Hiking Safety in Australia: Know Before You Go

Australia has incredible hiking trails for travelers of all experience levels. Here are a few tips to hike safely so you don't become "that person" who ends up being rescued and featured on the nightly news.

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Bushwalking Photo © GettyImages/lovleah

Many travelers who visit Australia, regardless of experience level, don't realise how easy it is to get lost or caught out due to weather changes. That half day hike you decided to do can blow out into a night in the wilderness where you become exposed to the elements – or at worst, a search and rescue mission.

Most hikers experience Australia's bushwalks with little to no troubles, but it pays to be prepared.

Past Hiking Rescues

Each year in Australia, hiking rescues will pop up on the nightly news, and even the most experienced hikers can come unstuck. Most news stories end on a positive note, however some become a recovery mission.

New South Wales

July 2009: British backpacker Jamie Neale went to hike to Ruined Castle in the Blue Mountains only to get lost and spend the next 12 days trying to find his way out of the bush. Fortunately, he survived to tell the tale despite the bitter winter conditions and breaking pretty much every bushwalking safety rule there is.

He didn't tell anyone where he was going and it was only four days after he went missing did a search take place. NSW Police described the situation "like looking for a needle in a haystack". Jamie had insufficient water and no food at all. Somehow he survived on seeds and nuts that he found, subsequently he was dehydrated and showed signs of malnutrition when he was examined in hospital on his return.

This is how he described himself on Sixty Minutes that aired soon after his rescue:

"Yeah, it ah - I admit I've been a total idiot and, in the UK, you walk for a day, you'd end up in a pub. But, just out here, you can get lost so easily and that, I think you should respect the fact and be more prepared, and think about what you're doing a lot more."

Hiking to Ruined Castle is considered to be for hard to experienced hikers only.

August 2018:  Czech traveler David Lustina was rescued by emergency services after failing to arrive back at his accommodation after setting out to hike to Ruined Castle in the Blue Mountains. Authorities reported that he was ill equipped for the walk in terms of warm clothing and equipment.

Queensland

May 2016: Two young hikers ended up stranded on Mount Beewah, located in the Glasshouse Mountains on the Sunshine Coast Hinterland in terrible weather conditions, with one hiker badly cutting his leg after a fall. They had started their hike at 3pm in the afternoon (which means there was only about 2 hours of light left in the day) and had become disoriented, unfortunately resulting in them wandering off a marked track. They were winched out by helicopter after highly experienced climbers reached them with food, water and first aid.

Victoria

April 2017: Five hikers were rescued from Mount Disappointment in Victoria's Macedon Ranges after a six hour operation involving over 30 emergency personnel and vehicles. The hikers had walked the Strath Creek - Tunnel Falls circuit, and unfortunately, it was already dark (7:30pm) by the time they arrived at the end of the trail near Strath Creek Falls. Three of the five hikers were unable to hike out due to fatigue resulting in the other two hikers walking to a higher point to get phone reception to call emergency services. Each hiker had to be abseiled out of the location. The trail was only suitable for advanced to experienced hikers.

Western Australia

April 2017: Three hikers were at Frenchman's Peak after becoming lost and injured in difficult terrain while hiking in the Cape Le Grand National Park. They were unable to find trail markers and were luckily able to locate some cell phone reception to contact emergency services.

Northern Territory

January 2018: An American hiker died on the Larapinta Trail in 107°F heat (42°C) after becoming separated from his hiking companion while descending Mount Sonder. The location is very exposed and not recommended to be hiked in the summer due to the high temperatures and risk of extreme dehydration.

Know Your Limits

Many people attempt to walk hiking trails with very little experience or fitness or in some cases, too overconfident in their current experience level. Throw in a weather change and things can deteriorate.

Stick to trails which suit your experience level and if you aren't fit and experienced enough to attempt an advanced trail, don't push yourself to do it.

Tell Someone Where You Are Going

This is the golden rule of hiking. Tell someone where you are going and when you expect to return. This applies to solo and group hikers. 

Tell anyone you like: the manager of the hostel or hotel you are staying at, the local police, people at the information center or national parks visitors center. Of course don't forget to tell them when you expect to return - how embarrassing for a search party to be sent out to find you when you've already returned safely and are enjoying a quiet beer at the pub. You will then be owing a few people some beer for the trouble, and potentally a financial penalty.

With multi-day treks such as the Larapinta Trail in the Northern Territory and the Overland Track in Tasmania, there are several initiatives put in place to ensure the safety and enjoyment of hikers.

On the Overland Track, you are required to let someone know (preferably Tasmanian Police) before you set off. There are also log books which you need to sign in and out of at the beginning and end of the track, and each time you visit a hut on the track. This assists park staff if someone or a group goes missing or is overdue to arrive at the next location.

Before you set out on the Larapinta Trail, hikers must submit a trek plan with Northern Territory Parks and while on the trail, enter your details into the log books which are located at the beginning of each trailhead (section). Like the Overland Track, this assists park rangers and authorities with a last known location.

Personal Locator Beacons or EPIRBS

In a lot of wilderness spots around Australia, there is pretty much little to no cell phone reception so it's important not to rely on your phone if things go pear shaped.

Many of the aforementioned rescues highlight the necessity of using Personal Locator Beacons PLB or EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Response Beacon) which can be rented for a fee or borrowed free of charge from police stations and National Parks offices in major bushwalking regions around Australia e.g Blue Mountains National Park and Kosciuszko National Park.

On 31st January 2017, a 65 year old man set off his PLB that night while hiking in Kosciuszko National Park (alpine region) after becoming disorientated and losing his path in the Rolling Grounds near Guthega. He was found the following morning by rescue helicopter and transferred to Perisher Valley. Police highlighted the importance of registering your hike details and taking a PLB as even the most experienced of hikers can need assistance in the mountain area.

PLB's are a last resort only; if you can get cell phone service this is your first choice. The basic purpose of distress radiobeacons is to get people rescued within the so-called "golden day" (the first 24 hours following a traumatic event) during which the majority of survivors can usually be saved.

But, just because you've got a PLB or an EPIRB doesn't mean you can go wandering into the bush without proper gear and preparation.

Plan Your Bushwalk

Pick walks that are within your fitness capacity and level of experience. Just because "walk" is part of the title, doesn't mean absolutely anyone can do it.

Never walk alone, Jamie did and look what happened to him. Try to walk in groups of at least four, that way if you do get in trouble you can split into safe groups of two - one to get help (if you can't call for it) and one to stay put.

Make sure your clothing and footwear are up to the task; flip flops, sandals and wedge heels are not suitable footwear. Think runners or proper walking boots.

Take extra clothing to be prepared for a sudden change in weather. Also, don't be a hero - turn back if the weather starts closing in or if things are starting to feel out of control.

Essentials for Hiking

  • Waterproof overgear and warm, dry spare clothing
  • A box of matches stored in a water tight container or fire starter
  • Enough food for your trip plus emergency rations
  • PLB or EPIRB
  • A whistle
  • A compass and a map, and be sure you know how to use them
  • A first aid kit including space blanket, water purifying tabs
  • Water - at least a half gallon, more if you can carry it

With food and water - be safe rather than sorry, don't hog it all down. Conserve and ration it in case things do go wrong. Try to only drink the water you carry, water is not always available and untreated creek, bore-water or rain water isn't always safe - despite what Bear Grylls might suggest!

Walking in Alpine Regions

Yes, it does get cold in Australia and even in summer. The alpine areas in New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania can drop to chilly temperatures overnight, patches of snow can be seen around and the weather can turn at a moment's notice. That track you thought you saw in front of you can disappear; leaving you relying on the paper map and a compass or having to bunker down.

Unless you are a highly experienced winter snow hiker or camper, it's best to avoid it.

Overnight camping and alpine walks require even more planning and gear. Here's a list of items, all to be carried on your back in a pack. Remember these are the bare essentials:

  • Sleeping bag
  • Sleeping mat
  • Tent or swag
  • Mess kit
  • Rubbish bag (if you take it in, bring it out)
  • Sun protection gear and beanie or balaclava for protection from the cold
  • Waterproof jacket and pants
  • Underwear, good walking socks and gloves
  • Thermal clothing
  • Polar fleece or jacket
  • Matches / fire-starters (be mindful of fire safety ratings and signs on the day, you may not be allowed to light a fire at all)
  • Toilet paper, plastic bag and toilet trowel - need we say why?
  • First Aid Kit
  • Whistle
  • Maps and compass
  • EPIRB, cell phone, powerbank
  • Headtorch

This list is just the gear, you'll also need enough food and water for at least two days.

Help! We're Lost!

Now if the worst happens and you do get into trouble, here's the drill:

  • Stay where you are and stay together as a group
  • Make your location as visible as possible (don't light a fire though - think about it!)
  • Relax and conserve your energy
  • Don't panic and don't split up

The Australian wilderess can be a harsh place and the risks can be high if you are not prepared. Respect her, follow the rules and you'll be fine.

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  • Mimi said

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