New Zealand is a tiny country that packs a massive amount of scenery into a small amount of land. There’s a reason the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy was filmed here: From stunning glacier vistas to dramatic river valleys and empty beaches that stretch for miles, the landscape often feels other-worldly.
New Zealand has a rich history of outdoor recreation. The Southern Alps — a huge mountain range with craggy peaks and massive glaciers — has served as a training ground for generations of climbers and mountaineers. That list includes Sir Edmund Hillary, the native New Zealander who made the first successful summit of Mount Everest with sherpa Tenzing Norgay in 1953.
Hiking and backpacking — which New Zealanders call “walking” and “tramping,” respectively— are an integral part of the local culture, and it’s normal to see people of all ages and abilities enjoying backcountry trails. The small towns near the major trailheads cater to trampers by offering supplies, budget accommodations and shuttle services. A vast network of backcountry huts, meanwhile, turns tramping into a unique experience for international visitors.
To top it all off, Kiwis — the nickname for native New Zealanders — are overtly friendly, with a pinch of sarcasm mixed in now and then. On the trails, they will go out of their way to help fellow trampers with everything from starting a finicky hut stove to evading the country’s notorious gear-grabbing alpine parrots.
Solo/self-directed tramping is common in New Zealand, but organized trips are a popular way to see the country as well. New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC) provides lists of commercial operators on most of its Great Walks web pages.
In this guide:
- Best Hikes
- Backcountry Huts
- Traveling to/between trails
- When to Go
- How to Get There
- What to Bring
- Safety Concerns
Best Hiking Areas in New Zealand
The South Island is known for its mountainous terrain and vast expanses of wilderness, giving it a clear advantage over the North Island for most international backpackers. There are enough trails in the South to keep hikers busy for months, but those who want to fit in some beach time or see the country’s volcanoes will benefit from spending some time on the North Island as well.
The country’s nine Great Walks (with a 10th planned for 2019) get the most hype — and the most foot traffic. You’ve probably heard of some of them: The Kepler, Abel Tasman and Routeburn are the three most popular Great Walks, and with good reason. The scenery represents what many people think of when they think of hiking in New Zealand, and well-maintained trails and huts make these trips accessible for even the most novice of backpackers. To escape the crowds but still check that Great Walk box, try the Heaphy Track, a 4-6 day journey that accesses some of the most remote terrain on the South Island.
Mount Aspiring National Park
For glacier views, it’s hard to beat the myriad of tramping options in the Matukituki Valley. An overnight stay in the French Ridge or Liverpool huts will be a trip highlight for intermediate backpackers who don’t mind a steep approach with some exposure. To get there, you’ll walk through sheep pastures nestled beneath towering ridgelines and waterfalls — a picturesque setting that will have you humming “the hills are alive…” in no time. For a more challenging multi-day route, check out the Gillespie Pass Circuit.
Nelson Lakes National Park
This is another South Island gem with spectacular trails that don’t get quite as much attention as the Great Walks. The 50-mile Tavers-Sabine loop samples some quintessential New Zealand scenery; don’t miss the side trips to Lake Angelus and Blue Lake, reportedly the clearest fresh water in the world.
Mount Cook National Park
At 12,281 feet, Mount Cook is the crown jewel of the Southern Alps, and there’s no better place to take it in than the Mueller Hut. A sunset from the hut’s expansive deck, where you can watch the changing light bounce off a giant wall of glaciers, is an experience that should not be missed.
Te Paki Coastal Track
The North Island’s picturesque coastline is enough to convert any mountain junkie to a beach lover. The 30-mile Te Paki Coastal Track stretches across the very northern tip of New Zealand and can be tackled as a multi-day thru-hike or broken into smaller sections.
Egmont (Taranaki) National Park
Dozens of volcanoes are scattered around the North Island, but none is as perfectly shaped as the 8,261-foot Mount Taranaki. The 15-mile Pouakai Circuit is a good introduction to the park’s volcanic landscape, while the 4-5 day Around the Mountain Circuit offers views from every angle. Fit and experienced trampers should consider tacking on an extra day to hike to the Mt. Taranaki summit; the trip is steep but straightforward in the right conditions.
Choosing a Hiking Track
When deciding where to go and what to bring, it’s important to consider the difficulty level of various trails — which the Kiwis call “tracks.” The easiest level of backpacking is classified as a “Great Walk/Easier tramping track.” These tracks are well maintained, consistently marked and generally easy to follow — though they may include sections of significant elevation gain and/or loss.
An “advanced tramping track” resembles what we call a bootpath in the U.S., and it will likely include sections that are steep, rough and overgrown. Sturdy footwear is a must for these tracks, and trekking poles are helpful for the descent. Like the easier trails, most advanced tramping tracks in New Zealand are marked with DOC’s trademark orange blazes or poles, although the markings may be inconsistent. Unbridged water crossings are common.
Off-trail experience is essential for those considering tramps marked as “route.” These remote trips are likely to involve significant amounts of routefinding, bushwhacking and numerous water crossings.
New Zealand’s Backcountry Hut System
One of the main things that separates backpacking in the U.S. from tramping in New Zealand is the country’s massive backcountry hut system. The DOC (sort of like the National Park Service, National Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management rolled into one) manages 950 huts around the country; dozens more are owned and maintained by local climbing or hunting and fishing clubs. Huts come in all shapes and sizes; most provide at least a bunk and mattress, cooking area, backcountry toilet and running water.
Huts are a great way to meet fellow travelers, escape the elements and learn more about Kiwi tramping culture. Ditching the tent will also keep your pack weight down — unless, of course, you compensate with extra lollies and biscuits. Hut fees vary based on the type and the season, but most cost between $5 and $30 per person per night. Great Walks huts can be significantly more expensive.
Hut passes: Traveling for awhile? A six-month or 12-month hut pass from the DOC covers most huts outside of the Great Walks system. Otherwise, you can pre-purchase tickets at a DOC office and pay as you go.
Hut reservations: Most huts are first-come, first-served; it’s smart to pack a lightweight sleeping pad in case you encounter a full hut and have to sleep on the floor. During high season, you must make a reservation to stay in the Great Walk huts — and they often fill up several months in advance. Bookings are allowed for some other popular huts but not required.
Tent camping is allowed on most of the Great Walks and many other trails, typically at a lower rate than what it costs to stay in the huts. Campsites can be easier to come by than hut spots, but it’s still a good idea to book in advance during high season.
Traveling Between Tramps
Here are some questions to ask yourself when planning your trip: How long is my trip, and how tight is my schedule? Are my destinations accessible by public bus or private shuttle service? Will most of my hikes be round-trips or one-way? Do I want to sleep in my vehicle, or will I spend most of my time backpacking and sleeping in huts or tents? Am I comfortable relying on the kindness of strangers to get from point A to point B?
Buses or rentals: Public and private buses operate in New Zealand, but schedules and routes are limited, especially on the South Island. Renting a vehicle will significantly increase your options for hiking and tramping destinations — at a cost, of course. Vanlife culture is alive and well in New Zealand, and, depending on the length of your trip, you might consider buying a used campervan or other vehicle. Several car rental companies also offer outfitted vans and RVs.
Shuttles: Another point to consider is that most of the Great Walks and many other popular trails in New Zealand are linear, meaning they start and end in different locations. On the Great Walks, private shuttle companies transport trampers between trailheads — and a few will even relocate your car while you’re hiking. Depending on the trail, one-way transportation via boat or private plane may also be options. Consult the DOC website for specifics.
Hitchhiking: Some backpackers opt to hitchhike from destination to destination. This is a very common way for international travelers to get around New Zealand, especially on the South Island, but it comes with its own logistical challenges and safety concerns. You could also try to arrange a “key swap” with another group who is hiking the trail in the opposite direction, but, like hitching, that approach is not without risk.
When to Visit New Zealand
December to March — a.k.a. summer in the Southern Hemisphere — is high season for New Zealand tramping; this is when the snow melts from the high alpine trails and the weather is most stable. That said, mid-summer can bring sweltering heat to Abel Tasman National Park and other spots on the northern tip of the South Island. The North Island also tends to have warmer temperatures than much of the South Island.
Solitude on the trails is tough to come by in the middle of summer, with December being the absolute busiest month for international tourism. Hiking in shoulder season is a great way to beat the crowds and experience a different side of New Zealand’s vast wilderness, but trampers must be prepared for weather that can change at any time — including pounding rain, snow and freezing temperatures. Beware that avalanche risk exists on many popular trails from May into November, and that bridges are removed from some river crossings in low season.
No matter when you visit, it’s a good idea to include some extra weather days in your itinerary if possible. Summer in New Zealand is not as consistently clear and sunny as it is in many parts of the U.S., and having the ability to tweak your tramping schedule at the last minute is advantageous.
How to Get to New Zealand
Most international flights to New Zealand arrive in Auckland (on the North Island) or Christchurch (on the South). From there, domestic flights to other destinations are frequent and relatively inexpensive. Many international backpackers will either start or end their trip at Queenstown, a mountain town that caters to outdoors enthusiasts and is close to many popular tramping destinations on the South Island.
Cities like Auckland, Christchurch, Nelson and Queenstown offer a range of accommodation choices, but options can be limited in smaller towns. Typically, you’ll be able to find at least a simple motel or B&B. Holiday parks — campgrounds offering showers, laundry, shared kitchens and other amenities — can be found nearly everywhere and are a great option for budget-conscious travelers.
What to Bring Tramping
Your packing list for New Zealand should include the Ten Essentials and most of the gear you would normally bring on a backpacking trip in the U.S. — except for the tent, if you plan to stay only in huts. Water from backcountry streams is generally safe to drink in New Zealand. You can plan to boil when in doubt, or pack a small amount of chemical treatment just in case.
Backcountry toilets are common on most trails, but toilet paper isn’t always provided. Pack your own, and bring a small trowel for emergencies. Don’t forget to follow the Leave No Trace principles, and be prepared to pack out all your own trash.
Prepping your gear: Your gear will be inspected by a biosecurity agent upon arrival in New Zealand, so be sure to clean the mud and gunk off your boots before your trip. The Transportation Security Administration prohibits passengers from traveling with fuel or fuel canisters, and some airlines don’t allow camping stoves — check your airline’s rules before you travel. Trekking poles, ice axes and crampons must go in checked baggage.
Stocking up when you arrive: Along with the bigger cities, destination towns like Wanaka, Te Anau and Queenstown will have at least one outdoors store selling gear, fuel, freeze-dried food, maps and any other supplies you may have left or forgotten at home. The major grocery chains also have a wide selection of instant meals and tramper-friendly snacks. (Don’t miss the chocolate-orange Baked Oaty Slices. You’re welcome.)
Safety Concerns and Hazards
Weather: Rain is no joke in New Zealand, and the forecast changes frequently. Your backpack should always include a waterproof jacket, rain pants and a pack cover or liner. Kiwi trampers also frequently wear gaiters to keep their feet dry while walking in the rain or through wet vegetation. Don’t forget extra wool socks.
River crossings: Speaking of water, river crossings are one of the biggest safety hazards in New Zealand — especially on tramps that are not part of the Great Walk system. Ask the rangers at the nearest DOC office for advice if your trip includes an unbridged water crossing. Do not attempt to cross a river during or immediately after heavy rain or snow melt.
Wildlife: New Zealand doesn’t have bears or any of the other mammals that keep American backpackers up at night. Birds and rodents are common, however, so you’ll want to keep your food in your tent or use a critter-proof storage container. The fiercest predator you’ll find in New Zealand is the infamous sandfly, a tiny bug with a bite that swells up and itches for days. Wearing pants, long sleeves and socks will be enough to avoid bites most of the time, but pack mosquito net clothing and insect repellent for extreme instances.