From January to March 2017 I walked the South Island part of Te Araroa, New Zealand’s walking trail from Ship Cove to Bluff. Here are my top-tips for planning the hike. This guide assumes a good level of familiarity with New Zealand tramping and conditions.
T-12 months: persuade your work to give you time off. Most people I met on the trail made time by quitting their jobs. I envied this; it gave them utter freedom of time and thought. But many others had persuaded their employers to give them unpaid leave. There are two things you need to make this happen. Firstly, a supportive boss who understands how time in the outdoors improves our lives. Secondly, the confidence to just ask. Giving them lots of notice makes it more likely they’ll agree, or negotiating it as part of a job change. Whatever happens, the worst is that your employer might say no, and I think that many will say yes.
T-6 months: get an idea of what you’re getting into. A skim through the excellent TA Trust website will help you consider how you’ll approach the trail. The South Island is split into four regions: Marlborough, Canterbury, Otago and Southland. Sections between towns are between three and nine days long. Will you walk Southbound (SOBO) or Northbound (NOBO)? 90% of TAers walk SOBO. If you want a sense of community, maximum safety and the best information, walk SOBO. If you want the challenge of isolation and problem solving, walk NOBO. Will you be purist – walking every darned step of the mapped trail – or be flexible if the opportunity to hitch a boring section arises? Are you time-pressed, or will you just see where the adventure takes you, without knowing what day it is? If you are planning to have friends join you for sections, you’ll need to estimate how long it will take you to get there. The TA Trail Notes will give you a guide to timings, as will blogs from former TAers which can be found through the site. A link to my day-by-day Te Araroa itinerary is here – note that my times varied a lot depending on whether I was with company or alone. But if you can be flexible you can just plan each section as you go – one of the pleasures of thru-hiking. Joining the TA Facebook Group will link you with people pondering the same questions (but don’t be too influenced by those in the group who are overthinking it all). Know that TA is a tough trail and will throw lots of physical challenges in your way to keep your guessing. This is not one of those ‘paved road’ type hikes – you will walk across all terrains, in all conditions.
T-4 months: be decisive on navigation and safety. The TA Trust site has amazing free resources you’ll come to rely on: trail notes, maps and GPX files. This is quite unique to NZ: many other thru-hikes require the purchase of expensive (and heavy) guidebooks. The trail notes give you an overview of the terrain, estimated times, hut & camping options and warnings about hazards (e.g. exposure or river crossings). This means you can make a quick trip plan ahead of each section, helping you to decide how much food to carry and anticipate when you expect to be back in civilisation. You can print a set of maps for the whole route with a click of a button, and you’ll find great value and quality double-sided printing at the Wellington library. Be sure you know how to put your map and compass to practical use. Your good intentions to do so will, however, rapidly go to pot when you discover the GPX files. Using these in conjunction with iHike GPS on my iPhone was a dream. You have to download the maps separately via iHike and if you have the memory space I’d recommend downloading all the maps for the South Island. If you’re richer and lazier, go for the Guthook TA app. Your outlay will be rewarded with an easy to use interface, which includes the ability to view the length and ascent of your chosen section of trail without having to count a single contour line.
On the TA you will cross a lot of rivers, so solid river decision-making skills are critical. This was my weak spot and made things more difficult for me than they should have been. Get yourself on a course about river safety before you go. Practise using the rain forecast, learning how to spot a weather system coming in and anticipating how it will affect your journey. Read a weather book and learn to use the clouds to spot an approaching front. Make sure you are comfortable with your first aid skills and know what you need to carry to be safe. For extra peace of mind, I carried a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB). A PLB must be backed up by an effective intentions system. If you set off your PLB in an emergency, a notification is sent to the NZ search and rescue, who will call the people listed on your registration to understand more about your likely location and situation. It is vital to a quick and efficient rescue that the friend who picks up the phone has a decent amount of information about where you might be, how equipped you are and any medical conditions you have. I managed this by emailing my three contacts at the start of each section with my general intentions, any route deviations from the norm and likely exit date. If I knew there was adverse weather on the way I would mention this too – to help them analyse my likely decision-making.
T-3 months: agonise over gear. Your primary gear consideration is weight. When you’re walking with eight days of food you need to be confident you have minimised your ‘base weight’ – all your gear minus food and water. Prioritise expenditure on cutting the weight of the big three: pack, sleeping bag and tent. You can get each to weigh under a kilo but still have gear sturdy enough for hard conditions. After that, turn your attention to minimising the rest of the detritus that accompanies you on weekend tramps. Cutting down devices is a good idea: a smartphone for photography, navigation and off-trail communications. If you’re a bit obsessive you can weigh every item and spend all your pocket money on marginal gains. Get rid of carry cases & packaging. Look for items that serve dual purposes. Once on the trail, observe the wise rule: ‘if you don’t use it every day, give it away’. That said, things you might need to add that you don’t take on a weekend trip: a battery pack or solar charger, repair kit (glue, tenacious tape, needle and thread), spare shoelace and a trowel for backcountry toilet action. Hiking poles were a surprise hit for me and now I can’t walk without them. Dry bags keep your life organised. I think it’s a myth that lightweight tramping involves highly expensive lightweight gear. The really lightweight TAers just had less stuff: few warm clothes, a waterproof so flimsy it needs duct taping every few days and, sometimes, no stove, phone or PLB. In my view that isn’t an appropriate way to hike in NZ conditions. For more comments on gear see my Te Araroa Gear page.
T-2 months: get training, or don’t. If you are not well in the habit of backpacking weekends when you start the trail, your body will react in weird and wonderful and highly painful ways which you cannot anticipate, and it will mean that the first few weeks of your journey are mainly horrible. So either get out there… or learn the hard way. Along with general fitness, you must also get used to your gear to minimise blisters and soreness – particularly boots and pack. I had been away tramping or climbing every other weekend for two years by the time I began my TA trip. I had done a few deliberately longer trips (four/five days) to check how my body coped and learn what food I would want to eat. My intention was to quit climbing and focus on tramping two months out from the trip (plus some long runs for fitness). What I actually did was sprain your ankle in the Tararuas eight weeks beforehand and hence do precisely zero training. Try not to do this.
T-1 month: plan food strategy. All that expense on lovely light gear goes to waste if you don’t carry efficient food with a high calorie-to-weight ratio. The gorgeous meals that we eat at the WTMC, healthy though they are, are not practical given all those heavy fresh vegetables. But that doesn’t mean you have to eat two-minute noodles every day. In the evenings eat plenty of carbs or you won’t have energy the next day. Pack in as much protein as possible – buckwheat, quinoa, dried soy mince and lentils are versatile vegetarian means of doing so. Add hard cheese (less melty in your hot pack) and peanut butter to everything without discretion. I varied my sources of vitamins and minerals by mixing up different dried fruits and nuts. Most people found their rations weighed between 700g-1kg per day; I carried a minimum of one extra’s day’s food on each section. On the South Island you’ll need to send some food boxes ahead, but for most of the journey you will find a small supermarket every few days. There’s a brilliant food resupply map by Antony Page on longtrails.org. Most people send food ahead to St Arnaud and Arthurs Pass on account of the small shops and hassle of hitching out from there. If you want to stay on trail without hitching to Hanmer Springs you’ll also need to send a box to Boyle River. The trail notes list the addresses for sending boxes. Most people use Post Shop size 3 boxes, and the postage is priced in gradients of 5kg. It’s cheaper to send them on the South Island if you can be bothered to carry them on the ferry to Picton. Your future self will thank you if you send some treats and not just more porridge. Typical daily diet at the bottom of this page.
Day 1: no more excuses. You’ve run out of procrastination and you just have to start walking. And then you remember it’s just tramping. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other…
My typical Te Araroa diet
5g milk powder
5g instant coffee
125g mixed fruit and nuts (25g of which goes in the porridge for a sugar hit to help me get on my way)
80g OSM bar
25g bagel chips / pretzels*
150g wraps (2)
30g peanut butter
40g liquorice-chocolate / sweets*
25g cereal bar (ideally highish protein one)
80g carbs (pasta, rice, cous cous, noodles)
60g protein / dried veg / olives / tomato paste
25g dark chocolate
= 780g per day
*luxury items that got added later as I got stronger, and for shorter trips. I also started carrying spinach, peppers, courgettes, tiny bottles of whisky, and, on one unfortunate afternoon, a whole cucumber.