From tomorrow morning the most sought-after bunks in New Zealand go on sale as the Great Walk Season 21/22 opens for bookings.
Last year the Milford Track all 120 bunks sold out over the 186-day season within just 40 minutes. Any uncertainty over the Kiwi-only walking season was quashed with routes including the Rakiura / Stewart Island track seeing their busiest season ever.
However, with the new differential pricing coming into effect there are huge cost differences, particularly seasonal.
Australian visitors who – as international walkers - would be charged $110 a night in peak season, versus only $15 a night May to October.
With separate international pricing coming into effect in the 18/19 season and differential pricing as of this year, never before has there been such stark contrast in peak pricing.
There is a concern that some less-experienced hikers might be tempted to book off-season to get a bargain rate. The Milford Track huts are a fifth the cost for Kiwis or a seventh of the cost for international guests, May to September.
DoC has warned against inexperienced hikers taking on Milford and the other great walks.
The department warns of "cold and wet, with ice, snow and short daylight hours" saying that it should only be attempted by those with "alpine, river crossing and navigation skills."
"Make sure you chose a walk that's right for you and your group," says the Department's Heritage and Visitors Director Steve Taylor.
"DoC's website and visitor centres have loads of information and advice about how to look after yourself and really make the most of your time."
A spokesperson for DoC said the new pricing intended to "improve access to the Great Walks for people ordinarily resident in New Zealand and increase the proportion of costs that are received from international users."
Easing numbers, increasing opportunities for New Zealand residents to take on a walk and recouping costs of infrastructure improvements are all factors in an increasingly complicated hut cost structure.
"It has been fantastic to see so many New Zealanders take advantage of these walks while border restrictions have been in place," they said. 75 per cent more Kiwis took on a Great Walk last season compared to the 18/19 season.
"It is possible the season may be slower as people look to keep their options open for changing border restrictions."
With more options for travel in New Zealand and abroad, and a general pattern of holidaymakers booking later to minimize travel uncertainty fewer Kiwis may be heading for the trails.
But don't count on there still being spaces in the Milford huts, if you leave your summer hiking plans to the last minute.
"Our advice is to get online when bookings open and have a couple of back-up dates if you aren't able to secure your first choice," says Taylor.
If you miss out on one of the busier Great Walk tracks, he advises Kiwis to consider exploring the wider network of trails "which are all incredible in differing ways."
For the first time DoC has introduced 'shoulder season' pricing for huts. Hikers on more popular routes, which see milder spring and autumn conditions can expect to pay more. Abel Tasman, Heaphy, Routeburn and Rakiura tracks all see a slight increase in May, June and September. As does Kepler's Luxmore hut.
Bargain backcountry huts
Instead of booking off-season, which can be hit by harsh conditions, DoC is encouraging hikers to look at routes which have seen fewer visitors in recent years.
The Lake Waikaremoana walk has remained at $32 a night. There is no differential pricing since the Te Urewera board sets these costs.
Similarly Paparoa as New Zealand's newest Great Walk track has remained at $45 a night, due to the lack of historical pricing and the ongoing work to the Pike29 Memorial track along the route.
Lastly if you are after a bargain, but not strictly a hike, the Whanganui River Journey is New Zealand's only 'Great Walk' completed by river. Huts along the multi-day kayaking trail got cheaper this year, due to lack of bookings. They now cost $30 a night during peak, seasons and $15 off-peak.
The first Great Walks - Milford, Heaphy and Rakiura tracks - go on sale from 9.30 am tomorrow morning. Routeburn, Paparoa and Lake Waikaremoana tracks and Whanganui Journey go on sale on Wednesday, 16 June.
With the remaining Kepler, Tongariro Northern Circuit and Abel Tasman Coast tracks being bookable from Thursday, 17 June. See doc.govt.nz for details