A Beginner’s Guide to Hiking in New Zealand

The Kiwis must be firm believers in the ‘build it and they will come’ principle, for trails and huts providing access to the mountains, crystal clear streams and lakes, beech and other forests and volcanic landscapes that make up the New Zealand wilderness are everywhere.  And come they do. Hiking (or tramping, to use the local vernacular) the more popular trails in New Zealand you will come across people of all ages from all over world. We have met people from Israel (they fed us pavlova – thanks guys), Germany, France, America, Hungary, Hong Kong and New Zealand, to name just a few. The oldest person we met was in his 80s and the youngest just starting school (their parents had a unique encouragement system of placing chocolates at strategic locations to keep them going). Sharing a meal in a hut with people who share the same interests but come from very different parts of the world is one of the joys of tramping in New Zealand. At the same time, if you want to enjoy the wilderness without coming across many other people it’s a simple matter of heading out on one of the less well known back country trails – we hiked the Matemateaonga Track over 5 days and didn’t see any other people until we hit the end of the trail at Whanganui River. All in all, and as difficult as it is for an Australian to admit, tramping in New Zealand is about as close to hiker heaven as you can get.

Types of trails

The most popular and well known multi-day trails in New Zealand are the nine Great Walks (albeit one of those is not actually a walk but a canoe journey). Managed by the Department of Conservation (DOC), these are regarded as the best and most scenic trails in New Zealand and because they are so popular the trails are generally maintained to a high standard. For the most part the trail will be well benched and wherever possible streams will be bridged (either by a wooden structure or a swing bridge). Accommodation in the huts and campsites of the Great Walks must be booked in advance.

Swing Bridge Routeburn
Swing bridge, Routeburn Track

DOC also manages a myriad of other backcountry trails and huts. Some of these will be through territory which is the equal of any Great Walk (the Hollyford Track springs to mind) and, in some cases, the trails may be maintained to a similar standard. As a general rule, however, multi-day backcountry trails are more likely to be more difficult tracks (think tree roots, rocks, stream crossings and three wire bridges) and those which are designated by DOC to be ‘routes’ may not even be discernible as a track. Most, but not all, backcountry huts do not have to, and can’t be, booked.

Hollyford Three Wire Bridge
Three wire bridge crossing on the Hollyford Track.

In addition to the trails which are managed by DOC, some trails have been developed and are managed by landowners, local councils or a partnership between such entities and DOC (examples include the Queen Charlotte, Banks Peninsula and Humpridge Tracks). These ‘privately owned’ trails will in general have more facilities than the DOC managed trails (for example, the accommodation may have showers and hikers may be able to purchase food while on the track).

Some trails which are managed by DOC also have privately owned and managed huts in addition to the DOC huts. Those trails include the Milford, Hollywood, Routeburn and Greenstone Tracks. Hikers who book with the companies which manage those huts (known as soapies to other hikers on the tracks because they smell nice) will be guided, stay in huts with showers and private rooms and have meals cooked for them which are served with wine. All of those arrangements, of course, come at a cost and if selecting this option you should expect to pay at least 4 or 5 times what it would cost to undertake the same hike staying in DOC huts (inclusive of transport to and from the trail and food).

Ultimately which track you choose to do and how you choose to go about it depends on your experience levels, how comfortable you are about hiking without a guide, your need for the creature comforts and your budget.

DOC Huts.

There are over 950 huts managed by DOC in New Zealand (by far the great majority of which are located on the South Island). There are 4 categories of hut – Great Walks, serviced, standard and basic. Great Walks huts must be booked and vary in price between $22 night per person (Rakiura Track) and $54 per night per person (Milford, Kepler and Routeburn Tracks). Serviced huts cost $15 per night per person (unless you have a  backcountry pass) and, with a few exceptions, can’t be booked. In our experience serviced and Great Walk huts were very similar in the level of comfort they provided. They all come with rainwater tanks, communal dining areas, stainless steel benches, tables, bench seats, toilets (at least long drops but some have flush toilets), bunks with mattresses a firebox and wood for heating. Sometimes (but not always) they may have gas for cooking and toilet paper. They may have rangers present to check bookings or hut tickets.

Hut sleeping area
Sleeping area, serviced hut

Standard huts cannot be booked and (unless you have a  backcountry pass) cost $5 per night. They are generally older and not as nice as serviced huts. If there is a firebox in the hut you will need to collect the wood for the fire.

Basic huts are exactly as described and may not have much in the way of facilities at all. They are, however, free.

Huts (including the Great Walks variety) do not have the following – food (you’re not in Europe now), bins (you pack out what you pack in), sleeping bags or pillows, lighting, cooking pots and utensils, stove (some Great Walks and serviced huts are an exception) or showers (the exception is the Abel Tasman Track which has cold outdoor showers). You must bring all of this gear in with you and take it when you leave.

Hut dining area
Dining area, Great Walks hut

Hut fee payment and backcountry passes.

Great Walk huts and bookable serviced huts are paid for at the time of booking, which is done online at DOC booking. You then take your booking confirmation letter with you and show it to the ranger at the hut. The one exception to this process of which we are aware is the Kepler track. As at 2015 you had to show your booking confirmation letter to the DOC office in Te Anau before commencing your hike and collect tickets to give to the hut rangers.

All other huts are either paid for by purchasing a backcountry pass ($92 per adult for 6 months or $122 per adult for a year) or purchasing hut tickets ($5 a ticket). You then write your pass number or ticket details in the intentions book in the hut and put any tickets in the box provided in the hut, unless of course there is a ranger present in which case give all the information to the ranger.

Camping

Camping Routeburn Flats
Camping, Routeburn Flats

You can choose to camp rather than stay in a hut and for some, this may be preferable to staying a crowded Great Walks hut. Camping sites on Great Walks must also be booked. The sites are usually located adjacent to the huts but for some Great Walk huts above the tree line this may not be possible. Camping options on the Kepler Track and Routeburn are limited which means if you choose to camp on these tracks you will have at least one big day. There is no camping permitted on the Milford Track.

Camping at serviced huts is $5 per night and at standard huts is free. In theory, campers are not supposed to use facilities inside the huts.

Hut Etiquette.

If staying in a hut chances are that you will be sharing the space with other people, sometimes lots of other people. In our experience the only people who don’t realise that they are annoying the other people in the hut are the annoying people themselves (everyone else is talking about how annoying they are). So here are some tips on how not to be that person.

Clean up. Leave the hut and your space as tidy, if not tidier, than when you arrived. Yes, the rangers on the Great Walks will give things a tidy after everyone has gone if it is needed, but really they have better things to do. Pack out all rubbish.

Don’t sprawl your stuff about. Other people will need to use the bench and table as well, so keep your gear tidy and put away when not in use.

Put the lid down. In Australia there is a very good reason to keep the toilet seat closed – to keep the snakes out. No such dramatic reason in New Zealand, but keeping the lid on does help to control flies and there has been the odd tale of Keas getting themselves into trouble when the lid has been left up.

Keep it down. Most people have had a tiring day and will want to go to bed early. If that’s not you and you like to talk long into the night that’s fine but do it away from the sleepers and at a voice level which wont wake anyone.

Bed preparation/packing up. Getting your gear out for the night and packing it up the next day is noisy. If you’re going to stay up talking get all your gear ready first so all you have to do is slip into your bag. If you get going early the next day take your gear into the dining room to pack.

Snoring. Different people have different view on this topic. I am in the camp that there will be so many snorers in the hut that, if it bothers you, you should take earplugs. Others are of the view that snorers should sleep in the dining room.

Keep the door shut. Sandflies and mosquitoes are the bane of every hikers life in New Zealand. Try to keep them out of the hut by keeping the doors shut.

Food and water.

What food you take on a tramp is always a trade off between weight and taste. We are more in the keep the weight down camp and are prepared to stick with the dehydrated food packs for dinner, processed meats and cheese with pita bread for lunch and porridge for breakfast for the duration of the 4 to 5 day hike. At the other end of the scale we have seen novice hikers on the Milford Track take in a bag of potatoes and cans of food and then wonder why they are struggling during the day and not enjoying the hike. Of course, if you are fit and the weight doesn’t worry you by all means take the food which keeps you happy. We have also seen a Spanish family who carted loaves of bread, half a leg of ham, chorizo and other goodies which they then shared with other hikers and they still were the fastest up the mountain. They were, however, experienced hikers on what was, for them, obviously a bit of a doddle of a hike. If you are a beginner it is probably best to try and keep the weight down. Food suitable for hiking (typical brands – Back Country and Outdoor Gourmet) can be found in outdoor stores and many supermarkets. Lastly, it is always a good idea to take food for an additional couple of days as there is always the possibility that weather conditions will force you to stay on the track longer than anticipated. It is always better to have more food than required rather than venture a hazardous river or mountain pass crossing.

In most places water will be readily available, from streams, lakes and hut water tanks. There can, however, be exceptions. Water was not available in some of the hut water tanks in the North Island which we visited last February and in such cases it is best to check with DOC in advance of your hike. The biggest debate is whether the water should always be treated before consumption. In every hut there will be a warning sign advising that water should be treated. Kiwi trampers and some rangers will, however, tell you that they have been quite happily drinking untreated water in alpine or wilderness areas with high rainfall and have had no adverse consequences. Tracks where we have not bothered with water treatment include the Milford, Routeburn and Kepler. Conditions can, of course change and you should make your own assessment at the time of undertaking the hike. If in doubt treat the water by boiling, filtering or with chemicals.

Dangers and safety considerations.

Avalanche area Nelson Lakes
Avalanche area just outside John Tait hut, Nelson Lakes

The mountains of New Zealand may not be the highest in the world but they should not be underestimated. Every year people die or get lost never to be seen again. Accidents can happen to experienced hikers taking calculated risks, but all too often they happen to inexperienced people making dumb mistakes who underestimate the risks of the New Zealand wilderness. Dangers include: hypothermia (the weather in New Zealand can change quickly, even in Summer), crossing swollen creeks and rivers, falls, avalanches and mud slides. The New Zealand Mountain Safety Council Outdoor Safety Code has five points:

  • Plan your trip.
    Seek local knowledge, plan the route you will take and the amount of time you can reasonably expect it to take.
  • Tell someone.
    Tell someone your plans and leave a date for when to raise the alarm if you haven’t returned.
  • Be aware of the weather.
    New Zealand’s weather can be highly unpredictable.  Check the forecast and expect weather changes.
  • Know your limits.
    Challenge yourself within your physical limits and experience.
  • Take sufficient supplies.
    Make sure you have enough food, equipment and emergency rations for the worst case scenario. Take an appropriate means of communication (mountain safety radio or PLB).

For more information see the New Zealand Mountain Safety Council.

Also remember that the person responsible for your safety in the wilderness is you. It is up to you to assess the conditions, make sure you are adequately prepared and equipped and make the right decisions (which may mean turning back or waiting for water levels to drop before crossing a stream or river). Don’t expect there to be signs to warn you of all dangers and even if you are with a guide or more experienced hiker make sure that you are comfortable with the decisions that are made – speak up and ask questions, don’t just go along for the ride.

Annoyances.

Anyone who has ever undertaken a hike in New Zealand will readily tell you that the biggest annoyance is the ubiquitous sandfly. Māori legend has it that when the god Tu-te-raki-whanoa finished creating the Fiordland,  the landscape was so stunning that people stopped working and stood around staring in awe. The sandfly  was created by the goddess Hinenuitepo to bite them and get them moving again. Whatever the reason they were created the hiker should take plenty of insecticide, keep as covered as possible and have a cream to treat the inevitable bites.

Wasps and bees can also be a problem on some tracks, so if you are prone to or affected by these stings carry an epipen and/or antihistamine and check for any DOC alerts for the track in question.

Lastly, it is a good idea to ensure that all food is packed away when not in use. Possums, wekas and rodents can often be found at campsites and huts and will take advantage of any carelessly left food bundles.

Walk times.

Signage Kepler Track
Sign with time estimates, Kepler Track.

Most tracks in New Zealand will be signposted with indicative times to the next hut or camping site. We have also included a range of times in our posts on tracks we have undertaken. The range we have provided is based the time we have taken, without including meal or snack breaks and the indicative times provided by DOC. Walking times can, of course vary, from individual to individual. We once saw a note handwritten on DOC sign in Rocks Hut complaining that the indicative times were wrong and needed to be doubled. Another tramper had written the response: “Get fitter, walk faster”.  It is not only the fitness of the individual tramper which can affect hiking times. Other important factors include the state of the track and the weather. As an example we found that we were able to halve the indicative times provided on the Lake Waikaremona Track  between Onepoto and Waiopoao Hut mainly because DOC had recently redone that section of the track. In contrast we exceeded the estimate provided to hike down to the Totara Flats Hut in the Tararuas when the rain came down making the track muddy and the tree roots slippery.

From our observation it seems that DOC estimates its times taking into account the type of person likely to be undertaking the hike. Thus we found that the times for the Queen Charlotte Track, which has a lot of middle aged people like us hiking and staying in hotels, were very generous. On the other hand it has been more difficult to meet the times for tracks which DOC has marked as being for fit and experienced hikers only. As a general rule DOC doesn’t seem to get it too far wrong.

Some hikes or tramps.

For those who may be interested in more details on the hikes and tramps we have undertaken in New Zealand here are the links back to our posts on those hikes:
Abel Tasman Coast Track  – Great Walk. One of the world’s great coastal walks with relatively short daily distances. Nearest large town – Nelson, South Island.
Banks Peninsula Track – a private coastal walk with spectacular scenery. Nearest large town – Christchurch, South Island.
Hollyford Track – remote backcountry walk through the Hollyford Valley. Option for a guided walk with private huts. Nearest town – Te Anau, South Island.
Kepler Track – Great Walk which combines forests with an alpine ridge. Nearest town – Te Anau, South Island.
Matemateaonga Track – remote backcountry walk which finishes at the Whanganui River. Nearest towns – Stratford and Ohakune, North Island.
Milford Track – Great Walk which has a justifiable reputation as one of the world’s best. Nearest town – Te Anau, South Island.
Nelson Lakes – numerous backcountry walks to choose from. Nearest towns – Nelson and Picton, South Island.
Rakiura Track – Great Walk. The most southerly of walks in New Zealand and the best chance to see a kiwi in the wild. Nearest town – Oban, Stewart Island.
Routeburn – Greenstone Tracks – Great Walk combined with a backcountry track to get you back over to near where you started. Well worth doing in its own right but also for those who haven’t succeeded in booking on the Milford Track, the Routeburn is probably the next best option.
Tararuas, Mt Holdsworth-Jumbo Circuit – backcountry walk through forest combined with a ridge walk (weather permitting). Nearest town – Masterton, North Island.
Whanganui Journey – the Great Walk you have when you aren’t walking. A paddle down the Whanganui River. Nearest town – Ohakune, North Island.

DOC Website.

For even more information, you can’t beat: http://www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/things-to-do/walking-and-tramping/.

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