If you’d like to graduate from daytripper to bushwalker, then this post is for you. Using my winter Overland Track adventures as an example, I thought it might be both entertaining and informative to present what I’d like to call Kaisson’s No-Bullshit Guide to Bushwalking over the course of several instalments. But first, a rider. What works for me may not work for you, and the takeaways will vary from person to person. All of my wisdom is first-hand and hard-earned, the kind of knowledge that accretes after forty years of sleeping uncomfortably outdoors. These are my bruises and scars, exhibited shamelessly for your benefit so that you can avoid them if you so choose, or if you like, begin gathering your own like badges to be worn with pride.
Part One: Are You Ready For This?
Before you start pouring money down the insatiable maw of the beast that goes by the name of ‘hiking gear’ you need to pass a prequalifying quiz: forget about gear, the accoutrements we (wrongly) assume are the key to the perfect hike — are you as a person fit to undertake this particular bushwalk?
Let’s break that down:
Are you physical fit enough? You can run a half-marathon in under two hours wearing poly-elastane shorts and subsisting on nothing but gel, super, but this won’t prepare you for a six-day, 82 kilometres bushwalk carrying twenty kilograms of gear on your back that gets HEAVIER as your gear gets wetter. Nor will swimming, bike riding, vigorous love-making, or sitting on the couch watching YouTube videos about hiking the OLT in winter. Trust me, only hiking makes you fit for hiking. I concede that any training that improves strength, endurance and flexibility will help generally, but having huge guns is cold comfort for the meathead who gets airlifted on day two with a bad sprain because his dorsi flexion isn’t what it could’ve been. In the months leading up to a big bushwalk you need to walk in the bush. For me, cold winter hikes in the Blue Mountains made a week of sub-zeros in Tassie less confronting than they were for my hiking partner, who ended every day whimpering by the heater like a whipped poodle who needs a back rub. A series of single and short multiday hikes in the year (yes, year) before a big winter hike, with progressively bigger pack weights, wearing the boots and clothes you’ll ultimately wear to the OLT, is the best physical preparation you can do for a winter traverse, bar nothing.
Medical fitness — sure, it’s nobody else’s business. That is, until somebody else has to hit the big red button when you start fitting on the track or lapse into a hypoglycaemic coma. While the trail-rehab of drunks and junkies is fodder for so many books and films, I never read about self-medicating bushwalkers with epilepsy, or diabetes like me. No bullshit: if you carry an EpiPen in the real world, you’re carrying it to the summit of Mt Ossa as well. Drill holes in your toothbrush to shave grams if you like, but wear your medic alert bracelet no matter the weight. And if your doctor says don’t go: don’t go. My first aid kit (including meds) lives in the hood of my Osprey Atmos so that it’s always within reach. I use it every day: mostly because if they held a “randomly falling over” Olympics I’d win gold, gold, gold for Australia. Also, conduct your due diligence on climate- and geography-specific hazards: a winter OLT expedition means treatments for slips (that fuc*ing duckboard), sprains, cuts, abrasions, muscle ache, upset stomach, blisters, chafing, potential frostbite and hypothermia. No snake bandages per se, because the scaly horrors are all hiding underground or curled up at the bottom of your sleeping bag …
Hiker, know thyself. How’s your mental fitness? In ‘Wild’ (2014) Cheryl Strayed was standing in a queue, life going sideways, when she has her epiphanic Pacific Crest Trail guidebook moment — but being track fit in the mental sense means NOT doing what Cheryl did next. You need to have a plan, some clue about what you are getting yourself into — forget everyone else. Herein lies the peril of YouTube! Study the literature, pore over maps, acquaint yourself with the lay, law and lore of the land. Can you survive without Instagram? Can you sleep in a crowded hut with strangers? What if your hiking compadres decide your trail name is ‘Stinker’ not ‘Strider’ as you’d hoped? Exactly how much Ritalin do you need, and what are the airport regs regarding Schedule 8 drugs — are they the same in Tassie as they are in your home state? Better check! Are you ready for the grind: my brain gorges on blood-borne glycogen faster than my legs can recover, so I get mentally out of sync with my muscles and begin to stumble, even though I “feel okay” — what are your red flags? Know your algorithm, and be mentally fit to hike.
Emotional fitness is a touchy subject (see what I did there?) and is included only because my last OLT aroused such unfamiliar passions. As a career solo bushwalker, it was always going to be an impost sharing the track with someone else. When it became clear I’d picked the WRONG PERSON it morphed into a no-bullshit emotional ordeal. All my other worldly travails — thigh-deep snow on Pelion Gap, savage wind-chill on the Cirque, treacherous unwired sections of duckboard, dangerously cold and wet clothes — all paled into insignificance at the utter fury I felt watching my partner tiptoe around standing water. “Mate, you’re eroding the track. Parks & Wildlife rules: walk through the puddles,” was always met with some asinine excuse as he kept widening the muddy rut we were trawling through. How this idiot thought he’d keep his feet dry during a winter OLT hike, I can’t fathom. Arriving at Windermere Hut barely three hours from Waterfall Valley on day two, he huddles by the heater and begins stripping off his boots. “What art thou doing?” I enquire. “My feet are wet!” he bleats, and that’s us finished for the day. No wildcamp on Pine Forest Moor, as we’d agreed; no dawn glimpses of the Pelions. Emotional fitness is a total game changer. You can’t buy it at REI, and it doesn’t come in a squeeze bottle with a cheap carabiner to hook onto your sternum strap. I always knew we’d be a potentially ruinous match, so I set myself up to fail. It wasn’t his fault. At one point I even narrated the fable about the scorpion and the frog crossing a river, but of course he didn’t get it.
Which segues nicely to the final subheading in our pre-bushwalk fitness checklist — are you ethical fit to hike the Overland Track? I know some of you will groan, but you’re not welcome if you won’t observe ‘leave no trace’ principles. That’s no bullshit. OLT rangers become very critical as the Scarpa-booted horde descend every summer to add another tick to their bucket-list. With 60 hikers starting at Ronny Creek every day of the peak period, that’s a lot of unnecessary track erosion, a lot of dropped plastic, and a lot of badly buried human faeces. When the huts are full, the camping platforms fill, and folks start looking for camp sites in the proximate wilderness. While erecting a ridge line between a pair of centuries-old beech-myrtles will probably cause it no harm, what if it’s happening every second day? Bring a sling strap. “But it weighs 200 grams!” Then stay home, asshole. The OLT may look tough, but she’s actually a frail old lady from a bygone era who’s happy to receive guests, but asks you to show her some kindness. Leave no trace. Like the Six Foot Track in New South Wales, I’m glad my experiences in this pristine wilderness will predate the decision by some money-hungry government department to open it up to vandals in 4WD’s.
And that’s it.
Thought I’d get the fluffy pre-hike stuff out of the way in the first instalment so I can concentrate on load-outs and trail tactics in later posts. The OLT in winter is no small undertaking, and anybody who says otherwise is either a liar or has never walked it. Back soon with a comprehensive, no-bullshit review of the logistics involved in getting you to and from the OLT in winter, which (trust me) is an adventure in itself.