Lessons learnt from camping rough

Blast from the past issue 192

by Neil Silverwood

Some years ago I watched a slideshow by an outdoor adventurer showing some of the journeys he’d been on and highlighting lessons learnt along the way. One image he showed was of a rough looking outdoorsy type sleeping under a car. The sleeper was in a car park waiting for the ferry in Wellington. His feet stuck out of a sleeping bag tucked under a weighed down Toyota corolla. The speaker explained that one thing outdoor adventure had taught him was that you can sleep anywhere.

The image and concept resonated with me. I have lived a nomadic life travelling between jobs while adventuring in New Zealand and around the globe. I have traded security for freedom. One lesson this lifestyle taught me is how to live rough and appreciate the little things; how to travel lightly, free from the weight of too many possessions. But perhaps the best lesson is you can sleep just about anywhere. Perhaps more than anywhere else this has prepared me well for spending hundreds of days camping underground in New Zealand’s caves.


Over the past twenty years, one of my main activities has been caving under New Zealand. Massive cave systems are currently being explored at an unprecedented rate; the longest, Bulmer Cavern, reaching an astonishing 72 km in length, and the deepest, Stormy Pot, reaching down 1200 metres. Exploring these places involves camping in some of the most remote terrain imaginable. Caving trips involve spending up to a week underground living and working from permanently set up underground camps.


People are often astounded that cavers camp and live underground. “What, you actually spend the night down there? That must be horrible,” they say. “No,” I explain, “the environment is constant – the temperature never changes, humidity is 100% and there is no day or night.” For me, it offers an escape from ordinary life into another world; a chance to recharge.

Here’s a lesson I’ve learned is from camping out in the mountains. While working sporadic contracts as an outdoor instructor, I would regularly take students snow caving. We’d dig into a snow bank and create a small, livable dwelling. At times, the students built small palaces and other times the shelter resembled something more like a squatters camp. The first few times I camped in a tent outside believing it to be warmer, often lying awake for hours getting batter by cold wind. Eventually, I learned it was warmer inside the dry microclimate of the snow cave so I started staying inside instead. Sometimes our perceptions are wrong.

You may ask why Kiwis need to camp in the backcountry when we have such a massive hut network, the largest ratio of huts to people in the World, in fact. There are huts dotted across every national park in New Zealand (see the Aug/September edition) They’ve been built on places like the coast of Stewart Island to the highest plateaus in the Southern Alps. Almost all are well maintained, heated and dry, however there are disadvantages to using huts too. Camping is free and you are not tied to the track networks between the huts. Perhaps the biggest difference arguably though is the connection between people and the environment they’re in. When you stay in a hut you tend to miss a lot of experiences you would have while camping and become disconnected from the surrounding environment. While living in a tent, you’re more likely to notice a sunset, you know exactly what the weather is doing, it really effects you and you are truly part of the environment; become part of nature.


There are a few places that are completely free of huts and tracks where New Zealanders will have no choice but to camp – Wilderness Areas. Most Kiwis are wholly unaware that there are eleven designated Wilderness Areas in New Zealand. They have been described as a place set aside for natural processes to take place. People are welcome but they must take on the country on its own terms and travel without the use of tracks and huts. Wilderness areas are almost always difficult to reach; in definition,each must take at least one day to get to and two days to cross the width on foot.

One Wilderness Area much loved by trampers and mountaineers is the Garden of Eden. It’s a mysterious place, aptly named. Visitors can access it from either a long approach up braided rivers on the East Coast or a difficult sharp ascent through heavy bush on the West Coast. Helicopter access is banned and trampers and climbers must carry their own tents or snow cave on the plateau. Last year I made the pilgrimage to it via the Wanganui River on the West Coast. After two gruelling days alone I reached the plateau. The weather was grim, a frontal system from the Tasman Sea collided with the steep range and it rained continuously. When I reached the ice-covered plateau the visibility was nearly zero. I spent two miserable nights in a bivy bag waiting for the weather to clear – it never did and I walked out without seeing anything. When you venture to a Wilderness Areas you take it on its own terms whatever they might be.

After a veritable lifetime spent living in tents I still find camping in bad weather difficult. There is however a way of camping out and staying dry in any weather – camping in bivys. New Zealand has thousands of natural rock shelters. These range from damp, dingy one-man holes under rocks that flood during rain to massive overhangs that are completely dry and fitted out with mattresses by DOC. A couple of classics well known to trampers are the Ball Room overhang in Paparoa National Park – a massive cave formed when the Fox River scooped out a section of rock and the Copland Rock Biv – a large open cave complete with nearby hot springs. Copeland Biv is used when the luxurious Welcome Flat Hut nearby becomes too full or when trampers choose a less expensive, simpler option.  Further south in the lower half of the South Island much of the rock is schist. This stone tends to break off cliffs in square, flat, thin sections and there is a plethora of bivy caves in the area. They are much loved and appreciated by trampers and climbers alike.

Next time you are heading tramping/mountaineering consider taking a tent and experiencing nature. This will give you the freedom to camp wherever you want, on your terms. And remember you can sleep anywhere.



  • New Zealand has a terrific 1:50,000 topographical map sereies. Allways carry a map and compass while in the backcountry and know river crossing techniques, Always leave intentions with a trusted friend and carry an emergency locater beacon. Stay within your limits, and always check the weather forecast before heading out.
  • By law you cannot camp within 500m of a Great Walk or Great Walk side track. Make sure if you do camp on a great walk you are well clear of the track and out of site

Relevant Links:


http://www.metservice.com/national/home – offers specific forecasts for most major national parks, mountains and parks section

www.topomap.co.nz – provide free topographical maps sourced from Land Information New Zealand (LINZ)



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