Walking in difficult terrain, including snow

  • Mud
  • Steep ground
  • Ledges
  • Scree slopes
  • Boulder hopping
  • Hard roads
  • Duck boards
  • Sand
  • Snow
  • Ice
  • Walking in rivers

There are many different standards of walking tracks, from four-wheel drive roads to barely discernible animal pads. Some are easy to follow, others are hard, and some may not lead where you expect! Some are easy to walk on and others present particular challenges. Some of these challenging conditions and useful techniques to overcome them, are described in this chapter.

Mud

If mud is expected, good quality solid boots and gaiters provide the best protection. Even though unpleasant, it is best to stay on the track, even when it is very muddy or wet. Going around a boggy part widens the wet section, creating visual scarring and environmental damage. Do not walk too closely together, as there could be a large hole or stream under the mud, and somebody could need a hand out.

After encountering mud, washing your boots will help stop the movement of disease from one area to another. This is particularly important in areas affected by cinnamon fungus, a cause of die-back in eucalypt and other forest types. This is prevalent in many areas, including most of the kauri forests of Western Australia and many of the forest areas in southwest Victoria and Tasmania.

Steep ground

Rockclimbing using a climbing rope and other equipment requires specialised skills which are beyond the scope of this book. There are many organisations offering courses and training in rockclimbing, mountaineering and caving.

It is rare for bushwalking parties to carry a climbing rope, and this section is confined to describing safe practices on steep ground which do not require the use of a climbing rope. The term ‘beginners’ is used here to denote anyone who is unfamiliar with steep ground or who feels unsure on it.

If steep ground is expected on a trip, the leader should be aware of it beforehand and be sure that all party members can traverse it safely, either with or without assistance. Prudent leaders recognise the importance of teaching beginners how to move safely over the steep ground, without placing them in significant danger. The leader must be in control of the situation, be able to see the beginners moving and be in normal voice communication with them. On a long stretch of steep ground, the leader should be close enough to give advice and encouragement without having to shout.

When a piece of steep ground is approached, leaders should be on the lookout for signs of nervousness among the party. Point out to beginners that everyone can climb rocks, although some may never have tried. Climbing rocks is like climbing a ladder with irregular steps. After each move a pause may be necessary to work out the best next move. However, it is less tiring to use continuous motion as much as possible, within the bounds of safety.

One of the most important principles for beginners to learn is to stand vertically and let their legs take their weight. They should avoid leaning into the rock—not only is this tiring on their arms, but their feet are more likely to slip off. A little practice will overcome the fear of overbalancing. If a move is tricky and there is any danger of falling, they should move only one hand or foot at a time, while retaining the other three on the rock, giving three points of contact. They should always check a foothold or handhold first before trusting their weight to it.

In some situations it may be necessary or helpful for individuals or the whole party to remove packs and haul or lower them separately by a rope, in order to climb or descend a section unhindered. Removing packs can make a great deal of difference to some walkers’ confidence on steep ground. Before hauling or lowering packs, straps and pockets must be securely fastened to avoid catching or loss of contents. If in doubt, up-end the pack first and shake it. Wear gloves, if possible, to avoid rope burns if a slippage occurs. Lower packs gently to minimise damage, and make sure they cannot slip or roll away after the rope has been untied.

Ledges

Walking on ledges can be frightening to many people. The usual advice is to avoid looking down, but obviously, you need to look where you place your feet, and that involves looking down! Sometimes stopping, sitting and getting used to the sensation of being on a ledge can be helpful. Some people may like the security of having someone by their side, or holding hands, but on narrow ledges this is rarely satisfactory, and may increase the danger.

Scree slopes

When a party is moving across steep, loose rocky ground (scree slopes) it is important that the party is spaced across the slope and that no one is moving directly above anybody else, to avoid the danger from falling rocks. Falling rocks can cause primary injury from an impact, or secondary injury as a result of someone moving too quickly out of the way and slipping or falling. If it is impossible for party members not to be beneath one another, then all should be as close together as possible. With large parties it may be necessary to move in smaller groups. If a rock or other object is dislodged and threatens others below, an immediate shout of ‘rock’ or ‘below’ is essential. Descending scree slopes efficiently is usually done best through a controlled slide, a bit like skiing, rather than trying to completely control every step. Ascending scree slopes is very tiring, and alternative routes should be sought if at all possible.

Boulder hopping (in and out of water)

Movement over large boulders involves similar issues to steep ground. Watch for problems with the other party members and think about the extra time involved. Strapping packs on extra tightly, including the breaststraps, can make movement and balance easier as long as it does not interfere with the movement of the lower torso and arms. Carefully jump from one rock to another, making sure no one is in the way or where you expect to land. Not everybody can boulder hop. It is usually preferable to avoid boulder hopping on land if an easier route is available. In water, boulder hopping can be dangerous, particularly in deeper, faster-flowing or cold water. Footwear should continue to be worn—the danger of injuring feet is too great to justify keeping footwear dry.

Hard roads

Walking on hard roads is most unpleasant but sometimes unavoidable. More blisters are caused on experienced feet through this than perhaps any other cause. Walking on the verge of the road where it is usually softer can reduce the impact. Wandering from side to side can make the walk longer but if there is a camber on the road this may also make a difference. Changing from boots to more softly-padded sports shoes often helps, as does an extra pair of socks. Thicker wool–nylon knitted socks generally provide more comfort on hard roads than other sock types.

Duck boards

Many trails today have duck boards or other forms of ground protection. They don’t look or feel as good as a foot track on the ground, but they have been installed to minimise the damage done to the bush by so many feet. Duck boards are usually quick to travel on, so use them if provided. They can be very slippery if covered by frost or smooth and wet, so take great care in these circumstances.

Sand

Travelling through sand is usually unpleasant and tiring. Walking on vegetated sand dunes is not recommended from an ecological damage perspective, and alternative routes should be sought or planned. Walking on unvegetated dunes is generally tiring and slow, and should be kept to a minimum. It is often better to ascend dunes with a zigzag motion, and descend slowly and gently. All walkers need to try to prevent sand getting into shoes or boots, as it rapidly causes blisters. For this reason, sand should be removed as soon as possible, and socks thoroughly shaken out. Gaiters can be very helpful to prevent sand getting in.

On the beach it is usually better to travel close to the water, where the sand is harder. Walking at low tide and during the outgoing tide is usually preferable to trudging in soft sand at high tide. Unexpected big waves in the incoming tide can cause very wet feet or worse. If the walk schedule permits, it is often best to wait for the high tide to pass. Tide times are available from the Bureau of Meteorology, and are published by some fishing and motoring organisations. If a long walk on sand is unavoidable, consider changing or rotating footwear—boots, shoes, bare feet.

Snow

Walking in snow is sometimes cold, sometimes hot, and always hard work. The party should walk in single file, everyone walking in the same footprints. For this reason, the strides must be short enough for everyone to use. Often steps are too long, which is tiring for shorter people, and encourages them to make new steps, which is even more tiring. The first person, who is breaking the trail, should only do so for a short time before stepping aside to allow the second person have a chance at the front. The person who stepped aside waits for the whole group to pass, and becomes the new whip. The new leader should break the track for only a short time, depending on fitness, ability and snow conditions. This gives everybody a chance at breaking the trail, and should prevent tiring one person excessively. By the time the last person comes along, the trail should be well packed down. The last person should have a good trail, and should use this time to catch their breath and energy before taking another turn at the front.

Ice

Walking on ice without the necessary equipment (crampons and ice axe) is very dangerous and generally should not be attempted. In most parts of Australia, ice rarely covers a large area nor does it last very long, so avoiding it or waiting for it to soften are alternatives in most circumstances. If the ice is just a thin crust on the surface, then heavy stamping of the feet may break though and provide reasonably secure footing. This technique is not recommended for crossing wet boggy areas, and definitely not over lakes!

Walking in rivers

Walking in rivers can save some effort where banks are steep or covered with thick or prickly scrub. Boots should always be worn, and care needs to be taken where the river bed is slippery, rocky or strewn with flood debris. Leaders must be especially vigilant in cool conditions to ensure that group members do not become hypothermic. River crossing is discussed in Chapter 30.