Post Thru-Hike Review of Gossamer Gear Mariposa (2017 Edition)

I used this pack for 4 months of traveling on New Zealand’s rough around the edges Te Araroa Trail (Tramping Track) over some of the most challenging and rough terrain I have encountered, as well as 1 month on the Benton MacKaye Trail in late autumn conditions. I used it for food carries as long as 9 days. After this period of time I realized this pack really was exactly what I needed and it still has quite a bit of life left in it.   

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Mariposa in front of Mt Ngauruhoe on the Tongariro Crossing of Te Araroa

Pros:

-Hipbelt very sturdy and comfortable.  The new hipbelt design is a game changer for lightweight packs.  The aluminium hoop stay is inserted directly into two dedicated sleeves in the hipbelt allowing weight transfer directly on to the hips. The hipbelt itself is also reinforced with a thick plastic backing to prevent hip belt sag which I’ve encountered with all my other previous backpacks that I used on previous long trails (SMD Starlight [discontinued], Gregory Z55[2009])

-Wider than average shoulder strap helped me keep comfortable while carrying the more massive loads (9 days of food).  

-The large capacity of pockets- The pockets are plentiful which helped me organize stuff I wanted to be easily accessible. The pockets stood the test of time and have cosmetic holes in them after throwing the pack around in NZ’s rocky Southern Alps.  This expected wear and tear has not produced a hole large enough for me to worry about losing anything. The mesh on the back pocket is of a fine texture; this design means holes do not become large.

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Walking down the Abel Tasman Coast

-Shoulder strap pocket!- I really enjoyed using this add-on in particular because I enjoy taking photos.  I was able to keep my Canon S110 in the pocket along with my phone which allowed me to get quick shots of fleeting moments: birds, sunsets, and beams of light coming through fern tree groves.  

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Shoulder Strap pocket good for phones, cameras, and snacks. In the Richmond Ranges of the South Island

Cons:

-The Gossamer Gear Clear Waterproof Pack Liners too small for this particular pack.  Although this is not a problem with the pack itself, it’s too bad they don’t work well together. I have feeling the specs for this liner were made for another GG pack, possibly the Gorilla. In NZ’s rainy climate I realized I had to pack even my food in a pack liner when I had no option other than to eat many waterlogged peanuts. I ended buying a Pack Liner by the NZ Mountain Safety Council and cutting it to size.  These pack liners can be found in many towns in NZ so it made eating peanuts a joy again! 🙂

-I enjoy having the over-the-top closure system which includes a top pocket.  However, large stuff sacks can be difficult to load into the pack especially when I put a lot of stuff in the top pocket.  I wound up using a pack liner as a funnel to help shake the large food stuff sack into the backpack, which worked as a solution for me. After I learned this trick, I was only bothered by this style of opening when carrying 5 or more days worth of food.  It’s possible this problem also could have been remedied by having multiple food bags.

-I love the idea behind the sitlight pad but the current version of the sitlight pad is too warm for me.  I prefer the old “egg-crate” design for comfort while walking. Unfortunately, Gossamer Gear doesn’t currently offer that style pad so I changed the pad out for a cheap Walmart pad. The Air Flow SitLight Camp Seat is something I will probably try in the future.

-The shoulder strap load lifters add a lot of support to the pack but had to be reinforced. I have a tendency to break these on all my backpacks.  A few stitches using dental floss did the trick. I have a feeling that the problem arises because the load lifter straps are connected to a location above the frame rather than on it.   

Over the past five months of hiking, my Mariposa and I have been through a lot. The Gossamer Gear Mariposa is built to last, comfortable, and easy to use while only weighing in around 2 lbs. I would recommend this pack for anyone who has a fairly low base weight but needs to occasionally carry larger than average amounts of food or water.  The pack is also great for lightweight hikers who are needing to carry more than usual for cooler seasons, long water carries, or snow gear.

Disclaimer: I was given this pack at no charge.

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Mt Tamalpais from Public Transit

This post is from 2014 and I never published it.  Someone asked about Public Transit backpacking in the Bay Area so I thought I would finally publish it.  Here it is. This trip would be incredibly easy to travel with the map at this link to Marin Mountain Bike Map. Another good map to have is one of Point Reyes National Seashore as it can easily be added on if you have more time. DISCLAIMER: Always check for trail closures.  While publishing this BLOG I found that there were a few trails that I mention that are currently closed.   Maps are essential for dealing with closures on the fly.

Away we go!

A long time ago, on a BART car far far away…

I was not in the mood for hanging around the apartment twiddling my thumbs waiting for my lovely Dormouse to return from her trip visiting family, so I decided to walk out my front door and go for a little 3-day backpacking trip to one of the Bay Area’s most prominent mountains, Mt. Tamalpais.

Mount Tamalpais and Alcatraz across the San Francisco Bay not  far walking

Mount Tamalpais and Alcatraz across the San Francisco Bay

Located in Marin County, Mt. Tamalpais is surrounded by a plethora of public wild lands.  The Marin Headlands, Mt Tamalpais State Park, Muir Woods, Point Reyes National Seashore, and Mt. Tamalpais Watershed all are within less than one day’s walk of the summit.   Mt. Tam as it is known to Bay Area locals, is within view of much of San Francisco and is a fixture of the skyline.  Many people look at the the mountain and think it is far across the bay and requires a painful drive through traffic on the Golden Gate via 19th Ave if you are on the Peninsula or something far worse if you are in the East Bay.  If you live in these areas there is a solution! Make your trip to the mountain a part of your hike.  It is kind of funny how easy it is to get to by transit then walk on foot.  On this and other trips I have made to Mt Tam, I have utilized BART to get to the Embarcadero or Montgomery St stop and then walked from there.

I started the day with another Town Start (the opposite of an alpine start, at 11:30AM) even later than our trip to Henry Coe.  I really had to rush because I knew I had 22 miles to cover to get to Pantoll Ranger Station, where I planned to camp the night (because it is one of the few legal places to camp).  Pantoll is nice because it doesn’t require any reservations and is a purely walk-up campground.

STEP 1: Scenic City Walk to Golden Gate Bridge from Emarcadero or Montgomery St BART Stop (Unlimited Options: Red Inland Option through North Beach, Black Emarcadero Option)

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I made my way to BART and got off at the Montgomery St BART station.  I decided to head down Montgomery St to Columbus St because I could get some much needed shade during the rare 80F “heat wave” that we were experiencing in SF that weekend.  I enjoyed my choice because I got to walk past the Pan America Pyramid and through North Beach, skirting Chinatown.  It is easy to see the walk along Embarcadero as welcoming with its wide sidewalks and views of the waterfront, but this way is enjoyable for people-watching and seeing the interesting neighborhoods.

After reaching the end of Columbus I made my way to the In-N-Out on Jefferson St.  I ordered a milkshake so I didn’t have to wait for the delicious made to order burger and so I could walk and consume calories most easily.  I had that shake polished off before going over the hill to Fort Mason.  Now that’s efficiency!  From Fort Mason I past through Marina Green and Crissy Field.  At Crissy Field I saw many wild flowers in bloom.  If you are going through this area make sure you stay closest to the water, as it is much more scenic.  I’ve been doing this wrong for years.

Wildflowers at Crissy Field and the Golden Gate Bridge

Wildflowers at Crissy Field and the Golden Gate Bridge

From Crissy Field the signs were easy to follow to the Golden Gate Bridge.

STEP 2: Walk through Marin Headlands (Options Unlimited) No water after water fountain immediately after Golden Gate Bridge

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After crossing the bridge I picked up water from the water fountain at the overlook parking lot.  This was my last water source until Redwood Creek just short of 11 miles from there.  After downing some water and filling my bottles to the brim I walked down the the catwalk underneath the bridge to the Coastal Trail.   Now I was in the Marin Headlands (map).  The Coastal Trail switchbacks up until you reach a junction with the SCA Trail.  From there I took the straightest path to Pantoll passing by Morning Glory Trail (a great trail to Sausalito giving you a bail option on the way back), to Alta Trail, Bobcat, Marincello into Tennessee Valley.  I’m unsure if Tennessee Valley has drinking water, but you probably could find a spigot if you ask nicely at the horse stables there.  This would make the stretch of 11 miles much more tolerable. Hiking out of Tennessee Valley on the Miwok Trail is quite busy with mountain bikers.  I really don’t like this part of the area, but it is Marin County, where Mountain biking started, so I put up with it.  As it approached 6:30pm, close to Route 1, I came out of a grove of coast live oaks into some scrub and to my surprise I saw the stubby tail of a bobcat before it bolted.  This was only the second bobcat I’d seen while hiking hundreds of miles in the Bay Area.  I was elated.  Here I was a few miles from home seeing cool wildlife.  I walked up to where the cat was and found that I had literally scarred the crap out of it.  I’m guessing this is much more common then I had previously thought when watching this video.

Bobcat in Marin Headlands

Much less interesting than a picture of a Bobcat. At least you can see it’s fresh.

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After crossing Route 1 I was in Mt Tamalpais State Park.  I would continue on Miwok Trail climbing up to Pantoll Ranger Station.  After crossing Muir Woods road I went up a combination of Deer Park Fire Road and the Dipsea Trail.  After going up Dipsea, I went over to Stapleveldt Trail to dip down into the upper part of Muir Woods then up to Pantoll (walking through Muir Woods main entrance/redwood grove on the way back helps avoid the crowds if you leave early).  The other longer way on TCC Trail has less elevation loss and gain if you are feeling tired at the end of the day.  I made it to Pantoll at 7:00pm and was pleased to sit down and relax.  I paid for a spot in the hike/bike-in site ($5/person 2014) and was surprised to see another tent there. In the past Dormouse and I have been the only ones at that site.  I set up my tent and hunkered down in the tent away from the wind and ate some cold rehydrated chili.  I was satisfied with the spicy, delicious, and quickly prepared meal.  I spent the rest of the night hanging out with my campsite mates.

Step 3: Mount Tam Walk from Stinson

I woke up around 6:15am.  I got my gear together, ate a granola bar and walked down Steep Ravine Trail.  I found the trail nice with plentiful vegetation, including wonderful California bay trees which provided shade.   A nice change from the long shade-less stretches of the Headlands.

Columbine in Steep Ravine

Columbines were all along the route. Pretty good for low light and using my trekking pole as a monopod (Ultrapod)

Stinson Beach time to go up Mt Tam

Stinson Beach time to go up Mt Tam

From Stinson Beach I climbed up Matt Davis Trail (at end of the street with the fire house on the corner.)  It’s a reasonably steep climb up the trail to the Coastal Trail which takes you out of the Douglas Fir/ Oak forest of Matt Davis to coastal grassland.

Hiking on Coastal Trail for the north approach to Mt Tam

Hiking on Coastal Trail for the northern approach to Mt Tam

At Camp Fire Road I took a turn north to cross the road so I could make my way to Cataract Falls.  Having such a dry couple of years, the falls were unfortunately a dud.  But in the wet season the falls are a great site.

Instead of turning back like many do when they reach the falls, I headed east on High Marsh Trail.  High Marsh Trail is great because it crosses a bunch of headwaters for streams going into Alpine Lake.  My enjoyment was multiplied by not seeing one person for several hours until I got on International Trail to Eastcrest Blvd and the Peak.  The north side of Mt Tam is really secluded if you like getting away from the crowds.

View from Mt Tamalpais

View from Mt Tamalpais

Heading down from the top I went down Fern Creek Trail to towards Throckmorton Fire Station.  A brief road walk on Panoramic Highway got me to Panoramic Trail which is just a path next to the road.  From there I could take the Ocean View and Lost Trail back down into Muir Woods.  While in Muir Woods I decided to go up Fern Creek Trail (yes the same creek, different trail.)  I was very surprised by how scenic and tranquil it was (and I was there on a free weekend!).  Definitely, make the extra effort to go up it if you have the time.  All my pictures really do not capture the scene, unfortunately.  Racing through the crowds I made my way to Muir Woods Road to catch the Miwok Trail back out to the Headlands.  I actually misread the map thinking that there was no coastal escape from Mt Tamalpais State Park to the Headlands (this can be done by taking Redwood Creek Trail to Muir Beach and road walking to Green Gulch Trail).

Mountain Lion Kill

As a result of this mistake, I got to see fresh Mountain lion kill where I was less than 24 hours ago!

As a result of this mistake, I got to see fresh Mountain lion kill where I was less than 24 hours ago!  I nervously walked away from the kill thinking at least the cat probably isn’t hungry anymore.  After that scare I made a bee-line for the coast to hike a different trail from the way in and enjoyed the clear views.

In the morning after another windy night, I went into the Tennessee Valley to get some much needed freshwater.  From there I continued down the Coastal Trail past old army batteries through Rodeo Beach on my way back to the Golden Gate.

Along the way I passed a sign for Slacker Ridge a trail so small it is barely noticeable on the map.

Slacker Ridge: I'm surprised no one has mentioned it to me

Slacker Ridge: I’m surprised no one has mentioned it to me

After Slacker Ridge, the Golden Gate and BART were my destination.  I crossed the bridge, taking time to look out for sea life in the cold waters below.  I spotted a few sea lions here and there.  In the past we have seen porpoises and diving pelicans.  Walking down the Embarcadero was an excellent conclusion to my trip through the Marin Wilderness.

Other Extension Options:

Marin Municipal Water District Land  has tons of trails that can link Mt Tam to Point Reyes

Point Reyes is huge and you don’t have to use your imagination to hike here.

Other transit Options:

Marin Stagecoach from Tam Junction to Stinson Beach (Base of

Golden Gate Transit can significantly reduce your San Francisco Hiking

The Historic F Line can drop you off at Fisherman’s Wharf from Embarcadero BART

The Ferry to Sausalito can drop you off at BART after a walk down Morning Sun Trail into town

Do you have any Bay Area backpacking trips using public transit?  Let me know in the comments.

Four Mile Trail to Glacier Point and Sentinel Dome

We’ve started our new gig collecting data for Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics beginning with a month in Yosemite. What can I say? It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it. We are definitely some of the luckiest Research Assistants on the planet!

On our first day off we decided to head up the four mile trail, which, just to keep you on your toes, is actually closer to 5 miles in length. This trail leads you up several thousand feet out of Yosemite Valley to Glacier Point where arguably the best views of the valley are to be had. Along the way there are amazing views of Yosemite Falls and the granite faces that tower over the valley floor.

We also noticed many spring flowers blooming along the way. June is still very much spring at these higher elevations.

The climb was slow and steady, and we certainly didn’t have the trail all to ourselves. There were quite a few people hauling themselves thousands of feet up to this scenic point. Not that you have to hike; there’s a perfectly good road going to the top if you happen to have brought a vehicle with you. So once we hit Glacier Point, we joined the crowds of people near the parking lot taking pictures. We stopped in at the visitor’s center to purchase an ice cream cone and take a rest.

From there we decided to take the short trail to hit Sentinel Dome just a mile or two further up. From there the valley looked minuscule.

Soon we headed back down the way we came and intersected a ranger talk which included a lot of information about the history of Yosemite, which I found quite interesting. I learned that art played an important part in preserving Yosemite before photograph was available and convenient.

By the time we headed back down, my legs were pretty tired. As we descended back down into the valley, the temperature steadily increased and the mosquitoes welcomed us back to lower elevations.

The wildlife here is stupidly tame (there has been no hunting here for a very long time, and many animals now associate humans with food scraps). A squirrel peered over a rock to take a look at John.

We got back to our campsite by early evening, which is when the valley fills up with smoke from the multitude of campsites. Campfires are regulated, but you are allowed to have one from 5-10pm, so during those hours, the air quality deteriorates rapidly. By morning, the dust settles, the smoke drifts off and the large granite faces that tower over the valley floor are crisp and clear once again.

A New Chapter: Working with LNT in Three National Parks

As our travels in New Zealand have come to an end, a new chapter begins.

Beginning this week, we are starting a seasonal job working as Research Assistants for Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics (based in Boulder, CO). We’re very excited to have been chosen for this project, and I hope that we can share some of our adventures along the way.

The research project we will be helping investigate visitor’s behavior and attitudes with regards to waste and recycling in three national parks.

Leave No Trace Center For Outdoor Ethics was looking for a duo with scientific backgrounds, experience working together, and outdoor experience to collect data in the field for this study. I suppose we were a good fit!

The research will be conducted in three national parks: Yosemite (in California), Grand Teton (in Wyoming), and Denali (in Alaska). We will be living in each of these parks for one month, surveying and observing visitors. In our spare time we will be able to explore these parks, so you can expect to hear more on some adventures in these parks throughout the summer.

First training sessionFirst training session

Pictures: first training sessions near Boulder

Neither John nor I have been to Wyoming or Alaska, so we are very excited for this opportunity to go to those places in particular. Yosemite we are somewhat more familiar with, as we lived in San Francisco, California for several years, but it will be nice to revisit some of the famous landmarks in the park.

I’m also pretty excited (and nervous) to live in grizzly territory. Neither one of us has seen a grizzly bear outside of a zoo. We are more than familiar with black bears, having seen dozens on our thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail along with our neighborhood black bears in Asheville, NC that tend to go after our trash cans. Grizzlies are much bigger, and can be more aggressive, and I know that the ones in Grand Teton are probably habituated to humans a bit more than I will be comfortable with. But don’t worry, we will get some training on bear safety, and we will have bear spray for working in areas with grizzly bears.

We are particularly excited to work on this project because of our passion for Leave No Trace. I’m excited to talk with visitors to these parks and see what people really think about waste and the infrastructure that is available in National Parks. Let the next chapter begin!

Packing: here we go again!

Te Araroa Trail: Final Thoughts

Oh gosh, where do I begin?

I guess I should probably start by saying that this blog post is going to be my opinion and my opinion only.  I totally respect that other people have different opinions and experiences – but I’d really like to share my feelings and thoughts about this trail hopefully without too much harsh judgment from others.  This trail is still very young, so it’s possible that some of what I say today (2018) will likely change over the next decade or two.

Let me start by describing the Te Araroa Trail (TA).  The TA is a conglomeration of trails, roads, beach walks, and quite a few “hazard zones,” where the trail simply ends at a river, estuary, or lake and you are expected to figure out how to get yourself to the other side where the trail continues.  This can make for some frustrating experiences.

The South Island is more remote, and more of a wilderness experience and the North Island is much more urban with a lot more road walking.  However, compared to the few long-distance trails I have hiked in the United States (the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Benton MacKaye Trail), there is still quite a bit of road walking on the South Island (I’ve gotten laughed at for saying this).

The mountains, especially in the South Island, are extremely rugged and surprisingly wet and or muddy.  New Zealand trails tend not to be maintained. I heard one DOC (Department of Conservation – the organization that maintains the trails and huts) employee say that an average track is maintained once every 10 years (this does not go for popular day hikes or Great Walks).  Many tracks are not maintained at all. In fact, many tracks don’t really exist in the American sense of the word “trail.” Another DOC employee told us that they often just put in trail markers (or reassurance markers, as he called them), and then let some sort of track form from people walking the route and trampling the plants along the way.  This goes against the Leave No Trace Principle “camp and walk on durable surfaces,” which simply does not seem to apply to most of New Zealand tramping, although they do reference the principles often. For the unforgiving terrain, however, you’re spectacularly rewarded with stunning views which seem to be never-ending (again, I’m speaking mostly about the South Island).

In fact, there are several standards of tramping trails in New Zealand:  “tramping route” “tramping track”, and “easy tramping track.”. We determined that “easy tramping track” was equivalent to the American use of the word “trail.”  “Tramping Track” was a much more rugged, hardly maintained trail, and “tramping route” meant no trail, but marked.

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An encouraging marker

Because tracks are often not planned or maintained, the routes often go straight up and down mountains rather than switch-backing (or zig-zagging as they would say in New Zealand).  This makes for extremely steep trails – trails where you risk falling even going uphill! I don’t think I can adequately describe how steep and rugged some of these “trails” are. Meanwhile, New Zealand trampers drag their heavy backpacks through this terrain with remarkable ease (ultralight backpacking gear is hard to find in New Zealand).

Richmond Ranges

Also Richmond Ranges

Distances are often inaccurate or not even available.  I’ve heard hikers report that each section of the trail had an extra km compared to the trail notes.  Most of the time, trails are marked in terms of time rather than distance, so you’ll see signs saying “2 hours” instead of “6km”.   I found this quite helpful since the trail varied so much in difficulty.

Distance doesn’t always matter

Besides rugged, these trails are WET!  I can count on a single hand the number of days my feet were dry for an entire day on the South Island.  This was due to streams, rivers, marshes, wet grass and mud. I’m not sure why even in the driest areas, where there were no trees, and farmers were irrigating the grass, the ground under our feet would always find a way to provide us with squishy marshes, mud, or dozens of streams to walk through.  Many times the trail actually was a stream or river, and hikers are meant to follow these natural landmarks like trails.

Some mud in the Tararuas

Bastien and Tabea fording a river

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The Deception River is a good example of the trail using a stream for several hours.

Despite the rugged nature of the trail, the lack of trail maintenance, and its general sogginess, the trail was always easy to follow and well marked.  I almost never looked at my compass. All trails in New Zealand are marked with orange arrows or orange poles, and unless it is very foggy, it is usually just a game of finding the next orange marker.  The only navigational issues we had were when there were several trails or roads to choose from, and it was not obvious which path was supposed to be the Te Araroa Trail. In this respect, the trail is much less well marked than, say, the Appalachian Trail, or the Pacific Crest Trail, which have dedicated markers so you don’t wind up on a side trail.

Orange trail marker

John and Jeremy in the Richmond Ranges.  Orange trail markers are often poles.

Where the trail is less rugged and also not on a road, it often times goes through farmland, and we often walked through fields of cows or sheep.  I grew very fond of sheep, who often would trot away from us in large numbers, but I became a bit more wary of cows. Cows are curious by nature and often don’t budge when they are in your way.  There are times when you will be in a field of cows, some of which are massive bulls, with no clear escape route if one decided to charge. Sheep and cows wind up in some of the most remote areas of New Zealand, and I was often surprised to see fencing, a stile, livestock poop or bones deep into mountain ranges.  We also saw quite a few dead animals, something that is just part of farm life, I suppose.

Dairy farming is probably the biggest industry in New Zealand (if it’s not tourism)

One of about a million stiles for getting over fencing

Lots of cows

Lots of sheep

Besides farm animals, your favorite animals will become New Zealand’s birds.  Because New Zealand originally did not have any mammalian predators, birds flowed into every evolutionary niche, and many lost the ability to fly, such as the kiwi, weka, kakapo, and takahe to name a few.  Many birds have little fear, and you will find that birds such as fantails and robins will follow you around, in the hopes that you’ll stir up some bugs along the way. Wekas, which look somewhat like chickens, will try to steal any and all your gear.  New Zealand also has no snakes, and only one poisonous spider, which you’ll probably never meet. In other words, you have very little to fear in the mountains… except for the weather.

South Island Robbin

Fantail

A nosy Weka

The weather in New Zealand can rule your life because you often have to ford rivers that become dangerous after heavy rain, and hiking on exposed and rugged ridges can be dangerous in poor weather.  We were lucky with the weather for the first half of our trip, after which we started having to play tetris with good weather days. We did have to spend an entire day in a hut waiting out poor weather in the Richmond Ranges, where the trail is particularly rugged and exposed, and we tried to wait for good weather to cover the Tararuas, the Whanganui River, and Tongariro Crossing, with mild success.  We had several cyclones hit New Zealand during our hike, and had to wait them out in towns, and then attempt to judge river crossings afterward. Some people skipped sections to avoid fording high rivers rather than wait for water levels to drop.

Bastien and Tabea fording a river

Because the trail is so young, it is definitely experiencing some growing pains.  The number of hikers on this trail seems to just about double every year, at least according to locals.  This has placed certain strains on the trail and local communities. Most hikers on the South Island spend their nights in the huts along the trail (you can buy a Hut Pass from the DOC), but the huts vary in size and often don’t have enough space for the number of hikers that show up during peak season.  Huts are often built in areas where it made sense to build a hut, but not necessarily in areas where it makes sense to camp. When the huts are full, people are being forced to camp in these areas anyway. This is especially a problem in the Richmond Ranges where the huts are small, most having about 6 bunks, and they are predominantly in exposed areas where you may need to hunker down and wait for bad weather to pass.  I read stories in the hut book of 16 people squeezed into one of these small huts, with people sleeping in every corner of the floor.

Mount Rintoul Hut, where we took a day to wait out bad weather

 

Speaking of places to camp, there are very few places to camp compared to on trails in the United States.  We originally figured we would simply camp and avoid the huts, but we quickly found that the terrain did not allow us to simply search for a camp spot within an hour or so of when we were ready to call it a day.  I’ve rarely had this problem in the USA, but our terrain is, for the most part, a whole lot less wet and a whole lot less rugged. Plus, the TA goes through many farms and other private estates where camping is not permitted.  This problem was exacerbated in 2017 by the fact that the Guthook App, which many hikers use on their phones as a GPS as well as a means of finding water sources and camp spots, deleted all camping locations listed on the app.  Most hikers guessed that this was because illegal camp spots were being entered into the app, and this was simply not acceptable to the DOC or the TA Trust (hikers are encouraged to donate to the TA Trust after their hike, I would also encourage hikers to donate to the DOC – you can donate to one of their conservation programs, you cannot donate directly to DOC).

There are places that you can camp in towns, called Holiday Parks, and many times we forked out $30-40NZ just to camp in town (they charge per person, not per tent) with showers costing an additional $2 and laundry another $6-8.  This was often the cheapest option for staying in town, the next cheapest being hostels where you would share a bunk room with 4-12 people. What surprised me the most was how packed some of the tourist towns were, and how hard it was to find accommodation on the fly.  It was so bad that sometimes we tried to reserve something in advance, forcing us to stick to a strict schedule to make it in time for our reservation.

After a bit of research, John and I decided to hike the TA northbound.  Our decision to go northbound was based on a few factors: first of all, we wanted to be home for Christmas.  Second, we didn’t want to be in a “bubble” of hikers. Third, we wanted to hike the more scenic, more wild portion of the trail first in case of injury, or other hike-ending situations.  I also later found out that Northland in spring is by far the muddiest season, whereas going northbound we would hit it in fall, which is much more pleasant. So, we started mid-January at Bluff.

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It’s fair to say that going southbound would guarantee a trail community to hike with.  Since we went northbound, didn’t meet many more than a dozen northbounders total during our hike, and for the first half of the South Island, we didn’t hike with anyone else.  It was a bit lonely without other hikers. Of course, we met many southbounders, but only in passing, and we had no shared experiences.

Within the first couple of weeks on trail, I couldn’t help but notice the demographics of people hiking the trail.  The vast majority of hikers were from Europe – but only the rich European countries were represented. There were also a fair number of Americans: from the USA or Canada.  There were a handful of Kiwis (New Zealanders), but surprisingly few. Most hikers were young, but of working age (20’s and 30’s). The fact that the vast majority of these hikers came from the richest countries in the world really left me feeling over-privileged and… guilty.  The feeling would stick with me the entire trail and would shape some of my judgments.

From the beginning, we decided we would not be doing a “purist” thru-hike of the entire trail (purist means hiking every mile from start to end).  I sort of thought we wouldn’t give up on a purist thru-hike of the South Island, however, and on day 1 we were already faced with a 30km road walk on Route 1 (the main highway running the length of both islands).  So, our hike started with this road walk from Bluff to Invercargill on the hottest day ever recorded there. It would take us another 400-500km before we gave up on the notion of a purist thru-hike of the South Island.

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Walking along Route 1.

It’s no surprise that purists are in the vast minority on this trail.  It’s just too bad that some of them are very vocal and judgmental, especially online.  But, I’m sure they also often feel judged by the non-purists for doing pointless road walks.  I’ve heard more than one purist hiker being jealous of non-purists because a non-purist hike seemed so much more enjoyable.  I also noticed that most of the jaded, more negative online reviews or summaries of the TA came from purists, and I don’t blame them.  I am a big fan of the phrase “hike your own hike,” which is a hiker saying that attempts to keep people from judging or passing judgment on other hikers.  If your plan is to do a purist hike, that’s fine, and if your plan is to hit the highlights only, that’s fine too. I think going into the hike, it helps to set your rules in advance, ask yourself what you want to get out of this adventure and be willing to be flexible.

Before we started skipping any parts of the TA, however, we started adding tracks which we didn’t want to miss even though they weren’t on the TA.  We wanted to treat this trip like our one chance to visit New Zealand just in case we never had a chance to come back. Our first added track was the Greenstone Track which connected us to the Routeburn Track (a Great Walk).  We carefully connected these to the TA before the Lake Wakatipu hazard zone near Queenstown, which most people hitchhike or shuttle around.

Routeburn Track

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Routeburn Track

The biggest reason why we gave up on a purist thru-hike of the South Island was because of my physical ailments.  I’ve had several hip surgeries to correct hip dysplasia, and I also have a frozen shoulder, and I have found that I have a lot of pain walking on easy (flat) terrain.  Thus, the first section we skipped was the cycle path from Lake Ohau to Lake Tekapo, a boring ~75km walk along a flat cycle path with nowhere to camp. Some people choose to expensively rent a bike for this section, but we heard horror stories of people having to walk their bikes because of strong crosswinds.

Instead of doing the cycle path, we decided to take a quick side trip to Mount Cook, which remains one of the highlights of our trip.  We day-hiked up to Mueller Hut and saw keas (alpine parrots) along the way.

A cheeky kea

A view of Mount Cook

The next hazard zone for us was the Rangitata River.  This is a large braided river, and it is not advisable to ford it, as it takes many hours.  In that amount of time, the river could easily rise from rain upstream, which you may be completely unaware of, before you can safely make it across.  Unfortunately, when we arrived at the south side of the river, there was no way for us to get out of there, and we had almost run out of food. This is THE middle of nowhere, and the small parking lot and gravel road here sees maybe one car a day, if that.  We weren’t about to be able to hitchhike out of there. As we approached the river, we met two southbounders who had just forded, and so we entered the river only knowing that it was possible to ford an hour earlier. It took us 3 hours to ford the river (it is about 5km across).  I stand behind the Te Araroa Trust in keeping this a hazard zone. If I had the choice, I would not have forded. It was stressful, obviously could be hazardous, and we almost definitely picked a poor route (and I wouldn’t know- just looking at a map- how to pick a better one).

The Rangitata River

The next hazard zone, the Rakaia River, is only 70km further along, and after spending 7 hours successfully hitchhiking out from the northern end of the Rangitata (which sees maybe 1 car an hour), I wasn’t about to go through that again with another, much more dangerous river for only 2 days worth of hiking.  I didn’t want to skip this section, but we did for logistical reasons.

Hitchhiking in New Zealand works well, but only where there are people.  The population of New Zealand is less than 5 million, and most of them live in the North Island, so there are some parts of the South Island where you may be waiting a long time.  On the South Island, most of the people who picked us up were tourists, whereas, on the North Island, we met many more locals.

We hiked most of the rest of the South Island, only skipping a few small road-walks here or there when convenient.

Queen Charlotte Track near the northern end of the South Island

After we gave up on our purist hike, each time other hikers or locals asked us if we were hiking the whole TA we would say “that’s the plan, except for the roads.”  The reactions of locals really surprised me:

“Life is too short to walk on roads.”

“You didn’t travel all the way to New Zealand to walk on a road!”

“There are so many better things to do here than walk on our crappy roads.”

“Don’t let people tell you that you aren’t walking the whole thing if you’re skipping roads.”

“The people that walk the roads are people that just want to be able to tick a box.”

It seemed that Kiwis were far less goal-oriented than the average American.  After giving it some further thought, what struck me about the idea of a purist hike of the TA is that the only box you can tick is that you’ve hiked the whole TA.  You can’t claim to have continuous footsteps for the length of New Zealand, in fact, you can’t even claim to have walked the length of New Zealand because of the hazard zones.  You would need to walk many, many days of extra roads in order to be able to get around the lakes and rivers that are labeled as hazard zones (Note: we did meet someone doing this.)

Road walking on the hottest day ever recorded in Invercargill

Road walking with Martin on the North Island

A very scenic gravel road walk in Northland

Kiwis, along with their nonchalant attitude, are complete badasses.  The average New Zealand tramper is like a cat: they have nine lives, and always land on their feet.  I think this has something to do with the terrain in New Zealand. If you grow up walking in these mountains, you can’t help but become used to them.  Once I finished the South Island, it didn’t surprise me that the first person to climb Mount Everest was a Kiwi, despite the tiny population of New Zealand.

Kiwis are also some of the kindest people I’ve encountered.  It is not uncommon for someone to come up to you in a grocery store or on the street and strike up a conversation about your trip and welcome you to New Zealand.  They’re always helpful and unusually kind. Kiwis will restore your faith in humanity. Only one thing: They’re crazy drivers. But you could also blame the crazy roads.

A funny sign I found on the inter-island ferry.  The same can be said for NZ trails.

Even though the locals are kind and generous, I think that local trampers use TA hikers as scapegoats for all sorts of problems, some of which are somewhat warranted: overcrowded huts, freeloading, littering, etc.  As I mentioned before, most TA hikers are not Kiwis, so I think locals see parts of their backcountry as being taken over by unprepared tourists

North Island:

Due to the fact that the South Island, in general, offers more tantalizing hiking opportunities, many hikers opt to hike the South Island only.  I don’t think this is an unreasonable move because most of the South Island is fantastic. But, if I had limited time, I think I would probably skip small pieces of the South Island (road walks, and the cycle path), and still hit some of the highlights of the North Island.  Although I did not hike much of the North Island, I do think I hit many of the highlights, so maybe it’s appropriate for me to list what I think are the highlights (also, when I spoke to other thru-hikers, they mostly only spoke fondly about these sections).

Highlights of the North Island:

The Tararuas:  This is the one very rugged mountainous section of the North Island.  Many Southbounders told me this was their favorite section of the North Island

Moss in the Tararuas

Amazing views in the Tararuas

More views in the Tararuas

More moss in the Tararuas

The Whanganui River: This is a section of the trail which should be canoed rather than hiked.  The canoe trip is a “Great Journey” (like a Great Walk, but rather a canoe trip), and I recommend doing the typical 5-day canoe trip advertised by all the canoe rental companies.  This is actually not the exact section of the river that the TA follows on the Whanganui, but if you’re not married to the TA, then this is the best section to do. The TA continues south through part of the river that just goes through boring farmland and is affected by tidal flow, meaning you may have to paddle hard or take a break when the tide is against you.  If you’re short on time, the 3-day trip (Whakahoro to Pipiriki) is the best part of the 5-day trip.

Canoeing the Whanganui.  Photo Credit: Martin Mařík

Canoeing the Whanganui. Photo Credit: Martin Mařík

 

The Tongariro Crossing:  This is also a Great Walk, and you can either do just the day hike (roughly 20km), or you can make it longer and do “Around the Mountain,” which many TA hikers recommended to us (huts here are first come first serve), or the “Northern Circuit”, which is logistically a bit more challenging because it is part of the Great Walk, and you must reserve the huts far in advance.

The Tongariro Crossing, a walk through volcanoes

Red Crater

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Mount Ngauruhoe

Northland:  Much of the trail north of Auckland seems worth doing.  There is still a fair amount of road walking, and some of this can be hitchhiked, but there are many stunning coastal walks, and forest sections which are worth your time. Also, there is 90-mile beach, which some hikers seem to hate (I think this is because they are Southbounders, and this is the first thing they hit).  There are also a fair amount of estuary crossings which can be frustrating because you have to pay close attention to tides or find ways around them. Still, it’s a stunning part of the country, and since kiwis (both the people and the birds!) actually live here, you’re likely to experience some of New Zealand’s famous hospitality.

Beach walking in Northland

Stunning coastal walks in Northland

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View near Whangerei Heads of Te Whara on Bream Head

Conclusion:

The TA is worth hiking, at least in parts.  In fact, I think some of the sections of this long distance trail will remain my favorite hiking experiences of all time.  But, the trail is still young and evolving. I don’t think that it will ever be like the long distance trails of the United States in terms of road-walking (or they would need to really reroute the trail drastically), but I think it has a lot of character the way it is.  Maybe they will start a permit system to manage the increase in numbers, or maybe they will suggest alternative routes so people can spread out somewhat. Who knows. I do know that a lot more people are going to go to New Zealand because of the TA, and so you’ll hear a lot more about the pros and cons of the trail from other hikers.  New Zealand is one of the most beautiful places on earth, and I hope that some people who come to hike the TA will also decide to take the time to see some of the sights that are just a quick side trip away.

Milford Sound, a side trip we took from Te Anau

Thanks for following, and I hope this final blog piece will be helpful to some of you contemplating this adventure.  I’m also happy to take any questions!