Hiking in New Zealand: Know before you go

I’ve always been a lover of the outdoors.

I was a bit of a tom-boy really; I loved climbing trees and playing hide and seek in our garden, and I would often come home with scabs on my knees from falling over or scratches on my arms from picking blackberries. But I never really considered myself into hiking. I mean, how boring – just walking for an extended period of time? No thanks!

On the odd weekend, we would take the dogs for a walk to Sandringham forest or Bourne woods, but it wasn’t until I enrolled in the Duke of Edinburgh programme that I had a proper experience of hiking. We had to plan our route using a proper map, navigate with a compass, carry huge packs and camp in tents. For me, those four day expeditions mainly resulted in a lot of moaning and skulking along at the back of the group in a bad mood. I wasn’t very fit, my pack was too heavy, and I didn’t much enjoy being caught in the rain.

So when James and I moved to New Zealand in May 2015, I didn’t think much to hiking. Of course I wanted to see the scenery: the huge, mystical mountains, the glistening blue lakes, the greenery of the forest – but wasn’t too fussed on the physical side of walking. Now, 18 months later, I am a fully converted Hiker. With a capital H!

Atop Mount Roy, Wanaka -That view more than made up for the 3 hour trek!
Atop Mount Roy, Wanaka: That view more than made up for the 3 hour ascent!

We lived in Auckland for the first 4 months of our time in NZ, and spent the majority of our weekends exploring the magical world of the Waitakere: the dense, lush forest, the crystal clear water of the rivers and the hidden, secluded beaches. We would walk for hours at a time, but I never grew tired of the strain in my leg muscles or the scenery around me. It was around this time that I realised that I actually really enjoy hiking.

What better way to escape the city, stay fit, and explore – all at once? Did you know that just 30 minutes of walking a day improves your balance, strengthens your leg, ab, arm and shoulder muscles, halves your chances of catching a cold and boosts your endorphins! If that’s not an incentive to go for a hike, I don’t know what is!

Walks in the Waitakere bring you to beautiful spots like this
Walks in the Waitakere bring you to beautiful spots like this

And, when I think about it, when you live somewhere with such beautiful views and so many great walking tracks, why wouldn’t you want to hike in NZ? After falling in love with the Waitakere, we have now walked some of the most incredible hikes in the entire world: along the pristine beaches of Abel Tasman National Park, along the ridges of the mountains in Fiordland, and in the craters of active volcanoes.

Whilst I am by no means an expert on hiking (just an outdoors lover!), I have put together a short list of things you really should know before you go, to ensure you make the most of your experience hiking in New Zealand.

Hiking in New Zealand - spinthewindrose.com

New Zealanders call hiking ‘tramping’

The first thing you should know is that in New Zealand, they call hiking tramping. Walking tracks are tramping tracks, a walk is a tramp, hiking boots are tramping boots, a hiker is a tramper, etc. Tramping usually refers to a longer walk, like a day-hike, and is often used to reference walking in the bush, which is the word for New Zealand’s native forest. Fear not, Kiwis still understand the word ‘hiking’! New Zealanders have lots of funny words for things, actually – and you can read more on that here!

Can you spot me? - Arthurs Pass National Park
Can you spot me? – Arthurs Pass National Park

DoC is your new BFF

The Department of Conservation (or DoC, as in “What’s up Doc?”) is the advisory body that looks after all of the walking tracks in New Zealand, ensuring they are well-maintained and safe. There are a number of DoC visitor centres dotted around the country where you can ask for advice, book your huts or campsites, and pick up one of their many leaflets on walking tracks and national parks. Their website, doc.govt.nz, offers a wealth of information for all things outdoors in NZ.

As well as looking after walking tracks, the Department of Conservation maintains and services huts and campsites (more on this below) and does a lot of work to protect the flora and fauna in New Zealand. It devotes itself to conserving the land and animals of the country, and therefore rescues and breeds wildlife, including birds and marine life.

Kea, New Zealand - spinthewindrose.com
The kea – New Zealand’s native alpine parrot

Traps are put out along many walking tracks and in national parks, to reduce the number of pests. Stoats and rats are a huge threat to native birds, such as the kiwi and the takahē. This means that now, more than ever, you are likely to encounter some of these precious creatures while hiking.

An incredible thing about New Zealand is that all of the walking tracks are completely free, however a donation (koha) is often appreciated! Donations will go towards DoC’s work to maintain and upkeep of the tracks and backcountry huts and campsites dotted along them.

Fern, New Zealand - spinthewindrose.com
A fern in its early stages

New Zealand has great walks and even greater Great Walks

There are nine Great Walks in New Zealand: these are basically a handful of the best tramps in the country, offering stunning views in diverse areas across all three islands (the North, the South and Stewart Island). They are:

  • Lake Waikaremoana
  • Tongariro Northern Circuit
  • Whanganui Journey – (kayaking down the Whanganui River!)
  • Abel Tasman Coast Track
  • Heaphy Track
  • Routeburn Track
  • Kepler Track
  • Milford Track
  • Rakiura Track

These are a great way to discover some of the beautiful scenery across the country, and because DoC maintains the tracks, they are generally safe. During the high season, DoC rangers manage the huts: they check in the hikers arriving and raise an alarm if someone doesn’t turn up. Rangers give you a short safety briefing and share interesting facts about the area – so Great Walks are a really good way for beginner hikers to experience a tramping track!

Abel Tasman, New Zealand - spinthewindrose.com
The Abel Tasman Coast Track is a really, really Great Walk!
Accommodation

Whilst the tracks are free to walk, you need to book your accommodation in advance. These walks are incredibly popular, so buy your hut tickets or campsites as soon as possible. During the high season (October – May), the huts book up very quickly – sometimes almost 6 months beforehand. More on this in number 4. You can book your accommodation through through the DoC website.

James on the Kepler Track
James on the Kepler Track, another of New Zealand’s Great Walks
Transport

Bear in mind that not all of these walks are loop tracks. Often you will need to leave your car at one end of the track and arrange transport back for once you’ve finished, or have your car relocated to the end of the track. For instance, we booked a water taxi to get back to the start of the Abel Tasman track, and a bus when we did the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (the day-walk version of the Great Walk, the Tongariro Northern Circuit). Make sure you arrange your transport in advance, or buddy up with some friends and leave one of your vehicles at the end of the track to save money on transport!

Some of our favourite hikes on New Zealand’s South Island are detailed in this post.

Walking through the crater of a volcano - Mount Tongariro, Mount Ngauruhoe and Mount Ruapehu in one shot
Walking through the crater of a volcano – Mount Ngauruhoe/general Mordor-ness and snowy Mount Ruapehu behind

On longer tramps, you can stay in huts or campsites

Dotted along the walks are huts and campsites for trampers (hikers) to use when trekking longer tracks. The cost of these accommodation options will depend on the season, where they are located and how often they are used.

Huts

Huts are basically huge wooden chalets with a dedicated bunk-room and kitchen – normally with an open fire. They have long-drop toilets (sometimes flushing toilets too!) and are often equipped with with gas stoves and mattresses – but double check on the DoC website before you go. Nothing beats finishing a long day’s walking and seeing the hut in front of you, like a heavenly refuge – and sitting by the open fire with a hot cup of tea makes you feel much better.

Luxmore Hut, Fiordland, New Zealand - spinthewindrose.com
Luxmore Hut on the Kepler Track

If you embark on a Great Walk, take your booking reservation with you as it will be checked when you arrive. Huts on the Great Walks cost between $22 and $54 a night in the high season (summer) and just $15 a night in the low season. If you fail to get a hut or campsite before they sell out, please refrain from camping illegally on the tracks. This damages vegetation in fragile areas, you’ll be faced with a $200 fine, and it’s a complete slap in the face to those who do pay – please don’t do this!

Backcountry huts are those on other walking tracks. These are often operated on a first come, first served basis so cannot be reserved in advance. You normally pay for these with Backcountry Hut Tickets, which cost $5 per ticket, or you can buy a 6 monthly ($92) or yearly Backcountry Hut Pass ($122). You can buy these at DoC centres, some iSites, or order them. Huts cost a number of tickets per night – the “standard” ones are cost one ticket per night ($5) and the “serviced” ones (with wood for the fire and gas stoves) cost 3 tickets a night ($15). Some very basic huts are completely free. You can find out more about all of the huts on the DoC website.

New Zealand - spinthewindrose.com
A friendly welcome!
Campsites

Campsites are normally located close to huts, but there are often many more campsites than huts along the tracks. They are usually just a large grassy area with long-drop toilets, and sometimes picnic tables and barbecues. These are often free and are operated on a first come, first served basis, though some must be booked in advance. You normally pay for these by leaving money in an honesty box. Again, the DoC website has lots of information on campsites.

Bark Bay Hut, Abel Tasman, New Zealand - spinthewindrose.com
Bark Bay Hut, Abel Tasman

You need to be well equipped, in all weather!

New Zealand is renowned for having four seasons in a day – all year round. This means you need to pack something for all weather; you do not want to be ill-equipped when you’re on top of a mountain in a storm!

Rucksack

You need a decent rucksack/backpack for overnight hikes, and for day-hikes too. I love my purple Kathmandu day-pack: it’s got a chest strap and a hip strap which is super handy when you feel the strain on your shoulders – and it’s big enough to fit my MacBook in it without being so big that I overfill it. For longer hikes I use my Osprey Ariel 65l. It was a big decision as Ospreys are quite pricey, but the best decision I’ve made; it seems to mould to my back and feels like a second skin. It’s got loads of pockets and straps and a handy waterproof cover for the rain. When you’re going to be carrying a lot of weight, you need to make sure your pack will be as comfortable as possible, so when you choose to buy one, don’t be afraid to take it home and try it with some weight inside while you make up your mind.

Osprey Ariel - spinthewindrose.com
My Osprey was a big investment – but worth it!
Clothes

I go for shorts or leggings with a loose top. Layers are your best friend – pack lots of layers as opposed to one thick coat: I guarantee you’ll be glad you did! I tend to take one long-sleeved top and one jumper to layer up with, and a waterproof & windproof jacket too. Waterproof trousers may look ridiculous but will be your best friend in a downpour. I always take a change of clothes (usually another pair of leggings, a top and a pair of flip-flops) for hanging about at the campsite or hut in. That way you can stay comfortable and air the clothes you’ve been walking in. Oh, and always pack your togs (swimsuit) if you’re going to be passing a hot pool or waterfall – you never know when you might want to take a dip!

Hiking - spinthewindrose.com
A waterproof jacket and cover for your rucksack are essentials
Footwear

Your feet are the most important part of your body when you’re hiking, so you need to look after them! Trainers/sneakers are generally OK for shorter walks, but for longer tramps or those on loose terrain or with a fair bit of elevation, you’ll need a pair of sturdy hiking boots. Make sure your boots are well-worn in, but not too worn! Don’t have a repeat of what I did: my hiking boot broke on the second day of a track at the top of a mountain! I love my (new!) boots I got from Torpedo 7; they are super comfy and have above-ankle support – which is great when you plonk around without looking where you’re putting your feet like I do!

Food and drink

You need to make sure you have enough food and drink to last you at least a day longer than you are expecting to be tramping – just in case something unexpected happens! We take muesli, bananas, nuts, noodles, pasta, and chocolate! We try to take some fruit and veg too, like bananas, apples and carrots. You don’t have to take instant meals, but it’s sometimes easiest to do so. Most tracks do not have drinking water available on them, so make sure you take LOTS of water with you. We saw so many people on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing who didn’t have even ONE bottle of water with them, which is very dangerous.

Equipment

You should also make sure you have the correct equipment before embarking on your hike. If you’re inexperienced or going somewhere unmarked, buying or hiring a personal locator beacon is a really good idea – it could save your life. Crampons and walking poles are essential in the snow. For overnight tracks, take a gas stove (and a spare gas canister!), thermals, a sleeping bag and, if you’re camping, your tent. There are some great stores where you can pick up these things in New Zealand such as Macpac, Kathmandu and Bivouac, and the Warehouse offers cheaper options but it doesn’t offer as good quality.

Whether you choose to camp in tents or in huts, you will probably want to use earplugs while you sleep; there is always that one person who likes to be noisy. Take toilet roll, hand sanitiser, suncream, a torch and spare batteries. Don’t leave any of your valuables in the car while you are tramping – many of the car parks at the start of tracks are hotspots for thieves who know you’ll be away from your car for a long time.

Be prepared and stay safe

New Zealand - spinthewindrose.com
Look out for DoC signs at the start of tracks for key information

 The walks in New Zealand vary in difficulty, and signs at the start of tracks will advise how so. Some of the tracks are sturdy wooden boardwalks which are wheelchair-friendly, others are completely unmarked and require a map and backcountry navigational skills. You can usually rely on the orange markers to guide you. We climbed up tree roots and branches on the hike to Lake Marion, and up metal ladders drilled into the rocks at the Pinnacles in the Coromandel. Icons on the signs and in the brochures will advise the difficulty and average length/ duration of the track.

To ensure you get the most out of your hike you have always got to be prepared – even if it’s just a short walk. Be sensible and be prepared. Make sure you pack the right things and take note of the elevation and approximate walking times on tracks – they are usually quite accurate! Don’t overestimate yourself and think you can walk 9 hours worth of hiking in 6 hours; you’ll be knackered! 

Routeburn Track, New Zealand - spinthewindrose.com
Routeburn Track Elevation Profile

If you are inexperienced, consider going with a guide. These people are fit, healthy and know a lot about the area. They will also know what to do in case of an emergency or if the weather takes a nasty turn, so are a great option for beginners. And, if you go in a group, you’ll make some new friends! Plenty of people go without guides, in groups with friends or with just one other person, but be aware that if you go alone, you should be even more careful.

In sum, plan your trip, know your limits, take enough supplies and remember to check the weather forecast beforehand. Before you leave, tell someone where you’re going – the local iSite or DoC Visitor Centre and your family. See the DoC website for more handy tips on staying safe. The emergency number (for police, ambulance, fire, search and rescue) is 111. To report safety hazards or conservation emergencies, phone the DOC hotline at 0800 364 468.

Metal ladders on the Pinnacles hike
Metal ladders on the Pinnacles hike

Practice toitu te whenua

This is a Māori saying which means to leave the land undisturbed. The idea is to leave no trace of your visit: tidy up your camping spots and refrain from littering. There are no rubbish bins along the walking tracks in New Zealand. Take an extra bag and take your rubbish with you; James usually ties our rubbish bag to the outside of his rucksack so the inside of our packs doesn’t smell. Don’t leave rubbish bags outside your tent as this attracts vermin and harms native birds such as the kiwi.

No matter how smelly the long-drop toilets are, please refrain from doing your business in the bush; if you really must go, bury your waste. Human waste is a huge issue in Fiordland, where hikers unfortunately leave tissues, wet wipes and even tampons in the bush. This is a huge problem as it damages the earth, pollutes the waterways, and attracts vermin. Please take all of your rubbish with you. 

Nelson Lakes National Park, New Zealand - spinthewindrose.com
Loving life in Nelson Lakes National Park

Enjoy yourself

New Zealand’s tramping tracks are here to be enjoyed, so make sure you do just that! The scenery is beautiful and there are so many native birds and plants to learn about: you could meet a kea, New Zealand’s native alpine parrot, or marvel at the height of a kauri tree.

Make sure you allow time to fit in the side-trips; these are often short walks from the main track that lead to beautiful, untouched spots, like Scott’s Beach in Karamea off the Heaphy Track, the caves by Luxmore Hut on the Kepler Track, and even time for an afternoon dip in the sea in Abel Tasman National Park.

Scott's Beach, Karamea, New Zealand - spinthewindrose.com
Scott’s Beach, a great side trip from the Heaphy Track or a short day-walk

Huts and campsites are great places to meet like-minded people, who might end up becoming new friends. And you’ll end up meeting people from all across the world, in all different phases of life: Kiwi families on a trip during the school holidays, solo hikers, keen photographers, groups of friends, elderly pensioners… Anyone and everyone loves tramping in New Zealand.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing, New Zealand - spinthewindrose.com
Feeling accomplished – Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Don’t feel bad if you are overtaken on the busier tracks. James and I often overtake and get overtaken by the same people multiple times; we walk quite quickly but spend absolutely ages taking photos. As we’ve now bought a Go Pro, we are taking even more time to complete the tracks!

Pinnacles, New Zealand - spinthewindrose.com
The view from the top of the Pinnacles is worth the climb!

That’s all I have on hiking in New Zealand – I hope this post has been helpful. I’ve absolutely loved exploring on my own two feet here, and I’m sure you will do too!

Do you enjoy hiking? Would you like to do some tramping in New Zealand?

Thanks for reading,

abbi-signature-spinthewindrose

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23 Comments

  1. Gorgeous photographs! Thank you for the insight, if I ever come back to New Zealand (well, I hope I do), I will be sure to do more hikes – it’d be a felony to pass up on so many amazing hiking opportunities. Doing enough research would be a must though, my friend did the Tongariro Alpine Crossing with only one 1L bottle of water (she didn’t realise just how long it would take her to complete it) – and it was mid-January!

    1. I hope you come back too! We did the Crossing in January too, and I didn’t realise it’s so exposed and really quite tough! I’m glad your friend at least took SOME water though – honestly we saw some people without any at all!

  2. I am not an avid fan of hiking but if I’ll be invited to give it a try, I’ll surely won’t decline. It’s just that I am not sure if I can make it. I easily get tired walking how much more when it comes to hiking? But of course, I will take all the cost to do it, though. On a side note, I love the scenery New Zealand has and knowing that there are so many places to visit for tramping, I am sure this is worth a visit! Thanks for sharing the things needed for this activity.

  3. Your photos are amazing – the ones of the landscape are especially immense. NZ is a very special, majestically place and I’m desperate to go back!!

  4. What a lovely experience hiking in New Zealand must have been. The sheer natural beauty and the flora and fauna is amazing. Your stunning pictures bring the landscape alive in stunning detail and colours.

  5. How I would love to live somewhere like this where you can take incredible hikes very often! It looks so beautiful. I’ve pinned this post as I will definitely refer to your post when I (hopefully) one day visit New Zealand.

  6. I visited New Zealand a long time ago and I remember telling people when I got back to Canada that even the babies have hiking boots. I am going back someday hopefully soon now I have relatives that live on the South Island. This has to be one of my favourite places in the world and New Zealanders are so much like us Canadians, adore the place.

  7. Looks amazing! I have read so many good posts from New Zealand lately that soon I must go there. I love hiking but it is a little restricted at the moment, since I mostly travel with a 4 year old. She loves nature too but gets tired fast. Someday I will do longer hikes again.

    1. I hope to travel/hike with kids when I eventually have them! I reckon your 4 year old is at the perfect age to start hiking! I’m sure you can manage shorter hikes while she’s younger 🙂

  8. Your blog-post is absolutely amazing – you did an amazing job, giving all the tips and details. I love hiking more than anything and New Zealand is really a dream. I bookmarked your article for the times when I will be planning my trip 🙂

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