Backcountry Hut Etiquette | Hiking Tips

Backcountry Hut Etiquette | Hiking Tips

Happy first official day of summer (insert thumbs up and excited face here) y’all! Summer brings more people out of their houses and into huts, a great Kiwi pastime. Let’s celebrate by talking Backcountry Hut Etiquette.

Nothing beats a summer evening nestled in the bush, miles from civilisation. With over 1000 Backcountry Huts in New Zealand, you’re bound to find one nearby.

Backcountry Hut Etiquette
Rangiwahia Hut – Ruahine Range

What are Backcountry Huts?

Backcountry Huts are huts that sit in isolated areas. The majority of them are looked after by the Department of Conservation, however, there are others that are serviced by Tramping Clubs and other organisations. Huts are usually accessible only by foot and are very basic shelters.

What you can expect to find in a hut:

  • A roof
  • Bunks – the amount in each hut varies
  • A long drop loo
  • Fireplace – though, not in all
  • Playing cards – every hut I have been in has a set of playing cards which is handy. Not sure this is intentional, just friendly trampers leaving them for others to use

What is Backcountry Hut Etiquette?

Hut etiquette basically revolves around common sense and consideration.

Put simply, it is unspoken but common sense ways of respecting the backcountry huts and others using them. Huts are shared spaces that everyone has access to. The continued use of backcountry huts relies on the backpackers using them. Pretty much, look after them like you would your own home. Plus, you are maintaining pleasant conditions and shelter for other parties that you occupy the space with.

Tongariro Crossing
The view from a hut on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Backcountry Hut Etiquette | First In, First Served

The majority of smaller, more isolated huts tend to be first in, first served – first one in gets the best bed, huzzah! However, don’t rush your hike just to get the best bed. Make the most of the beautiful scenery along the way while you can. You can reserve your bed by placing your pack or sleeping bag on a bunk but don’t remove others off their bunks because you like it better. That’s bad backcountry hut etiquette. And quite douchy.

If you can, make room for latecomers. If you arrive last and there are no bunks, others will try and make room for you. Don’t worry, it can be quite cosy on a sleeping mat by the fire. In areas that are close to major centres that aren’t too hard to get to, it might pay to bring along a shelter. Just in case.

Things to remember:

  • You can’t reserve bunks for party members who have still to arrive.
  • Guided parties may also use the huts, but they are not allowed to occupy more than half of the bunks.
  • Some huts, such those on Great Walks and other very popular tracks must be pre-booked. Some huts are only pre-booked during peak season, such as Rangiwahia Hut, and operate on a first come, first served basis throughout the rest of the year. It pays to double check the DOC website before you head out.
  • Hut fees are payable to DOC through pre-purchased hut tickets, or by purchasing an annual Backcountry Hut Pass. You can find out where to purchase tickets here.
  • Always pay hut fees as they go towards maintaining the huts, tracks and facilities in the backcountry, which are expensive to build and maintain.

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Heritage Lodge, Ruahine Range
Heritage Lodge, Ruahine Range

Backcountry Hut Etiquette | Be Respectful of Others

This is actually my favourite rule of general life. Be respectful of others.

When in the backcountry, chances are you will be sharing your hut with strangers so you will need to be aware of this.

Some things to keep in mind:

  • Keep your gear tidy and in one place – not spread around the hut.
  • Keep the noise down while others are sleeping. Remember that most of the time you are in the hut, you will have your eyes closed, sleeping. Unless there are snorers, earplugs are very small and very light so take them!
  • If you are a snorer, a wee heads up to others is always nice. If you want to be super courteous, bring along some extra ear plugs and hand them around to others who may not have packed them. It is a simple gesture that will be appreciated even if no one takes you up on it.
  • Early risers should pack their packs outside of the bunkroom as rustling plastic bags are very noisy.
  • A hot brew offered to cold, wet newcomers when they arrive is the ultimate courtesy.
  • While few people enjoy putting on wet clothes and socks in the morning, even fewer people enjoy having wet socks dripping into their evening meal while it cooks on the fire, or stove underneath. It is considered very poor form to try to dry clothes over a fire, or stove being used for cooking (ew). Plus, it is kind of pointless trying to dry clothes in the backcountry anyway.
  • Don’t drink and curse and be rowdy if you are sharing the hut with other groups (unless they drink, curse and are rowdy). Although, if you have the hut to yourselves, go hard – just pack out all your rubbish with you when you leave.
  • Be welcoming and friendly: invite others to play hut games or share your extra dinner.
  • If you can, be a Hut Hero by keeping the fire stoked if you are sleeping closest to the stove on a cold night.
  • Pitch in and help out when you can, if someone is lighting a fire, go and collect some kindling or firewood. If someone is sweeping, grab a cloth and wipe down the benches.
  • Don’t disturb the peace. Most people go to backcountry huts for that reason. There’s no holding you back from grabbing that old guitar (some huts have them) and banging out a few tunes when the timing is right. But leave your iPhone or boombox at home or bring headphones.

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Iron Gate Hut
Iron Gate Hut, Ruahine Range

Backcountry Hut Etiquette | Be Respectful of Your Surroundings

  • After going to the toilet, leave the long-drop toilet seat closed and the door securely shut.
  • Leave leftover food in the cupboard for the next group. It seems like a nice gesture, but it attracts mice, and someone else is going to have to pack it out. Plus, rats, mice and pests kill our native birds which is sad.
  • If you are completely soaked, leave your boots and wet raincoat outside. Leave your boots outside anyway (ew, smelly). Bring some hut shoes if you don’t want to pad around barefoot.
  • It is a good idea to read the hut instructions and layout when you arrive to get a lay of the land.
  • Don’t go loo on the side of the track. Seeing this is very unpleasant and unhygienic. A small gardening trowel fits into your pack and is great for digging toilet holes to bury your waste and toilet paper completely. Toilet holes should be at least 10 metres from tracks and over 50m from rivers, streams and lakes; particularly those used for drinking water.
  • Don’t burn the reading material. Burning old newspapers is one thing, but pulling pages out of a book that has been left for others to read is a bit rude. Be a good scout and pack in some paper to get that wood stove going. True story: The last hut I stayed in had a book called ‘The story with no ending’. Some cold hiker had used the end of the book to start a fire. That is ok because, well, Irony.

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Backcountry hut etiquette | look after your surroundings
A-Frame hut is a perfect example of what happens when people don’t respect their surroundings. This hut is no longer in use due to damage

Backcountry Hut Etiquette | Be a Boy Scout

In other words, be prepared. Pack a full pack with everything you will need. Don’t be that hiker that has to bum off others for forgotten gear.

Make sure you have:

  • Enough food and water
  • Spare clothes and warm clothes for the hut
  • First aid and survival kit
  • Cooking utilities and utensils
  • A flask of spirits/beer/wine (not essential, just nice after a long hard day)
  • Sleeping bag and mat
  • The 10 essentials
  • Loo paper. You aren’t always guaranteed loo paper in the huts so it pays to bring your own. Bring extra to share, it is light and people sometimes forget to bring it.

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Backcountry Hut Etiquette | Be prepared
Field Hut, Tararua Range

Backcountry Hut Etiquette | Be Fire Wise

Chances are, you will need to light a fire, whether that is to keep warm or to cook over. Don’t be like Mum and nearly burn down a hut (true story). Huts have been known to be destroyed by careless backpackers not using their noggins while lighting fires. Don’t be like them.

When playing with fire, remember:

  • Exercise care with fires and candles in huts.
  • If reading in a bunk, check from time to time that the candle flame is not charring the bunk, or ceiling above.
  • Light fires only in the wood burner inside the hut, and don’t leave the fire unattended.
  • Burn dry, dead wood – not rubbish.
  • Extinguish the fire completely before you leave the hut.
  • Please use wood sparingly, as the Department of Conservation flies much of it in by helicopter.
  • Don’t smoke inside huts and take your cigarette butts out with the rest of your rubbish.
  • A build-up of deadly carbon monoxide produced by some gas and liquid fuel cookers can be prevented by opening a window while cooking.

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Backcountry Hut Etiquette | Rangiwahia Hut
Rangiwahia (Rangi) Hut, Ruahine Range

Backcountry Hut Etiquette | When leaving a hut

If you have the time, it’s nice to show that you care by giving the hut a good spring clean before you leave. Leave the hut as you would like to find it.

Even if you aren’t the last to leave, pretend you are. Sweep that floor, wipe those counters, bring in fresh snow or water for boiling and stack some wood.

Before you leave:

  • Close the windows and secure the door shut to keep possums and birds out.
  • Pack out all rubbish.
  • Replenish firewood for the next party, who may arrive in the rain.
  • Stand all bedding upright – this allows it to air out and stops mice from claiming it as their own.
  • Sign the intentions book. Hut intentions books are not only extremely valuable to searchers should you become missing, but DOC uses the statistics to justify maintenance of the huts and tracks.
  • Clean the fireplace or stove.
  • Wipe the bench and rinse out the cleaning cloth, leaving it to dry.
  • Sweep the floor thoroughly.
  • Ensure that any billies are cleaned and left upside down to keep mice out.

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Backcountry Hut Etiquette | Field Hut
Field Hut, Tararua Range was spotless when I got there thanks to the last group tidying up

Backcountry Hut Etiquette | Hut Maintenance

  • If there is any urgent attention required at a hut you have stayed at you can ring the DOC Safety Watch on 0800 999005.
  • Huts requiring general maintenance should be reported in writing to DOC. Repairs to the smaller huts and bivvies are generally carried out by DOC staff working on other projects in the area. As repeat trips are unlikely, it is helpful to provide DOC with as much information as possible so that their staff can effect a repair on their first and possibly only visit. Include including solutions, dimensions of broken window glass etc.

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Iron Gate Hut | Backcountry Hut Etiquette
Iron Gate Hut, Ruahine Range

To sum it up

The Department of Conservation (DOC)has issued the Hut Users Code. To sum it up, it pretty much says, ‘Don’t be a douche’. However, for a more official look, I have placed it below for ya:

DOC Hut users code

    1. Keep huts clean and tidy. A broom, brush and pan are provided—please use them, and leave muddy boots outside.
    2. Conserve gas when using gas heaters and cookers. During cooking always open a window or door to allow dangerous carbon monoxide fumes to escape. Keep an eye on boiling water/food, and be sure to turn gas heaters off overnight and make sure it is properly off when you leave.
    3. Take care using wood burners, keep the fire contained and never leave it unattended. Only burn dead dry wood and be careful with hot ashes. Make sure the fire is extinguished before leaving. Use wood sparingly and replace any you use for the next visitors.
    4. Share huts with others by being considerate, make room for latecomers and keep quiet if others are sleeping. Share boiled water with other trampers to help conserve gas.
    5. Carry it in, carry it out—recycle ALL your rubbish. Take two bags, one for recycling and the other for rubbish/food scraps to carry out with you and dispose of responsibly. Find out about Leave No Trace principles.
    6. No smoking in huts, take your cigarette butts out with the rest of your rubbish.
    7. Hunters must follow the Firearms and Safety Code.
    8. No dogs allowed inside huts.
    9. Before leaving, close doors and windows securely.
    10. Always pay hut fees.

For more information about backcountry hut etiquette and the huts in general, check out the DOC website or have a nosey at this handy PDF from DOC.

Jem

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Happy first official day of summer (insert thumbs up and excited face here) y'all! Summer brings more people out of their houses and into huts, a great Kiwi pastime. Let's celebrate by talking Backcountry Hut Etiquette. Nothing beats a summer evening nestled in the bush, miles from civilisation. With over 1000 Backcountry Huts in New Zealand, you're bound to find one nearby.

Happy first official day of summer (insert thumbs up and excited face here) y'all! Summer brings more people out of their houses and into huts, a great Kiwi pastime. Let's celebrate by talking Backcountry Hut Etiquette.  Nothing beats a summer evening nestled in the bush, miles from civilisation. With over 1000 Backcountry Huts in New Zealand, you're bound to find one nearby.

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