by Greg French
The onset of summer is an appropriate time to talk about backpacking. I spend a big proportion of myfishing time backpacking and, with the exception of some very remote south-western rivers, I have fished just about every water in Tasmania.
Although many anglers assume that people like me are lured into the wilderness by the certainty of finding big "uneducated" trout, nothing could be further from the truth. In terms of catch rate and reliability I know of nothing that would be better than the likes of Arthurs, Little Pine, Bronte, St Clair and Great Lake. And I am not bluffing.
I backpack because I savor the uncertainty that accompanies unfamiliar water. I go beyond the roadways to find solitude so that I can stalk fish at my leisure, secure in the knowledge that I will not have to compete with other anglers for any hot spots that I may find.
I am addicted to learning and collect rare experiences in the same way that some aficionados collect old rods and reels. I also love the sense of discovery, the way that I am at the mercy of fate.
I find that when I walk on formed tracks I speed along to my destination and pay only scant attention to my surroundings. When I walk cross country I am compelled to take bearings, to assess the land, to make decisions. I appreciate the things I work for far more than I appreciate things which are easy to obtain.
Backpacking, then, adds another dimension to my fishing, one which continues to deepen my passion for nature.
Where to go
If you have no previous experience it is probably best to do a few day-walks on marked tracks before you attempt an overnight or cross-country trip. This will enable you to get a feel for your walking capabilities and give you a chance to learn about reading maps (especially contours) and using compasses. If you are anything like me it will also fill you to brimming and inspire you to go further afield. Among easy day walks that I strongly recommend to trout fishers are:
- The Hartz Lakes (especially lakes Esperance, Osborne and Perry, all of which support plenty of small brown trout)
- Lake Skinner (plenty of small to medium sized rainbows)
- Mt Field (especially Lake Seal, Lake Webster and Twisted Tarn)
- Lake St Clair National Park (Shadow and Forgotten lakes)
- Nineteen Lagoons (Lake Flora and O'Dells Lake).
Access notes on all these waters can be looked up in my 1994 guidebook, Tasmanian Trout Waters. Remember that in highland Tasmania, snow, rain and driving wind can occur without warning at any time of the year. Even on a day walk you must take warm windproof, waterproof clothing and plenty of snacks.
Once you have confidence and skill it will be time to camp overnight. You are probably best advised to stick to formal walking tracks, at least until you are confident at orienteering. In the Western Lakes there are tracks to Flora and O'Dells, Christys Creek and Talleh Lagoons, Blue Peaks, and Lake Meston, to name but a few. I also recommend Lake Petrarch (near Lake St Clair), as well as lakes Belton and Belcher (Mt Field)
When you are reasonably experienced you will find that almost all of the Western Lakes are accessible via almost any cross country route you care to think up and I wager that you will be keen to fish the lot. Remember, though, that the fishing itself is never better than that in the Nineteen Lagoons. The reality is that as you go further west a combination of better spawning and deeper water conspires to make the fish generally smaller and harder to find.
Most books dealing with backpacking are aimed at seasonal bushwalkers, not anglers. Weight reduction and spartan provisions are common themes. Tasmanian anglers do not tend to backpack for six or eight hours at a time, day after day. Rather, we tend to walk relatively short distances, taking say two to four hours, and set up a base camp from which we make day trips to nearby waters. We also are compelled to carry quite a lot of extra gear - waders, tackle and the like - so travelling ultra light is not a realistic aim. Rather than give you recipe for your backpack, I will just empty out mine and explain why I take what I do. I don't want to discourage you from developing your own ideas based on your own needs and priorities. Rather, I just want to let you know what is possible and appropriate for an angler.
Backpack: My pack is a large (90 litre) internal-frame Aiking, to which I have added side pockets and a large back pouch. A big pack enables me to carry lots of bulk when engaged on family walks, though I have to be careful not to pack too much weighty stuff. Side pockets can be a real bummer when scrub-bashing but luckily Tasmanian trout fishers don't have to do too much of that. I like the convenience of having essentials (snacks, camera, fishing gear) easily accessible rather than buried deep in the body of my pack.
When buying a pack for yourself, it pays to fit it on in the shop. Most have a zillion adjustable straps but it is inevitable that some will fit you better than others. Also straps tend to slip so the fewer you can get away with the better. Some people go for a small 70 litre pack but anglers generally find an 80 litre model to be much more practical.
Liners: Over time backpacks begin to leak. I use a plastic liner bag (available for a couple of dollars from camping shops) but only for things which must stay dry - sleeping bag, spare clothes, camera.
Tent: A highland tent must be durable and waterproof. It should have a sewn-in waterproof floor, insect screens and a double skin. The best available today come with spring-loaded multi-piece aluminium alloy poles and require few pegs. I am a big fan of Macpac tents and used a two-person Olympus for many years. This weighed about 3.5 kg. These days I use a four person Spectrum, a free standing dome design with huge vestibules. It weighs just 1 kilo more than the two person model and Frances and I find that there is plenty of room for us and our two kids. In fact it is all we use even when overseas doing a lot of car-based stuff. At $800 - $1300 we can't afford a second tent so I now use this - even when fishing alone.
Sleeping bag: The bare minimum requirement for highland camping is a four-season alpine rating. I still use a Paddy Pallin Bogong that I bought twelve years ago. It is getting a little thin in places and really needs replacing. Mummy shaped bags are all the rage these days but I prefer the traditional rectangular shape simply because if you have a matching pair you can zip them into a cosy double bag. In the past this was just the ticket for two adults and a nursing baby. Its still good fun now. I fantasise about getting a bag with a GoreTex skin because condensation is a mild nuisance with standard bags - but I expect that I will have to go for the cheaper option. New bags are in the order of $500 to $800.
Sleeping mat: Insulated sleeping mats make an essential barrier between you and the cold ground and also help prevent condensation from sogging up your sleeping bag. My self-inflating Thermarest is a short version and my feet overhang it. This is a bit of a nuisance but on family trips I carry four and cannot justify the extra bulk of the full-length model. They cost around $120 to $150 each.
Fuel stove: A fuel stove is essential, especially now that open fires are banned in most wild areas. Over the years I have used many different models and most have been either too bulky, too unreliable, too dangerous or all three. Many of my friends like the MSR style stoves which run on pressurised shellite. I concede they are extremely fuel efficient and that they boil water quickly but the jets are prone to blockage. The constant maintenance and unreliability leaves me cold - often literally. I use a Trangia system which requires lots of meths and is a little slow but runs at perfect cooking temperature and never fails.
Eating utensils: A melamine cup, an enamel bowl come dinner plate, egg slide, knife, fork spoon. When cooking for more than two I also carry a wok (works well on the Trangia).
Compass: a Silva model.
Maps: Generally I prefer either the appropriate Parkmap or 1:100 000 Topographic Tasmap. The 1:25 000 sheets cover too small an area, provide confusing amount of detail and are sometimes wildly inaccurate. Maps are expensive ($10 - $15 each) and have a short life expectancy if they get wet or are forever being folded and unfolded. I usually cut out the section of map I want to use and either have it laminated or simply slip it into a clear zip-lock bag.
Incidentals: Also in my pack there are matches and strikers in 35 mm film canisters, sunscreen, a candle lantern, a torch, pen and paper, toilet paper and a scant first aid kit (band aids, scissors, pressure bandage).
You must, of course, take all your essential gear - rod, reel, line, polaroids, a selection of flies/lures - but you probably don't need everything that has accumulated in your fly vest over the last few months. I always review my vest prior to each walk - it's amazing what I can delete if I really set my mind to it.
Neoprene waders are very heavy and I never take them backpacking. I use cleated-sole Hornes waders. While they are lighter than the Blundstone-soled variety I concede that they are still heavy enough to be a nuisance. Nonetheless, for early season trips I consider waders to be essential. In summer I often do without and wade wet, especially when I am on a family trip and need to cut down on as much weight as possible. I find that thin thermal stockings help with wind-chill and sunburn and wouldn't be without them. If I was rich I would invest in a pair of lightweight waders Gore Tex jobs or some such thing - but I am not, so I don't.
These days I use a four-piece rod as a matter of course and when on an extended walk I carry two rods in the one aluminium tube.
Another weighty item for me is my SLR camera, a Nikon F60. This is a nuisance and were I not a photo journalist I would certainly carry something smaller. I am really happy with this camera's performance but, in common with other modern cameras, it tends to play up in very wet or humid conditions. During cold, wet weather I carry it in a big zip-lock bag and throw in a couple of silica satchels.
I try to take a minimum of spare clothing but in the high country you must be prepared for all weather conditions. I always carry a good rain jacket (waterproof and windproof) and either waders or waterproof overpants. This means I am assured of keeping dry no matter what and so I can get by with carrying fewer extra clothes. I am also a great fan of thermal underwear because it is lightweight and dries very quickly. In fact these days I walk and wade in thin thermal stockings rather than trousers or shorts.
If the weather is fair I wear:
A broad brimmed hat, polaroid sunglasses, long-sleeved shirt (for sun protection), sun-smart fingerless gloves, thermal stockings, Explorer socks, work boots or runners.
In my pack I will have: Rain jacket, polar fleece jumper, one spare cotton shirt, a thermal shirt, undies, thick thermal stockings, three or four pairs of Explorer socks, waterproof overpants (if I am not carrying waders)
If you really want to keep your weight down you can carry mainly dry food and apparently you can eat well on just 750-900 g per person per day. I prefer to carry fresh food, especially because I usually walk for just a few hours and then set up base. The extra weight isn't a daily burden, and I don't usually have too many up-hills to worry about. Fresh food will keep well even in the height of summer providing that you carry it deep inside your pack and store it somewhere shady and ventilated, say under some bushes or between rocks.
This is what I take:
Breakfasts; Cereal with fresh or powdered milk and fresh fruit (bananas, kiwi fruit), Bacon and eggs
Lunches; Bread rolls with cheese, tomato, avocado, salami, lettuce, hommus
Evening meals; Stir-fry meat and/or vegies with rice, Pasta with creamy sauces and fresh vegies, Fresh meat and three veg (I never rely on trout) but I usually take some pepper and fresh lemons just in case)
Beverages; Tea leaves, Coffee bags, Whisky or port.
Snacks; Chocolate, Muesli bars, Lollies!
When I walk with other adults my pack usually weighs about 23 kg (less after we have eaten the food). By myself I carry 25 kg, maybe 28 kg (there's no one with which to share the burden of tent and stove). And when the kids come I often carry 30 kg. You should bear in mind, though, that the recommended maximum weight for occasional walkers is 18 to 20 kg, and still less if you are small and/or unfit.
So there you have it. I have walked so often and for so long that packing my pack is now second nature. I do it without thinking and never have to agonise over what I should or shouldn't carry. But I do remember the uncertainty and apprehension associated with my first expeditions and I expect that most beginners will be similarly tormented. If you have any doubts, talk to staff at reputable camping shops.
Now I must reiterate some golden rules:
- Keep an eye on the weather
- Make sure you know how to read maps and use a compass
- Be aware of your own capabilities
- Make sure that you are well equipped
Go and visit the wilderness this summer. Who knows you'll probably get hooked on backpacking, just like me.
See you out there.