Learn to scan the immediate country in front of you to pick the easiest route, subconsciously noting in advance where footholds, roots and obstacles are. Green is good, brown is bad – invariably green moss, lichen and plants provide reliable foot placements. Brown rocks are often greasy.
When walking downhill, lean forward a little to keep your weight on the balls of your feet rather than your heels to increase friction and reduce the chance of slipping.
When ascending, or descending in steep country, turn sideways into the slope and keep the uphill foot above the downhill boot, edging your boots into the slope if necessary. If you slip, turn into the slope and use your hands to arrest your fall.
When descending, try to place your feet rather than jump down large steps in order to preserve your knees. Consider running down slippery slopes.
Chose the lightest boots you think are suitable for the trip as unnecessarily heavy boots are a burden. Trainers are easier on feet than tramping boots for Great Walks tracks and other tracks that are “hardened”, though they are very cold in wet conditions. They should not be used in snow.
Snow gaiters are always highly recommended to prevent sticks, mud and gravel getting into your boots on all but well formed tracks, and to protect shins in scrub.
Spells of five minutes every hour are recommended, allowing enough time for the party to regain composure, but not long enough for muscles to stiffen. Half an hour, or more for lunch provides for a thorough rest.
When off-track, call “Cooee!” to locate other members of the party who are out of sight and to either steer them towards you, or to find your way to them. Such a call should always be acknowledged with a return “Cooee!” Calls close to rushing water are usually very difficult to hear.
Generally, it is pointless to make much effort to avoid getting your feet wet, or trying to avoid mud on the track, especially as efforts to avoid these perceived obstacles often spectacularly backfire.
Where the track markers are sparse, or the track is not well maintained, have one party member stay at the last marker while searching for the next marker. Where a marker is missing, check the last marker and see where its companion marker indicating the reverse route is facing ‑ the missing marker should be in that direction.
Off-track, using deer trails
A little patience will usually find deer trails, which provide by far the fastest off-track travel. On valley floors, several deer trails will run more, or less parallel to the river. The main trail will be found to follow the river, either just on the riverbank, or on the edge of a terrace above the river. Before gorges and waterfalls, these trails will combine to form a single, well defined trail following the best route through the gorge, or around the obstacle. The trail may climb well away from the river to avoid major bluffs.
Trails can nearly always be picked up at the ends of clearings, often just inside the bush. Another strategy to pick up a trail is to cut in at right angles from the river, through the bush, until the main trail is reached.
Leading away from the river, good trails can normally be found following up spurs and along ridges. Animal trails on bush faces will tend to lead from one good deer feeding area to another, often at around the same altitude and so may not be useful. When descending from the tops, pick up the trails leading down spurs by looking just inside the bushline on the spur itself.
Trails disappear in moraine deposits and boulder fields, where they are most needed, as the animals tend to avoid these places and with good reason. In fern clearings, the trail will disperse into many rough, shin scraping trails, all but obscured by the fern leaves. The main trail can usually be found at the far end of the ferns. A similar pattern exists in and around swamps. Deer trails tend to detour around smaller obstacles, such as windthrow, on the uphill side.
Deer are considerably stronger than humans and so pepperwood thickets and vines pose no real barrier to them. Here too, strong deer trails are infrequent as the deer individually find their own way through these areas.
Travel through bluffs in the bush is hindered by poor visibility. Careful use of a topographic map is recommended. Often a direct route is as good as dithering to find a better route.
Boulder bashing describes travel up and down the dry sides of rocky river beds. It is usually faster and easier to step from the top of one rock to another unless one is tired, or the rocks slippery, in which case jamming feet into the cracks between rocks is more secure.
General route finding
The following general rules may help when choosing routes:
- Lakes caused by landslides often have large boulder fields at the outlet. These are very slow to scramble through.
- The top ends of lakes in wide, river valley floors are often very swampy. The heads of such lakes can be quite slow to negotiate.
- Wide, flat valley floors tend to be swampy. The best travel is often on the levees forming the riverbank.
- It is usually impossible to tell from topographical maps alone how badly bluffed a route is, especially in steep country.
- A line of bluffs of unpredictable severity always marks the end of a hanging valley.
- Spurs generally offer the easiest routes for ascending and descending as the trails are stronger there than on faces and there is less likelihood of becoming bluffed.
- Sidles across a face usually take longer than following a ridge, or river.
Navigation up bush ridges in generally easier in the uphill direction, because spurs converge onto the main ridge. The reverse is true in the downhill direction, so when descending always check you are descending the correct spur where they diverge. Use of a compass will help.
This page is a reproduction of the relevant section of FMC’s Safety in the Mountains booklet; first published in 1937, and still in print today, 11 editions later. You can buy your copy from the FMC website, at near giveaway price. More than 130,000 copies of this distilled mountain wisdom have found their way in to packs, huts and collections of generations of outdoors enthusiasts.