Tips for bushwalking beginners

Travelling Well | RACV | Posted on 17 November 2020

Want to start exploring Victoria on foot? Here’s what you need to know.

For COVID-fatigued Victorians shaking off months of travel restrictions, nature isn’t just calling, it’s virtually yelling. And among those answering the call of the wild are those pulling on hiking boots for the first time.

A poll commissioned by the Victorian National Parks Association found that more than half Melburnians surveyed had been spurred to visit local bush and parkland by the COVID-19 lockdown.

“These results reinforce what we’ve been hearing across the community over the past few difficult months – people miss the bush,” says the association’s executive director Matt Ruchel. “It’s good for their physical and mental health.”

But whether you’re a bushwalking novice or a veteran tramper, it’s important to be prepared and take a few simple precautions to ensure you maximise your enjoyment and minimise the risks.

Family bushwalking


Here’s what you need to know before setting off


Which walk?

Your first bushwalk should leave you pleasurably weary and eager for more, rather than shattered and vowing you’ll never hike again. So choose a track that suits not just your interests but also your fitness – easy/moderate if you don’t exercise much, moderate/hard only if you’re in good nick.

Victoria abounds with tracks that show off our rugged coast and creased mountains, tall timbers and tiny fungi, our deserts and rainforest. It’s also full of trails leading back through the state’s rich gold-mining history. The Parks Victoria website is a useful place to start researching your next adventure.

Don’t rush

Getting from A to B as fast as possible is for Olympic athletes and people trying to prove something. Take time to appreciate the country you’re walking through, looking at the plants and animals close up (within reason) in addition to basking in the views.

Binoculars and a camera on a macro setting add to the experience.

Clothing

There’s no need to exercise your credit card on specialist hiking clothes first up. Comfortable, loose-fitting or stretchy clothing allowing movement is all you need to get going. Plus a waterproof jacket in case the weather changes.

Jeans can chafe, especially if sweaty or sandy. They are also dangerously cold when wet, so don’t wear them in mountain environments even on sunny days, because conditions can deteriorate unexpectedly.

Footwear

Good-gripping runners or sturdy walking sandals will get you through most first walks. Boots can be overkill, and thongs provide no protection or support. And ensure that whatever you wear is worn in, because the pain of blisters from new footwear can turn bushwalking bliss into hiking hell. Many seasoned walkers wear two pairs of socks – one thick, one thin – to help prevent blisters. 

shot of person from behind as they walk along a fern-lined path in wilson's prom
a couple bushwalking with white daisies in forground


Getting lost

Most designated walks are well signed and you’ll often get out and back safely with a downloaded map, or a paper one picked up on arrival. If you choose a hike that ventures further off beaten tracks, though, buy a contour map – and know how to read it.

Also, be sure to tell someone where you’re going and what time you expect to return, so they can raise an alarm if you don’t.

Wear or carry something brightly coloured. Camouflage colours make you almost invisible to search parties. Brighter clothes also show up better in photographs of your day out.

If you do get lost, don’t panic. Stay with your group and try to identify your last known position. If you are not confident retracing your steps to your last known position or continuing on a course that must lead to a known feature such as a stream or a road, stay where you are. Keep warm, calm and seek shelter while waiting for help. In order to attract the attention of searchers in the air or on the ground, you may need to move to a clearing, water course or a location above the tree line. Place any brightly coloured items together in a block to attract attention from the air and listen out for calls or whistles from searchers on the ground. You can attract attention by making the recognised distress signal of three evenly spaced calls, shouts or whistles.

Getting separated

When bushwalking there’s safety in numbers, so do try to stay with your group on the trail. Always regroup at a trail junction, and if the trail is poorly marked, make sure you maintain sight contact. Encouraging slower walkers to stay near the front of the group will avoid them being left behind, and be sure to keep an eye on children who tend to run ahead. If someone in your group does become separated and cannot be contacted by phone, search the immediate area where they were last seen. If they are not found within three to four hours, call the police.

Extreme weather and fire

Always check the local weather forecast and fire warnings before setting off on a bushwalk. In hot and humid conditions, walkers risk heat exhaustion or potentially dangerous heat stroke. Avoid walking in the hottest part of the day – start early and take a midday rest, or shorten your route. Make sure you drink plenty of water before you head off as well as during the walk and wear a hat and sunscreen to avoid sunburn. On hot days, try to plan your walk near a watercourse and be careful not to overdo it on a hot day. Early signs that you might be suffering from heat exhaustion are thirst, headache, cramps, nausea or giddiness. If this happens, rest in a shaded area, remove excess clothing and drink plenty of cool water.

Avoid walking altogether if thunderstorms are predicted – chose an indoor activity for the day.

In spring and summer, it’s also essential to check for fire danger in the local area before setting off. The Bureau of Meteorology has fire rating maps which are updated twice a day during the fire season at approximately 6am and 6pm. However conditions can quickly change during the day, so these should not be relied upon alone – be sure to check BoM weather forecasts and the CFA’s Fire Danger ratings.

Close up of a shoe on a person bushwalking
Four people on a bushwalk


First aid

Bushwalking often means heading into remote areas with limited access to immediate medical attention in case of an emergency. So St John Ambulance’s Kristin King says it’s important to brush up on basic first aid and carry a first-aid kit (see below), along with any personal medications such as asthma inhaler, EpiPen or antihistamine tablets. Falls and accidents can happen to even the most seasoned walkers and knowing how to treat a sprain or immobilise a fractured limb with a sling or splint can be invaluable. In case of a minor injury such as a sprain or muscle strain, cool and elevate the injured limb and apply a firm crepe bandage, then rest before continuing the walk. If possible, fashion a walking stick out of a fallen branch for support and lighten the injured person’s load.

Snakes

St John Ambulance Australia estimates 3000 Australians are bitten by a snake each year. Kristin King says the best way to avoid a bite is to wear sturdy shoes and make a lot of noise to scare snakes away. Under no circumstances should you try to poke or harm a snake (killing certain species can incur a hefty fine). And before you head out, make sure you know the basics of snake-bite first aid.

  • Lay the person down, try to calm then and call Triple 0 for medical assistance.
  • Apply a pressure immobilisation bandage around the bite as soon as possible – not a tourniquet. Wrap the bandage past the snake bite and as far up the limb as possible. Ensure the bandage is firm but does not hinder blood circulation.
  • Record the time of the bite and when the bandage was applied.
  • Ensure the person remains still while waiting with them and recording any changes in their condition until emergency services arrive.  

Food

Your enthusiasm or fitness might not extend to carrying a full-spread picnic on a walk but even a bog-standard sandwich tastes delicious outdoors. Always take something to eat, even if just a muesli bar or dried fruit and nuts. And water is essential always – carry more in warm weather.

Group or solo?

One of the joys of bushwalking is escaping life’s everyday hassles – human and otherwise – but walking with a companion or small group is safer than going solo, at least until you clock up some experience and kilometres in your legs. Not all bushwalking clubs require you to attend a meeting or join before rocking up for a hike, either. A great source of information for groups around Victoria is the bushwalkingvictoria.org.au website.

Rubbish

Leave the walk clean for those who follow by carrying out everything you take in, including all food wrappers and scraps, and any unburied toilet paper.

BUSHWALKING FIRST-AID KIT ESSENTIALS

St John Ambulance Victoria recommends bushwalkers carry the following in a first-aid kit.

  • Two extra-firm compression bandages (10 centimetres wide)
  • Heavy crepe bandage (7.5 centimetres wide)
  • First-aid instant cold pack
  • Emergency thermal blanket
  • Disposable splinter probe
  • Whistle with compass
  • Torch with batteries
  • Two 10-packs of first-aid sterile cleansing wipes
  • Antiseptic spray
  • Pen
  • St John First Aid Quick Reference Guide
  • Any personal medications