Solo tramping

Some recent events have led me to ponder the merits or otherwise of solo tramping. To be fair, I like nothing better than to expound my latest ideas to a captive audience, so not for me the loneliness of the long distance tramper. But I know people who have no option but to head into the Hills on their own (working Sundays can be a hindrance). Another reason why I am cautious about tramping by myself is explained in the latest, eighth edition of Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills edited by Ronald C. Eng, which claims that no-one gets lost unless they are by themselves. I can agree: on one memorable off-track Fiordland trip, the tail end of the rather large party were besides themselves in mirth as I, leading at the front of the group, started to catch them up. Somehow and unwittingly, I had managed to lead our party in a complete circle. Tiredness and difficult terrain had done its work; it was the end of the day. Between ungracious chortles, someone muttered something unkind, alluding to Pooh and Piglet looking for Woozles, which at least clarified my confusion. I wondered how long it would have taken me to discover such an error by myself. I know I am not alone in discovering rivers apparently running uphill, or sudden magnetic anomalies that had rather more mundane explanations.

It has been suggested that solo tramping leaves the tramper susceptible to making bad decisions. I am not so sure: instead I suggest that the solo tramper is more likely to err by not making a decision through failing to recognise that they need to stop and make a decision in the first place.


Some time ago, someone suggested that applying Bonjella gel provides relief for sandfly bites. Bonjella is used for teething babies and mouth ulcers. Has anyone actually tried this for sandfly bites? Or, indeed, found anything else that works? Stoicism seems the only reliable recourse for dealing with sandfly bites. My hero, Fiordland explorer Bill Grave, sets an example in this respect: he could spend two hours naked in Fiordland rain while he coaxed a fire to life. Even more amazingly, his diaries reveal not one complaint about sandflies, ever. He does come close to complaining about the mud in Gore’s main street when biking from Oamaru to Te Anau to start one of his trips, which puts sandflies into perspective.

Tramping Gear Lifetimes

If you want to know how long something is supposed to last, consult the Inland Revenue Department (IRD). Their published depreciation rates and book lives have withstood the test of pressures from commercial interests and accesses a wide spectrum of goods. I see that most of my gear has a residual book value of zero and, to be frank, this is a fair summation. This leaves a quandary: my 12-year old Macpac Torre pack is really comfortable, but holes are growing in the fabric at a prodigious rate. Apparently, it’s reached its best-by date, so common sense and Inland Revenue’s depreciation rates tell me that I should buy a new one. However, as the new Torre is radically different (and arguably nowhere near as good) as the old one, perhaps I should repair the old one after all? 

Of wider application, IRD’s tables provide some insight for novices contemplating buying gear for the first time. For instance, do they buy an ice axe that will suit them now, or buy a fancy, curved shaft ice-fiend that will magically drag them up overhanging ice cliffs in the future? If we assume our friend will take a couple of years to graduate from snow slopes to technical ice, then buy the longest, straightest ice axe on the market to maximise tramping and pass crossing fun and save the upgrade for the future. Should our friend never graduate to technical ice, then the extra required investment was instead available to more useful ends in the meantime. On the other hand, should the lure of ice catch her, then she would be in a position to make a better informed decision at the time with the benefit of owning a spare ice axe to lend, or use on tramping trips.

Extended Cellphone Lives

Arnold Heine suggests that cellphone life on tramping trips could be extended, or at least emergency life provided by carrying a power pack of two or three AA batteries, connected to a cellphone charger cable. Arnold hasn’t tried this, but on the surface, this seems like a good idea. Has anyone had any success with this? I note that smart phones often source their power from a USB cable (as well as synchronise themselves through the data wires when connected to a computer), which is a 5 volt standard and so need three or four cells. For longer tramping trips where music, navigation and reserve for the possibility of making emergency phone calls may all be needed, this is worth further investigation too.

Cellphone Coverage

Traditional wisdom, from the last century at least, is that cellphones do not work in the bush and cannot be relied upon for calling help in emergencies. I have been doing a bit of work looking at cellphone coverage and I make the bold assertion that you can make cellphone contact from the top of most ridges and slopes overlooking the plains and almost every straightforward peak. Check, and to see for yourself. These maps are a bit pessimistic as they indicate that there is no decent cellphone from the tops of peaks in Fiordland, but I know this is not true. 


Snowcaves have been occupying my thoughts recently and I have been seeking other people’s opinions. Geoff Spearpoint suggests that it is better to lose a little of the potential snugness and warmth of the traditional snowcave by building the sleeping bench 100 millimetres below – rather than 100 millimetres above, as per convention – the roof of the access tunnel. This way, he points out, you can lie in your sleeping bag during a storm and observe if the doorway is getting filled in with snow, or spindrift, rather than lie there oblivious to the wider world. Air circulating from outside should increase oxygen levels in the snowcave, especially after cooking inside, and so improve the general health of the troglodytes within. I agree with this line of thinking. The sacrifice of a little warmth, if I can possibly use that word in this context, to be gained from trapping warm air is not even something of material consideration. At worst, Geoff’s solution could be no colder than sleeping in a tent. I don’t know of anyone who has frozen to death in a tent in New Zealand. Even on Mt Everest people sleep, or try to sleep, in tents.

As an aside, when I tried to draw up a sketch of such a snowcave, I rediscovered what Brian Wilkins has already pointed out some years ago, namely that a lot of drawings in instruction manuals are not to scale, and seldom show slopes accurately. Brian had noted that some of the French ice axe techniques that text books extol are not physically possible with modern short ice axes. As a result, some confused advice gets perpetuated. 

Hakili matagi,

Robin McNeill

44 Duke Street, Invercargill 9810

This column was originally published in the March 2012 FMC Bulletin. We will be regularly re-publishing a number of stories from Uncle Jacko’s Cookery Column here on Wilderlife.