Safety in NZ

Safety in the New Zealand Outdoors – The Basics

We have a lot of people in the WWCC from overseas, so hopefully this article will be of some use. Those of us who grew up in New Zealand have probably had these messages drummed in to them through school etc, still having it repeated again isn’t going to hurt. This list is merely a guide to some of the more common risks, more specific safety information can be found at

The New Zealand outdoors often seems safe to overseas visitors, with no large carnivores or poisonous snakes to watch out for. However there are some real killers out there that people need to be aware of and here are a few tips to make enjoying the Great Outdoors in New Zealand a safer experience.

  • Try and find out as much about where you are going before you set out. What will you need to take? Are huts available? Any specific hazards? Do I have the skills and equipment to meet any challenges that may occur?
  • Always tell someone where you are going, when you expect to be back and make sure they know what to do or who to tell if you don’t turn up when expected.
  • Always be prepared. Carry food, warm clothing and shelter to cover any unexpected problems or delays, such as being trapped out in a storm waiting for a swollen river to drop (a common occurrence in New Zealand).
  • Consider hiring a mountain radio or personal emergency locator beacon, the mountain radio is useful for keeping in contact when out of mobile phone range and the emergency locator beacon is great for alerting Search & Rescue if you get in to trouble and will get help to you quickly. Spot can also be a useful communication tool and can be used to raise an alert, but isn’t necessarily as effective as personal emergency locator beacon.
  • Don’t tramp (hike), climb, mountain bike, kayak etc alone. A small incident, such as a broken leg can easily prove fatal if there is no one with you to provide assistance or to go for help. If you absolutely must go alone, then be extra careful and don’t take any unnecessary risks. Technically this applies even to things that appear relatively benign such as a quick mountain bike run down the Port Hills or evening paddle in the sea. If you get in to trouble or have an accident whilst alone you then have to hope that somebody actually notices and responds in a helpful manner. Not an ideal situation, especially if you are lying seriously injured down a scrub covered bank or drifting out to sea in the dark.
  • Always keep an eye on everyone in your group. Don’t leave people behind and assume they will catch up. Watch for signs of fatigue, cold or any other problems. If someone is lagging behind or needs to stop, make sure at least one person stays with them. The speed of the group should be set by the slowest person and that shouldn’t mean that the faster people stop until the slowest catch up and then continue on immediately. This is likely to cause problems with fatigue amongst the slower people.
  • New Zealand weather is very changeable. A hot, sunny day can change to freezing rain in a matter of hours. Check the weather forecast and always prepare for the worst.
  • Hypothermia is a real killer in New Zealand and a simple day trip can turn into a nightmare if you aren’t properly prepared. Always be on the look out for the signs of hypothermia. If someone appears to be suffering from hypothermia (loss of co-ordination, slurred speech), stop, get them into shelter (make one if necessary, don’t try walk to the hut even if it is only seems like a relatively short distance away) and get them warm before continuing. Make sure everyone in the party keeps warm whilst waiting and is OK before continuing.
  • Rivers are another major killer in New Zealand. Whilst as kayakers, we are generally comfortable paddling or swimming down major rapids, this relaxed attitude should not be carried across to other outdoors activities. Generally in New Zealand, more trampers drown in rivers than kayakers do. A lot of New Zealand rivers are steep and will rise very quickly with rain (hence all the excellent white water). Always treat rivers with respect and take extreme care crossing them. Choose crossing points carefully and never attempt to cross a flooded river (either seek shelter and wait until it drops or turn back).
  • If you get lost and think that people will be looking for you (because you are overdue and someone else knows it and was told to alert Search and Rescue), stay where you are. If you keep moving, you make it more difficult for rescuers as you may move into an area that has already been searched. Find a good location preferably with a clearing and a supply of water. Make a shelter to protect yourself from the elements and a fire to keep you warm. Place brightly coloured material in a position that will be visible from the air, smoke will also attract attention. Try to stay calm and think out your actions thoroughly before acting, don’t put yourself in further danger by doing something foolish.  New Zealand does not charge for Search and Rescue and you will not have to pay any of the costs incurred in your rescue, even if it involves helicopters and dozens of searchers, so don’t hide from searchers (people have actually done this in the past).

Please be careful in the great outdoors and enjoy yourself. New Zealand is a great country to visit with plenty of great outdoor activities and opportunities. Have fun but please play it safe.

White Water Grading System

Rivers are generally graded using the international white water rapid grading system (the definitions below are from Wikipedia). If you are from overseas or are planning to paddle in a new area, such as on the West Coast, it is recommended that you try paddling a river that is a grade below what you would normally paddle at home. This allows you to get comfortable with the conditions and characteristics of the new area.

This is particularly important if you plan to run grade 4 or 5 rapids, and especially so if you are heading to the West Coast of the South Island. On the West Coast the rivers are generally steeper, swifter, tighter, more remote and the consequences of a swim, equipment loss or failure, more serious (most people recommend using a creek boat on these runs).

It should also be noted that if the river is running high or the water is discoloured, if heavy rain is falling or expected, then it is likely that the river’s grade will rise and the potential risk will increase, so take extra care under these conditions, if in doubt, don’t paddle.

Grade 1

Fast moving water with riffles and small waves. Few obstructions, all obvious and easily missed with little training. Risk to swimmers is slight; self-rescue is easy. Care may be needed with obstacles like fallen trees and bridge piers.

Grade 2

Straightforward rapids with wide, clear channels which are evident without scouting. Occasional maneuvering may be required, but rocks and medium-sized waves are easily avoided by trained paddlers. Swimmers are seldom injured and group assistance, while helpful, is seldom needed. Rapids that are at the upper end of this difficulty range are designated Class II+.

Grade 3

Rapids with moderate, irregular waves which may be difficult to avoid and which can swamp an open canoe. Complex maneuvers in fast current and good boat control in tight passages or around ledges are often required; large waves or strainers may be present but are easily avoided. Strong eddies and powerful current effects can be found, particularly on large-volume rivers. Scouting is advisable for inexperienced parties. Injuries while swimming are rare; self-rescue is usually easy but group assistance may be required to avoid long swims. Rapids that are at the lower or upper end of this difficulty range are designated Class III- or Class III+ respectively.

Grade 4

Intense, powerful but predictable rapids requiring precise boat handling in turbulent water. Depending on the character of the river, it may feature large, unavoidable waves and holes or constricted passages demanding fast maneuvers under pressure. A fast, reliable eddy turn may be needed to initiate maneuvers, scout rapids, or rest. Rapids may require “must make” moves above dangerous hazards. Scouting may be necessary the first time down. Risk of injury to swimmers is moderate to high, and water conditions may make self-rescue difficult. Group assistance for rescue is often essential but requires practiced skills. For kayakers, a strong roll is highly recommended. Rapids that are at the lower or upper end of this difficulty range are designated Class IV- or Class IV+ respectively.

Grade 5

Extremely long, obstructed, or very violent rapids which expose a paddler to added risk. Drops may contain large, unavoidable waves and holes or steep, congested chutes with complex, demanding routes. Rapids may continue for long distances between pools, demanding a high level of fitness. What eddies exist may be small, turbulent, or difficult to reach. At the high end of the scale, several of these factors may be combined. Scouting is recommended but may be difficult. Swims are dangerous, and rescue is often difficult even for experts. Proper equipment, extensive experience, and practiced rescue skills are essential.

Grade 6

Runs of this classification are rarely attempted and often exemplify the extremes of difficulty, unpredictability and danger. The consequences of errors are severe and rescue may be impossible. For teams of experts only, at favorable water levels, after close personal inspection and taking all precautions. After a Class VI rapid has been run many times, its rating may be changed to an appropriate Class 5.x rating.

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