Night-time Tramping

Ian Bade wrote that ‘Night Time Tramping’ observations in the last UJCC brought back a flood of memories and one in particular. He writes:

…In the early 1970s I used to start my weekend tramps on a Saturday night after a game of rugby. One mid-winter trip, I was heading solo to the Tararua tops for the night and following a suggestion that carbide lamps were a better source of light than torches of that era, I obtained a replica small, cheap, brass miners’ type lamp. Initial progress was good, climbing up towards Field Hut with no wind until a wet fern frond wiped out the flame. Relit, I carried on up until the water in the lamp that generates the acetylene ran out. What do I do? Idea — light up the primus and use that as a torch! Only, Primus flame is a blue shade and doesn’t emit any useful light. I made about five to ten metres before tripping over. As I fell, I put my hand out to protect my fall and found a remnant patch of snow. This was the first and probably the lowest patch of snow on the track. Out with the billy to melt the snow and refill the carbide lamp. I made it to Field Hut with no more dramas.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

A podcast by Tim Harford — better known for his The Undercover Economist column in the Financial Times — brought to my attention the Dunning-Kruger effect. In essence, social psychologists Dunning and Kruger hypothesis that people with low ability at a task tend to overestimate their ability; highly skilled people in their field have a good feel for their abilities and the rest of us tend to be rather conservative about our abilities.

In this light, you can see that the Dunning-Kruger effect explains why somewhat experienced trampers, or even more experienced trampers going into unfamiliar territory — say, heading into Westland Tiger Country after only having ever tramped in Canterbury beech forest — may find themselves dealing with a few unexpected difficulties. It also means that a somewhat experienced tramper may consider a hard-out trip undertaken by some well seasoned trampers to be dangerous, when in fact those trampers are likely to be operating well within their comfort zone and competence.

More tricky is that a seasoned tramper may not appreciate that an overly confident, but inexperienced tramper is not actually up to dealing with what is in store for them. I know of one drowning fatality in the Hills where one in a party asserted they were an experienced tramper, when in fact it was patently obvious that they didn’t know the first basics of river crossing.

I have worked my way along the Dunning-Kruger curve over my tramping career and looking back on some of my early tramping days, when my confidence far exceeded what little ability I had, I am very grateful for the Dunning-Kruger effect. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have gone to half the places I did, had I known what we were in for. Such is good luck that allows such hindsight. The only counter I have to Dunning-Kruger is that I have learnt that if you think you understand something completely, that is a good sign that you don’t.

Sleeping Mats

Earlier in the year we had to buy a replacement sleeping mat for an overnight camping trip to attend a bush wedding. A good night’s sleep is worth a lot, but the price tags on new Thermarest sleeping pads indicate that sweet dreams may be worth even more than that. My old Thermarest Lite sleeping pad weighs 745 grams and a new Thermarest Neo Uberlite with an R-value of 2.3 comes in at 250 grams. That is a very attractive reduction in weight. A Thermarest Neoair Xlite with R-value of four comes in at 340 grams, which is still a useful weight reduction.

The Xlite sounded best until I saw the price and pondered how I could justify spending $430 on it. I settled on a Kiwi Camping Intrepid Lite with R-value of 1.3 weighing 480 grams for $90. During summertime and, I suspect most other times when not trying to sleep on snow, it is actually good enough. For me, I am not so much worried about the cold as I am wanting cushioning from the hard ground to provide years more life to my kidneys.

Is it worth chasing a better R-value? The R-value tells you how good the insulation is, so it is a consideration. The rule of thumb when you do heat-transfer calculations is that it is worth putting in effort to improve the R-value only when you can at least double the R-value. So the Uberlite is going to be somewhat better than the Intrepid Lite and the Xlite will be rather more than twice as warm as the Intrepid Lite. It did seem to me that there is another correlation: the lighter the sleeping pad, the lighter your back pocket will be once you had paid for it. Anyway, long ago I taught myself to shiver to stay warm.


I would guess all that most trampers know about amateur radio is that amateur radio operators (for unknown reasons, also known as hams) man the AREC (Amateur Radio Emergency Corps) trucks on search and rescues, from where they provide the radio communications to the field parties out searching.

The pointless pursuit of a profitless pastime that is mountain climbing can be made twice-fold pointless by taking an amateur radio transceiver and an aerial up the mountain and seeing who you can talk to from the top. I tried this back in 1984 and from the top of Mt Cook with callsign ZL3TIG (I am now ZL4IG), I found I could talk to other hams as far away as Kaikoura with the radiated power of a dim torch bulb. This was in the days when it wasn’t practicable to recharge a radio battery in the Hills and so I had to save battery power. Funnily enough, some years later the New Zealand amateur radio association, NZART, recorded this as an amateur radio first. Southland Tramping Club mate, the late Arthur Williams ZL4TIS, was also a ham and we would climb the occasional peak with our radios for the fun of it.

In recent years, climbing mountains with amateur radios and talking to people from the top has become a world-wide competitive pastime, under the name Summits on the Air (SOTA). There are a few rules (most importantly you have to be within 25 metres of the summit when you set up your station) and you get different numbers of points based on the height of the peak you are on, or the ham you are talking to is on. Because the height rules are worldwide, there are some anomalies, meaning you get more points from activating Coronet Peak than some really ferocious peaks in the Darrans.

I caught up with Chris Rae ZL4RA, who is based in Queenstown, earlier in the year to discuss a rather fun YouTube video he had made, ‘Blown Away on the Remarkables – A high speed NZ alpine adventure for Summits On The Air’, which can be found by searching on YouTube. Chris travels very lightweight and fast, and has been very active in Central Otago hills and mountains. And if you do watch the YouTube video, yes, Morse Code (also known as CW) still gets used! And it helps to know that ‘VK’ is the call sign prefix for Australia.

I sometimes carry around ham radio gear on my tramping trips. On the shortwave bands around dusk with good radio propagation conditions, it is surprisingly how far around the world you can sometimes talk to someone. My tramping mates rib me somewhat, but they appreciate it when I tune into Mountain Radio schedules for the weather forecast.

As an aside, for a long time Radio Foxhunting has been a competitive sport with a significant following in the old Eastern Bloc countries. Basically, it is rogaining, except that you carry a radio receiver with a directional antenna to find the radio transmitter waypoints. The sport has some following in New Zealand, but DOC staff are the experts as they use the same techniques and similar equipment to radio-locate rare birds fitted out with little aerials and tiny, super-low powered transmitters. To the best of my knowledge, DOC has yet to turn radio bird-finding into a championship event, though I am sure DOC staff will know who their champions are.


Gaz and I had a wee hikoi up the Greenstone Track and over the Ailsa Mountains into the Caples Valley and home a few weekends ago. A few hours into the trip, I realised that I had left my topo maps behind. Gaz was unfazed and produced his one-inch-to-one-mile 1981 edition of NZMS1 S122 Hollyford. He could do this because, I am guessing, this map lives in his pack; I know that he calls it The Map of the World. He gives it this moniker on the basis that if it’s not shown on S122, it is probably not worth going to. Gaz is, of course, correct. Indeed, I have a framed 1984 third Edition on the wall of my study, given to me by Sue as an Important Birthday present. Most of the Darran, Ailsa, Earl, Livingstone and Humboldt Mountains feature, along with the Milford, Greenstone, Caples and Routeburn Tracks.

S122 is one of those maps that you remember seeing for the first time; answering, ‘Where were you when you first saw S122?’, is up there with remembering where you were when the Princess of Wales died. I hadn’t been to the Darrans before I first saw this map and I couldn’t believe that so many contour lines could touch each other at once (on my first trip to the Darrans it was the other way around — surely more contour lines should be touching!).

It turns out that the bottom of the Greenstone Valley doesn’t show on S122, so Gaz technologically leaped forward four decades and produced a smartphone topo map complete with GPS positioning. It was helpful enough to tell us where we were, but we agreed that it was difficult for aged eyes to take in the big picture to get a good feel for our surroundings and scout out interesting diversions from our intended route.

Hakili matagi,

Robin McNeill

This article was re-published from the June 2021 issue of FMC’s Backcountry magazine. To subscribe to the print version, please visit will be regularly re-publishing a number of stories from Uncle Jacko’s Cookery Column here on Wilderlife.