Although New Zealand is a tame place by world standards, without proper skills, knowledge and equipment you can end up in serious difficulties. Parts of the country are remote enough for longer trips, and it is possible to find yourself days from civilization. Imagining the consequences of breaking your leg in a remote xxxxx valley (and hey no-one will find you there), and wondering whether or not you could make it by living on berries and insects, is not the purpose of this section.

What I am really about is trying to give you some of the basic skills, which I have picked up (generally through bad experiences) in the hope that you can avoid catastrophes. Trampers die in NZ and the more remote you go, the harder the going gets (which is possibly a great sentence, but probably not).

The two main causes of fatality are drowning and hypothermia.

Fire lighting

The first skill to learn is the ability to light a fire in the middle of a rain storm. I've experienced 14 inches of rain in a three hour period on the xxxxxx River while camping and we slept on a log. I've also had 18 inches of rain one night... that night I had a tent (of sorts)

In a rain forest forget fallen dead wood: it's rotten and you'll never get a fire going. Instead look for standing dead wood. There's plenty of it in every forest. Small dead trees are easy to kick over and make good fire material.

Tinder and kinderling can be more of a problem. Kinderling (twigs used to get the fire going) can be taken from your dead tree. You might have to shave the bark off to get to the dry bits. Tinder can be more of a problem. It's best to get this stuff before it rains! Small dead grasses and mosses used to light the fire (old birds nests are great).

The secret to good fire lighting is practice. It is an essential survival skill.

Choosing your campsite

A good campsite is important to comfort and security. You don't want to camp below a landslip or avalanche, or (like I did) on an island which disappeared under heavy rain. So choose your site well above the water and be careful not to camp in gullies (which become rivers in rainstorms).


Rock overhangs make good natural shelters - although definitely not during electrical storms. It is useful to have the knowledge (and practice) in making you're own shelter from branches. There are various techniques which can be found in survival books (or you could just carry a tent). There is something quite calming in knowing you have the abilities to keep yourself warm and dry.


Obviously with spending up to three weeks in the bush, food can become a problem. Even with the best preperations, the unexpected can cause you to run out. A good idea is to carry some item of food you really detest, such as catfood. This generally will remain in your pack until the really desperate times occur - and then some.

Possums can make a tasty meal and they are reasonably easy to catch: rig up a snare near a tree, sprinkle with currypowder and flour (optional) attach a piece of shiny foil to the tree about a foot and a half above the ground and wait until morning. This raises the question: how does one cook a possum exactly? First bring a large pot of water to the boil. Then add some scented leaves and one possum, and simmer for 10 to 12 hours, changing the water every three hours. Whereupon the pot can be removed from the heat and the whole lot thrown away.

As well as possums, there are pigs, goats and deer a-plenty. Pig hunting is quite a popular pastime in NZ: they use dogs and a large knife (honest).

Edible plants

Now I'm no expert when it comes to edible plants. It's something I've been meaning to learn about, but it seems so complicated. All plants look pretty much alike to me, and yet some provide a tasty meal and others can send you into a coma.

There is a test however: the 'is it an edible plant test?'. First you rub a small bit of the crushed plant on a bit of your arm. Then you wait and see what happens. After two hours will no ill effects you can proceed. Same test but this time on your arm pit. Wait two hours. Continuing you try the corner of your mouth. Long wait. Next tip of your tongue (is this like the gingerbread man, or what?). Another long wait. If all is well you can try eating a little. Now you get to wait 6hrs! If you have not suffered any ill effects you can assume that the plant is safe to eat.

I can see a problem.

Since you can only test one plant at a time, in fact you can only test one part of a plant at a time (roots, tubers, leaves and flowers can all be independently poisonous: am I giving you confidence here?), this is not a quick test, but it is standard and you should know it, just in case.

When you're lost

It happens. The longest I have been truly lost has been for one and a half days. But I know people who have been lost for much longer and sometimes their whole lives. The main thing is not to panic. If you panic you'll just make stupid decisions. My general plan when lost is to try and find a river. All NZ rivers lead to the sea eventually and, except from fiordland, the coastline is usually easy to follow. If you know that you are deep inland the thing to do sometimes is to try and get above the treeline for better orientation.

Of course it goes without saying that you should have a compass.

Don't leave it too late in the day to set up camp: finding suitable shelter and starting a fire takes time. It's much better to have a comfortable night and wake up refreshed in the morning rather that walk until you can't see anymore and die.

When you're stuck

Look I think you've got the idea by now that it rains in NZ. Rivers flood quickly; it is not uncommon for a river to come up 6 or 8 meters. Never ever try to cross a flooded river. If it's badly coloured, or surging, or you can hear boulders rolling; if there are trees being swept down the river, if the world is falling about your ears: go to higher ground and make camp. More lives are lost in NZ fording rivers than any other tramping activity.

Don't keep it a secret

Always tell someone where you are going and when you expect to be back. And most importantly inform them when you have returned. Backcountry huts have a logbook. Fill this in: it will make the search for you all the quicker (although no-one actually checks them). A small mirror can be useful: if you need recovery you can flash it at aircraft, line the reflection up with your thumb and the plane. If there is no sun, you'll have to do something else, such as signalling with fire. Many waterproof pack liners are bright orange in colour, this is for emergency signalling. Of course best of all is not to get into trouble in the first place. But hey, what's life without a bit of action?