5 tips for surviving (and enjoying) your first hike

Despite living in the land of swimming, surfing and sharks, and try as I might to fight it, I much prefer land activities to watersports – unlike my fiancé who is a complete water baby.

I have become more appreciative of the outdoors since living in a warm climate. It helps that it is easier to get up and about when the sun shines more often than not, and you rarely have to wear a jacket.

Over Christmas, Ben and I decided to take our first non-Europe/Australia holiday to New Zealand. Just a short three hour flight; I expected it to be similar to Australia but boy, was I wrong.

My first ever (proper) hike – The Milford Track

The biggest achievement from our two weeks in New Zealand was completing the Milford Track – a four day hike, carrying 10+kg backpacks, combatting relentless sandflies, staying in basic huts and preparing our own food – mostly freeze dried – that we carried with us in our packs.

Me on the boat from Te anau downs to the start of the Milford track

Me on the boat from Te anau downs to the start of the Milford track

The Milford Track is one of New Zealand’s ‘Great Walks’ of which there are nine. It covers 53.5 km in Fiordland National Park, which is situated in the south-west of New Zealand’s South Island. You are in the middle of nowhere, and have to take a two hour boat journey from the nearest town, Te Anau to get to the start of the track.

There are two options to complete the route: a guided walk and an unguided walk. We did the unguided – which takes a day less, but is very basic and requires a reasonable amount of preparation including ensuring you are fit enough to carry a heavy pack for several days.

Ben and I at the start of the Milford Track

Ben and I at the start of the Milford Track

You begin the hike in groups of around forty, and have a day to reach each hut, but you can walk at your own speed. There is sufficient time to stop along the way – for a snack, a swim or even spend a few hours reading if you find somewhere scenic to relax.

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At one of the highest parts of the track – snow in December in the southern hemisphere!

 

The hike was absolutely beautiful, and I often had to pinch myself to check I wasn’t dreaming.

It evokes a real sense of freedom to be far from civilisation on an enforced digital detox! There were moments where I wanted to give up (although that’s not an option, unless you want to pay the extortionate chopper fee!), but the sense of achievement at the end was totally worth it.

There were some unexpected parts along the way, and things I wish I’d known beforehand – so I thought I’d share some advice to any newbies like I was.

Five tips for surviving and enjoying your first hike

…from absolute firsthand experience!

1. Do your research on bugs

It sounds like it wouldn’t be a huge deal – I mean, I live in Australia, there are mozzies here – no big deal, right? WRONG! One of the most challenging parts of the Milford Track was dealing with the sandflies. Trust me – even this guy agrees: ‘Sandflies are almost more annoying than mosquitoes, they are smaller but their bites itch even more than mosquito bites.’

At some of the huts I felt like I was going crazy! If I had known before, I would have bought industrial strength bug spray, but I only had some natural eucalyptus stuff which didn’t do a thing. One time I was in bed and they were flying around my face and I had a small hissy fit, a guy leant me his bushman repellent, two sprays and they left me alone. Lesson learnt!

So my advice to you, do some thorough research on any creatures – bugs or animals that may impact your experience and be fully prepared 🙂

2. Bring books and activities to pass the time

If you finish the track several hours faster than expected (which we did a few times) – you have quite a lot of time to kill in the huts. And you can’t go onto the next hut as everyone must stay in a group – there is also a group ahead of you, and behind. I was really glad to have a book with me, and we wish we’d also bought cards.

3. Chat with an experienced hiker before you go

We’re lucky because Ben’s mum is a seasoned hiker (or tramper as they call them in NZ). She goes on many trips – usually solo – all around the world and has done the Milford Track several times. She lent us cooking utensils, clothing, packs, waterproofs – she was a lifesaver.

She also advised us the best frozen packets of food to buy and other things we would never have known! I’m certain if not for her guidance beforehand, we would have forgotten several important things.

An example of the culinary delights available for pack hikers.

An example of the culinary delights available for pack hikers.

If you don’t have someone to check in with for advice, there are quite a few guides online and the Great Walks have a packing list here which is a good place to start.

4. Don’t underestimate the weather

Prepare for the worst – the weather took a turn for the worse on our last day. There was flooding on the track and more rain headed our way!

Being told the bad weather news.

Being told the bad weather news.

The ranger came and told us that we might not be able to leave as planned, which we were quite disappointed about given it was new year’s eve and we were looking forward to partying in Queenstown.

The track ahead of us was closed, so there was literally no way out!

There's no way you're getting past this piece of string...

There’s no way you’re getting past this piece of string…

At 6am on new year’s eve we were awoken by a ranger and ushered into the communal kitchen. We were you must pack and we must leave in 30 MINUTES or you won’t be able to leave the track and may have to pay to be choppered out!

So, we all packed and got ready to leave. In single file we were told to follow the ranger – and we did so for around 3 hours out of the final 6. We had to wade through flood water up to our waist, in the pouring rain. It’s one of those situations where at first you’re squeamish and uncomfortable – but you get to the point where you accept your fate and just focus on getting to the end.

Without wearing waterproofs and having sensible footwear, we might not have made it out in such good shape. We were wet, like everyone else, but thankfully we had our waterproof pack covers and waterproof jackets so it could have been a lot worse!

5. Be mindful and slow down

I found myself drifting off and focusing on the track ahead rather than my surroundings – especially after a few hours – I had to drag myself back into the present so I was able to look around, reflect and appreciate the beauty.

Being aware of how much better life is when you practice mindfulness is essential to being able to do it. Check out this guide from Zenhabits for some useful tips if you are not familiar with the concept.

And it’s not just a tip for hiking, it’s probably worth another blog post altogether because it is easy to underestimate the effect that being present in each moment has on the enjoyment of everyday life.

I look forward to returning to New Zealand sometime and tackling a different walk – it’s a wonderful place and so easy to get to from Australia.

Have you been hiking before? Where did you go? What advice would you give to a first timer?

Coco xo

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