Coming up with an itinerary for a New Zealand hiking holiday is a tricky task. The options for long-distance, hut-to-hut tramping* adventures are almost endless. I’ve been on two Kiwi hiking pilgrimages and I’ve walked extensively in both the North and South islands – but I still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. Nonetheless, in this blog post I’ll try and pass on some of the hints and tips I’ve learnt along the way that might just help you plan a once-in-a-lifetime hiking adventure in New Zealand.
* Tramping is the NZ word for hiking or trekking, by the way – it has nothing to do with tramps or being trampy.
New Zealand Hiking Holiday Decision 1 – North Island, South Island or both?
Your answer to this question can affect your entire itinerary. Personally I much prefer the South Island for hiking (and I think many feel the same) – it has so many highlights and wow moments, you can’t help but be charmed by it. But then again the Tongariro National Park in the North – an other-worldly volcanic landscape that’s utterly different to everything else you will encounter (more on that here) – is a must-do. My recommendations would be:
If you have loads of time or you are planning a broader tour of New Zealand (as well as hiking adventures) – do both islands
If time is of the essence or you want to limit the amount of travel required– just go for the South Island
New Zealand Hiking Holiday Decision 2 – What type of hiking trail should I walk?
This is where things can get a little complicated or confusing. So let’s start at the beginning. You have three categories of walk to choose from:
Option 1: the 9 “great walks”
These are trails like the Milford Track (aka “the finest walk in the world”) and the Abel Tasman Coast Track that are so awesome they’re given an elevated status.
- Iconic trails with stunning scenery – perfect social media bragging potential 😉
- A sociable atmosphere in the huts – you might just make friends for life.
- The paths are very well-maintained and waymarked and therefore super easy to follow.
- Good transport links to and from the tracks.
- Excellent facilities at the huts –bunks with mattresses, water supply, flushing toilets, wash basins, cooking facilities, tables and seating. Not exactly luxurious, but definitely not slumming it. A resident ranger will also be on-hand to help you out, if ever needed.
- The great walks often book up months in advance – you snooze, you lose. Visit doc.gvt.nz asap to avoid disappointment.
- The price-per-night of $22 – $52 (it varies from walk to walk) for hut accommodation is pretty damn high. Cheaper camping options are available at some designated sites.
- In summer months over-crowding can be an issue – you may well be sharing a hut with 39 other snoring backpackers. It won’t necessarily feel like escaping it all to a remote wilderness.
- You have to book huts in advance (except for winter hiking on a few of the tracks), meaning you have to plan your hike itinerary exactly in advance. There is no room for flexibility once you’ve started.
Option 2 – Backcountry hut-to-hut walking
New Zealand has a huge network of more than 950 backcountry huts, offering a myriad of long-distance, multi-day hiking opportunities. The huts come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some provide wood-burner heating, mattresses, toilets, wash basins and a water supply. Others are nothing more than a shed. These huts are linked by trails through beautiful and wild scenery, meaning you can hike hut-to-hut on set routes or invent your own itinerary.
- Incredible value for money – unlimited stays in backcountry huts costs just $122 for a year for an adult. Day passes are also available.
- A more rustic, wild experience – you can escape the crowds easier because the trails are less popular.
- Most backcountry huts can’t be booked – this allows you to “go with the flow” more out on the trail and speed up/slow down as you fancy (presuming you’ve got enough food!), and change your accommodation plans as you go.
- These trails can be more challenging and, as such, are better suited to experienced trampers with navigation and survival skills rather than beginners. That said, most hikes are well within the abilities of most trampers.
Option 3 – 30 “private walking tracks”
These are trails on (yes, you guessed it!) private land. There are 30 such tracks in the country: 18 in the North Island and 12 in the South Island. The Kaikoura Coast Track and Banks Peninsula Track are two of the most famous (but which is best? My analysis here).
Income-diversifying farmers set up most of these trails to cash in on their land’s natural beauty and the growing popularity of trekking vacations.They charge walkers a fee, providing in return comfortable accommodation, maps and, if you’re lucky, bag transport. Booking is mandatory.
- This is the “boutique tramping” option – it offers far more luxury than the Department of Conservation huts, including comfortable accommodation, hot showers, home-made meals and even baggage transport.
- The opportunity to explore different landscapes.
- You can really escape the crowds – hiker numbers are often limited to about 10 or 12 walkers per day, compared to 40+ on the great walks.
- Amazing extra-curricular activities such as kayaking with dolphins or wildlife spotting.
Read more my 3 favourite New Zealand hikes I completed in 2016 here
- All this luxury comes at a price – the Banks Peninsula Track, for example, costs $320 for the 4-day option. That’s almost double a 12-month backcountry hut pass!
So which should you go for? These are my recommendations:
If you want to just do one or two hikes – walk two of the great walks, maybe Milford and Abel Tasman
If you’re on a shoestring budget or if you hate crowds – forget the great walks and instead buy a backcountry pass and tramp away to your heart’s content
If money isn’t an issue and you like home comforts – go for the luxury of a private walking track or two
If you’ve got time and want a broader experience – try a bit of everything
New Zealand Hiking Holiday Decision 3 – what else is there to consider?
Wow, there is so much more to think about: where to fly to, whether to hire/buy your own set of wheels or rely on public transport, what equipment you need, when to go (the obvious choice here is December to February for the best weather, or the shoulder seasons of October to November and March to April for fine weather as well as lower numbers of hikers), what skills you need, how much food to pack, where to buy maps and so much more.
I haven’t got time to cover it all here. If you need more info, I’d suggest reading Lonely Planet’s comprehensive Hiking & Tramping in New Zealand – it is the bible for Kiwi hiking enthusiasts. But hopefully this post has helped a little and maybe just inspired you to book a New Zealand hiking holiday. Trust me, you won’t regret it.