A Guide for First-Time Hikers in New Zealand

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Hiking, or tramping, as they call it in New Zealand, is a popular activity for both locals and visitors alike. Thanks to the country's Department of Conservation (DOC), nature is kept intact and protected in New Zealand. Hiking trails are well-maintained, as the DOC is fully committed to looking after the footpaths, huts, and sign-postings on the trails. The sheer variety of trails available also gives you every reason to try hiking at least once when you're in New Zealand. There are suitable trails for every hiker, and many are beginner-friendly.

Whether you are an experienced hiker or have never laced up a pair of boots in your life, here's a complete guide to going hiking in New Zealand.

Types of Hikes in New Zealand

You’ll be able to find day walks and multi-day trails no matter where you go in New Zealand. That’s the beauty of being in a country surrounded by endless natural panoramas. It’s helpful for you to know what level of difficulty the trails are so that you know what to expect and are prepared. The DOC categorizes all trails in New Zealand by the following six categories:

Easy Access Short Walk (Easy)

Up to one hour of easy walking for people of all abilities. The tracks are well-defined on even surfaces, without steps or steep sections, making it suitable for wheelchairs, buggies, and strollers. Find easy access short walks in New Zealand.

Short Walk (Easy)

Short walks are similar to easy access short walks, but there may be steps involved. Find short walks in New Zealand.

Walking Track (Easy)

Up to a days walk on tracks that are mostly well-formed, with some sections being steep, rough or muddy. Some tracks may also be suitable for mountain biking. Look out for orange triangles attached to trees or marker poles to ensure that you’re following the right track. Find walking tracks in New Zealand.

Easy Tramping Track or Great Walk (Intermediate)

Multi-day hiking suitable for people with limited backcountry (remote area) experience. Tracks are generally well-formed, though some sections may be rough, muddy or steep. Look out for orange triangles attached to trees or marker poles to ensure that you’re following the right track. Light hiking boots are recommended. Find Great Walks in New Zealand.

Tramping Track (Advanced)

A more challenging day or multi-day hiking experience for people with moderate to high-level backcountry skills and experience, as navigation and survival skills are required. Tracks are mostly unformed and may be rough and steep. Stream and river crossings are unbridged. Hiking boots are highly recommended. Find tramping tracks in New Zealand.

Route (Expert)

These challenging overnight hikes are only suitable for people with high-level backcountry skills and experience, as navigation and survival skills are required. You need to be completely self-sufficient. Tracks are unformed and natural, which may be rough, muddy, or very steep. Stream and river crossings are unbridged. You will need sturdy hiking boots for such tracks. Find routes in New Zealand.

Best Trails for First-Time Hikers

New Zealand’s Great Walks are multi-day trails highly recommended for the diversity of landscapes and are suitable for first-time hikers walking independently (without guides). However, if this is your first time hiking, you may want to start with short walks or a day-long walking track to get yourself accustomed to long walks and following trails’ signposts before going on a multi-day Great Walk.

When you’re ready for a Great Walk, here are two great options for first-time hikers in New Zealand:

Abel Tasman Coastal Track

  • Duration & Distance: 3-5 days, 37.8 miles (60 kilometers)
  • Start & End Point: The track begins in Marahau, near Nelson, and finishes near Wainui

Don’t forget your swimwear for this track as you will be able to enjoy the golden beaches along the trail. Many have spotted fur seals and dolphins on this Great Walk, and it is the only Great Walk where you can both walk and kayak! Book early or risk being disappointed, as this is a very popular trail during the summer months.

Heaphy Track

  • Duration & Distance: 4-6 days, 48.6 miles (78 kilometers)
  • Start & End Point: The track begins near Nelson, and finishes in Karamea on the West Coast

Featuring a range of landscapes, every day on the Heaphy is different—lush forests one day, and the West Coast sea the next. Opt to sleep by the beach on the last day with your tent, and you’ll have a memorable night with a view of the Milky Way.

Before you begin any Great Walk, you should always book your accommodation and give the DOC a heads up of your plans. Also, always be prepared for changeable weather conditions, even in summer. 

The Best Time to Go Tramping

Most non-alpine tracks are enjoyable walks any time from October to April, during the spring and summer seasons. February to March is the best time to go, as the summer months make for warmer weather so you won’t have to carry heavy winter gear with you. The tracks are also less crowded as the school summer holidays are over. Avoid peak season if you can, as less people means less stress on the environment and fewer snorers in the huts! The second best time to go is December to January, but it’s high season due to the school holidays.

Types of Accommodation

There are designated huts and campsites on every trail. Plan and book your accommodation from the DOC well in advance to prevent disappointment—they can get fully booked during peak seasons. As bedding is not provided even in huts, remember to bring your own sleeping bag. 

Huts

Bookings open mid-June each year. Here are the different types of huts and amenities:

  • Basic huts are basically just a shed.
  • Standard huts have no cooking equipment and sometimes no heating, but have mattresses, water supply, and toilets.
  • Serviced huts offer mattress-equipped bunks or sleeping platforms, water supply, heating, toilets and sometimes cooking facilities.

Campsites

Most campsites are on a first-come, first-served basis except serviced campsites. Here are the different types of campsites, their amenities, and costs:

  • Basic campsites include basic toilets and water; free on a first-come, first-served basis.
  • Standard campsites have toilets and water supply, and perhaps barbecues and picnic tables; $6 to $10 on a first-come, first-served basis.
  • Serviced campsites have full facilities, including flush toilets, tap water, showers, and picnic tables. They may also have barbecues, a kitchen, and a laundry. Costs $15; bookable via DOC visitor centers.

Getting To and From Trailheads

Since many of the Great Walks in New Zealand are not a circuit or a loop, that means you will end your hike in a different location from where you started. You can usually arrange your transportation there and back at the DOC visitor center, or the accommodation you’re staying at may provide shuttle services to the track. Don’t depend on hitchhiking as some tracks end in areas with little or no traffic.  

What to Pack

Prepare for all kinds of weather. Even in summer, bring a set of warm clothes just in case, such as your gloves and beanie. Here’s a reference packing list that may help you:

Clothes

  • Quick-dry shirts
  • Camping pants
  • Rain jacket & pants
  • Sleepwear 
  • Underwear
  • Socks
  • Hiking boots
  • Hat & sunglasses
  • Warm jacket
  • Quick-dry towel

Equipment

  • Portable camping stove
  • Portable camping cookware
  • Camping spork
  • Lighter
  • Water bottle / Hydration bladder (at least 64 ounces to have enough water for a day)
  • Swiss army knife
  • Headlamp
  • Sleeping bag
  • Sleeping mat
  • Tent 
  • Inflatable pillow
  • Washcloth
  • Eco-friendly detergent

Other Items

  • Toilet paper, wet wipes, hand sanitizer
  • Toothbrush and toothpaste
  • Sunscreen
  • Medications and first-aid kit
  • Hiking poles
  • Bug spray (South Island is known for sandflies)
  • Emergency blanket
  • Camera

Food

Bring enough meals and snacks for the number of days you’ll be hiking. Good meal examples include oatmeal or peanut butter sandwiches for breakfast; pepperoni and cheese sandwich for lunch; freeze-dried meals for dinners. Snacks such as apples, muesli bars, energy bars, and nuts or trail mix will keep you fortified along the trail.

Tips for Tramping

  • Check weather updates on MetService and Mountain Safety Council New Zealand
  • Take your rubbish with you, no rubbish should be left on the trail
  • Guided walks are available for new trampers who may find this too overwhelming. Feel free to join one of those (paid) guided walks, with meals cooked and equipment carried for you. 
  • Know yourself and rate your hiking skills realistically. Increase the level of your hikes slowly and figure out which hikes you are capable of doing before you start to go on really difficult trails.
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