Tramping is the New Zealand term for hiking, trekking, rambling or bush-walking, and was common in print and speech by the 1920s. It is seen as a typically New Zealand activity – even though many cultures have much longer traditions of hill walking.
Enthusiasts walk along, or off, tracks in back-country settings, carrying food and gear in backpacks. Unlike mountaineering and hunting, the journey is at the centre of the tramping experience. Most trampers stay in huts, while some carry tents. A typical trip, or tramp, takes two to five days, with some lasting over a week. A tramp not involving an overnight stay is referred to as a ‘day trip’.
Māori were the country’s first trampers, although they made trips mainly for food-gathering, trade in pounamu (greenstone or New Zealand jade), and warfare. They wore woven flax sandals, and carried backpacks of woven flax with wooden frames and wide shoulder straps.
In outdoor recreation, as in most pursuits, names and terms are important:
‘[A] tramper is apt to shudder at being referred to as a “hiker”, for in this country the word “hiker” refers only to the hitchhiker who roams the road and thumbs a ride from passing motorists.’ 1
The first Europeans to take to the backcountry were explorers, missionaries, surveyors, botanists, geologists and prospectors. In many places they followed Māori paths. European pioneers who needed to get somewhere would often walk, especially in rough terrain that horses could not traverse. It is difficult to say when this was first seen as recreation. Romantic notions of sublime nature, popular in England in the 1800s, are common in the journals of these early travellers, and in the 20th century this love of wild landscapes gave rise to many tramping clubs.
The introduction of deer and trout in the late 19th century attracted hunters and anglers to the hills, and mountaineers began to look to the high peaks. For others, the experience of being in the hills was enough, and friends would band together for excursions.
It was natural that tramping clubs soon formed. The first was the Tararua Tramping Club, established in 1919 in Wellington. Others sprang up. Members built huts, cut tracks and organised group trips. Clubs fostered leadership and camaraderie, and taught skills such as navigating, putting up tents and making fires. A few people in one club occasionally tramped naked. Some clubs were also political, lobbying for access to wild lands and their conservation.
The golden age of tramping clubs lasted from the 1940s to the 1970s. By the 2000s many had ageing and declining memberships. Increasing numbers of tourists were taking to the bush, especially on the well-known tracks.
Tramping has its own words, including:
Tramping takes time. A trip lasting a week or more can be referred to as an ‘epic’ if it is difficult, dangerous, or requires endurance. Traditionally Christmas and Easter offered the chance of extended trips. North Islanders have for decades used the term ‘Christmas trip’ for a South Island sojourn of 10–16 days (using statutory holidays and annual leave). With flexible work patterns and more annual leave, people can now make longer trips at any time of the year.
Weekend trips are available to those who live close enough to the hills. Before cars were affordable, Aucklanders mainly tramped in the Waitakeres. Wellingtonians headed for the Tararuas, Cantabrians for Arthur’s Pass and Dunedinites for the Silver Peaks. While these are still popular destinations, today people are willing to drive for many hours before they start tramping.
Trampers and climbers played a big part in the setting aside of land for conservation. This verse, sung in the 1960s to the tune of ‘God defend New Zealand’, was aimed at government dam builders:
Flood the Wilkin, damn the Rees,
Will their planning never cease?
We must learn where danger lurks,
Vandals of the public works. 2
Spending time in the bush offers a counterpoint to everyday urban life, and an escape from work, phones, and emails. Seeing new landscapes or revisiting old haunts is revitalising, and for some it is a spiritual or philosophical experience. Trampers return better able to deal with the world and its worries, which seem trivial where the preoccupations are primary – food, shelter and warmth. For those interested in the landscape and natural history, tramping is the only way to see vast swathes of New Zealand’s backcountry.
New Zealand offers thousands of kilometres of tracks of various grades, and around 1,400 back-country huts, bivouacs and shelters. About 1,000 of these huts are managed by the Department of Conservation for public use. Almost all tramping takes place in national parks, reserves and other land managed by the Department of Conservation.
Tracks were originally marked by ‘blazes’ – axe or knife marks on tree trunks. Later, preserving jar lids were painted white and nailed to trees, and then white and red aluminium strips were used. By the 2000s the standard markers were bright orange plastic triangles. Over open ground, especially above the bush line, some tracks are marked by poles, which stick out of the snow. Rock cairns are also used.
The standard of tracks varies. In the more popular tramping areas they are maintained, with huts about 3–5 hours’ walk apart. Typically tracks follow valley floors, climb ridges to alpine passes, and then drop into another valley.
The Te Araroa Trust linked existing tracks to create a continuous 2,600-kilometre track running the length of New Zealand that opened in 2011. Te Araroa (the long pathway) is somewhat like North America’s Appalachian Trail.
Swing bridges cross the rivers. In some remote areas trampers cross rivers on bridges that consist of just two or three wires strung from bank to bank. Another version is a cage suspended by a single steel wire (like a flying fox) that can be hauled across.
Ten official ‘Great Walks’ in national parks are managed and maintained for high use, with large huts where wardens are often resident during the summer. One of these ‘walks’ is the Whanganui Journey, a paddling trip down the Whanganui River. On the Milford, Routeburn and Abel Tasman walks, huts and camp sites must be booked in advance. The cost of administration increases the hut fees.
Private companies offer guided walks on the Milford, Routeburn and Greenstone tracks. Walking trails on private land sprang up during the 1990s and 2000s. Most gear is transported for walkers and meals can be provided.
At the other extreme are wilderness areas in which huts, bridges and tracks are not allowed. Trampers must be experienced in route-finding and navigation, and they need to carry tents.
One of the rewards of tramping is to arrive at a hut. After hours on your feet the hut represents more than shelter: it is where you take off your pack, cook a meal, sit and reflect on the day, and socialise.
It is part of backcountry culture that huts are left tidy, rubbish is carried out and firewood replaced. (Many huts have signs spelling this out.) Hut fees contribute to their maintenance.
Each hut has a visitors’ book in which people write their names, date of arrival and intended route. These are useful to Search and Rescue in cases of emergency. The ‘comments’ column provides insights into tramping culture.
This anonymous poem was found in 1923 in the Lake Howden hut book, on Otago’s Greenstone Track.
Once the very Gods themselves,
Doubt, Drank you –
Hangs in dozens cooling on the shelves
Thank you. 1
The first huts were of split tōtara or beech. Later, corrugated iron was used. Typically they were quite small – four to six bunks. Many were built by tramping clubs during the 1930s and 1940s. Still standing are many small huts built by the New Zealand Forest Service for deer-culling operations in the 1950s and 1960s, often painted orange to show up in mist or at twilight. The majority, over 500, are still in use. Originally four- and six-bunk designs (with some two-bunk ‘bivvies’), many have since been upgraded.
In popular areas, many older huts have been replaced by bigger, well-appointed cabins. Pot-belly stoves have replaced smoky open fires, which were often roughly put together from corrugated iron or tin sheeting. In the 21st century, new huts have to comply with building and other regulations. Their colours tend to be muted to blend into the landscape, but some brighter colours were used in the mid-2000s.
Overhanging rocks can also provide shelter. Known as bivs or bivvies (bivouacs), the largest and most renowned occur in the schist rocks of Mount Aspiring National Park, and in limestone formations around Mt Arthur in Kahurangi National Park. Some have in-built bunks and dry-stone walls.
Boots and backpack are the most important tramping gear. Until the 1940s, boots in New Zealand were heavy, leather-soled and hobnailed. In the 1950s moulded rubber replaced leather soles, but boots remained heavy. By the 2000s lightweight synthetic and leather types were popular. Puttees or gaiters (canvas leggings) are often worn over boots and socks to keep out keep out mud and stones.
Packs evolved in the 1940s and 1950s from frameless sacks (nicknamed ‘kidney rotters’) to European-designed frame packs. New Zealanders started making A-frame and H-frame packs to suit local conditions in the 1960s. Packs such as the Mountain Mule, with an external lightweight metal frame, were an improvement but still relatively heavy.
Macpac, a Christchurch company, developed the Torre Egger pack in the 1970s. Its innovative internal frame had aluminium rods sewn into the pack to keep it rigid. It also featured a new harness system in which the pack straps were padded. These features were soon copied by overseas manufacturers, and have become a standard design. Improved designs and lightweight materials have made pack-carrying more comfortable.
Warm clothes are essential as New Zealand’s weather is extremely changeable. In the early 1900s men wore woollen trousers and suit jackets. Social pressure meant that women had to wear impractical skirts, to conceal trousers or riding breeches beneath. By the 1930s more comfortable baggy shorts and woollen shirts were being worn by both sexes. Men’s bush shirts (also known by the brand name Swanndri) and black woollen shearers’ singlets were popular between the 1950s and 1980s.
In the 1970s nylon shorts appeared, allowing freedom of movement and quick drying. After that synthetic but heat-retaining materials such as polypropylene and polar fleece largely replaced wool. Wool enjoyed a revival in the 1990s in the form of very fine merino garments.
In the late 1920s female trampers faced a challenge finding suitable clothing:
‘Tramping was then regarded as a disreputable hobby and trampers as queer cranks or of a rough type [and] shorts were unheard of … But tramping is not walking and freedom of movement is essential. In 1929 one brave girl – Lou Coakley – appeared in a pair of her brother’s football shorts. Within a year or so, most of the girls were wearing shorts.’ 1
Oiled canvas rainwear known as Japara was the standard material for jackets for decades. Plastic (PVC) parkas, popular from the 1970s, kept the rain out but allowed condensation to form. High-tech synthetics such as Gore-Tex, which claims to be impermeable yet breathable, are now popular.
Before the Second World War topographic maps covered only part of the country. National coverage at a scale of an inch to a mile began in the 1940s, but was not completed until the 1970s. Early maps often did not show tracks, or placed them inaccurately.
Maps at a 1:50,000 scale now cover the entire country, with 20-metre contour intervals. They are prepared from aerial photographs, but as tracks are often not visible they are identified with the help of trampers. With vastly improved accuracy, topographical maps are the tramper’s essential companion.
Tramping food must be light, and high in calories. Most people carry staples such as oats for porridge, bread for lunches and pasta, beans and rice for main meals. Dehydrated foods, chocolate and nuts are also useful.
Food is so important that the Federated Mountain Club’s Bulletin has for many years featured Uncle Jacko’s Cookery Column, in which trampers share culinary tips, as well as opinions on tramping gear.
Food should also cook quickly (to save fuel). In the 1960s it was common to carry an axe, and meals were often prepared on open fires. By the 2000s most trampers used lightweight stoves fuelled by gas or white spirits.
The weather is of prime interest to trampers, as they are out in it. Weather forecasts have become more accurate but ‘Huey’, as New Zealand trampers sardonically refer to the weather god, still seems to bring heavy rain on the weekend of a scheduled tramp.
Rain can quickly swell rivers, and many people have drowned while attempting to cross them in flood. Others have been killed in alpine areas after slipping on ice or wet snowgrass, and then falling over a bluff. Hypothermia is another killer.
One or two trampers died each year until the 1960s, when the rate began to rise. Since the 1980s, on average, around five have died annually. Increasingly these have been overseas visitors, some of them poorly prepared and with little backcountry experience.
Concern about accident rates led to the formation of the Mountain Safety Council in 1966. The council educates trampers about hazards, and how to manage them.
Search and Rescue is a specialised volunteer organisation of climbers and trampers who work with the police to locate and rescue those lost or injured in the bush. It originated when volunteers from tramping clubs helped the police with searches.
The mountain radio service is staffed by volunteers who touch base with solo trampers and tramping groups in the mornings and evenings. These radio conversations are known as ‘skeds’ (schedules). The service also transmits weather forecasts and relays messages.
Letting people know your planned route and day due out of the bush is important for tramping safely, as is signing hut books (which helps searchers narrow down a search area). A minority of trampers (around 5%) venture out alone. This should only be done by those with experience in the bush.
Safeguards adopted by trampers include:
In some places cellphone coverage exists, but this is unreliable.
Tramping literature is dominated by guidebooks. Detailed guides give information on all the main tramping areas of the country – wherever there are mountains and bush.
The most important and comprehensive source for the Southern Alps and Fiordland is Moir’s guide book. First published in 1925, it has been reprinted many times and in 2006 was into its seventh edition. Split into two publications (north and south), it covers tracks, routes, passes, huts and campsites in this region, New Zealand’s largest expanse of wild land.
Clubs publish newsletters (with trip reports) and annual journals. The magazine New Zealand Wilderness, first published in 1991, focuses mostly on tramping.
Some websites have information on tracks and huts. Many clubs also have websites featuring trip reports and schedules of upcoming trips.
Acknowledgements to John Rhodes, Simon Cox and Les Molloy
We invited people to send in stories about the bush, and received some good yarns about tramping. Here is a selection.
Barnett, Shaun, and Rob Brown. Classic tramping in New Zealand. Nelson: Craig Potton, 1999.
Maclean, Chris. Tararua: the story of a mountain range. Wellington: Whitcombe, 1994.
McNeill, Robin G., ed. Moir’s guide south: guide book to the tracks and routes of the great southern lakes and fiords of New Zealand. 6th ed. Christchurch: Great Southern Lakes Press, 1995.
Pickering, Mark. The hills. Auckland: Heinemann Reed, 1988.
Pickering, Mark. A tramper’s journey: stories from the back country of New Zealand. Nelson: Craig Potton, 2004.
Spearpoint, Geoff, ed. Moir’s guide north: the Otago Southern Alps: a tramping and transalpine guide from the Hollyford to Lake Ohau. 7th ed. Christchurch: New Zealand Alpine Club, 2005.
Spearpoint, Geoff, ed. Waking to the hills. Auckland: Reed Methuen, 1985.