Things to know for hiking in New Zealand
New Zealand's Great Walks
The Great Walks are New Zealand's premier and most popular tramping tracks and river trip. This is because of their outstanding scenery, ranging from spectacular areas of geothermal activity and high alpine passed to subtropical beaches lined with palms and bush-clad shorelines.
With the exception of the Whanganui Journey (a paddle along the Whanganui River in the North Island) all Great Walks are tramps along well-benched and easy-to-follow tracks. Most walks require 3 to 4 days with nights spent in large and well-equipped huts. There are also campsites available near the huts. Great Walks are within the ability of any reasonably fit person, which is one of the reasons for their popularity as well.
All huts along these tracks require Great Walks passes. Hut tickets and annual passes cannot be used. You should purchase these passes prior to departing on the tramp or you'll end up being charged a hefty rate by the hut wardens each night. All Great Walks are on a booking system, and you must reserve their bunks or campsites. There is a possibility that facilities will be full, so we strongly recommend to book well in advance, especially for the Milford and Routeburn tracks. Bookings for the Great Walks start at the beginning of July to fill spots for the following walking season, so yes you want to be as early as that to guarantee one of these spots!!!
Wildlife The best track for seeing native fauna is the Hollyford Track in Fiordland National Park. There is good birdlife in the bush, trout in the rivers and penguins and a seal colony at Martins Bay. It is also a fantastic option in case you should miss out on one of the great walks. In our opinion this track could easily be one of the Great Walks.
Alpine Crossing Simply too hard to tell, as there are so many! On the Routeburn and Kepler tracks you'll spend a whole day above the bushline, but some of the hikes in the West Matukituki Valley such as the Rees-Dart track, the Cascade Saddle route and Greenstone-Caples tracks provide for dramatic alpine scenery.
Thermal Area Also labelled an alpine crossing, but a very different type is the Tongariro Northern Circuit, a truly stunning hike featuring volcanoes, brightly colored craters and hot springs. You will also join the Tongariro Alpine Crossing on its best sections before you continue your journey into barren moon landsapes, and around Mt Ruapehu.
Coastal Walk By far the Abel Tasman Coast Track tops the list. The golden bays and green waters against the backdrop of lush native forests is a coastal paradise. Though very busy during the summer months - for New Zealand standards anyway - , this walk is pleasant year round, so to avoid the crowds, even walking in the shoulder seasons avoids the summer crowds.
Remote If you want to get away from it all in search of solitude the Dusky Track in the deep south of Fiordland National Park is an epic journey. This trek is physically quite demanding, so a good level of fitness is required. The Lake Waikaremoana Great Walk feels very remote, just because of the drive into the park. It is an 80km journey on gravel road to reach the lake coming from Rotorua. From Napier it is a little shorter. The forests on the Lake Waikaremoana Great Walk must be like they were millions of years ago, and will enchant you.
On a 3-4 week holiday in New Zealand you can easily fit in about 6 hikes, including some multi-day treks. Starting in the North you might do some coastal hikes in Northland, carry on further South via the Coromandel, followed by some of the volcanoes in the Central Plateau and Taranaki. From the Central Plateau it would only be a few hours drive to Lake Waikaremoana. If you don't have time to do the Tongariro Northern Circuit, the Tongariro Crossing is a must.
Once you reach the South Island, your first highlight could be visiting Abel Tasman, and carrying on further south from there onwards the options are endless as you'll be driving from one National Park into another. The Kahurangi and Nelson Lakes National Parks are excellent options if you want to go a little bit off the beaten track. A hiking journey through New Zealand would not be complete however without doing one of the walks in the deep south's World Heritage Areas, in particular Fiordland National Park. In between you would have plenty of time to visit the main attractions and do more sightseeing.
Huts and Accommodation
The Department of Conservation has an extended network of backcountry huts in national, maritime and forest parks. Other than the Great Walks, hut fees are cheap, and range from $5-20. Some huts also operate on a first come first served basis and are simply free, especially in slightly more remote places.
Huts are catgrorised according to their amenities. The best huts (Great Walks Huts) have stoves and fuel, bunk beds with mattresses, toilet and washing facilities, and a water supply. They may also have lighting, heating, radio communications and a hut warden. Serviced Huts have mattresses, water supply, toilets, hand washing facilities and heating with fuel available. They may have cooking facilities with fuel and a warden. Standard Huts have mattresses, water supply and toilets. Wood heaters are provided at huts below the bush line. Basic huts provide very basic shelter with limited facilities.
You can camp in the backcountry on all tracks provided you camp at least 500m away from the track. As tourism numbers in New Zealand are increasing, the increase in freedom campers is putting pressure on New Zealand's fragile environment, so if you decide to freedom camp, please respect the environment and take all your litter. Remember the words: leave only footprints and take only memories!
The Department of Conservation also has a large network of general campsites available on conservation land across the country, often in very scenic locations near a lot of the good hikes. Several grounds have flush toilets, hot showers, tap water, kitchen and laundry areas, outdoor lights, picnic tables, rubbish collection, and sometimes powered sites. They may also have barbecues or fireplaces.
You should pack a stove for any tramp other than a Great Walk where every hut has a row of gas stoves, but even then you might be waiting in line for a window of using them.
In nice weather conditions, the tracks in New Zealand are generally safe. What can make trekking in New Zealand dangerous is the unpredictable weather, if you are not prepared for this. An amazing hike in glorious weather conditions can rapidly turn into a nightmare if unprepared for sudden changes in the weather. Always bring rainproof, windproof and warm clothing on any hike in Alpine environment. Always check the weather forecast (www.metservice.com) before embarking on a multi-day trip, and plan accordingly. Always leave your trip details behind with someone, and always carry an extra day's food with you in case you have to site out the weather.