This may seem like a strange topic for a hiking blog but there are a number of walks both in Australia and overseas that involve close contact with the ocean. Recently we did the Great Ocean Walk on the Victorian coastline and discovered that practices we take for granted in walking along beaches and rock platforms, as well as crossing inlets, aren’t always widely known.
The ocean can be a very unforgiving environment if you don’t pay close attention. It needs to be treated with respect and as the quote says ‘You should never turn your back on the ocean’ particularly when hiking in remote areas.
So what do you need to know about hiking safely when travelling along the coastline?
Rather than assuming people know about the ocean, in particular what’s important from a hiking perspective, we thought we’d define a few key terms.
Impact of the Sun and Moon on tides (image: https://www.timeanddate.com/astronomy/moon/tides.html)
Downloadable tide chart for Port Campbell in Victoria. this echarts are available to download from a number of online sources
With many designated coastal walks there will often be options to reach your destination. The first will take you along a beach and/or rock platform and the second alternative will often bypass the coastal option taking you inland away from the impact of the ocean in the case of storms or high tides.
Whether you choose the beach/rock platform option or take the bypass route is really a personal choice but ocean conditions also play a part. On various hikes I have done, I have chosen both options for one of two reasons:
Beach warning sign on the Bibbulmun Track in 2018. On the day I came to this sign I could see down the beach and while it wasn’t high tide, the surf was coming up almost to the dunes which potentially could have left me stranded had I opted to take the beach option. Instead, I followed the recommendation on the sign and did the road bypass
This decision point sign on the Great Ocean Walk implies that you have a choice. If you read the fine print, the choice is to quit the hike, head out to the road and call it quits or turn back. What this sign does is make you think about your decision before you make it
When walking along a sandy beach there are typically, but not always, four ‘zones’ of sand.
Things to consider
If you are keeping your shoes on while walking along a beach or crossing an inlet you may need to take them off if they start filling up with sand because this can potentially create blisters. Every so often if I’ve just crossed an inlet or I feel like taking my time I walk barefoot along the beach and let my feet dry out. I love the feel of sand on my bare feet even if it’s only for a short distance.
Sand zones. As a generalisation you want to be walking on the firm sand in Zone 2
This image was taken on the Kangaroo Island Wilderness Trail and on this beach there was ocean, soft sand and dunes – that was it! I have never walked on a beach like this before and no matter where we walked, the sand was really soft making it very slow going. We ended up walking in each other’s footprints which helped
Walking on rock platforms is a skill in itself. Wet rock, dry rock, seaweed, variable slopes can all go to make rock walking a slower process than walking on sand at times. In the image below Gill is using her trekking poles whereas as I avoid using my poles on rock finding that it’s too fiddle-ly.
Paying close attention to the sea conditions and to tides is critical when walking any sort of distance on rock platforms particularly if there is not escape route if things turn bad.
Rock platform walking on the Great Ocean Walk in Victoria
Walking across a rock platform on the Light to Light Walk in southern NSW. The rock walking on this track is some of the easiest I have ever done being flat and dry with a grippy surface to walk on
Perhaps the most unfamiliar practice for most hikers is inlet crossing. The fear of the unknown will often put people off doing a walk that includes inlets but if you do your research and take your time, this is something that can usually be managed even as a solo hiker. When crossing inlets consider the following:
Inlet example. In many inlets silt from upstream and sand from the ocean will meet and build up, often blocking the inlet and making it easy to cross. As a general rule the best place to cross an inlet is where the ocean meets the inlet and the water movement is at its least. At this point the water level is usually shallower
In this image of Parker Inlet on the Great Ocean Walk you will notice the darker water in the centre of the image. Darker water is deeper water. Further upstream (to the left) from this point the whole way across was dark water which means that it was deep all the way across. Look for the lighter coloured water to cross as it is usually close to where the inlet meets to ocean and the sand builds up
Gill crossing Parker Inlet. Please note that her pack is unclipped just in case she fell over and ended up underwater in which case she could quickly remove her pack
Crossing Parker Inlet on the Great Ocean Walk. In this image the water was only around 70cm deep but if you look closely at the sand bank on the other side of the inlet as its highest its around 1.8metres deep.
Crossing Torbay inlet on the Bibbulmun Track in 2018. This was on day 1 of my trip and I hadn’t planned on doing this crossing until the next day but I was travelling quickly so pushed on past my planned stopping point. The advantage of doing this crossing a day earlier was that the water was 40cm lower than it would have been the next day
Tim after crossing the inlet at Mermibula on the Wharf to Wharf Walk. Note his wet legs and this wasn’t even high tide!
Macpac Ultralight Pack Liner 90 Litres. If I have any doubt about how deep an inlet crossing will be, I will bring this large pack liner with me and put it on the outside of the pack and carry my pack on my shoulder or above my head
The concept for this article came from our trip on the Great Ocean Walk where we came across a European hiker who had no familiarity with crossing inlets, and minimal experience with oceans. This is something we take for granted because we have both spent so much time working and playing both on, and in, the ocean. As such we don’t put much conscious thought into ocean hikes; it’s something we know how to do based on many years of experience.
If however you don’t have experience with tides and the ocean what do you do? What this means is that you need to cultivate an extra set of skills that for many hiker don’t even come into consideration. Your best option, just like when you started hiking is go with someone more experienced. In the case of our fellow hiker, they joined us on the day we did the inlet crossing and we helped them out.
So don’t be put off doing an ocean based walk just because there’s new skills to learn. Think outside the box at what options are available to you to do these walks and to build new skills.