A new book exploring New Zealand’s long history of bush walking is published this week. In this Exclusive extract, writers Shaun Barnett and Chris MacLean discuss the evolution of that mysterious New Zealand term for hiking: ‘tramping’.

While in other countries trekking, hiking, rambling or bush-walking are the accepted terms, in New Zealand "tramping" describes that form of recreation that involves putting on boots and a pack, then heading into the hills, usually for more than a day.

Tramping is not simply walking but something with a more deliberate intent, offering an element of adventure and demanding a higher leave of mental and physical effort.


Tramping gear used by Tony Nolan during the 1940s. Photo / From 'Out and About' by Tony Nolan, Tararua Tramping Club Collection

The nature of tramping in New Zealand owes much to the often challenging terrain and the relative lack of population in our remoter areas compared with England, Europe and elsewhere. It is no wonder that tramping, originating from a German word meaning "to walk heavily", came to be the preferred term here. Perhaps the only other country with an equivalent term is Scotland, where the term "sprangin" has been used to mean "walking vigorously".

The modern, narrow recreational sense of tramping evolved from a much broader meaning of the term during the 19th century throughout the English-speaking world. New Zealand dictionaries make little acknowledgement of this evolution, often citing the establishment of the Tararua Tramping Club as the earliest example of formal use. The first known use of the word in its more modern sense - to pursue outdoor reaction for its aesthetic, physical and spiritual benefits - occurred in 1852 when the Hawkes Bay missionary and botanist, William Colenso, wrote to English botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker: "No white man has tramped over more of New Zealand ground than myself ... "

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Camping on Cascade Saddle with Mt Aspiring beyond, Mt Aspiring National Park, Otago. Photo / Shaun Barnett, Black Robin Photography

A Wellington shoe shop with a large range of tramping boots, 1957. Photo / Evening Post Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, EP/1957/0230-F

In 1872 the Evening Post debated the merits of "swagging", noting that while some were genuinely seeking work others "merely make a pretence of tramping in search of work in order to lead an idle, vagabond existence at the expense of others". As the depression of the late 1870s persisted throughout the 1880s, "tramps" became increasingly common in New Zealand.

In the early 1880s the artist Samuel Moreton toured the West Coast and also walked the route soon to be known as the Milford Track, sketching as he went. A Southland Times report on his trip spoke of the artistic results of "all this climbing and tramping".


Jack Adamson's photograph of two men, probably Tom Watson and Jack McKay, crossing the Callery River, West Coast, 1897. Photo / South Canterbury Museum, Timaru, print L2006/002.0219.

Nailed boots typical of those worn by trampers during the 1920s and 1930s. Photo / Wally Neil, Tararua Tramping Club Collection

Although such a use of the word foreshadowed the narrower, more modern meaning of tramping, the exertions of earlier explorers were evoked as areas of New Zealand's backcountry remained relatively unknown well into the 20th century.

"Tramping was a continuation, into more settled times, of the old urge to exploration," wrote one tramper in 1933. "It may be said that the end of the age of exploration in New Zealand and the beginnings of tramping as a sport overlap in time."

Tramping: A New Zealand History (Craig Potton Publishers $69.99) is out now.