New Zealand is heaven for hikers. It’s stunningly beautiful, relatively uncrowded and absolutely full of trails, but how do you choose one that will suit your needs and desires?
There are currently nine ‘Great Walks’, a set of popular hiking trails developed by the Department of Conservation showcasing a variety of the country’s diverse terrain over both the North and South Islands. Their popularity is well deserved with excellently maintained trails passing through beautiful landscapes and with most walkers needs well catered for.
On the other hand there are countless equally stunning hiking trails throughout the country, serviced by nearly a thousand back country huts, so do you really need to book a place on a Great Walk?
Great Walks tracks are of a higher standard than many other tracks in the country and are well formed and easy to follow. They are often quite wide with gradients generally in the easy to moderate range and all rivers are bridged. This can all be a good thing if that’s what you’re looking for but just occasionally these routes lack the interest and variation in track surface provided by more natural trails. Add to this the sheer numbers of other hikers you are likely to be sharing the trail with and you can sometimes lose that full sense of being in the wilderness that many of us crave.
Outside of the Great Walks, trails range from flat and easy to steep and gnarly with added exposure, and everything in between. You may have to tackle bouncy mesh suspension bridges to cross rivers or even ford them on foot. The rewards though are often spectacular scenery combined with the peace and serenity that comes from hiking in less visited regions.
Great Walks huts are of an excellent standard providing bunk accommodation with mattresses for up to 50 people, and most supply gas cooking stoves, lighting, flushing toilets and toilet paper so you won’t have to carry your own. Bookings are required and for the more popular ones like the Milford, Kepler, Routeburn and Abel Tasman, sometimes six months in advance which can make planning a challenge. Huts cost anywhere from $22 to $54 per night and if the weather is looking dodgy or you need to change your plans there are fees and charges to change dates, that is assuming your new dates are even available. These huts are busy and on the more popular trails during peak season you are likely to have a full house. With capacity in these huts reaching up to 50 beds that’s a lot of people to share your slice of wilderness with.
Regular backcountry huts come in three standards with prices ranging from free to $15 per night. Some are no more salubrious than a garden shed while others are almost at Great Walk standard, with double glazing, modern and clean design, indoor running water and wood burning stoves with fuel supplied. For the vast majority of huts, bookings are not required with beds provided on a first come-first served basis. Capacity ranges from two bunks including mattresses to up to around 30 bunks, toilets are mostly of the outdoor long drop variety and water is usually supplied by rainwater tank, though occasionally a nearby river. You will need to carry your own stove and fuel, headtorch and toilet paper.
All the work is done for you on a Great Walk. You simply collect your trail map and notes from the Department of Conservation safe in the knowledge that someone else has already worked out a conservative itinerary that will lead you through a beautiful hike, well marked with directional signage.
Outside of the Great Walks you will need to ensure you have adequate maps and a trail description before heading out. Some of the more popular backcountry trails are well provided for with DOC brochures available describing routes and walk times, but others may require a bit of research and planning.
Great Walks trails are regularly monitored and during peak season a ranger will be on hand in most huts to answer any questions you may have or to provide support if needed. In the event the weather is not conducive to an alpine area Great Walk the Department of Conservation will advise you against starting.
If you venture out on your own backcountry hike you will need to be self-sufficient and perhaps make decisions that affect your safety. You will need to consider whether the weather forecast is adequate for the route you are planning and whether the occasional unbridged river is safe to cross. Trail signage may or may not be easy to follow. While walkers always need to be responsible for their own safety, regardless of whether it’s a Great Walk or not, the majority of huts and trails are largely unmanned by wardens and rangers so walkers need to be comfortable with being on their own.
So, which walk is right for you?
The strength of a Great Walk lies in making New Zealand’s beautiful backcountry accessible to just about anyone. But if you have a stove, a head torch, a bit of experience and value your own space then you will find many more equally stunning trails that provide flexibility in planning, are lower cost, and you just might have the whole place to yourself.