How to hit the trail for a great day hike

Earlier this week Steve and I headed a few hours north of Wellington to Tongariro to do the Tongariro alpine crossing. One of the highlights of the North Island, this 19-kilometre hike is known for some pretty epic natural formations including turquoise-tinted geothermal pools and the intimidating Mount Ngauruhoe—or as you might know it, Mount Doom. It’s also known for its changeable weather, especially this late in the season. When we arrived at our hostel, we were told by the owner that the shuttle hadn’t run for a few days, but that the forecast was good for the following day and she was optimistic we would be able to do the hike. The next morning, under an overcast sky, the shuttle operator told us that he would take us up but that he recommended we wait for a less ominous day. We decided to go anyway and luckily—after two hours of rain—the skies miraculously cleared up and we were rewarded with incredible views.

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Mount Doom in the distance after the clouds (mostly) moved on

Going on a holiday often means stepping out of your comfort zone. Sometimes it means trying new cuisine that kinda grosses you out, sometimes it means navigating a country where you don’t know a word of the language, and sometimes it means venturing into the great outdoors when you’d normally rather be at the mall. There were definitely a few people we saw doing the crossing  who weren’t particularly well prepared—like the folks on the shuttle with us who had to be driven to a local gear shop so they could rent rain jackets! While Steve and I only did our first overnight hike a few months ago, we’re experienced trampers and were ready for anything. If you’re thinking of exploring New Zealand or anywhere else known for its hiking, here are a few tips to help your tramping experience:

Gear and clothing

The most important thing for any hike is to be prepared. Obviously for an easy two-hour hike you don’t need to load up like you’re going on a multi-day backcountry tramp, but you still don’t want to get caught out in the pissing rain without a waterproof jacket. I carry a 28L North Face backpack into which I always put, at minimum, a water bottle, a snack, an extra layer (or more, depending on the forecast), sunscreen, and my camera. The American Hiking Society’s 10 Essentials are a good guide that you can adjust to suit your situation. Two items I purchased specifically for Tongariro that I was glad to have were waterproof pants (they look silly as heck but it was nice to take them off when the rain stopped and have nice dry leggings underneath to do the rest of the hike in) and a dry bag to protect my camera. If your backpack doesn’t come with a liner for inside or a dry bag to for over top that’s something I can’t recommend enough; you don’t want to reach into your bag for a dry pair of socks only to find they’ve been soaked through as well.

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What the first few hours of the hike looked like

Safety first

In addition to being prepared with essentials like weather-appropriate clothing and first aid items, there are other things you can (and should) do to be safe on the trail, especially if you’re an inexperienced hiker. Tell someone where you’re going—if you’re traveling solo, let someone back home know or stop into a ranger station; many trails also have a book you can sign to make the rangers aware that you’re out there. Check the weather, especially in places like Tongariro where the weather can turn from warm sun to freezing sleet within a few hours. Overestimate how long a hike will take you if you’re not comfortable tramping at night; give yourself an extra-early start and if it means you have more time to take photos and eat lunch, all’s the better. One of the most important things to remember even on an easy trail is that you can get dehydrated even if you don’t feel thirsty and you can get sunburned even if it doesn’t seem sunny; keep drinking water and putting on sunscreen as you go.

Snacks

If the hike is more than an hour or two, you’re probably going to want something to eat along the way. On the Tongariro crossing, the halfway point is a perfect spot to stop for lunch because of it’s incredible views and slightly lower aka less windy elevation. When hiking, the ideal food is high energy in a small package—remember, you have to carry it with you (and of course, carry the trash back out). Nutrient-dense foods that don’t need refrigeration include nuts, dried fruit, tuna, and peanut butter. While it may be tempting to load up on sugary sweets and granola bars that are more like candy than breakfast, try to keep things healthy so you don’t end up with a stomachache 10 miles in. That said, I love to make these no-bake energy bites for a perfect mix of sweet snack and healthy energy.

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Beautiful emerald geothermal pools greet you as you first begin to descend from the summet

Etiquette

If you’ve ever been outside, like, at all, I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “leave no trace.” While most (although unfortunately not all) people understand that this means “don’t throw your empty soda can in that creek, asshole,” it encompasses much more than that. Don’t disturb what may be a fragile ecosystem by taking that shortcut or picking those flowers; don’t urinate within 200 feet of a water source, keep your dog on its lead so it doesn’t chase local wildlife. On a busy hike, such as Tongariro, you should also be considerate of your fellow hikers. Stop and let faster hikers pass, yield to uphill hikers if you’re hiking downhill, and most of all put that shitty music on your headphones instead of blasting it out through your Megaboom as though everyone else came out into the beautiful solitude of nature to hear the crap EDM artist you just discovered on Soundcloud.

Whether you’re an experienced tramper or considering taking your first steps out the door, hiking is always a combination of staying safe, having fun, and of course marveling at the incredible nature that the world has to offer. If you have a favourite hike, please share it with me! Tongariro alpine crossing definitely ranks high on my list, and I’m already starting to plan my next hike (Abel Tasman’s coastal track) for a few weeks’ time.

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You can definitely see why Ngauruhoe made a perfect Mount Doom
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