I spent nearly three of my ten weeks in New Zealand tramping in the backcountry. To me, this felt like the best way to see the scenery that the country is renowned for; how could there be a better feeling than getting to the top of a long, grueling climb to find a superb vista at the top that only those who make the effort to walk there get to see? Sure, there's scenic views everywhere you look in NZ, but I felt like I would appreciate it so much more if I had put in a serious physical effort to see them.
The NZ Department of Conservation owns and takes care of all of the trails that I tramped on. They have a network of hundreds of tracks that range from "Great Walks" status (the biggest and most maintained walks, of which there are 9) to "route" status, where you need a compass, map, and lots of extra gear for when you get lost. The DOC are fantastic at what they do; because of their hard work, tramping has become accessible to so many more people.
This entry will concentrate on "Great Walk" and "Track" grade walks, since these are the walks that I did. I stayed away from the less frequented/more remote walks as I was traveling on my own and felt much safer knowing that there were definitely other people on the track and often, wardens living at each hut. However, much of this information can be applied to the smaller tracks as well.
The first step to doing a walk in New Zealand is finding the local DOC office. Most towns (especially those in areas known for tramping) will have one. You can locate the closest one to you here. The office will have staff on hand to answer any questions, and many have big displays of the local tracks as well. You can buy brochures, which describe a specific track (I have linked to the Routeburn Track brochure), possible weather conditions, and gear needed, for $1. If your track does not have its own brochure, or you feel the brochure isn't detailed enough, you can also buy maps.
Two important points are made in all brochures--that you need adequate food and water for the entire track. There are very few tracks that have stores/restaurants along them (the Queen Charlotte is the only one that I can think of), so you need to bring in enough high-energy food to keep you going for at least 1 day longer than your intended stay on the track, in case something goes wrong and you get stuck. I recommend dehydrated 2-serving "Backcountry Cuisine" that is sold in most supermarkets. This weighs 165g and gives you a balanced dinner with little preparation (all you have to do is boil water and let the food soak in it for 10 minutes). I know it doesn't sound appetizing, but it's edible. Also, a stove with gas bottle is a must. Not even all of the Great Walks provide stoves, so you're better off bringing your own along unless it's explicitly indicated that the facilities are provided. And, while all huts do have a water source, not all of them are deemed to be "safe" by the DOC, meaning that you could get giardiasis (a fun intestinal parasite that causes "explosive and foul-smelling" diarrhea) if you drink water that has been untreated. A stove provides the easiest way to treat the water, since you simply boil it for 3 minutes. You can also bring along giardia-rated water filters or iodine tablets to purify water as well.
The second piece of business you should take care of at the DOC office is that of huts. The huts are the only thing that the DOC charges you for whilst on the track. On all walks except the Great Walks--the
Waikaremoana, Tongariro Northern Circuit, Whanganui River (which is actually a kayak, rather than a walk), Abel Tasman, Heaphy, Routeburn, Milford, Kepler, and Rakiura--you do not need to book a hut or campsite in advance. However, you will need to buy backcountry hut tickets. There are a few options for doing this; if you plan to do a lot of walks that are classified as "backcountry"--meaning they are not Great Walks during peak season--you can buy an annual pass for $90. Otherwise, each individual hut pass costs $5. This doesn't mean that each night in a backcountry hut will cost $5; some huts, depending on their level of upkeep and facilities available, will cost 2-3 tickets. You should be aware that since these huts do not require a booking, they may be full when you arrive (especially during peak season). Therefore, you might want to carry extra gear just in case, such as a sleeping mat or tent.
Often, campsites are located proximal to the huts. Campsites are generally cheaper than the huts but don't provide quite the number of amenities. Often, toilets are shared between the huts and the campers, but campers are often not allowed inside the hut itself to use the stove facilities/sit under cover for a while. Cooking shelters are sometimes provided, as is untreated running water.
I mentioned above that certain Great Walks have their own booking system. This booking system is online and can therefore be accessed before you've even arrived in the country; bookings become available for the next season around July 1 of each year. It is highly recommended that you check out availability for these Great Walks a while before you plan to actually walk them, since they can be very popular and the huts only hold about 40 people per night. The Milford Track, for instance, books out months beforehand; I booked in September for walking in March!
The system is very easy to use; simply go to the DOC page about the track you wish to walk and click on "online booking." This page is an example of the booking form for the Milford Track. Before you start booking, you should research the track and decide which huts/campsites you would like to stay in, since there are sometimes many choices (in the case of the Abel Tasman Track, for example) depending on how far you'd like to walk in a day. In the Milford Track's case, however, you have no choice--you have to stay one night in each hut along the track.
Once you have begun booking and have searched for the date you'd like to walk, a grid of availabilities is brought up for the week you'd like to walk in. All huts and campsites along the tracks can be booked here, and some tracks (like the Milford) allow bookings for transport to/from the track as well (and I have described transport in detail in another of this journal's entries). Space on these tracks is much more expensive than on the smaller backcountry walks due to high demand; huts cost between $30-40 a night and campsites cost about $12. After you complete and pay for your booking, you are provided with a confirmation number and a page listing exactly what you've paid for. Print this page and keep it handy; you will either need to show it to the hut wardens (on tracks like the Abel Tasman) to prove you've paid or give the reference number to your local DOC office so they can print your hut tickets (on tracks such as the Routeburn, Milford, and Kepler).
The last order of business at the DOC office is inquiring about the trail conditions and extra gear you may need. While the brochures often provide a fairly comprehensive list of necessities, the staff have been updated on the latest conditions and may have other recommendations. As I have described in my "Weather" entry, you should always know the next few days' weather forecasts, because the weather can change exceedingly quickly and put you in grave danger if you are unprepared. One of the more dangerous effects of bad weather is that it causes river and stream levels to rise; many tracks have unbridged crossings that can become impassable when flooded, leaving you stranded in the wilderness or worse, attempting to cross a river and possibly drowning.
This inquiry may also include filling out a form of your intentions. This is not needed on the Great Walks, but otherwise, you are better off filling out a form telling the DOC where you plan to go and how long you plan to be there in case something goes wrong. When you return from the track, you simply drop a slip with your details into a box at a DOC office and they know you are okay; if you don't do this, they will start a search for you.
I know this is a lot of information to absorb, but don't be scared; I truly enjoyed tramping in New Zealand and found it to be one of the most fulfilling parts of my trip.