Prepare and get out there

Robin McNeill, president of the Federated Mountain Clubs of New Zealand, gets close to nature at the South Huxley Bivvy in the Hopkins Valley, South Canterbury. Photo by Klaus Witt.
Robin McNeill, president of the Federated Mountain Clubs of New Zealand, gets close to nature at the South Huxley Bivvy in the Hopkins Valley, South Canterbury. Photo by Klaus Witt.
During summer, more trampers, other recreational walkers and hunters will be venturing into the great Otago outdoors. Reporter John Gibb sought some tips from experienced outdoors people, including Federated Mountain Clubs of New Zealand president Robin McNeill, of Invercargill, about how people can enjoy themselves more, and keep safe, this summer.

Taking sensible preparations and avoiding panic are two of Robin McNeill's main suggestions for avoiding trouble while tramping or climbing in the great New Zealand outdoors this summer.

Mr McNeill, of Invercargill, knows a thing or two about safety in the outdoors.

He's been a keen tramper for more than 35 years and recently edited the 11th edition of that New Zealand bible of outdoor survival, Safety in the Mountains, published by the Federated Mountain Clubs of New Zealand.

And in September, he became the organisation's president.

He's an enthusiast for the outdoors and says New Zealand risks becoming a ''timid nation'', too ready to find excuses to avoid outdoor adventures.

He thinks many of the fears about the outdoors are greatly exaggerated.

His advice: ''A little bit of preparation and go out and enjoy.''

He notes plenty of people are already doing so, and almost invariably without incident.

''About 10% of New Zealanders go tramping or outdoor walking in any one year.

''Tramping and outdoors walking is much more popular than playing rugby.

''You have to be unlucky and try really hard to have an accident that causes a real problem.

''If you prepare for the trip, the chances of anything going wrong are about zero.''

On the other hand, if people did not want to prepare and take the right gear, they should ''stay at home and watch the movies''.

Spending a planned night out in the open, with warm clothing and the right survival gear, is actually a good way of learning about survival first-hand.

''You realise it's not going to kill you. It gives you a bit more confidence.''

And if people do get stuck outdoors, and they're not in any immediate danger, he encourages them to drop off to sleep after night falls.

Some people stuck in the mountains have been depicted in television survival show episodes as striving, above all, not to go to sleep.

''As I say, try and get a nap - you'll feel a lot better for it.

''If you don't get some sleep, the risk is you'll go and do something stupid.''

And if having a sleep is good, so is taking some time out during the day to look at your surroundings and reflect on how the trip is going.

If something unexpected did come up, it was important to act sensibly, he said.

''Don't panic. Sit down and have something to eat and drink'' and think of the next move.

Years ago, the traditional advice had been to take some time out and roll a cigarette.

''That gave your brain time to start to think through [the situation] and get the fear out of it.''

He recalled meeting Doug Scott, who was the first Briton to climb Mt Everest and who enjoys acclaim in Britain similar to that given to Sir Edmund Hillary. Scott often enjoyed having a morning and afternoon cup of tea, even while on demanding climbs, and suggested that taking that time to reflect had contributed to his longevity as a climber.

''He told me ... [he] pretty much used to stop every morning, even on the big climbs, and get out the Thermos and have a cup of tea.

''He could then review where they were on the climb, and ''put everything into perspective''.

The 11th edition of Safety in the Mountains is a full revision of the previous, mid-1980s edition.

Since the book was first published 75 years ago, in 1937, more than 130,000 copies have been printed.

In fact, a further 1400 copies have been sold since the new edition was launched at a function in Dunedin earlier this year.

Mr McNeill is quick to point out that although the word ''safety'' is included in the title, the book is not mainly about safety, but mainly offers suggestions so people can enjoy the back country more.

Practical tramping tips include putting on dry socks and wrapping your feet in plastic bags before slipping your feet into your wet tramping boots. Common sense remained the key to outdoor safety.

The book had been written ''in mind of those who have a little outdoor experience, wish to expand their boundaries and have some time to spare in a hut to catch up with their reading''.

The book warns against behaving recklessly by taking unnecessary risks with serious consequences. It suggests people ask themselves questions before entering risky situations, including: ''What would you say to the coroner if there were to be a mishap?'' Most people kept within the limits of their physical ability and training but some trampers underestimated journey times and weather changes, he said.

Dunedin police Search and Rescue co-ordinator Senior Sergeant Brian Benn is keen for people to make the most of the great outdoors, but suggests they prepare well before heading out.

''I would encourage people to go and enjoy the outdoors but follow a few basic safety rules.''

If inexperienced people want to go tramping, he suggests they join a tramping club - ''joining a club is huge''.

There they can gain ''some good free training'' as well as plenty of support and experience from fellow members, to help them make their outdoor experiences safer and more enjoyable.

He warns there is a trend for some visiting backpackers to head straight into the Otago back country with little more than a road map they have printed off the internet.

They have no topographic maps, no local knowledge, and little outdoor clothing, let alone back country communications and survival gear.

Results could be unpleasant.

''It can turn out to be miserable or worse. Ongoing education - that's required.''

He urges people to take advantage of local knowledge by talking to staff at the local Department of Conservation office or other experienced people who know the area.

And they should take the required survival and communications gear - including at least two forms of communication, bearing in mind that cellphones do not always work - and consider adding an emergency locator beacon.

Let someone know where you are going and when you are expected back, check the weather forecast and be aware the weather can change quickly, he says.

And he emphasises the importance of ''wearing'' key survival and communications gear -if it is simply in your tramping pack or on your boat, ''you haven't got it''.

He said police attended many incidents where boaties had had life jackets and other survival gear in their boats but were not wearing them.

After the boat suddenly overturned, they could not reach their life jackets in time and they were lost.

Similarly, if crucial communication or safety gear was kept in a pack, trampers could easily be separated from it - if it was wrenched off in a fall, for example.

And they could be left with next to nothing.

He also urges people to set out early on their tramp - ''allowing enough daylight to make their trip''.

''Once it gets dark, they get disoriented. They get tired, they fall over and break their leg.''

And if people do get lost in the back country, he gently suggests ''making yourself findable''.

In one case in recent years, a lost person kept walking beyond the search zone - the area where he had indicated he would be going.

And by sleeping in the undergrowth during the day, he effectively made himself invisible, significantly extending the time searchers needed to find him.

If people were lost, he suggested they retrace their steps until they found more familiar territory, but not leave the known search area unless they knew their way back to safety.

And they could help searchers by leaving messages and markers of their presence, such as arrows drawn on the track.


Further advice

The Department of Conservation highlights a five-point Outdoor Safety Code: plan your trip; tell someone of plans and a return alarm date; beware of weather; know your limits; and take sufficient supplies.

Doc information on tracks and walking areas via internet: www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/tracks-and-walks/otago/Further advice, including about connecting with tramping clubs and obtaining a copy of the Safety in the Mountains outdoor survival guide, can be found via Federated Mountain Clubs at www.fmc.org.nz.