Perfectly safe …

Not good weather

As a first year student I joined the university bushwalking and mountaineering club and found that one of the things Sydney bushwalkers did in summer was descend streams of all types, from paddling lazily on lilos down a river to abseiling down deep dark canyons. So one of the old experienced guys (aged about 22) taught a group of us to abseil. As he taught us to check and double-check everything that connected us to the rope and the rope to the belay point he said :

“It’s perfectly safe as long as you never forget that it’s extremely dangerous”.

That bon mot lodged firmly in my brain, partly because of its delicious paradox and partly because it was so apt. He claimed that it originated in naval gunnery but I have not been able to confirm that and it doesn’t matter. (Google can’t find it anywhere except in something I produced myself, so maybe my mate himself was the originator.) It applies to so many things – from our simple outdoor activities to modern technological society where high-energy activities and equipment have the potential to go wrong and dissipate their huge energy catastrophically. For example, hurtling across country in a wheeled box containing 50 L of explosive fuel at about the same speed you’d reach if you jumped from the 15th floor. Not to mention 240 volts, air travel, chainsaws, gas appliances, etc, etc. Perfectly safe, as long as you don’t forget … But I digress.

The aims and objectives of Pandani, as expressed in the club constitution, include “To participate in, and promote, SAFE bushwalking and associated activities …”. Making sure that our activities are as safe as reasonably possible is the main reason that Pandani has a bunch of procedures and guidelines. In fact safety of members is pretty much the only reason that the club has any documentation at all other than the program. Most members don’t see much of that apart from the Information for Members document you would have received recently. However organisers see more, and the committee sees a whole lot more still.

So what are the dangers of bushwalking? They boil down to very few – physical injury, hypothermia, snakebite, or being caught out unprepared overnight (plus some others that are less likely in Tasmania). Of course many different things can lead to those outcomes, such as poor navigation, weather conditions, simple mishap (tripping), a party member whose ability is unsuitable for the trip, inadequate clothing or equipment, etc, etc.

Elementary risk management involves identifying the risks, taking actions to minimise the likelihood of the nasty event happening, and having a plan to minimise the consequences if it happens anyway. For example, to manage the risk of hypothermia you may choose to stay home if cold wet weather is forecast (minimises the risk to zero) and if you do proceed then pack enough waterproof and warm clothing for the worst reasonably foreseeable conditions (reduces the consequences from possible death to mere discomfort).**

The dangers of bushwalking are all manageable to some degree. You might not be able to eliminate the likelihood that a snake might strike at you but gaiters will pretty much eliminate the consequences of a strike. And most other dangers are much more manageable.

Have you thought through all the risks, minimisations and mitigations that you might encounter in your bushwalking activities? It’s perfectly safe as long as you never forget it’s extremely dangerous.

**As I write this I’m sitting in a ski lodge on the mainland having a day off from back-country XC skiing because it’s about 2ºC with 50 km/h winds, total whiteout and pouring rain. No-one here wants to go out and get hypothermia, or even just wet and miserable. But on a good day bushwalking on skis is pure magic.

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.)


Partly because they are genuinely comfortable and practical, partly for old times sake, and partly even to be a little provocative I have reverted to wearing Volley sandshoes on some walks. I wore no other footwear for my first 20+ years of bushwalking, including multiple classic walks in central and SW Tas. (One exception – trekking in NZ wearing mountaineering boots which I hated.)

Others look askance at my Volleys and ask about grip and ankle support, neither of which are any problem at all. So I thought I should write something, not so much in praise of sandshoes but for you to think about the unquestioned assumptions that many walkers make about footwear. (If you’ve chatted to me about footwear then you’ve probably already heard most of what follows.)

I’ve come to the view that choice of walking footwear is mostly a cultural phenomenon, in the sense of “culture” as “the way we do things around here”. Tasmanian bushwalkers wear robust boots, bushwalkers in NSW (where I’m from originally) wear sandshoes – that just the way things are done in those places. The practicalities are almost irrelevant because the actual practical differences are minor. (One non-trivial difference is waterproofness – if I’m expecting wet conditions I’ll definitely wear my nice modern leather/Goretex walking shoes – not boots – plus gaiters.)

The grip issue – have you tried Volleys? They were designed over 80 years ago for elite tennis players. Think about those players darting across a grass court. Do they need good traction? Volleys have superb grip on most surfaces. And where they might fail then boots with a heavy tread will fail too – slimy rocks, greasy mud, steep wet grass.

As for ankle support, human feet were “designed” by evolution to walk barefoot across terrain of every type as our ancestors did for tens of thousands of years. In theory we shouldn’t need ankle support. I’m also dubious that any boot flexible enough to allow comfortable walking can provide real support against serious injury. Certainly there are footwear styles that provides true ankle support but you can’t walk in them – downhill ski boots and orthopaedic “moon boots”.

Having said all that, I expect few if any to agree with me and I certainly don’t expect to convert anyone to a different type of footwear. These cultural matters are too deeply embedded and become a part of personal identity. But at least think about it. Fire at will.

Footnote on some other reasons Volleys were ubiquitous in NSW: A lot of mainland summer “bushwalking” involves water activities such as canyoning and liloing which often include not only a long walk but also swimming. Swimming in sandshoes is no problem, but in boots … . And sandshoes are cheap. Volleys cost $8 when I was a student in the 1970s and even my recent pair was under $40. Finally they are light. The old rule of thumb, apparently of military origin, was “One pound on your feet is equivalent to four pounds on your back”. But most modern footwear is pretty light so perhaps this is now less relevant.