Prewalk Etiquette

Things to consider when preparing for a bushwalk

Etiquette means behaving yourself a little better than is absolutely essential. Will Cuppy

Bushwalking may mean vastly different things from one person to the next. For some, it’s a short stroll into a natural area. For others, it’s an overnight wilderness scrub bash. Bushwalking may include swimming, picnicking, climbing and canyoning, and snow-shoeing.

If participants mismatch the style of the trip compared to their expectations, they can be at best disappointed, or worse entirely put off bushwalking! Understanding the context of the bushwalking trip in advance it is necessary to plan effectively and prepare for the trip and to have the right mindset and expectations from the start. A quick chat with the trip leader before signing up is the easiest way to clarify.

Trip expectations Getting the trip expectations clear in your head

Bushwalking trips can have entirely different purposes. Some are about stopping for multiple coffee breaks, others are about walking as far and fast as possible. Trips can vary in the following ways:

  • A well-worn track with a clear route and a high number of visitors, versus an exploratory trip with unknown route or destination;
  • A birthday celebration with plenty of time for cake and photography, versus a trip with a long day out with many steep ascents and descents;
  • A long road bash to stretch the legs, versus a slow, short trip for wildflower identification;
    A trip that has frequent coffee breaks, versus one that has a clear goal to climb a distant peak;
  • A small group catch up, versus a large tourist group;
  • A public transport friendly trip with kids, versus a trip that must start a location A and finish at destination B (e.g. car shuffle or public transport requirements);

…and so on. The style of the trip depends on what the leader sets out to achieve, and the party prepares and walks accordingly.

Moreover, the same two routes can also be led in two entirely different ways depending on the style of the leader and the people in the group. For instance, a 10 km walk can either be be led as a two-hour trip, with very fast-paced walking, or a whole day outing involving regular breaks and stops to take photos. On a fast trip, packing as light as possible makes it easy to keep pace with the group, whereas on slower paced trip, a high-quality camera or pair of binoculars are great.

Technical skills
Trips that involve cliffs, deeper river crossings or scrub, may require more sophisticated skills than other walks. A person with inadequate skills may lead to higher stress levels in the party, potentially compromising safety. That’s why it’s vital to have adequate skills before tackling more challenging bushwalks.

Acquiring skills to do harder walks takes time. Beginners can be encouraged to build up their knowledge and technical skill set in a methodical fashion by participating in trips that get incrementally more challenging. In general, beginners are encouraged to start with grade 1-2 walks.

Fitness is the state or condition of being fit, resulting in good body health and from exercise and proper nutrition. Stamina is the ability to continue high-fitness activities over a long time. Higher levels of fitness and endurance are needed for faster walks, walks with significant changes in elevation and long days, compared to slower-paced, shorter, flatter walks. Running or gym fitness and stamina doesn’t necessarily equate to bushwalking fitness and endurance because it’s a different kind of exercise, using different physical and mental capabilities. Walking with a pack over uneven terrain is not only physically challenging, but mentally challenging too, and this kind of fitness and stamina is harder to train for in an urban context.

Similarly, pack fitness – the level of fitness required to walk with an overnight pack – is something else that is hard to build up by anything other than bushwalking. Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts when building up bushwalking fitness: distance, elevation and time on the track are needed. For many people, their bushwalking fitness will fluctuate from year to year depending on how active they are and what else is going on in their life.

A group that does not have the appropriate level of fitness can also run into trouble. If it’s been some time since the last bushwalk, start with an easier track first to build up fitness again. Likewise, on the first day of an overnight walk with a heavy pack, have realistic expectations if it’s the first overnight trip in a while.

Group size Appropriate group sizes in the bush

There are accepted numbers for bushwalking parties, which may be set by a bushwalking club or a land manager. Some regions have a limit on the number of parties as well. Four people is a good minimum because if one person is injured, this allows two people to go for help. Groups larger than 8-10 people are harder to manage and can quickly crowd the track. National parks can have different rules on group sizes depending on the region, so it’s best to check the rules before going. For NSW, ring the local park office.

As a general rule, group sizes of up to eight are appropriate for wilderness areas and 20 for others, however, the track conditions, likely weather and terrain determine the group size. A larger group tends to travel slower and has frequent stopping points for the rest of the group to catch up. In cold or wet weather, this slow pace and frequent stopping can get extremely uncomfortable, so it’s better to keep the group small. Also, in scrubby conditions, a small group is easier to keep together. Moreover, some campsites cannot hold large groups. By comparison, on wide popular walking tracks, it’s much easier to take a larger group, although having one or more co-leaders helps the leader. For more technical trips that involve activities such as abseiling, river crossings or remote area navigation, groups of 4-6 people are best.

Packing considerations Packing gear for the trip

The reason why bushwalkers carry most of their own gear is that it gives the group greater capacity to cope when things don’t go to plan. In an emergency scenario where there is already high-stress levels, if each person has sufficient water and warm clothes then the group has more options to problem solve. An individual that does not have sufficient gear to cope with unexpected scenarios quickly becomes a burden on the group, and can dramatically increase the severity of the situation. Therefore it’s essential to pack appropriately for the trip and not rely on others for gear.

On shorter, easier walks, items like a first aid kit can be shared between the group, although food water, food and clothing must be carried by all.

On longer walks, a spare change of clothes for the return journey home is nice. Some drivers prefer passengers to use a change of clothes, which are usually left in the vehicle, to keep their cars clean. If travelling by bus, putting the clothes in the luggage area avoids walking mud into the bus. A large solid plastic bag is good for muddy boots. If using cars, carry enough money to sort out petrol.

Pre-trip communications Things to chat through before the trip

Bushwalking clubs are mostly run by volunteers, and they rely on their passionate and dedicated leaders to keep leading trips. Many organisations would cease to exist without the support of their leaders; however, it can be easy to take their hard work for granted. A trip leader puts in a significant amount of time coordinating the group before, during and after the trip, and is good to show them that their hard work hasn’t gone unappreciated. Cooperate with them so they keep on doing it for a long time to come!

The trip leader is the one in charge of directing the group and will take control of an emergency situation. Ensure there is an open line of communication between members of the group and the trip leader from the start. Leaders will be happy to chat through their expectations of the trip regarding skill and fitness because it ultimately makes for a much smoother trip.

The leader needs to be aware of any medical issues and medical action plan in case of emergency. Some medical conditions are minor and have no impact, while others are more serious and need addressing. Seek professional medical advice if unsure what’s relevant to bushwalking. Leaders are obliged to keep all medical information confidential.

Although last minute cancellations are a part of life, make sure the trip leader knows as soon as possible. Decide on whether an email, phone call or text is appropriate. For someone that rarely checks their email, a cancellation just 24 hours out is probably best done by phone. But if it’s late at night, then maybe a text is better. Judge this on an individual basis.

Cancelling as early as possible is best because it leaves time for the leader to change plans or find another person to fill the space.

Being on time is surely the easiest way to win friends at the start of a bushwalk! Some leaders will hang around for a few minutes past the allocated meeting time but don’t rely on it. Aim to be at the meeting spot ready to start 10 minutes early. Being there early gives the group enough time to introduce each other, double-check gear, and make sure that car-owners have their car keys safely packed. If running late, let the leader know, however, don’t assume they’ll wait for latecomers: the leader has chosen the meeting time bearing in mind of the track conditions and group dynamics and they’ll be eager to get started.