Words by Matt McClelland
The Overland Track is one of those must-do hikes for many good reasons. The track is about 80km long traversing an alpine plateau from Cradle Mountain to Lake St Clair in the heart of Tasmania. The Overland Track is popular with well-seasoned bushwalkers as well as for those who are new to this whole bushwalking thing. There are huts, toilets, signposts, and well-defined track making it safer and more accessible to many, but still giving a real sense of remoteness and adventure.
Once on the Overland Track I met a lovely lady, about 3 days into the walk, and her catchphrase before starting the track was “it’s only a walk, how hard can it be…” Turns out: a lot harder than she expected. She met people on track, learned some new skills, adjusted her pack and boots, and got into the rhythm from there and had a fantastic time. People have been walking the area for tens of thousands of years—you don’t need a degree in bushwalking. But, you will have a much safer and more enjoyable trip if you are well-prepared. Expecting the walk is challenging and putting in some time to get ready is key to making any longer walk a more enjoyable and positive, life changing experience.
Here are some key points that many don’t really think about but will help you get the most out of the time on track. I have an app (think of it as a digital guidebook, preparation checklist and field guide) that goes into a stupid level of detail, if being prepared is your thing. You don’t need that app to walk the track, but a lot of people have found it helps them hit the track better prepared for fun.
Know The History of the Overland Track
You will be on the track for a week following millions of years of history, so knowing a bit of this history will enrich your experience. There is something about understanding the landscape and its people that helps you better connect to the place. Understanding how the mountains formed gives a greater sense of awe—imagine the volcanic forces and glacial action sculpting the landscape. Knowing how to identify some of the flora and fauna helps you see the details and appreciate the wide variety of living things around you. Having a sense of how people who survived, lived, loved and thrived in these places for tens of thousands of years helps build a sense of connection to place and empathy for the people. Knowing some of the recent European histories can help better understand the struggles, destruction and efforts to protect this wild place. It might sound nerdy, but I am sure if you grab some books or podcasts you will be richer for it.
Walk Your Own Walk on the Overland Track
We all know the phrase ‘hike your own hike’. It’s great advice, but what the heck does it actually mean? You first need to understand why you want to do the Overland Track. Once you know what specifically is motivating and exciting you, then you can get a picture of what you want your walk to look like. Some people are all about being fast (it is about fitness), for some it is about photography (early mornings and taking time to capture images), for others it is social (staying in the huts and meeting new people) and for others it is is about bird watching (dawn and dusk times with binoculars ticking sightings from the list).
If you are there for a social photography trip, then you probably don’t want to walk with people who are keen on long fast-moving days. This is not about a right or wrong ways to enjoy wild places, but making sure you know your expectations and plan around them, it is helpful to know that some expectations are just not compatible with others. Chat with your walking buddies and try to understand the ‘why’, yours and their hopes for what makes a great trip and plan for them.
Knowing your motivations allows you to tweak the walk. Planning and packing to get the most out of your time on track. If you are keen to meet people, then it might help to pack some extra snacks to share at the hut. If you are keen on bird watching, then a good field guide and binoculars and choosing the best time of year for the birds you are looking for. There are thousands of ideas that might motivate you. Think through walks you have done and what made them awesome and think about what you imagine when you think of the Overland Track.
Do I Need an [Insert Piece of Gear Here] on the Overland Track?
There are lots of great lists on the Park's website, in my app, in books and online on what you should pack. (In fact, Ottie Merino has put together a pretty good list on what to wear here on a day hike, but it's completely applicable to multi-day hikes too.) These lists are important (use one) to let you know the essential gear and supplies you should pack. They also help point out optional equipment. Some people get pretty stressed before the trip, worrying about exactly what type and brand of footwear is ‘correct’ for the track, that also goes for tents, trekking poles, sleeping bags, stoves and rain jackets.
There is no ‘correct’ piece of gear, but there is certainly gear that is not suitable.
There is no definitive list of the perfect gear to pack on the Overland Track, it depends on personal things such as your experience, build, fitness, injuries, illness, budget, time of year and a million other things.
When asking for advice online, avoid simply asking ‘what boots [poles, tent…] should I use?’. People tend to answer with what gear worked for them, in the conditions they’ve walked in. They only used one piece of gear and are probably not in a position to understand your needs.
So, when seeking advice first give people a sense of what your plans are, and other relevant information and ask for advice on what to look for in good footwear, tents, poles, etc (not brands). You will get more helpful responses, then you can start asking more detailed questions as you learn. Maybe once you are close to settling on a piece of equipment, then ask people for experiences with specific gear.
One of the perils with asking for advise online is the impassioned responses you often get. "Should I use trekking poles?" Ask this and you're likely to get bombarded with passionate and absolute responses, both yes and no. When you get strong responses each way, then the answer is usually a big ‘it depends’. I have known people who have felt the pressure to use poles and got bad wrist injuries on day one. Some gear helps in some terrain and some people but can also make the trip worse. If you are unsure about a piece of equipment, see if you can borrow it from a friend or hire it and learn how to use it and test drive it over a weekend before you think about spending your hard-earned cash.
Don’t get me wrong here, you need good gear. Especially warm clothing, rain gear, tent, sleep system, and footwear. Start gathering gear early, borrow and try where you can. Most importantly get your gear out for some walks before the Tassie wilderness to see how it works for you. Better still, get it out when it is raining, windy and cold and see how you feel with it. If it doesn't rain where you live, then if you can use a sprinkler, test out your tent and rain gear on your lawn.
How Fit Do I Need To Be To Hike the Overland Track?
The fitter you are the more you will enjoy the walk and the safer you will be. If you are a super fit cyclist, gym junky, kayaker, or high jumper then you still need to develop your walking fitness. Some fitness transfers, but surprisingly not as much as you think. The best way to get fit for walking is by walking. (Read more about getting fit for hiking here and here, by our mate, personal trainer who specialises in training hikers and mountaineers, Rowan Smith.)
Image Credit: Geographica. You can buy the Hiking the Overland Track guidebook from them.
Hit the track, not the gym.
Fitness is not a single thing but an array of fitnesses. The key areas of fitness for a walk like the Overland Track are:
- Agility (ability to traverse uneven ground with ease)
- Back and core strength (about to hold you and your pack stable)
- Shoulder and upper back (support your pack harness and free up your arms)
- Feet/ankles (muscle and skin, to avoid ankle rolls and blisters)
- Leg strength (especially for those big long hills)
- Cardio (did I mention big long hills?)
- Psychological strength (ability to just keep going when it is raining and windy)
Build up your fitness by walking as much as you can before you get to Tassie. Walk to work or to the shops. Bushwalk on the weekend. If it is pouring rain, get out and walk. Walk up steep hills, then down and back up again. Build up your pack weight to get comfortable carrying more weight than you will have on the track. Whenever you can walk as much as you can on uneven surfaces like rocky track. Building up your agility with a pack on, this is as much about your brain learning how to do this well as it is about your muscles getting stronger for it.
The fitter you are the more excited you will be about doing side trips, the better you will cope in the rain/snow, and the more you can chat with your friends or have the energy for a photo or meal.
What's the Weather Like on The Overland Track
You really do need to expect it all. It can and does snow in summer. Cold driving wind and rain. Hot sunny days and sunburn. Yep, Tassie has it all. Especially outside summer, the snow can get deep. Only people with experience walking in winter alpine conditions should try to tackle this walk outside the warmer months.
Walking in snow can be amazing. It's pretty, the sounds are muffled and the crunch as you walk adds to the atmosphere. But it takes practice and additional gear to avoid falling on your arse. Similarly walking in the rain can be a delightful experience with dedicated practice. So in your pre-trip time, test your rain gear as often as you can, practise walking in the pouring rain, keeping your head up and looking around. If you wear glasses or hearing aids, think about how you will manage them before you get there. Learn to love the rain and pray for sunshine.
Freeze-Dried Meals are Perfect for Multi-Day Hikes, Right?
Food can be so much more than basic nutrition—rather than just eating, consider dining as an opportunity to bring you and your friends together and lift your spirits. The basic freeze dried meal packets on the market are expensive and tend to all taste the same after a few days.
Spend some time on your menu in the months before your walk. If you are walking with friends consider sharing meals and eating together, you can save a lot of weight and get more variety. Consider buying a dehydrator and dry some of your own meals, flavoured as you like them. Desserts, pre/post dinner cups of soups, hot chocolates/coffee/tea can make the evening more relaxed. I like to do a ‘happy hour'—for the first few days I will carry some cheese and crackers or chips. Further into the walk I might cook up big bowls of popcorn (with flavoured salt)—great when playing cards in a hut with new friends.
When you are planning your menu do consider nutrition, but also consider how it works with your goals for the walk, the flavour, the heterogeneity, and overall meal experience.
Lunches are another pinch point—I tend to carry a few different types of lunches, some that are super easy in the rain (e.g. a cold soaked rice/tuna salad), a slow relaxed lunch (e.g. crackers, flatbread, salami, peanut butter, etc) and a few quick cooked lunches, usually on a rest day or for a shorter walking day.
There are plenty of food ideas in my app and lots of great websites/books with amazing lightweight and yummy food ideas. Basically, good food can make the whole walk much more enjoyable, spend a bit of time planning it and enjoy eating like royalty on track.
To Hut or Tent on the Overland Track?
The huts on the Overland Track can’t be booked. They are available on a 'first come, first serve' basis, so you do need to carry a tent and be happy to use it. Even if you are sleeping in your tent, you can still use the hut for cooking, socialising, warming up, and organising your stuff.
Image Credit: Australian Hiker.
Your preference toward huts or tent will probably be based on your goals for the walk. If you lean toward enjoying socialness, you will probably lean toward the huts. The huts can get noisy, smelly, and crowded, and you can easily get sucked into the vortex of the hut life and forget to get out and enjoy the sunset.
On the day, your choice will probably depend on availability, your level of fatigue, the weather, and the people you have met.
The helipads adjacent to Overland Track huts are popular hangouts for sunsets and meals. Each hut has a helipad nearby that usually has good open views. They are a popular spot to sit and eat your dinner, chat, and watch the sunset. Some people even get excited to meet for a sunrise stretch or impromptu yoga session. The culture of your walking community varies from walk to walk so go with the vibe.
This article was written by Matt McClelland, a bit of a legend in the Australian hiking community. Matt runs Bushwalk.com, a popular hiking and bushwalking discussion forum that's been around since well before groups like Hiking in Australia and New Zealand, and Wild Walks. He publishes digital magazine, Bushwalking Australia, created the dedicated Overland Track app, and has written a stack of guidebooks.