Night tramping and hut etiquette

The frequent tramping contingent in my IT team at work (roughly 3.5 people) found ourselves discussing this story, which popped up in the Southland Times this morning and now appears on Stuff. We reached a consensus that the SAR coordinator guy who’s been quoted was off his rocker in several of his comments if he was quoted accurately. If we’re to believe him as a voice of Search and Rescue, it’s dangerous to tramp at night and it’s rude to show up late at a hut.

In summary, a group was tramping to Siberia Hut (in Mount Aspiring National Park). They arrived about 11.30pm, one girl lagged behind and showed up 30 minutes later. During this gap, the warden at the hut notified Search and Rescue when the rest of the party indicated she was missing.

The Wanaka SAR Coordinator, however, seems to have come out with some very scathing comments in the media about how the group acted. He’s stated on the record that night walking is “not a good idea”, and that the absolute basics of tramping safety were ignored by the whole party. He also strongly criticised the group for showing up late, claiming that:

“most people using huts usually end up having pretty early nights, and don’t need to be woken up by groups of people banging and crashing around and settling in after midnight. It’s just ignoring tramping etiquette.”

I can’t comment on the specific case of this group’s etiquette due to the lack of information, but I take exception to both of these claims.

It sounds as if a few mistakes were possibly made, notably that the group allowed one of their party to lag behind in the first place. Something could, have happened but she turned up of her own accord in the end. It probably was the case that “basics of tramping safety” were ignored in that it’s often a risk to let people lag behind, but scathing media criticism of the party seems completely out of proportion when reminders about how they could have managed things better might have been more appropriate.

Tramping at night is not dangerous as a rule. If this isn’t the case, then perhaps we should start campaigning against all the tramping shops who sell very grunty head-torches that are primarily designed for night walking. I won’t campaign against it — I own one. I’ve often been in groups who walk at night, sometimes to a hut or sometimes to a good camp-site. We don’t do it as a rule, and at times it makes more sense to camp at the end of a road and get started early in the morning. At other times it’s great to be able to knock off the first few hours of walking, and perhaps wake up somewhere much nicer in the morning. Obviously the situation is different and lack of daylight changes what can be accomplished safely, but it’s common for tracks and routes — especially those near road-ends — to be completely walkable in the dark for people suitably prepared and motivated.

As for the etiquette of showing up to a hut late at night, it’s really in the eye of the beholder. Huts exist for use by everyone, not just for people who like early nights. Just as I often walk late at night, I’m often part of a group that will arrive at a hut at 11pm or later. Similarly, I’ve sometimes been in huts when others have arrived late at night. It is rude to simply take over the place and make lots of noise when people are trying to sleep. Huts are for everyone, after all, but I disagree that simply showing up to make use of the hut at a time of day that others might not have anticipated is bad etiquette. It’s just a case of making minimal fuss and respecting that others are trying to sleep. Several times I and others have bedded down on the floor upon arriving so as to avoid disturbing people in bunks too much.

It might simply be that this particular SAR coordinator had a bad day, or was woken too late at night and was in a bad mood and that reflected in his comments. Perhaps he’s been quoted out of context, or the full story is missing from the media’s version, which happens from time to time. Perhaps he just thought it his responsibility to make as much noise as he could to discourage others from doing something he thought was inappropriate, despite it being at the disproportionate expense of those at the centre of events, which also unfortunately happens from time to time. Whatever the reason, I think the message that was presented through the media is mis-leading and wrong. Tramping at night isn’t for everyone. It requires additional considerations to be made, but there’s nothing inherently un-safe about it when handled appropriately. Furthermore, huts are provided for everyone, not just for people who like to go to bed early. It’s important to be considerate to other hut users, but consideration extends both ways.

If my own opinion isn’t enough on this topic, there have already been several comments in the IN THE NEWS thread in the forums over at NZ Tramper, starting near the end of page 6 of that thread.

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