Fancy yourself as a modern day adventurer, when you’re really a complete noob? Your first extended trip into the great outdoors can be daunting, but our first-timer’s guide will have you setting up camp like a pro in no time.
One of the most important decisions you need to make when venturing outdoors overnight is where to go. When you first start out, look for somewhere easy and well within your limits. Once you have mastered your first over-nighter, you can always go further afield, higher and more remote, but keep it simple at first.
Search online, read guidebooks and ask around to find your perfect location. Ideally, it will be challenging enough to keep you occupied all day, while still leaving plenty of time for setting up camp. This is vital for your first trip, as learning the ins and outs of efficient camp setup can take time.
If your adventure involves hiking, it’s worth considering how far you can comfortably travel each day. In 1892, Scottish mountaineer William Naismith developed the Naismith Rule, which is used to estimate travel time based on distance and ascent. While the rule has been adjusted over the years, it is based on the premise of allowing one hour for every 5km, plus an extra hour for every 600m ascent. There are online calculators which can assist with this calculation. Some even account for trail surface, descent, fitness level and the weight of your pack. When you’re starting out, try to keep to distances less than 20km per day on mostly flat terrain. This will allow for plenty of breaks, a long lunch, time to set up camp, make a cuppa and enjoy the sunset.
Estimating travel times for a cycling, skiing or paddling journey can be more difficult. Travel times can be severely impacted by the weather, conditions and terrain. A fully-loaded bikepacking mountain bike, for example, may tick along nicely at 15-20km/h on a flat trail, but throw in some single track, mud and hills, and your speed will plummet. You may even need to consider travel speeds at different times of the day. If you’re planning an overnight ski trip, for example, morning is the best time to cover long distances, particularly in the spring. Snow softened by the sun or the rain will be much more taxing and will slow you down.
So you’re set on the location and now it’s time to recruit the crew. Before you grab the phone and call your bestie, consider if they are right person for the job. It can be a fine line. Sure, you want people you get along with, but you also need to consider if they are really up to it. Are they fit enough? What skills do they bring? Will they be reliable and independent? Are they mentally prepared for the challenge? These things might seem minor when you’re in the comfort of your own home but, should the weather turn foul just as you get to the bottom of the toughest climb of the day, you may wish you hadn’t invited ‘whining Wayne’. It’s hard enough facing your own demons up a hill, let alone hearing all about Wayne’s, too. Any successful manager or boss could tell you the importance of having clear role descriptions for their staff. The same applies for the outdoors. While you may not need to put these down on paper in a formal way, it’s important that everyone on the trip is aware of his or her own roles and responsibilities. Who will bring the food? Who’s responsible for making the site booking? Will you drive the group to the trailhead the morning after coming off night-shift, or can this be allocated to someone else? Again, all these questions may seem trivial, but having it all sorted out in advance is vital when weary companions are spending days together in close quarters.
When you’re living out of your backpack, you want to make sure it’s packed with the right stuff. Guidebooks and online research can help you create a comprehensive packing list appropriate to your activity, location and time of year.
Many experienced travellers will strive for a minimalist setup and shed grams at any opportunity. But when you’re first starting out on long-range adventures, your priority should be to pack smart while still having room for a couple of creature comforts to ease you into the outdoor lifestyle. A small inflatable pillow can save your neck and help you to wake up refreshed and well-rested, ready to tackle the new day. A few extra pairs of socks will always come in handy. Apart from their obvious use, they can double as mittens if you forget your gloves. And a sock is a perfect hot water bottle cover for your drink bottle, filled with warm water, tightly sealed and put into the bottom of your sleeping bag. Wearing two pairs of socks may also help prevent blisters. For more packing tips, check out the list on page 53.
MAP IT OUT
With a location now set, it’s time to start looking at the specific route you’ll take and you need a map to do this. You might find park maps with the area and trails shown, or even a Google map with satellite images, but you really need a hard copy topographic map of the area, ideally in a scale of 1:50,000 or even 1:25,000. These maps provide details of cultural features like buildings and roads and also show landforms through the contour lines. You should learn how to interpret a map before your journey. Geoscience Australia has a very useful Map Reading Guide available on its website. Double check your map is the most current version and carefully review the land managers’ website for any change of conditions, like road closures or trail re-alignments.
Prior to the trip, study the maps and highlight your desired route. Use the map to calculate distances travelled and elevation changes. These will affect your travel times (see Naismith rule, above).
If your route requires challenging navigation, it can be helpful to identify ‘catching features’ just beyond your destination. These are things in the landscape that will let you know you have gone too far – perhaps a road or a creek or a valley. These will help to ensure you don’t become hopelessly lost!
PLAN FOR THE WORST
Travel in the outdoors always has an element of risk. This should not stop you from venturing past the city limits, but it does mean some additional planning is required.
Firstly, it’s crucial that you let someone know where you are going. This needs to be a reliable person who is not on the trip and is capable of raising the alarm if you fail to return. Be sure to provide them with the location, intended route, party members and supplies you’re carrying.
A quick online search for ‘trip intentions’ forms will bring up a range of templates that are used by local authorities. The forms will help you include all the relevant details, some of which can be easy to overlook.
If you’re lucky enough to be ski touring in Victoria, the Mountain Sports Collective website (www.mountainsportscollective.org) has a handy trip intentions form which you can fill in online – even ‘on the fly’ on the drive up. This is then sent directly to your nominated contact person and even to the relevant authority for the area you are visiting (police, ski patrol, etc).
If you or a party member comes to grief out on the trail, you’ll probably need to organise your own evacuation – unless it’s life-threatening. Having a contingency plan before departure will make this much easier in the stress of an evacuation. Consider where the closest road is. Where can you get mobile reception? Where can you go to shelter from bad weather?
In the preparation stages, it may even be necessary to implement some basic contingency plans. On a recent trip, I led a group up to Craig’s Hut in the Victorian Alps. We arrived following a long weekend and found the water tank tap had been left on and the tank was completely empty. All the nearby creeks were also dry. But prior planning averted this potentially challenging situation. We had left some filled water containers at a nearby access road on our way in. Some nice manners and sweet-talking to a group of 4WDers got us a lift up and back to collect our water. Problem solved through a planned contingency.
When it all goes pear-shaped, you will need some way to communicate with the outside world. Mobile phone reception can be patchy or non-existent in remote areas, and batteries go flat. You need at least two additional communication methods, such as a UHF radio, personal locator beacon or satellite phone.
Outdoor adventuring can be expensive, especially in the beginning. The cost of equipment, clothes, food and even time can be enough to put many off the idea of a weekend in the wild. But with some planning and research, the pain to your hip pocket can be minimised.
Many outdoor stores hire out tents, packs, sleeping bags and even radios, satellite phones and GPS devices. Not only will this save you money, it also allows you to try before you buy and so can help you make a more informed decision come purchase time. You are only as strong as your weakest link, and this includes both people and equipment. Hiring quality gear ensures you have equipment suited to the conditions, rather than cheap, low quality gear you may feel inclined to buy when starting out.
Exploring outside is best done in groups, so consider sharing the costs and gear with others. Pack and purchase carefully before the trip. Everyone in the group does not need to buy their own dinner, lunch and snacks. Buy your food as a group and split the costs and weight.
Research into the area may uncover cheap or even free camp sites. At one popular hiking area in the Alpine National Park in north-east Victoria, it’s only a difference of 100m between a paid campsite, and a free site with nearly identical facilities.
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