WHY DOES AUSTRALIA HATE SWITCHBACKS SO MUCH?! A Friendly Introduction to Backpacking Down Under

KilgoreTroutQQ Member Posts: 8
edited May 2023 in ROUTES & TRAILS

So you’re finally balling out on that big antipodean holiday to come visit me. It’s an honor! Feel free to crash on this lovely couch for as long as you want, it’s got your name all over it. And what’s that? You’re thinking of hitting some trails while you’re here? Hell yeah, glad to hear it. There’s so much wild nature to experience on this surprisingly large and sometimes-empty-feeling continent. But there are definitely a few fun differences I’ve noticed that might help calibrate your expectations when you’re out walking in the bush or on country.

If you’re coming from North America like me, and you’re used to all of the trappings & traditions of its long-distance trails, then some of the differences that you experience here might be a bit of a surprise party for both your wallet and your sensibilities. Anyways it’s always good to get more perspective on things, isn't it? And maybe afterwards you’ll return home with a cool new Akubra hat and a weird & nuanced understanding of the contrasting ways that public lands can be stewarded. 

Lack of Thru-hiking / Ultralight Culture 

Though all of Australia's "thru hikes" are very much in their nascent days, I still love the idea of this country having its own Triple Crown. The concept may slowly be gaining steam, but I think it’s totally possible and awesome. 

And what would a triple crown across this country look like? For better or worse, depending on your persuasions, you probably won’t find nearly as many Hawaiian shirts, fanny packs, or trail magic at the road crossing on these trails . Maybe not as fun & irreverent, but definitely a bit more elemental and rugged. What do you like about backpacking? Each hike requires a huge amount of logistics and planning, including: food drops, long unruly hitches, and probably even a bit of orienteering. It’s pretty much a guarantee that you’ll go blocks of days without seeing other people, and you’ll be camping alone most nights. But, like, also think of all the wild marsupials you’ll see, and all of the fun pop you can bring to the desert.

Couple this with the fact that the amount of resources available on these trails is pretty scarce, including no FarOut guides, and boy howdy you might have to dust off the ol’ compass for some type 2.5 fun. Looks like a bit of improvisation may still exist in the world. Hopefully this is the kind of backpacking you like, heh heh.

There’s no data on how many folks complete the Australian Alps Walking Track (AAWT) each year, but my generous estimate is that it’s no more than a handful. They say it’s about 40-50 people a year for the Heysen Trail as well, and the Bibbulmun is only going to be marginally more popular than either of those for “end-to-ending.” (plus you get a cool patch!)

The resupplies are long between a lot of these places, as the tracks were often laid out specifically to avoid populated areas. So you’ve got all that to compete with. And due to the fact that thru-hiking is still a “newer” concept in Australia, you can also count on getting a lot of funny looks from both strangers and authorities when you tell them how much distance you plan on covering per day, especially when it’s coming from a sweaty dude in a tattered Patagucci shirt. Y'all know which way town is?!

One of the other main things that has traditionally inhibited people from thru-hiking down under is the gear. Long trips out in the bush usually required giant packs with huge food & water carries, thick snake gaiters, and a lot more specialized items you’d need for self-reliance. Only recently has the trend of Ultralight backpacking begun to take hold in Australia, as evidenced by the fact that there’s still only one store that really carries UL-style gear here. On our one, moderately active, Facebook page Durston tents, HMG packs, and Enlightened Equipment jackets go like a Snickers bar in a hiker box. And on a good week, the UL subreddit gets a few posts with good engagement.

But I feel like that’s all slowly starting to change. There are a few really great cottage companies like OrangeBrown, Orb, and Zero G Gear who are making awesome ultralight gear for the trails here, and it’s my dream to go post up at a campground one day and cook up some snags for a bunch of smelly AAWT hikers.

It's Pretty Much Straight Up & Straight Back Down

The 1500 meter climbs are at least marginally easier when they're on a staircase though. In short, Australia (and New Zealand) don’t seem to be huge fans of switchbacks. I’ll forever be trying to figure out whether I love or hate this. Because on some of the more mountainous trails here—like the AAWT or the Grampians Peaks Trail—you’re going to be pushing your calves and glutes to new levels of extreme tonality that you didn’t even know existed. Hot vibe for the city slickers.

Of course, this kind of head-on approach to tackling a trail means you actually cover more overland distance in a day than you would on, say, certain sections of the AT or the endless contouring through the desert on the PCT—which tend to meander casually up and down without much geographical distance to show for it. And that’s kind of cool. I remember remarking to a friend that the 21 kilometer Staircase Spur loop around Mt. Bogong (the highest mountain in the state of Victoria where I live) is so insanely steep that it would probably be at least 40 kilometers long if it was a section of the PCT. To illustrate this, climbing Mt. Whitney from Crabtree Meadow on the PCT/JMT is about 4,200 feet in 8 miles, whereas climbing Mt. Bogong from Mountain Creek was 4,800 feet in 5.4 miles. My friend also lowkey hated me after that climb for how hard it was. Oops. But at least we got to walk next to a cloud.

For more examples of how intense the elevation gain can be in some parts of the country, here are a few fun side-by-side examples:

All this is to say two different things: 

1. I’m cherry picking trails here because, naturally enough, there are also a lot of extremely easy and lovely coastal walks in Australia where the biggest problem is either getting sized up by a kangaroo or getting too much sand in your shoes.

2. I’ve still never encountered a multi-day section anywhere in the world that was quite as brutal as the Whites section of the Appalachian Trail. 9,800 meters in 144 kilometers is a world class sufferfest lmao.

When it comes down to it there are essentially two opposing ideologies at the heart of the switchback argument. In North America, I think the argument is that it’s a more “natural” way to prevent erosion on trails and also make a mountain much more generally accessible. On the other hand, Australia seems to be foregoing switchbacks in favor of totally natural, rawdogged slalom-style trail—or else, especially on more popular trails, towards more “unnatural” but certainly more efficient and over-engineered methods like rock staircases, boardwalks, and railings etc. The Overland Track in Tasmania is a great example of the whole spectrum of trail ideologies here. The climb up that bluff looks like madness (credit).

Along the famous, albeit shorter, trails in this country is where you’ll find some of the most unnatural structures—which might be considered one of the byproducts you get from living in what’s frequently referred to as the nanny state. For example, a mandatory $48 per day to hike the Grampians Peaks Trail gets you these fenced in platforms.

All this is to say that, instead of a focus on traditional preservation, many walking trails in Australia are instead trending more towards luxury ecotourism. Which brings me to my next point.

Some Trails Feel More Like "Holiday Hikes"

Grumble grumble grumble. These are some new, private cabins you can rent for about $500 per night on the Grampians Peaks Trail (credit: noroads). Although, as evidenced by the numbers in the first section, Australia’s longest trails generally aren’t its most popular, and this has kept them a bit less free of these developments for now. And that might be one of the fundamental differences between the two countries; The AT, PCT, JMT etc. are usually the types of hikes that top the lists of “most popular” and “best” hikes in the states. Whereas in Australia, it’s objectively shorter hikes like the Larapinta Trail, Overland Track, and Cape to Cape Track which tend to top lists and see the most visitors. 

These days, it’s becoming more and more frequent to have the option of luxury private accommodation along most of Australia’s popular hikes. It creates a pretty big disparity in access and demographics, but it’s also, for better or worse, nicer. But, even beyond the boutique hiking packages that you’ll find on these trails, there are tons of large-scale infrastructure projects that run adjacent to accommodating the growing crowds and providing more comfortable, but decidedly un-primitive, backpacking experiences. Huge portions of the most popular hikes take place on boardwalks, staircases, and inside of huts. Here's one in Little Desert National Park, which had some beautiful camping around it. Watch out for feral bees.

A lot of these developments are clearly geared towards making Australia’s natural spaces more ecotourism-friendly, and they’re evidently taking a lot of pages from the playbook of New Zealand’s Great Walks. The cost of all of these infrastructure projects is obviously huge, and I would argue that it’s not even existentially necessary, but I guess there’s no perfect solution when it comes to preserving and managing environmental impact while trying to increase tourism. It seems like a pretty inevitable culmination between capitalism and conservation. 

The main issue appears to be that, in order to recoup the fees for these projects, and the increased “maintenance” that’s required of these developed trails, the cost of hiking them has become nearly astronomical. A primitive hike on The Grampians Peaks Trail is $550, the Larapinta is at least ~$450, and the Overland Track begins at $250. And these are just for things like the “campsite fees”, “walking fees” and whatever other pejorative terms the agencies come up with. Naturally these prices don’t reflect any of the logistical and other incurred fees either. Here's Cedar Cottage on the Green Gully Track, which is a four day hike in New South Wales that starts at $900.

When it comes to private developments on public lands, one fairly large difference exists in our two countries. Namely, In the US, the National Parks Service subcontracts visitor services to private concessionaires, but owns the facilities, requires bonds equal to 100% of capital value, and sets all conditions and prices. This is part of the reason you can still find comparatively affordable (yet obviously scarce) accommodation options at, say, the bottom of the Grand Canyon or on the rim of Crater Lake. Whereas in Australia, these same restrictions don’t apply, so the door has been opened for insanely wealthy venture capitalists to take stewardship of the land upon themselves. Obviously some safeguards are still in place, but the writing seems to be on the wall already.

Nowadays, you can catch the sunset on Mount Zero from a sweet Adirondack-style thingie chair, and I guess we'll all have to reckon with how a chair at the top of a mountain makes us feel. Or maybe that's just me, asking the dumbest questions on planet earth. It isn't the caffeine or the Blair Witch Project that keep me up at night, friends. It's just chairs.

One argument I sometimes hear is that it’s necessary for every National Park to have a “sacrificial trail,” which is the main draw of the park, biggest bang for your natural buck, and the place where most of the more casual visitors are funneled into. Things like Old Faithful in Yellowstone, The General Sherman in Sequoia, Half Dome in Yosemite, the South Rim in the Grand Canyon etc. And if it meant that having a super popular, highly developed, over-engineered trail in every park would come with an equally remote, affordable, and primitive option then I imagine everyone would be totally on board with it, because everyone wins for the most part. Unfortunately I don’t see that happening too often. For the most part, sacrificial trails seem to become the model for all future trails, instead of the exception to them, which feels like it’s happening in both the USA and Australia at the moment. That’s just a feeling though, and I’d love to explore the data on that kind of trail within parks more.

Gear Choices

Spoiler: it's gonna be hard to find a place to pitch one of these bad boys in some places. Regardless, we're moving onto something much, much brighter.

The first and most imperative gear difference that you can’t sleep on is SPF 50+ sunblock. All year, all the time. This is largely due to the fact that Australia has a thinner Ozone layer, and consequently also has the highest rate of skin cancer in the world. And you’ll certainly be getting plenty of sun on the trails here. Those who have hiked in high elevations or deserts in the states know how much the sun can zap you, even on a colder day. And to be honest, I think it might actually be even more noticeably intense here than in places on, for example, that baked AF road walk on the Arizona Trail.

You wouldn't be remiss to bring a sun hoodie along (I love sun hoodies, can you tell), although they don't seem to be as popular here. I don't know why either, because Australia is a perfect place for them. Or maybe, kinda like Halloween, everyone here refuses to acknowledge here that America can still have a totally good & fun idea, heh heh heh. Speaking of costumes though, here's my best UL bro impression.

Anyways, after that's sorted, depending on where you’ll be hiking, you might want to acquaint yourself with these bad boys. Snake Gaiters can be the difference between life and death in a lot of situations, since two of the most common snakes in a lot of regions here (the brown and the tiger snake) are also two of the most deadly snakes in the entire world. Personally, I’ve kind of just been avoiding hiking in areas with particularly thick, overgrown vegetation, where you can’t see if one of these lil guys is hanging out. And for the most part, that’s easy enough to do since, as stated above, most of the trails are very well-manicured. But, depending on your comfort level, if you do want to go do a bit of bush-bashing or wayfinding, it’s definitely worth investing in some of these. Anecdotally, I've seen brown and tiger snakes on almost every trail I've ever walked, but we both just scurried in opposite directions every time. Same goes for the highland copperhead, which you'll probably encounter a ton if you spend much time in the Australian Alps. Hey bud.

Next, a bit of research on the tent pitching situation can go a long way. The use of these complexly engineered, wooden tent platforms seems to be more and more prominent each year. This means that, without a bit of creative ingenuity, our sweet sweet ultralight trekking pole shelters will be rendered pretty much useless on most of them. Likewise, if you’re planning on doing a coastal walk, a semi or totally freestanding tent might be worth looking into, as you might be pitching your tent on sand plenty of nights. At least there are usually rocks around.

And finally, the sugar loving carb loader in me highly recommends stocking up on as much of our most cherished & beloved gear/ snacks as possible before you arrive. Some of the most prized hike-enhancers like MiO, Starbucks VIA, Gatorade Zero sachets, and for the love of all get out, Cheez-Its haven’t found any remotely comparable Australian equivalents yet. Uh, and also, Altras cost $300 here lmao.

Anyways, this is all to say that some of the best sunsets I’ve ever seen in my life have been in Australia; and it's totally worth coming here just for that. There’s this whole different hue of bright orange that I swear doesn't happen anywhere else, but I'd also swear that it's impossible to capture it. So I guess you'll just have to come see for yourself.