Tramping in New Zealand
Tramping (known in other countries as hiking, trekking or bushwalking) is a popular way to see New Zealand. Most national parks in New Zealand are administered by the Department of Conservation (usually abbreviated to and often just called DOC). DOC offices and their web site are very useful sources of information.
Tramping the New Zealand bush (forests) can be extremely dangerous if you are not properly prepared and equipped. The weather can change without warning. If you don't have the right equipment you may die from hypothermia. Additionally, rivers and streams often rise rapidly during rainstorms and you run the risk of drowning if you try to cross them when they are in flood.
NZ Mountain Safety Council has some information on-line but it is recommended that you visit a local DOC office before setting out on a trip. You should always ensure you tell someone reliable of your plans, and inform them when you return. You can do this at a DOC office.
The New Zealand bush is very dense in most places. Unless extremely experienced, you should not leave marked tracks.
Listen for the weather forecasts, especially the mountain forecast, broadcast by most AM and FM radio stations, normally every hour, just after the news (and also in the evening TV news). This means having a pocket transistor radio and perhaps a few extra metres of wire to boost the aerial. Also, if you are going into the backcountry for a few days you may want to hire a mountain radio or emergency locator beacon.
In most back country areas, water can be drunk directly from streams. In some areas, such as the Mangatepopo Valley in the North Island's mountain plateau, diseases such as Giardia are present. The safest options are to use a water-purifying tablet, such as iodine, or to boil water for at least 3 minutes.
Due to the highly variable nature of the weather and the rough topography, be prepared for anything. In higher areas, snow is common even in summer, and extremely heavy rain is common in the backcountry. The New Zealand bush is spectacularly beautiful but very unforgiving. Each year there are deaths while tramping, often due to hypothermia, falls, drownings. Make sure you do not stretch yourself beyond your abilities. If in doubt, check at a local DOC office, the staff are friendly and have lots of good information and tips.
Many of the national parks have basic accommodation called huts, which range from a basic roof over your head with large bunk spaces and a "long drop" toilet, to the deluxe huts on the Milford Track with individual bunks and flush toilets (one of which has electric lighting). The hut system is one of the treasures of the New Zealand backcountry. Usually huts are spaced a day's walk apart, and they can be found on most tracks and in all of larger tracts of native bush. Many of them date back to the 1960's and 70's when the Forest Service, as it was then known, built accommodation for government deer cullers in the remote bush areas, and linked the huts via a system of tracks.
There are two main classes of huts. Back country huts and great walks huts. The back country huts are very basic but also very cheap. Back country huts range in price from $0 to $15 per person per night and you can get an annual back country hut pass for $122 (33% increase). The great walks huts range in price from $10 up to $55 per person per night. Great Walk huts usually have heating and cooking facilities, often have warden present, and are generally of a higher standard than other huts.
For most huts there is no booking system, and bunks are allocated on a first come, first served basis. Occasionally on busy weekends you may find the huts full, but the general ethic with huts is that nobody is ever turned away, and even if the bunks are all full you should feel welcome to sleep on the floor, porch, or table rather than spend a night out under the stars. Huts are a great place to socialise with other trampers and meet genuine kiwis, and more often than not food and stories are shared long into the evening.
Back country huts are often maintained by tramping clubs on a volunteer basis whereas DOC tend to maintain most of the great walks huts. Please treat the huts with respect as they are offered to enable people to access the national parks and no one is paid to clean up after you.
It's a good idea to sign the visitors book that you will find in most huts. If you get lost, it helps narrow down where you last were.
There are a lot of places for tent camping while tramping. Almost all of the Great Walk huts have dedicated tent sites adjacent to them, and taking a tent tramping allows a degree of freedom in choosing where to spend the night. If the weather is good it can be a great experience to spend a peaceful night out in a tent on the mountain tops instead of a hut. As a rule of thumb though, if there are huts on the track you choose to walk, you won't need a tent, but keep in mind that if the hut is dirty, full, or the occupants are snorers, you might be happy you brought a tent along.
New Zealand has a number of 'Great Walks', which are very well maintained, cover some of the most beautiful scenery, and in the peak season, can be quite busy, requiring bookings with DOC well in advance. More information is available at The DOC Great Walks website.
The great walks are:
- The Milford Track, (about 4 days) which runs from Lake Te Anau through the McKinnon pass in the Southern Alps, leading out to Milford Sound. This is often considered one of the most spectacular walks in the world.
- The Routeburn Track, (about 3 days) which starts at the northern end of Lake Wakatipu near Queenstown in Glenorchy, coming out at The Divide on the road to Milford.
- The Kepler Track.
- The Heaphy Track, on the northern tip of the South Island. This runs through some rain forest on the west coast, through beech forest, to tussock in the higher altitudes.
- The Rakiura Track, on Stewart Island
- The Abel Tasman Coast Track
- Whanganui River Journey
- Tongariro Northern Circuit, which passes through the central North Island's volcanic plateau. The Tongariro Crossing is a shorter version of this walk.
- Waikaremoana Track
Whirinaki is one of the great rainforests of the world. Such a global comparison is required to put it in its deserved ranking. While relatively small in area - at 60,000 hectares (600 square kilometres) the size of Lake Taupo or the island of Singapore - it is the finest of New Zealand's remaining giant podocarp forests. At Whirinaki - New Zealand's 11th forest park - rimu, totara, matai, miro and kahikatea, the five great podocarp species, reach gianthood. This occurs in few other parts of this country, and certainly nowhere else in the world. Unlike many northern hemisphere pine forests, Whirinaki is not a single-species forest, nor is it confined to only a few sorts of trees. It has many more species of trees within its bounds than occur in equivalent areas of the evergreen and deciduous forests of Europe. Again unlike its counterparts in Europe, Whirinaki is essentially a forest without seasons - there is no one time of the year when the foliage is shed together and the forest floor is opened up to full light. And almost without exception, the foliage is evergreen. It is one of only two podocarp forests in New Zealand which show their primary canopy in such completeness. The podocarps evolved more than 200 million years ago - in the Jurassic era - long before the flowering plants arrived. They are distinguished from the pines by not having a female cone, but in its place have a small succulent pedestal 'foot' or bright berry attractive to birds. The podocarps outstrip most of the true pines in their prolonged age, and in size and majesty. Whirinaki Forest Park has been a rich garden for the Maori tribes who have lived within its boundaries for centuries. Its dense podocarp timbers host high numbers of birds, including the endangered karearea (New Zealand falcon) and whio (blue duck). Then there is the kaka, the screeching North Island parrot, red and yellow crowned kakariki and the kereru (native wood pigeon), to name but a few. Brown Kiwi can also be heard calling at nights on occasions. This haven for nature enthusiasts and bird watchers alike is located on the northern and western end of the Urewera ranges, the mountain chain which lies between the Kaingaroa Plains and the East Coast of the North Island. Rainforest experiences can be accessed from the main tourism centres of Rotorua and Taupo. View www.whirinaki.com.
New Zealand tries hard to prevent introduction of unwanted flora and fauna. Make sure you clean the mud from your boots, tents, groundsheet and stoves before you enter the country. Tramping equipment will be inspected on entry into the country. If you have any type of sports equipment in your luggage, declare it; there is a $200 instant fine for having undeclared (and dirty) equipment or sports footwear in your possession.
You will need sturdy boots or trail shoes. You will probably get wet feet, even on the tracks.
Wet weather gear is essential, even if the forecast is fine. It rains heavily and often in the backcountry. Snow is possible year round. It can also get very very hot in summer.
Most huts are not serviced, you may need to bring your own stove, and always bring your own cookware and cutlery.
Basic foam mattresses with plastic covers are standard for huts, there is no bedding provided so bring a sleeping bag.
Packs should be sturdy and weatherproof. Keep your gear inside a plastic liner if your pack does not have a rain cover.
Plan on getting cold and possibly wet. Bring clothing that will keep you warm if it gets wet, such as polypropylene or wool thermal underwear, fleece insulation layers, and a waterproof outer shell.
There is not much to eat in the bush, and nowhere to buy food once you're out there, so carry plenty of high energy food and allow a little extra in case you are delayed by bad weather.
Many routes for more experienced trampers may cross high alpine passes, an ice axe and crampons may be necessary even in summer.
You can obtain good quality outdoor gear in most larger towns, usually at a reasonable price. Outdoor brands tend to be more expensive than in North America and Europe, so bring your own gear if you have it. Fuel and food are easy to obtain anywhere in New Zealand. Most outdoor shops provide good service and advice, Bivouac Outdoor  and R&R Sport  stand out as leaders in their field and have stores in all of the main centres.