Safety & Equipment

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Mobile Phones | Solo Walking | GPS Units | Tents

There are many sites with good advice on the web. Look at the list of Personal Bushwalking Pages on my links page. Here I will try to add ADDITIONAL information rather than repeat the good information already on the other bushwalking web pages.

Mobile Phones

Land management authorities seem to be pushing for all walkers to carry mobile phones. This implies that these are reliable devices which can get assistance whenever needed.

Extensive advertising suggests that these devices work everywhere. They claim to service 90 or 95% of the population but reading the fine print shows that they only cover only a small percentage of the AREA of Australia. Basically the service covers all the large cities, some small country towns, some ski resorts and some of the major highways then provide poor coverage elsewhere. If you are really lucky you might be walking in a serviced area but more likely you will be in an area with poor coverage. In poor signal areas, often you can only get a link from mountain tops where you have a direct line of sight with a mobile tower.

So for emergency use in the bush, a mobile can be useful but might not work immediately. Its quite likely you will need to climb to the top of a ridge or peak to get a signal. Yes that might be much quicker than walking out but it is not quite the immediate emergency device that many would want it to be.

The satellite phone system, which offers almost 100% coverage, does change this situation. However, at present this is fairly expensive both for the phones and calls, the phones are getting smaller but still larger than normal phones. We now carry one but they are still relatively expensive and not practical for many walkers. For emergency use they are the best tool of all as you can talk to the emergancy services and hence know if help is being sent. They are also good for sending SMSs of your progress or location to family and friends and also for contacting transport providers to change pickup dys and times.

Solo Walking and Small Groups

While it is always suggested to walk in groups of 4 or more, there are times that this is not practical. Other walkers might have to withdraw from a trip at the last minute or maybe you cannot find others who want to visit the same place or maybe you just prefer solo walking. The reason for four being the suggested minimum is that when an accident or serious illness occurs, one person can be left to look after the patient while the other two walk out to seek help.

I can see small groups becoming more common as many parks now insist on walkers booking ahead for many months (maybe it will become years like some places in the USA). While some places allow a maximum of 6 in a group, I have seen one proposal for a maximum group size of four. To be required to book ahead with such a small group will encourage groups less than four. Cancellations for group members are inevitable (health, family etc) and who is going to cancel a trip entirely if you have to wait for another year to get a fresh booking. I am sure that most walkers are like myself and they will go anyway even though there are less than four.

While disasters do not happen often, they do occur and I have been on 2 trips where an ankle was broken, one where one person broke an arm in 4 places and also I broke an arm and a rib on one trip. I have also had two trips where my cached food supply was stolen. In a large group a mobile phone might be enough as someone can travel to a place where there is a signal such as a mountain top but in a small group of 1 or 2 this can be either impossible or impractical. If you are walking in a small group, you can improve your chances of survival when a disaster happens by carrying either a satellite phone (see above) or an EPIRB (Emergency Personal International Response Beacon). EPIRBs weigh around 250g and basically send out a signal that is picked up by a satellite. If such a signal is found then the authorities start a rescue (often its send out a helicopter). These devices are not cheap (but cost less than satellite phones), but do increase safety for small groups by a very large factor. It is possible to hire one for special trips (in Melbourne, Bogong has one for hire) and you can also hire them from National Parks in Tasmania. There are heavy fines for unnecessary use - in practice this is no problem as they are very difficult to set off accidentally as you have to break seals and erect the aerial. If you walk solo then you should seriously consider one of these devices.

How well do EPIRBs work. Some gave an opinion that they were not very accurate as some searches have gone to the wrong area. When I checked cases where this happened and records were available it seemed that the aerial was not put up correctly or the device could not see clear sky (they dont work well under trees or in scrub). It seems that if the aerial is erected correctly (it's pretty simple - extend it and point vertically upwards towards the sky) then most times they are accurate at sending a search team to the vicinity of your location. You will still need to make yourself visible as they only provide a rough position within several km. While no device can be guaranteed to always work, they improve your chances of surviving a disaster. These devices work globally and are not restricted to any one country.

While I encourage use of these devices in remote places, I do not want it to be compulsory to have one as there are alternatives. EPIRBs are just another tool and it should be up to individuals to decide if they want to carry one. One major fault with the devices are that once you start it up you have no way of knowing if it is working properly or whether the signal has been picked up. In other words you could sit for several days before discovering your distress signal has not worked - use it only as a LAST resort.

Global Positioning Systems (GPS)

There has been considerable debate about these instruments and there are newsgroups with a lot of interesting information. The newsgroups provide a lot more detailed information than this short summary provides. A GPS basically uses signals from a series of satellites to calculate a ground position. The calculation is fairly complex and the quality of the result depends on the number of satellites seen and also their relative positions.
Many younger walkers faithfully believe GPS's are totally reliable and use nothing else. GPSs have indeed improved in recent years and current models work well in almost all situations. However like any electronic device they can fail or can be lost. One american who was walking the AAWT (Australian Alps Walking Track) fell over after 40 days of walking and broke his GPS screen. He had only 5 days left to walk along tracks but as he was unable to read maps (which he had), he backtracked to the last road and hitched out and was a bit disappointed he did not complete all of the track. He was too reliant on the GPS only and did not understand his backup device - the map.

Practically, a GPS does not replace navigational skills and is just another tool like a compass is. Like all tools it has its uses and limitations. While there has been much debate about the accuracy of the GPS instruments, many overlook the problem of the accuracy of maps. Maps are a flat representation of a curved surface and there will always be some errors introduced when creating a map. Most maps used by bushwalkers are designed to be accurate when using a compass so directions are correct but not necessarily distances. Generally the corners are less accurate than the map centre.

We personally use a GPS for checking maps. One advantage of a GPS has is that it works correctly in areas of magnetic anomoly (these are rare but do exist). Some leave their GPS turned on all the time and while this has the advantage that it takes less time to get position fixes under trees, it also discharges batteries and from observation the GPS does some guessing as well!.You can test this, walk a dead straight line for several km in open forest then look at the GPS track, it will not be dead straight! Leaving GPSs on all the time can be impractical as some units uses a battery set every two days, not good for long walks hence why we use it for spot readings and as an extra navigational tool in areas where navigation is not easy. Most of the time navigation is very basic and a GPS is not necessary. The GPS can also fail due to mechanical, electrical or satellite problems. Also if you have to change your route, it can be very difficult trying to do that with only a GPS. Its a much easier task to do with a map. In conclusion, the GPS is a great tool but you should still carry a compass and a map as a backup.

Summing up, use whatever tool you prefer but make sure you have a backup and know how to use it. If using a GPS, still refer to the map regularly so you know where you are on it.

Using a GPS with Maps

A GPS stores a waypoint in Degrees/minutes/seconds which gives a reference to a unique point on the surface of the world. But why do maps use a grid instead of degrees/minutes/seconds. Well maps are a flat representation of a curved surface - the world is a sphere. If lataitude and longitude was used for a grid on a map, you would discover that the grid lines are curved. This would make it hard to interpolate grid poitions between grid lines as the scale would keep changing due to the curved grid. The solution used is to superimpose a grid of straight lines - now its easy to use a fixed map scale and interpolate more easily between grid lines. Each map has the same grid as its neighbour so the grids flow together. However at some stage, the longitude grid lines will start to slope noticeably and not point north. The solution used by map makers is to stop the grid there and create a new 'zone' with a new grid and the pattern gets repeated. Crossing zone boundaries is a rare occurence when walking but it does happen on some walks in Australia such as the Light to Light walk near Bega in New South Wales and in the Otways in Victoria.

To futher complicate things many countries created their own grid system. Some of them have banded together to use the same grid ssytem but it helps to be aware that they are not all the same. Over time some countries have even changed their grid system so you need to know which system the map is using. Most GPS units are initially set to display degrees/minutes and seconds but that is very hard to translate onto flat maps. All GPS units can show map grids. all that needs to be done is go into 'Setup' then 'Position Format'. For the maps in our book, for 'Position Format' display 'UTM/UPS" then for 'Map Datum', use 'GDA94'. All waypoints and current location will then be displayed using the map grid. The GPS will show something like 55H0331234 5856789 which is the grid to a 1m accuracy. To get the conventional grid reference simply drop the last 2 digits from both lines and take the next 3 digits. This will givve a grid positionto to within 100m whcih is close enough for walking. So the grid reference for the above GPS reading is GR 312567.  Most government maps show how a grid reference is derived by showing an example.

So the GPS does the conversion between the degrees.minutes and map grids. If using other maps, strt with Map Datum, in australia it is usually AGD66 or GDA94, set that first. Then look at Position Format, you will notice many countries and formats there so you need to find the correct one and often the maps dont help much. I set my GPS at the start of a trip at a known point, often the end of the road or a major stream junction. I try the possible Position Formats until I find the one that matches my current position, example in New Zealand it will be one of the New Zealand grids. By aligning your GPS with maps means you now have both means of navigation working together. 

Tents

While huge areas of Australia have very low rainfall and are either deserts or close to being desert, there are some very wet regions as well. These areas of high rainfall are close to the coast and many of these areas are also the popular walking regions. For most parts of Australia, very light 3 season tents do the job very well. Hoop designs with one or two poles are ideal and weight for a 2 person tent is about 1.9 to 2.5 kg.

There are some exceptions. If you are going snow camping in the Alps in Victoria and New South Wales then a 4 season tent is recommended. Our snow conditions are marginal and the snow is often wet and sticks to tents and trees. Tents that are strong enough to hold thick snow on top are ideal. If walking the higher ranges of Tasmania at any season then a 4 season tent is recommended. This is because Tasmania is sometimes subjected to extreme weather conditions with heavy rain, very strong winds and snowfalls occurring in every season including summer.

While Australians call the tents 4 season, in many other countries these would be regarded as Expedition Tents designed for places like the Himalayas. The most popular designs are 3 or 4 pole tunnel or dome tents weighing 3 to 4 kg. While such tents might seem extreme, the range traverses in Tasmania all take 1 to 2 weeks and there are no short cuts to roads or civilization. Severe damage to a tent in the middle of a trip could be fatal in cold wet conditions and using a strong tent minimises risk. The best tents cost from around A$500 to A$1000 in Australia.

For a special single trip to a place, it is sometimes possible to hire a tent. Many places hire tents, the cheap stores hire the same tents they sell - cheap models. In places with mild weather these are fine. In the southern states where the weather is more extreme, I recommend hiring a tent from one of the bushwalking shops. Sure, they are more expensive to hire, but then the tents cost more to purchase so that’s to be expected. When hiring a tent, most shops expect a hefty deposit which is refunded upon return - instead of cash a signed credit card slip is often used as a refund is easily done on return.

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Last updated : December 3rd 2018