So what’s the worst that could happen? Actually that’s usually the first question I ask myself when deciding on a spot to set up a camp site. Be it a base camp for 10 days or just an overnight excursion using a bivy bag, being aware of your surroundings will see you blissfully dreaming of game rich gullies instead of worrying about making it through the night.
It seems a bit pessimistic but if you can imagine the worst case scenarios like floods, wind gusts, rock falls, avalanches or breaking tree branches then staying clear of these potential hazards might just save you from a bit of misadventure. I will split this article into three sections; open tops, bush and river flats, as the situations are a little different between the three.
One of the key factors for choosing a spot to camp is water availability; tea bags are fairly chewy without water, so if you can’t carry or transport in all you need for the duration of your stay, there will need to be an H20 source nearby. If you want to stay up on the high ridges to glass into the many catchments, unless you can find a tarn, water will be very hard to come by.
Often you don’t have to drop too far off the main ridge into a small side gully head to find a dribble of water, this may mean climbing again each morning but them’s the breaks when you are tops hunting. The disadvantage of small gully heads is the difficulty in finding flat ground. If you glass into a creek head from the main ridge, look out for flattish terraces next to the stream that might be above the high water flow. Alternatively a spur or sub-ridge that is broken by a saddle could provide a decent flat area to camp in the dip of the saddle and as long as there are no bluffs off the spur you’ll be able to sidle down into the creek for water. There are several advantages to camping on a spur saddle around safety, shelter and view. Spurs can be safer than creek terraces as they are out of the flood zone if it starts to rain heavily. Rock falls or avalanche slides will more likely flow into the creeks not onto the spurs. The main ridgeline is often very exposed to the wind so getting down the spur will offer you some shelter. Saddles have a knob jutting up before the spur continues to drop down into the main valley and not only does this provide a wind break, it also gives you a great spot to sit with a view into the opposite faces and gully heads to search for game.
If you have to camp next to a creek, be very aware of slips and rock fall hazards from above, if there is freshly disturbed rock or gravel, move on. Try not to camp on old creek flows or low indents where water will enter if it rains. Generally if you know rain is coming then find higher ground well above the creek right from the get go, it’s easier done during day light hours than it is by headlamp, I know, I’ve been there!
If you choose to stay high, then the flat areas above mountain tarns do make great camp sites in reasonable weather. Many larger tarns are marked on topomaps and you will see them on google earth so you could plan your route accordingly. It does pay to boil the drinking water from a tarn, especially if it’s a stag wallow! If you set your camp back off the “lip” of the ridge away from the wind, you will get a little shelter. You could build a low rock wall to block the wind and make a more comfortable camp. In most cases on the high tops you won’t have any fire wood, so get into your sleeping bag as quickly as possible after dinner to stay warm.
Lack of shelter and exposure to bad weather is the biggest danger when hanging about on the open tops. It pays to carry good camping gear and a very good wind proof, water proof outer layer of clothing from head to foot. Don’t skimp out and buy a cheap sleeping bag, you’ll regret it. Many a tent or fly has been shredded by nasty winds in the New Zealand mountains and it takes a lot of experience to set up a tarp and tent in a way that it can handle the wind gusts and run off the rain or snow, we will cover this in an upcoming post. But in terms of a site for a high altitude base camp, wind shelter is the key concern, get in behind a knob or a huge boulder and avoid land depressions or old creek beds that could start to flow during rain. Pitch your fly steeply with the outer edges right down to ground level to stop the wind getting under it. You may need to dig a trench to shift rain runoff away from the camp.
If you are using a packable “move along” camp and you know the weather is going to turn bad, then it’s safer to get off the tops and down into the bush.
Again water availability is going to influence general camp location choice. High ridge tops have very little water so you need to get down near a creek. Often the hardest thing to find in the bush is a suitable flat spot as the flattest bits are usually out of the question being right beside a creek in the flood zone or part of a swamp. A confluence of two water ways will often have a dry flat terrace above the meeting point which can make a safe, dry camp site. Often very large trees will have flat areas on the uphill side that might be sufficient for stretching out a sleeping bag.
Terraces that jut out of a hill face and low angle spurs can provide good flat camp sites but often water is not handy and you will probably need to carry containers back up from the creek. Most bush sites will need a bit of clearing by ripping out shrubbery and kicking a few roots aside to flatten your sleeping area. Beware of the “widow makers” when setting up a bush camp. Widow makers are large dead branches or half dead trees that may fall down on top of a tent and crush the campers and these are a very real threat especially in strong gusty winds.
Avoid camping near washed out banks or land slumps, these could continue to erode at any time. You will be able to see signs of high flood levels where branches, drift wood and leaf litter have been pushed up against trees. A several day base camp will need to be well clear of these flood zones. Again you may need to dig or kick a trench around the fringe of the fly or tent to shift rain run off away from the camp floor space.
Right down on the low river clearings, flat ground is not such a big problem but dry ground is. As with any location you need to imagine the worst case scenarios, floods, falling trees, rock falls, pooling water, slipping banks, etc. Fresh water supply is no drama and you can also maximise hunting opportunities by camping downstream of the good hunting grounds, as the early morning and late afternoon breeze will generally flow down the valley. Find an area that is in the “lee” of the wind such as behind a peninsula or on the inside of a bend in the main valley. Get up onto the terraces well above the flood line, the high water marks will be obvious with drift wood and silt deposits from the last big rains. If you have to clear an area in the bush above the flats to be safe then do it, you might not have a nice view but it will be good shelter during a storm. Also be aware of an exit path for the members of the camp if heavy rain sets in and your site looks like it may get washed out. Don’t get yourself pinned against a bank by rising water or stuck on an ever decreasing island. Be wary of dry creek beds that seem safe, they can soon become raging torrents. If you are on a longer multi-day trip a well-chosen camp site will allow access to some hunting grounds even when the rivers are in flood, otherwise you are going to wear the cards out waiting for an opportunity to ford.
Make sure you GPS your camp as you never know when you might get caught out by fog or darkness. Don’t be frightened of bad weather just be prepared for it and if you set up a decent camp in the right spot you can handle a pretty heavy storm with no trouble. Then when the weather clears, it’s like a fresh start and the hunting will be all the better. When you leave your camp site to head home remove all rubbish including strings, cable ties and cans from your fire place. Leave it as you found it and it will be a great spot for you on your next visit.