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Travel

Great Walks NZ: How to plan, budget, book and hike

NZ Herald
By: Martina Grossi
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Aotearoa is recognised the world over as a thrill-seeking wonderland, with something to suit every age, level of fitness and expertise. But with thousands of kilometres of walking trails across the country, it can sometimes be an overwhelming choice to find the right walk for you. There are so many factors to consider - budget, availability, location and the ability of your hiking party.

To find something to suit, why not give one of New Zealand's 10 Great Walks a go? Now is a great time to try - while our international borders remain closed there will be more opportunities to book your spot on the most popular routes, and fewer people following in your footsteps as you walk.

With landscapes ranging from rugged mountain tops to emerald green waters and sandy beaches, the "Greats" offer a spectacular and adventurous way of exploring our beautiful outdoors.

Maintained by the Department of Conservation, the Great Walks are perfectly signposted and have great facilities.

Three are located in the North Island: Lake Waikaremoana, Whanganui Journey, and Tongariro Northern Circuit. The latter is one of the most popular hikes and a Unesco World Heritage Site.

The remaining seven are found in the South Island: the Abel Tasman Coast Track, the Heaphy Track, Paparoa Track, Routeburn Track, Kepler Track, Milford Track, and the Rakiura Track.

Heading to any of the Great Walks requires a fair share of prepping and mapping of detailed logistics for a successful adventure.

If you're planning to book a spot on any of the Great Walks this season, here's what you need to know.

Transport

Find out if the track is a circuit or a one-way trail. Circuits will have the same starting and ending points, whereas one-ways will finish kilometres away from where you began walking.

Even though all the one-way Great Walks have service shuttles, public transport or water taxis to take you back to the starting point, options can still be quite limited.

As an example, the Heaphy Track in the north-west of the South Island has only one car relocation service run by locals, or you can take an air charter. These options are great but do come at a cost, and you need to book ahead of time. Some folks choose to hitchhike their way back or organise car key swaps with fellow trampers.

Location

When choosing your Great Walk, make sure you factor in travel time to your journey to get to and from the start of the walk, and book accommodation for the night before and after you begin the track. Check availability before you book the dates of your hike to ensure you'll have a comfortable bed for the night before you start.

Lake Waikaremoana in the Te Urewera national park is one of three Great Walks in the North Island. Photo / Chris McLennan
Lake Waikaremoana in the Te Urewera national park is one of three Great Walks in the North Island. Photo / Chris McLennan

Seasons

Great Walks bookings open in June every year but while five are able to be booked year-round (Rakiura, Heaphy, Waikaremoana, Abel Tasman, part of the Paparoa Track) , five are seasonal because of their routes crossing alpine terrain (Whanganui, Kepler, Tongariro, Milford and Routeburn).

Great care should be taken at all times, even on the year-round tracks. Know your own limits, check weather conditions before you go, and make sure you're well prepared with the correct gear and equipment before setting out.

The seasonal tracks remain accessible during the off-season, but there will be no DoC rangers, high risk of avalanche, and additional safety hazards and treacherous conditions to consider. Stick to walking during the Great Walks season to be safe.

Bookings and costs

Make sure you plan your journey from start to finish, and book your hut and campsite for each leg. Know how far you're prepared to walk every day, and make sure you have booked a spot for the night. Routes can get booked up quickly for high season (December to April), so make sure there is enough availability for every night of your journey.

Prices of huts varies greatly from hike to hike, ranging from $24 per adult per night on the Rakiura Track, to $70 for the Milford Track.

Milford is the only walk with hut-only accommodation; all others have campsites as well, which are considerably more affordable, ranging from $6 per adult per night to $20. Children can stay for free.

Nothing beats the happy sight of your hut in the distance after a long and strenuous hiking day. As hut etiquette demands, take off your muddy boots on arrival, and leave them outside before stepping into this safe haven, with a bunk bed and a mat ready to keep you cosy for the night. Staying in a hut is one of the highlights of a hiking adventure. You can relax, enjoy stunning views, cook a hearty meal, read a book, play cards, light a candle, chat with fellow hikers, and get ready for yet another adventurous day to come.

Beware though, there are always heavy sleepers snoring their hearts out, but hey, it all adds to the hut family fun. Bring earplugs.

Length and duration

The Emerald Lakes in Tongariro National Park. Photo / Destination Lake Taupo
The Emerald Lakes in Tongariro National Park. Photo / Destination Lake Taupo

Each one of the Great Walks comes with its own characteristics, yet, as a rule of thumb, most can be done in between two to six days. The two shortest are the Routeburn and the Rakiura Tracks at 32km. The longest walk is the Heaphy Track at 78km, while the 145km Whanganui Journey is completed by kayak or canoe along the Whanganui River.

Each section of each Great Walks comes with time estimates, which you'll find on DoC's website. These tend to be quite generous and will help you calculate walking times and schedule your day.

Factor in any specific timing you need to be aware of. For example, if heading to the Abel Tasman Coastal Track, you'll have to cross an estuary on day two, meaning you need to be ready to go during low tide - otherwise you'll face walking three extra hours of walking time.

Fitness and experience

All Great Walks are well maintained by DoC and can be experienced by families, but some are more challenging than others. Hikes like the Abel Tasman and the Rakiura Track are relatively gentle and recommended for families with kids aged 10 years and over. On the other hand, the Kepler or Tongariro Tracks tend to be quite taxing as you gain more altitude and can face changing weather conditions.

Cater to the least fit member of your group, and make sure they can comfortably complete all parts of the journey.

Hiking the Heaphy Track in Kahurangi National Park. Photo / Nelson Tasman
Hiking the Heaphy Track in Kahurangi National Park. Photo / Nelson Tasman

Alternative ways to Walk

If you don't have the time or feel that a multi-day hike is still out of reach, you can easily walk sections of most of the Great Walks. For example, there are water taxis that can take you to and from various points along the Abel Tasman Coast Track so you can get out for a few hours or a full day, without having to book a hut or carry camping gear.

For an adrenaline-packed holiday, you can choose to mountain bike the Paparoa Track and seasonally on Heaphy Track (between May 1 and November 30 only), or kayak your way through the Abel Tasman. You'll of course still need to plan for the conditions and book your accommodation along the way.

Get a guide

All the Great Walks are designed to be self-guided, so hiring a guide is not necessary. However, booking an expert to lead you on your walk can give extra peace of mind and ease. For example, Queenstown-based Ultimate Hikes offer all-inclusive guided walks on the Milford and Routeburn Tracks, with comfortable private hut accommodation, supplied linens, catered gourmet meals and fully stocked bars. All you'll need to carry is a day pack with your personal items. Their lodges have laundry facilities and drying rooms so you need only bring one set of hiking clothing.

There are also companies throughout New Zealand that can guide you on the other Great Walks - enquire with your travel agent or the Walk's local i-Site information office.

Ready to go?

Remember to plan your trip end-to-end, including the accommodation you may need before and after your hike. Always share your plans, stay on track, and follow the DoC's best practices and guidelines.

For detailed information, head to the Department of Conservation website: doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/things-to-do/walking-and-tramping/great-walks