Day 3 of the Routeburn Track and the Lake Howden Hut bustled with activity in the pre-dawn light.  The Hut held 28 bunks, about half of which were taken up with a group of middle school students from Singapore, on a field trip.  Hold up – “field trip”?  My middle and high school field trips consisted of outings to the local skate rink, bowling alley, driving range, or every few years a 2 hour bus ride to Washington DC where we spent the day in the Smithsonian museums, the highlight being the freeze-dried astronaut ice-cream at the Air & Space Museum.  So a school field trip to another country for a fairly challenging overnight hiking adventure was a bit surprising.

The school group was from the Singapore American School and led by a Canadian and American teacher.  Doing a quick search online, I was able to find the brochure outlining the 8 day, $3,800 trip.  These trips are required each year as part of the school’s curriculum, ultimately trying to give the students a global experience where they can learn new skills, challenge themselves, create relationships and enhance their understanding of the world.  Overall it is a pretty cool (though expensive) concept that many students elsewhere in the world would envy.  From talking with their teacher, many of the students had never even boiled a pot of water before this trip, let alone carry a pack over a mountain range and sleep in huts.  Overall the kids were a bit noisy but generally well-behaved.

day3routeburnWe set out to hike the last leg of the Routeburn in the falling rain.  Hiking to The Divide would take about 1-1.5 hours, with a slight uphill followed by a longer gradual downhill for a total of 3.4 km.  It rained steadily, so we opted to skip the Key Summit side track which on nice days has great views of the valley.  Though it had showered on and off throughout our days on the Routeburn, this was the first steady rain we experienced, and we had greater appreciation for the rain gear we brought with us.

The weather in the Fiordland area of New Zealand, where the Routeburn, Kepler and Milford Tracks are located, can vary greatly in a single day and it is always a good idea to dress in layers and bring rain and cold weather gear in case weather should change for the worse.  More importantly, on overnight hikes a little bit of dampness will linger a long time, since nothing seems to get fully dry overnight in the huts.  Making sure you are dry the first few days will keep you happier later on in your hike.  Here are a few things we found to be essential on our hikes in terms of rain gear:

1.  Waterproof hiking boots – Throughout our hikes in New Zealand, these boots kept my feet toasty warm and dry, despite days of heavy rain, in addition to being comfortable to hike in all day.  Tyler has the men’s version and found them great as well.

2.  Wool socks – After numerous pairs of socks bought and tested, I prefer a longer, more padded wool socks, while Tyler prefers a shorter thinner wool sock.  Just make sure to go for a few test hikes in your new socks before packing them for an overnight hike!

3.  Waterproof rain jacket – Tyler and I both have Columbia rain jackets with “Omni-tech waterproof/breathable fully seam sealed”.  While I love the style, fit, and color of my Arcadia Jacket, and I believe the prices for a quality Columbia jacket are hard to beat, the jacket proved not 100% waterproof when hiking multiple days in steady rain.  I think it’s time for me to invest in something more heavy-duty – please let me know of any suggestions!

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Red Ledge Rain Pants & Mountainsmith Rain Covers, with pen for size reference

4.  Backpack rain covers – These pack covers worked great and folded up very small for easy packing.

5.  Waterproof pants – Wearing these over my hiking pants or athletic leggings, these pants worked excellently and were easy to get on and off as they fully zipped up the sides to the waistband.  Tyler and I have nothing but praise for these pants and would purchase them again.  Since they are unisex, a Small fit me well and Tyler wore a Medium, and they also came with a nice stuff sack for easy packing.

6.  Heavy duty ponchos – Definitely worth a few extra dollars if the forecast is for rain.  These are large enough to fit over both you and your pack, and are also great to sit on if the ground is wet.

7.  Gloves – In wind, rain or just fluctuating temperatures throughout the day, it is a good idea to keep warm and dry on your extremities.  We found some great (and inexpensive) gloves at Road Runner Sports – I opted for fleece while Tyler opted for a thin base-layer type glove.

8.  Hiking Poles – We received an awesome set for Christmas from Tyler’s brother which are extendable (great for packing) and have compasses in the handles.  When the trail is slippery and steep and you are carrying a heavy pack, the poles provide great stability.  Don’t knock them til you try them 🙂

9.  Hats – We always bring one warm winter hat and one dri-fit baseball cap each when we hike, to protect from cold, sun, and rain.

10.  Plastic pack liner – Borrowing 2 of these from our friends in Auckland proved invaluable, despite my initial thought of them being annoying.  These large, heavy-duty plastic bags held all of the contents in our packs to keep everything dry (including food and electronics). Considering we had rain at some point on nearly every day of our hikes in New Zealand, these really were handy, and they are also a good idea to have in case of emergency.  I saw them for sale for about $8NZD at the shops in Queenstown, however I’m sure some heavy-duty trash bags would do the trick in a pinch.

Throughout my time hiking and living in New Zealand, I’ve noted that the traditional kiwi tramping attire consists of thermals, hiking shorts, and gaiters, impressing upon me again the importance of layering when hiking in this country.  Thermals are basically like long johns – a close to the skin layer of clothing that keeps you warm but is breathable and quick drying.  Gaiters are made of a durable material, covering the tops of your boots and going part-way up your leg, usually hooking under the arch of your hiking boot.  The purpose of wearing them is to protect against brush and trail debris, as well as rain and mud splatter.

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Raingear in action

Our rain gear thoroughly tested as we finished up the Routeburn, we waited for the Tracknet shuttle at The Divide, trying to stay warm in the three-sided shelter (and failing miserably in my case).  While my pack cover and rain jacket seemed to initially work well, the steady precipitation had caused a pool of water to find its way down between my pack and my body, and unfortunately had soaked through my jacket on my lower back.  When the shuttle finally dropped us off in Te Anau, we had about 3 hours to get supplies for our next multi-day hike (the Milford), and we picked up heavy-duty ponchos as added rain protection.  Before we knew it, we were off for our next Great Walk.

Resources:

Click to access Interim_Semester_Student_Handbook.pdf