Shelter from the Storm: The Story of New Zealand’s Backcountry Huts: book review part 1

Book Review by Sam Demas:

Shelter From The Storm: The Story of New Zealand’s Backcountry Huts

(Part one of a two part book review)

2012, Craig Potton Publishing, Nelson, NZ.

Text and most photographs by Shaun Barnett, Rob Brown, and Geoff Spearpoint.

With its highly-organized system of 1,000 backcountry huts New Zealand (NZ) — about the same size (area and population) as Oregon — is the hut capital of the world.  By comparison, the USA has about 110 huts operating within 17 different hut-to-hut systems; Switzerland and Norway each have about 500 huts.  Every nation’s approach to outdoor recreation — including how its citizens organize overnight stays in the wild — is based on local causes and conditions such as geography, size of the country, climate, terrain, history, economics, politics, and cultural values.  Shelter from the Storm is a richly illustrated, well-researched history of the causes and conditions that created NZ’s unique hut culture, and a beautiful tribute to the huts themselves.

Americans know little about the story of NZ backcountry huts.  As we shape our own outdoor culture to simultaneously accommodate more people and protect our lands from over-use, we should can learn from the experience of other nations:

  • How did NZ come to have an extensive and well organized national hut system?
  • What does it look like and how does it operate?
  • How does it reflect and embody national identity?
  • How are its internationally renowned tramping and mountaineering cultures involved?

 Shelter from the Storm is the book I chose to begin my homework in preparation for several months in NZ later this year researching a country study of NZ huts and tracks.  It is richly rewarding read as an overview and sourcebook for research, and a fun book to browse.

Colin Todd Hut II, a memorial hut built with amazing persistence after eight attempts

With over 400 high quality photographs, interesting side-bars, great stories, a hut map, and a good index, it is a treasure trove of ideas about places to tramp and a good way to begin to learn something about NZ history and geography.  [This is not a guidebook — there are many of those for use in detailed trip planning].

The introductory essay of this book – which is reprinted on for your reading pleasure courtesy of the author – provides an overview of the genesis and roles of huts in NZ.  This is followed by 10 additional, highly informative and richly illustrated essays.  Each of these 10 roughly chronological essays tells the story of a specific category of NZ’s network of 1,000 huts.  These 10 hut categories include:

  • huts that started as shelter for pastoral and mining workers,
  • those that developed for tourism and those built by tramping clubs,
  • huts built for various purposes by four different government agencies, and
  • huts in support of scientific research and huts built as memorials.

To top it off, each of these 10 essays is followed by loving portraits of a representative set of huts in each category.  The largest of the 10 categories of is club huts (16 are portrayed) and smallest is science huts (4).  Altogether there are 90 of these hut portraits, each telling the stories huts collect over time and including beautiful photographs.  They convey a delectable view of what NZ’s hut network looks like and the meanings of huts to its citizens.

The authors are three of NZ’s leading outdoor photographers and writers. They know their material intimately and bring it to life vividly through stories, pictures and rich historical context.  It is the single best place to start to delve beneath the surface in understanding one of the most remarkable backpacking systems in the world.  The book is very popular and has a Facebook site, a good bibliography, extensive footnotes, and some useful appendices.

Shelter from the Storm is highly recommended for academic and public libraries serving communities interested in backpacking and hiking, outdoor recreation planning, and/or backcountry architecture.  It is also recommended for serious backpackers, for students of outdoor culture, and for dreamers preparing to spend time tramping in NZ.

While guidebooks quickly become dated, Shelter from the Storm has enduring value.  It is a timeless history and rich panorama of NZ hut culture, and an essential guide to understanding the context within which it developed.

Click here if you want to continue reading a longer version of this review, which summarizes some of the key themes and stories elaborated in this outstanding book.