Parent’s response to “New Zealand’s best backcountry huts for day walks with a baby” article by Thomas Bywater

First of all, let me say that I have never written a public response to anything before. However, I have always been passionate about children, their rights, and their environment. Especially since my son was born in 2020, I have started to actively advocate for our children in various ways.

Initially, it was with the Christchurch Tramping Club (CTC), where Jim Schofield and I successfully reintroduced the idea of tramping with kids. It wasn’t seamless, but I think that the vast majority of the CTC members are now very supportive of the idea. This aligns with the notion of New Zealand as an outdoor nation, supported by both the Department of Conservation (DOC) and the Federated Mountain Clubs endorsing tramping with children. Indeed, the FMC’s annual campaign topic in 2019/2020 was “Family Tramping,” and they published some very useful resources like “Tramping with toddlers (1.5-3 years)” or even “Tramping with Babes in Backpacks (0-1.5 years)“.

I was pleasantly surprised by the headline of an article on 15th April 2024 in the NZ Herald, optimistically titled “New Zealand’s Best Backcountry Huts for Day Walks with a Baby” written by Thomas Bywater. However, its content was rather disappointing, and I had to read it three times before I could believe what I was reading. Let’s examine the article together.

Babies in DOC huts are not welcome!

The first section of the article quickly contradicts its headline. It reads:

“Turning up with a baby harness at a backcountry DOC hut invites strong reactions. Once other trampers realise you’re not there for the night, they’re mostly positive.”

Here, the author suggests that there are trampers out there who might express their negative reactions to you when you stop in a DOC hut during a day trip with a baby on your front. In my experience, you are far more likely to meet trampers who are encouraging and supportive. In the numerous trips that I have done with a baby or a small child, I have never encountered anything but a positive reaction on both day trips and overnighters.

The article gets even better:

“While the Department of Conservation does allow for infant bookings in serviced huts – free for 0 to 4 years – it’s something I would not recommend.”

At least here, the author acknowledges the Department of Conservation’s position, and an attentive reader will notice the discrepancy between DOC’s position and the author’s opinion. Fortunately, as a member of a free nation, you can decide whether to listen to one of our largest government agencies, the vast majority of other parents, or Thomas. The choice is yours. 

Playing hide & seek at Anti-Crow Hut with Elliot (14 months)

“I can still hear the ringing in my ears of an overnight tramp spent with a young family, whose white noise machine was turned up too loudly in the bunk below. The only thing louder was the toddler, who was up and about way earlier than even the keenest of hikers.”

I hope the author’s opinion on this matter isn’t based on just one experience. If that was the case, I’d have to discourage tramping for anyone who snores, because I’ve had sleepless nights next to someone whose snoring was comparable to an enthusiastic chainsaw operator. I’d also have to discourage elderly people from tramping, since all the backcountry accidents I’ve come across involved people over 60. Let’s not forget the hunters who wake up way too early, the Te Araroa walkers who don’t replenish the firewood because they’re rushing to the next hut, and the young people who don’t go to bed before midnight, keeping everyone awake. Those young folks have way too much energy to be tramping and I’m coming to these publicly owned facilities to get my 10 hour hassle-free night. Finally, the section finishes with another killer statement:

“Overnight trips are not fair on very young kids, or those sharing bunk rooms.”

In the same way, we can ask ourselves if it’s fair to take our kids on a long car journey to see their grandparents. The kids won’t remember, so why should we do that? We do what we think is best for our kids. If you think that going out to enjoy our rivers, bush, and oceans while using our extensive public hut network is “fair on very young kids”, please, go ahead and do it. My only experience after taking my baby, toddler, and now preschooler on overnight tramps, is that he loves it and wants to go again and again.

When it comes to kids sleeping in bunk rooms, I assume the author’s main concern is the noise. First of all, not all kids are noisy. Second, I’m not a big fan of excluding any groups based on characteristics not applicable to the whole group (as Karl Popper would point out, such characteristics likely don’t even exist). In the same vein, we could say that overseas tourists tend to leave more rubbish behind, hunters make more mess, and people over 80 years old are more likely to need publicly funded rescue services. Should we exclude them from sleeping in huts? Are those statements even true? I think you know what I think by now.

Elliot (23 months) trying to find his way back to Hooker Hut

How to behave in the huts with a kid? Who knows

What follows in the article is a section titled “Hut etiquette with a baby.” Unfortunately, the only section mentioning babies reads:

“While you may find other walkers will be more than accommodating for a baby, communal public spaces are for everyone to share. Though space may be limited, nobody wants to eat on the same table on which you are changing a nappy.”

So, from the section where I expected to gain some interesting insights into how to behave with my baby in a DOC hut, I learned that my baby has a legal right to be in the hut and that I shouldn’t change my baby’s nappy on a table. That’s not much, but at least there is something I can agree with the author on.

Packing toys and a play mat

Here, the author suggests a few “must have” items that parents should carry when tramping with their babies. There is nothing that a regular parent wouldn’t think of taking with them to a local park, like a spare nappy, sunscreen, a head cover, extra food, or a baby carrier.

The only two extra items that go beyond a regular change bag include “a play mat” and “toys; distraction for all. Ideally that can be fastened to a harness.” Well, these are the things that I actually never thought of. I go to nature so my kid can crawl on the grass, eat dirt, and play with rocks and sticks without any “distractions”.

But I appreciate the suggestions. As someone on Facebook ironically pointed out, “Folks you heard it here first: a play mat is a hiking essential. You wouldn’t want your baby actually touching all that dirty nature”.

Best toy: broom at Woolshed Creek Hut (Elliot, 17 months)

The final section gives us some tips on where to go tramping with our little ones. It’s unclear to me why only South Island huts are listed and none in the North Island, but we’re probably limited by the author’s experience.

Where the discussion should start

We’re very lucky in New Zealand to have such an extensive network of huts and tracks. Many of them are even community maintained (Mt Brown Hut comes to mind, along with many community-maintained West Coast tracks and bivouacs). It had never occurred to me to say that they are only for certain groups of people, and if so, the last group I’d want to exclude would be those who can’t defend themselves. We shouldn’t even have to discuss whether huts are for babies, youth, adults, or the elderly. It’s been written over and over many times, but I guess it wasn’t enough, so here it is: “DOC huts are for everyone; for people of any age, race, background, gender, or shoe colour.” In such facilities, we need to respect and help each other, show kindness and compassion. Spoiler alert: yes, there are always jerks, so have a backup plan.

I’d like to encourage all parents to take their kids on as many overnight adventures as possible, provided that you’re happy and they’re happy. Let your kids eat dirt, throw rocks in rivers, and sleep in DOC huts.

Thomas, if you read this, please, join us for a tramp and hopefully we’ll change your mind about kids in DOC huts.

Not a bad play mat: shoes and random items at Casey Hut (Elliot, 12 months)

About the Author

I lived a pretty ordinary life for a while. I did my studies, my second studies, my third studies, my first job, my second job, and my third job. I wasn’t really sure what’s going on so, in 2014, I left my home country (Czechia) to learn about the world. I’m still not sure what’s going on but I enjoy it much more. I lived in a few countries before settling in New Zealand.

12 Comments on "Parent’s response to “New Zealand’s best backcountry huts for day walks with a baby” article by Thomas Bywater"

  1. Thank you for a good reply to an ignorant piece. I also read it excited as to what it would say but left disheartened and angry at his ignorant immature perspective on adventuring with kids.

  2. We’ve done multiple multi day trips with our children from age 3 months.
    We once arrived at a hut to see an older gentleman tramping alone. We were a bit concerned that he wasn’t going to enjoy the rambunctious company of a 4 year old and an unpredictable baby, but it turned out his job was working with troubled families and he was out in the bush to have some respite from his difficult job.

    He said that it turned out that spending the night with a happy family in the outdoors was the best thing he could have asked for.

    Go outdoors, it’s wonderful, for everyone, and if you have a tricky night, stay another day and try again ❤️

  3. Thanks so much for writing this, Michal. Well said. The original piece felt like nothing more than uninformed opinion utilized as clickbait. We’ve taken our two kids to numerous huts, starting from infancy, and never encountered negativity from others. Everyone has a place in huts.

    • I did consider that it was written as clickbait, but I think it would have a different title, something more provocative like “Why You Shouldn’t Take Your Kid to a DOC Hut” or something similar.

  4. Totally agree Michael. I’ve loved taking my son tramping since he was little and always happy to have kids at the huts. What a stupid article. Good work on the response.

  5. Well said, you’ve encouraged me to take my 13 year old and 2 year old to overnight huts.

    • You definitely should! Great age difference, I reckon that it’ll bring some lovely dynamics

  6. I completely agree Michal – I didn’t agree at all with what the Herald article described, and my experience mirrors yours. My most positive hut experiences have been with own kids, who have been enjoying huts from age 2, including uniformly positive reactions from other hut-users. Well written.

    • That’s great to hear Chris that I wasn’t the only one with positive only experience 🙂

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