Would you enjoy a night out?

On day trips, other than easy walks close to Hobart, we usually carry a lot of stuff that is never used but taken just in case. But few of us have actually tested our beliefs about what you really need to cope with an unexpected night out.

However Helen Stones has done the test – not once but three times. I’ve been intrigued by her descriptions of these experiences. Once was a deliberate trial of how well people could cope overnight with only their day trip equipment, the others were genuine misadventures.

We had the gear but it wasn’t up to the extreme conditions
(Bechervaise Plateau, 1974; not quite an example of being caught out unprepared but a similar misadventure)

Obviously the main issue is keeping dry and warm. Turns out that’s not easy (are you surprised?). The deliberate trial took place when the weather was cool but not mid-winter cold. They were in a valley and wind was not an issue. Shelter came from space blankets and a lightweight tarp (standard day trip kit for one of the more cautious members of the group) and it seems that everyone stayed dry despite some light rain overnight.

However Helen’s dominant impression of the experience was being cold, to the point where it was hard to sleep. The party all had rain jackets and layers of clothing but not puffer jackets. They were able to light a fire but it was not kept going all night. Someone in the party heated rocks in the fire then buried them in the soil under their sleeping spot which was apparently warm for a little while but didn’t last.

On another occasion things were much wetter with constant heavy rain. Multiple attempts at lighting a fire failed despite using all the standard tricks (“dry” kindling from under logs, commercial fire-starters, rubber strips, etc). A final attempt used the last match to light some alcohol-based hand sanitiser gel, and it worked amazing well. They kept that fire going all night. Helen made sure to keep her body off the ground by lying on her pack and her seat pad. The combination of that and the fire meant that she was not uncomfortably cold.

The other important reminder from this incident is that you can’t expect prompt rescue. The group set off a PLB but the weather and flooding were such that external help was not possible until conditions improved.

On the third occasion the group had full overnight gear but due to earlier miscalculation were caught by night in the extremely rugged and dangerous terrain of the Beggary Bumps, about the roughest part of the Western Arthurs. Continuing in darkness was unsafe so they had to pitch tents as best they could despite the lack of suitable sites; Helen had a half-pitched tent on a steep slope above a big drop. But at least they had sort-of shelter and warm sleeping bags. What they didn’t have was water. Everyone was thirsty, some to the point where it seemed to be affecting their judgement. Although they had food most chose not to eat because of their thirst.

Probably most of us have not had a night out, yet. So we can benefit from Helen’s misfortunes by taking lessons from them. I would like to think that most of the following reminders should be obvious but her experiences really put them in perspective:

  1. Don’t assume that a helicopter will magically appear a short time after setting off a PLB. How long might it take for the weather to clear enough to allow flight?
  2. Carry warm stuff, even on day trips. Pack clothing not for the daytime forecast but for the possible conditions overnight. Multiple layers. A puffer jacket. Long johns. A beanie. Gloves. Full waterproofs (windproof even if you don’t need to keep the rain out).
  3. Carry shelter. At the very least a space blanket. Consider a tarp or bivvy bag. But don’t expect them to provide warmth. That has to come from your clothing.
  4. Carry enough water so you still have some left at the end of the day.
  5. Carry some emergency rations. Energy bars. Trail mix. Chocolate. Or just a surplus of whatever nibbles you carry anyway.
  6. Carry something that will light a fire in very wet conditions, and make sure it works in practice as well as theory. (I’m going to do my own tests with hand sanitiser gel.)
  7. Insulate yourself from the ground. Maybe even soft vegetation would help if you don’t have enough of your own stuff.

Having said all that, your choice of gear is a matter of risk management and your own risk tolerance. My risk tolerance is getting lower over time – the invulnerability of youth is too long ago. So on any trip other than easy walks close to Hobart I carry more than I used to and put up with the heavier pack on the basis that I’m now a little more likely to have a disabling injury and less keen on an utterly miserable if not life-threatening cold night. You may find a different point of balance between a heavier pack and the unlikely but possibly serious consequences of a night out. But at least think about it.

(Many thanks to Helen for sharing her experiences with me so I could share them with the rest of you.)

4 thoughts on “Would you enjoy a night out?

  1. My wife Elizabeth and myself a few years ago were walking in the high country of Tassies Central Highlands. Towards the end of the day thick fog came down and Elizabeth was too far ahead of me and all of a sudden we lost sight of each other. I had to sing out very loudly and fortunately she heard me and stopped. We managed to find each other and set up camp soon after. Next morning we discovered that we were nowhere near were we should have been.
    I totally concur with all the good advice given except when you are lost, in the dark or whatever stop immediately and gather everyone together and do everything you can to make your over night stay as warm and comfortable as possible and always find somewhere out of the wind.
    Cheers Roscoe

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for this timely reminder Peter and the thought-provoking list of lessons. The ABC had a story the next day about a family who got lost near Meander Falls and were found at 3am, cold and wet, and who had to walk out (accompanied) the next morning because they weren’t rescuable any other way.
    I have a question about puffer jackets versus fleece, if this isn’t too basic. My warm jackets are polar fleece, which I’m assuming will outlast even me (though baby boomers will never die …) as they’re made of nasty permanent stuff. So I’ve resisted the temptation to expand the collection by buying a puffer jacket. One can have too many clothes. But should I? Is a puffer jacket better protection, do you think? Obviously they’re more squashable and light.


    • Robyn, I think a good puffer jacket is so much warmer than any fleece. Warmth is basically provided by thickness, and a fleece will never be as thick as even a light puffer. A puffer with lots of down is almost like sleeping bag. If I was stuck out at night I know which I’d prefer.


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