotton, which is cold, heavy and smelly when damp.

New Zealand weather can change extremely quickly, especially at high altitudes, so you need to be prepared for snow, even if when hiking at the peak of summer.

Don’t set off without thermals – long-sleeved top and pants made from merino (top option) or polypropylene (second best). These provide a breathable but warm base layer next to your skin, and become super toasty when you add more layers on top.

Technical clothing is pretty good at neutralising sweat, so don’t bother taking a fresh t-shirt for Day 2. Instead, pack one of each clothing layer so that you can wear everything if you’re caught in a blizzard … or very little for frolicking on that secluded beach.

A decent waterproof jacket and pants turn rainy days from an irritation to an adventure. Sort out damp clothing by stuffing it at the bottom of your sleeping bag overnight – your body heat warms it up and dries it out.

A pair of jandals isn’t strictly necessary, but comes in handy at the end of the day when your feet are set free from your boots.

There probably won’t be showers (or even mirrors), so leave the shampoo and cosmetics at base camp, and decant personal care products into plastic bottles. Anyway, it’s all about what you’re looking at, not what’s looking at you. For a more detailed packing list, see DOC’s suggestions at www.good.net.nz/docpacking.

Trail nutrition

Hiking food is the opposite of what modern women are encouraged to eat. Fruit and vegetables are out and slow-burning, calorie-dense carbohydrates and protein are in – think peanut butter sandwiches, chocolate, nuts and cheese.

Tramping dinners can be terrifically easy with dehydrated meals-in-a-packet – simply add boiling water. Porridge makes a stick-to-your-ribs breakfast, nutella sandwiches a pick-me-up lunch. But you can also get creative.

“My go-to meal is a Thai red curry,” says Hazel. “Throw together instant noodles, curry paste, coconut milk powder, dehydrated veggies and water. Add peanuts and coriander if you want to impress!”

Check what kind of cooking facilities will be available on your track. At the very least, you’ll need a light saucepan, waterproof matches and picnic plates, cups and cutlery. Add a mini gas burner if huts aren’t equipped with burners.

At the end of the day, a cup of hot chocolate, soup or tea restores the spirits – as might a glass of wine. Simply decant it into a lightweight bottle when packing. Jeff Dill says he always takes a flask of Maker’s Mark. “It’s a good way to make friends,” he laughs.

Starting out

Look for a track that features around 10km of ground covered per day – an easily achievable distance for people of average fitness. To put that in perspective, the average person covers 10km in two to three hours of walking in an urban environment.

Add in a pack and hills and things take a little longer. If you’re not a big walker, aim to complete a couple of day walks close to home before starting out.

Remember, hiking isn’t a race – there’s no award for being the first person up the mountain, but there’s huge rewards in dawdling to soak up the view.

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