Laura Waters embarked upon a 5-month hike from one end of New Zealand to the other – the Te Araroa Trail – having only completed a handful of multi-day hikes in her life.
I may have been a little ambitious when I decided to hike Te Araroa, the world’s newest long distance hiking trail running from one end of New Zealand to the other. A casual hiker with a dozen or so multi-day hikes under her belt (longest, 65km), I was about to attempt 3000km across the country’s famously rugged terrain, through dense forest, over exposed alpine passes, across scores of unbridged rivers and following a route that often doesn’t have an actual ground trail to follow.
Nothing can fully prepare you for the main event, but an understanding of what lies ahead will go a long way.
If you’re planning your own long distance hiking adventure, here are a few tips that might help you.
# 1 Prepare well
It surprises me the amount of people who venture out on this trail with no real idea what they are getting in for. The sprinkling of road sections, overgrown forests and exposed tricky alpine passes are a surprise to some, to the point where a few give up when they reach them.
Study the trail you are doing. If you don’t know what is ahead you can’t prepare for it (mentally and physically) and ensure you have the right gear and skills.
Speaking of skills, get some.
Learn the best way to cross a river, have some idea about weather patterns and clouds. Learn some basic navigation skills and don’t rely purely on technology that can sometimes fail you. Pre-planned routes might mysteriously drop off your device (it happened to me), batteries can run out and satellite signals are hard to find in gorges or steep landscapes – so carry a map and compass and know how to use them.
Carry a first aid kit and carry a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB)! An accident, by definition, is unplanned. You never know when you might need help so carry the means to call for it if the worst should happen.
Prepare your body.
Any niggles you have will be magnified once you’re out on the trail, day after day with a pack. For me that meant working with a physio for eight months before I left to strengthen my core and gluts, two weaknesses that made me prone to sore knees.
In terms of training, do a lot of walking – no surprise there – but it doesn’t have to be hiking. I walked 2 hours a day for three months before departure on my daily commute to work, getting my feet used to the daily pounding, and I carried a fully loaded pack for the last month of it. Add in a few weekend hikes to test out and refine your gear selection and you should be fine (note: assuming you’ve already got some multi-day hikes under your belt and have some idea what you’re in for!). You’ll get most of your fitness when you finally hit the trail.
Before I left home I read accounts of other hikers doing 40km day, adamant there was no way I’d be doing the same, but within a few weeks I did it and it was really quite okay.
These sorts of distances are definitely reliant on easy terrain however. In dense forest and scrambling over the Alps however you’ll be doing a lot less. In the wild and windy Tararua Range in the North Island for example, it took an exhausting nine hours to cover just thirteen kilometres.
# 2 Hike your own hike
Everyone’s different. Hike in a way that meets your own needs, goals and likes.
Some people like to hike fast while others (me) like to take photos and hug trees. Some pride themselves on speed records while others like to have regular rest days in search of a massage and a bottle of wine (also me). It’s all good.
There is no one definitive ‘ultimate’ set of hiking gear. Determine what factors are important to you (warmth, weight, durability, comfort…), do your research and make your own decisions. An ultralight tarp tent and a super thin down jacket might work for some but I knew that I would need something warmer, and I was grateful for my choices when a week of snow hit during a South Island summer.
You might come across anything from raised eyebrows to outright disapproval about the choices you make but it doesn’t matter. Some might tell you you’ll never make it (as I experienced).
Don’t listen to them. This is your show.
# 3 Learn quickly to make good decisions
You are the person most responsible for your safety. Don’t blindly follow others, perhaps across swollen rivers, up wrong tracks, across dubious fresh landslips, don’t go out in bad weather just because others are.
Learn to tune into your intuition and if it doesn’t feel right deep in your gut don’t do it. Nobody ever died sitting out bad weather in a hut but plenty have after making the wrong decision.
I learned many lessons the hard way, pushing the boundary and then regretting it afterwards. I nearly got blown off a mountain range in the Tararuas, a region in the North Island notorious for strong winds. I got caught in a sudden snowstorm in the South Island that could have ended very badly, and I had several tumbles because I was rushing. When the stakes are high it’s not worth pushing it.
# 4 Look after yourself
Don’t push on when you’re knackered or injured – this is likely to lead to mistakes and perhaps further injury.
Feed yourself well. Stretch. Know that rest days are okay.
Be kind to yourself. Don’t beat yourself up over a short day on the trail if it works out that way. A long distance hike can be a great way to liberate yourself from all the pressures we live with day to day in modern society. Don’t bring those old judgements and pressures with you on the journey.
# 5 With great challenge comes great reward
It won’t be easy, know that.
But also know that, barring injury, you absolutely can do it. Accept the challenges, allow them to pass and then move on. You’re capable of much more than you realise. In moving past the obstacles you face you will grow like never before. Suddenly you’ll realise you’re capable of anything.
But be warned though that after completing a journey like this you will have opened Pandora’s box. Life will never be the same. Take the wisdom you gather in the wilds to grow your life when you return. Onward and upward!