“Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave.” –Beautiful and truthful words from Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, who walked more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail—alone.
While it may be scary to set out into the wild with nothing but yourself and whatever you can carry on your back, you inevitably return with a lasting sense of strength and confidence. But I’m not encouraging you to set out on a month-long bushwalk just yet—let’s start with something more manageable.
Overnight hikes can be intimidating, but New Zealand is the perfect place to start. The country has hundreds of trails, and aside from the breathtaking views, the best thing about them are the huts conveniently placed along the way. Some huts boast gas cookers and flush toilets (they outdid themselves!), while others offer nothing more than tin walls, soggy wood, and old romance novels. That said, in a snowstorm, believe me—they look like a four star hotel. Plus, many of the huts are staffed by friendly Kiwi rangers who are eager to share directions, weather updates and backcountry stories. You’ll be one with the night owls in no time.
Where to hike?
New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC) has a super helpful website to guide you through your search for the perfect trek.
If this is your first overnight hike, the best way to ease into it would be to plan a one-night trip. You can reach some of the most spectacular huts by hiking only a few hours from civilization. Start planning by finding a hut that is a 4-5 hour hike from the nearest trailhead or road (hint: use the DOC website). When the day comes to start your adventure, be sure to get to the trailhead early so you have plenty of time to get to the hut. Then spend a night warmed by the fire and the stories of fellow hikers, as you rest up for the hike back in the morning. Some of of my personal favorites are Welcome Flat, Mt Aspiring and Pinnacles Huts. The hike to Welcome Flat is a little strenuous, taking up to seven hours, but it pays off with natural hot pools to soak in at the end of the day.
If you’re ready for a lengthier trip, New Zealand’s nine “Great Walks” won’t disappoint. You’ll meander through spectacular scenery ranging from palm tree-dusted coastlines to dramatic alpine summits. The lengths of the walks range from 3-6 days, with huts usually spaced a 4-5 hour hike apart. This site provides a concise comparison of the different walks.
What to bring?
Many of the huts have mattresses, water and camp stoves available, but be sure to check before setting off.
This was my backpacking checklist for most New Zealand treks:
- Bug spray! – Sandflies (similar to mosquitos) are relentless and even if they aren’t biting they will get in your food/mouth/ears and drive you crazy. Most bug sprays will work, though, and many of the outdoor shops will carry a DEET free option. However, the best prevention is to cover up. Bring long-sleeved and long-legged layers, gloves, a scarf, and a beanie.
- Water – The Great Walks will have usually have water available at the huts. Most bodies of water in New Zealand are crystal clear and safe to drink from, however, it’s best to ask the hut warden about water quality in the area when you get there. I bought a UV water filter before I left for New Zealand, and never used it. Either way, be sure to bring enough water to get you through at least one full day of hiking (2 liters is usually plenty).
- Waterproof pants and jacket – New Zealand is an island and prone to swift changes in weather. Even if it’s just a cheap poncho you buy at the Visitor’s Center before you start, it’s better than nothing. Your clothes may still get wet, but it will buy you some time and keep you warmer. Be sure to pack your waterproof gear somewhere easy to access, so you can grab it mid-hike. Most of the huts along the Great Walks will have a fireplace and fuel, so you can dry your clothes overnight.
- Pack liner and cover – I made the mistake of only bringing a pack cover for my first trek in New Zealand and quickly learned that after a full day of rain, water will find it’s way around any pack cover. For future trips, I made sure to pack a heavy-duty trash bag to protect my clothes and sleeping bag for the next trip. It’s smart to put essentials (money, phone, passport) in a small Ziploc bag for further protection.
- Extra set of clothes – While the new and very expensive jacket you just bought might say “100% waterproof,” chances are you’ll get to the hut freezing and realize that nothing is 100% waterproof. Packing an extra set of clothes is always worth it—I like to bring an extra set of long-johns, a light sweater and socks in a separate Ziploc bag so I know I will have something warm and dry to put on at the end of the day.
- Sandals – For river crossings and walking around the hut.
- Warm layers – A pair of pants or leggings to hike in, a pair of long underwear, 1-2 T-shirts for hiking, a long sleeved thermal shirt, and a warm fleece or wool sweater.
- Good hiking shoes with ankle support
- Lightweight frying pan, plates and cutlery
- Pocket knife
- Warm sleeping bag – EN rating of 20° F should be warm enough for hut sleeping.
- Backpacking stove, fuel and matches – Some huts provide these. Double check.
- First aid kit
What to eat?
I tend to sacrifice some weight in my pack for a good meal at the end of a long hike. Especially when staying in a hut, having fresh veggies at the end of the day is so much better than a freeze-dried, cardboard soup.
For a one-night trip this was my typical food packing list:
- Breakfast – Rolled oats, almonds, raisins, cinnamon, and dried fruit. Chia seeds can be added to breakfast for an extra protein boost.
- Mid-trail snacks – Trail mix, bars (one-square meal is a popular Kiwi choice), and grainy bread (try Vogel’s!) with cheese and salami.
- Dinner – Dehydrated backpacking meals are lightweight but expensive. Ravioli, pasta mix, or ramen mixes are cheaper and often more tasty. Bring some chopped up veggies and spices in a zip lock bag to liven up the meal.
- Whisky – Drink with cocoa or tea. Warms you up, relaxes the muscles, and helps make friends.
- Dark chocolate – To make it through that last mile.
How to prepare?
I’m not a big advocate of over-preparing—it’s good to leave some flexibility for unexpected changes in a trip. However, for the sake of safety and comfort, a few things should be sorted out before you go romping into the wild.
- Tell someone – Tell someone your plans and set a date for them to raise the alarm if you haven’t returned. You can use the Adventure Smart website to make sure someone knows about your plans.
- Weather – MetService and MetVUW are the most reliable sources for weather forecasts. Metvuw will show you the actual rainfall map of the whole island, which will help you see if a huge storm is coming or just a few scattered showers.
- Tides – The Abel Tasman Track has two tidal crossings, which must be forded at low tide. The Heaphy Track also has coastal sections, which may only be safely navigated at low tide. Check the track brochure and tide charts when planning your trip.
- Booking – Reservations must be made for the Great Walks prior to the start of the trek (with the exception of Milford, Kepler, Routeburn and Tongariro in the winter season). The Great Walks are often the most popular and can be fully booked months in advance. If your time in New Zealand is short, it is essential to book your walk months in advance to ensure you will be able to hike. However, if you have a month or more and some flexibility, one option is to get to New Zealand and then check the DOC website daily to see if any last minute cancelations open up spots in the huts. People tend to cancel 1-2 weeks before the trip (after that, the cancellation fee jumps up), so you have to be flexible. But it’s an option!
- Transportation – Some of the treks require transportation by boat, which must be booked along with the huts. In addition, one-way treks may require transportation back to the start of the trek. A car shuttling service is also an option.
- Track Conditions – The track can often be damaged by mudslides or avalanches, especially in the Spring and Fall. Check the DOC website or call-in to check on the conditions of the track before starting your hike.
Leap into the welcoming arms of New Zealand’s wilderness and experience the exhilaration that rushes through your body at a mountain summit, the peace that is reflected in the vibrant night sky, and the strength within you that builds with each step into the backcountry.