Words and photos by Dahn Pratt
Like a giddy school girl, wearing her new outfit on the first day of high school, I galloped down 90-mile beach and embarked on a quasi-metaphysical acid trip down the thru-hike rabbit hole. Sensory deprivation and sensory overload were going to be the chemical cocktails on Te Araroa, 3,000km (1,800 miles for you uninitiated folks) of all manner of trail (or lack thereof). The sensory deprivation/overload conundrum weighed heavily, both figuratively and literally, on my shoulders. How do you take the bare essentials or even less than that and live out of a 8 lbs pack for four months? This was definitely on the backburner during my drunken euphoria on day one.
Rewinding six-months, into the past, and this gobsmacked naive wanderluster was a very different person. Sitting in front of a computer painstakingly planning every facet and function of my gear. Weighing items on a kitchen scale down to the grams, spreadsheets, test runs, reviews, and pie charts. Was this a thru-hike or a bad rendition of Office Space? I guess I didn’t get the memo about TPS reports because part of the excitement for me was nerding out over what I’d bring and what uses it would have. At the same time, long distance hiking is a hyper-minimalist lifestyle. Bordering on monastic in terms of material possessions, the ultralight endeavor is a paradoxical oxymoron. Carefully calculating precisely what to bring and what to buy while espousing an austere life, devoid of the common gluttonous traits of the society I was running away from.
It’s worth exploring this dichotomy and how it relates to one’s goals in a wilderness setting. Afterall, long distance hiking is a bit of a contradiction in-it-of-itself. Immense suffering, sacrifice, self-imposed isolation, while experiencing exaltation, pride, accomplishment, epiphanies, just to name a few. The rewards are infinite but the price is steep.
One of the biggest obstacles to overcome after committing to this mission of hiking a long distance trail is deciding what to bring. Usually fear dictates many superfluous items in one’s pack. While on the other hand, overindulgent confidence can lead to what Andrew Skurka has famously called “stupid light”. The ideal is an equilibrium between safe, efficient, light, and comfortable, a tough and tall order. Considering the variability of what I would experience in New Zealand, it was quite the daunting task to come up with a gear list that ticked all the boxes while hitting that sweet spot.
When emptying the contents of my pack at a hut or in town, a bystander or fellow hiker will usually comment on their concern for my lack of gear. “Where’s your gaiters?”, “Why aren’t you using boots?”, “Is that really your shelter?”, “Why aren’t you wearing pants?” OK that last one is a fair question but these ubiquitous questions for the uninitiated hiking-folks are a reflection of the disconnect we’ve increasingly widened between ourselves and nature.
Hiking in New Zealand is different from other hiking I’ve experienced. They even have a different term for the endeavor. Here it’s called tramping, and for good reason. The unpredictability of weather and the minimally maintained trails are a point of pride amongst the hearty Kiwis. Going out into nature is referred to as “going out into the bush”. I much preferred to think of it as “bush bashing”, irrespective of one’s opinion, tramping in New Zealand is tough.
One’s gear must mirror the difficult topography and luckily I was in good hands with my Liteskin fabric Katabatic Gear 50L Onni as well as my 22 degree Alsek quilt. The Onni was easily my favorite piece of kit and really shined in the varied, often miserable conditions that NZ weather and trail throw at you.
All-in-all going ultralight on the TA was a daunting task that was unsettling to a relatively inexperienced tramper, but the outcome was a successful and, more importantly, enjoyable thru-hike!