Drawing a line with daywalk safety

I’ve been following the recent story in the news about a man who spent a night in the Tararuas, ill-equipped. He’d planned to walk around a loop within a day, apparently near the northern end. For some reason, reportedly cloud, he became lost, and eventually ended up coming out the other side of the range. From the description, he appears to have had only light clothing, and not much else within a small daypack. He was fortunate on this occasion, but it got me thinking.

Sometimes it can be a thin line between having a great day out and a potentially serious accident. As with any overnight or longer excursions, all sorts of things could occur that might prevent a person on a daywalk from reaching an intended destination. It’s common with overnight tramping to have safety plans such as alternative routes and back-up shelter, or at least give the environment and terrain more respect. I think such considerations are often overlooked with daywalks, especially with the temptations to cut weight and volume, and fit things into a smaller and less encumbering day-pack.

All this said, it’s not too unusual for same-day trips to be treated differently, or somehow less likely to result in problems, even though the amount of safety equipment being carried is typically much less than a multiple-day excursion. I guess it’s the same decision making logic that causes people not to bother taking portable shelter when the plan is to stay in a back-country hut, as per The Hut Fallacy. Presumably, the man described in the news didn’t seriously consider that a mis-hap could occur and he might not make it out on the same day. Maybe he’s done the same thing 100 times before—plenty of people have favourite walks of a similar nature, and nearly every occasion they’ll have no problems. If this is the case, though, he’s not alone in making that judgement.

Mountain runners in particular will often be up in parts of the Tararuas, and many other mountainous areas, with little more than some water, maybe a little food, and whatever clothes they’re wearing. There’s no plan to do anything but run a circuit. In some areas nearer to the edges, like the loop up and around Kapakapanui, people walk their dogs, sometimes as if they’re walking them around a suburban park. People head out on daywalks all over the place, not well equipped for emergencies that might involve staying a night somewhere.

Historically, I think I’ve also been more lazy in preparation for daywalks, especially in days before I started getting out for multiple days at a time and started to see things in a wider context. More recently, I’ve noticed that I plan more than I used to for contingencies. 18 months ago, when preparing for a Moonlight Southern Crossing attempt, I discovered there was no way I could fit everything I wanted into a day-pack. Despite having no intent to stop walking between start and finish for what was effectively a lengthy daywalk (but overnight), I still wanted to take everything that might be necessary in case we needed to stop in the snow, and if bad weather came in. The main things I ended up leaving out besides what I’d have taken on a regular weekend trip were some of the food, and a pair of crocs. Not having anything in-the-middle, I still needed to take my 70 litre tramping pack.

I’m getting better with my daywalk packing, though, and fitting it all in. On Boxing Day, I went for a walk up Mt Taranaki (the trip report is here). Despite starting the walk at 7am, having screeds of daylight and a great forecast until the following day’s afternoon, I still ended up stuffing my 28 litre daypack with: a raincoat, overtrousers, a balaclava, gloves, a full covering of polypropylene, a light-weight rain covering layer, a fleece top, a high power head-torch, a first aid kit, sunblock, far more snack food than I could ever eat, 2.5 litres of water, a map, a compass, a gps, a camera, and a bivy bag. Then I hauled it all the way to the top, got sunburned during a whopping 10km/h gale force wind, and hauled it all the way down again. The only things that actually came out were the map, camera, compass, sunblock, water, and a couple of meal mate crackers.

I may have over-prepared, but I prefer it to under-preparing. I envied all the people I saw who appeared to have only light clothing and light day-packs, but I’m not sure I’d want to be in that position, up one of the deadliest mountains in New Zealand, if something went wrong. Realistically in the conditions that were present, it’s unlikely that an accident could have led to a death through exposure before rescue services were notified and could arrive to get someone off the mountain, but it still feels as if it’s both dicing with death and disrespectful to potential searchers and rescuers who might need to risk their own lives if I’m not prepared to be reasonably self-reliant if a mishap occurs.

The Tongariro Crossing is another extremely popular daywalk route which people frequently follow with terse preparation, and personally I remain convinced that many people will never really “get it” unless a sudden storm swoops in (expected or not) and wipes 40 unprepared daywalking tourists off the mountain. I hope this doesn’t happen, and if it ever does I hope it doesn’t result in consequences that affect the freedom of people to be independent and responsible for their own safety both there or anywhere else.

But where should a line be drawn with playing it safe? It’s not always practical to pack everything under the sun and prepare for every contingency. Otherwise everyone would be trying to stuff in portable defibrillators, just in case a heart stops beating. (On a tangent, I’m curious how long it’ll be before portable defibrillators become affordable and light-weight enough for reasonable sized groups to consider taking them.)

For me, I think the line seems to fall where I’m heading out for a daywalk in a back-country style place that I typically associate with multi-day trips—usually Department of Conservation land, as opposed to something under a regional or district council. Thinking critically I’m not convinced this is a very logical rule considering that equally serious incidents can occur on non-DoC land, but it seems to be what I’ve often done much of the time all the same.

Better considerations are probably the reliability of communication, and the “size” of the area being explored. In other words, would I expect to pop out the far side of an area into a populated place within 30 minutes if I kept walking in a straight line? Wellington’s Belmont Regional Park, for instance, is basically council-owned farmland, between Porirua and the Hutt Valley, and there are countless exit and entry points, so I personally see it as less risky than many other places if a mishap occurs. Elevation also has a lot to do with it—anywhere high is likely to be more subject to extreme weather conditions.

East Harbour Regional Park is an area that I think I might have treated with less respect than what’s due in the past, especially according to the above considerations. Somewhere like Lake Kohangapiripiri, behind the hills on the eastern side of Wellington Harbour, is an easy place to get to, and on a sunny day it’s often full of walkers and mountain bikers. On the other hand, the hills put it out of cell-phone communication, it’s at least an hour’s walk, possibly two or three times further in different areas of the park, from the end of a public road. It could be a bad place to fall and hurt an ankle during “average” weather on a weekday with very few people around, and might result in spending an uncomfortable time outside in exposed conditions.

All of this, of course, is further reason to ensure people know where you’re going, even on relatively simple excursions.

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