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A beginner’s guide to hiking and camping in New Zealand

Tongariro, hiking and camping in New Zealand

Kia ora, how exciting! You’re coming to Aotearoa and looking to get a little adventurous huh? Well, consider this a one-stop-shop for getting the ball rolling on hiking and camping in New Zealand. Whether you’re an avid hiker already or looking to reinvent yourself a little, there’s bound to be something here for you. So, let’s get started. 

When is the best time to hike or camp in New Zealand?

If you’re coming here for baby blue skies, scorching summer sun, and sparkling sapphire waters, I don’t want to see you here until October(ish). Our summer starts in December, but you can usually score some spring-time stunners. Generally speaking, the weather stays prime for hiking and camping until the end of March. April starts to get hit and miss but you won’t freeze out there (just drenched perhaps). Rain and wind chill are your primary concerns, but – thankfully for you – are easily mitigated with the right gear and a can-do attitude. 

Milford track, Queenstown, NZ

Image source:George Strang

Getting around

New Zealand is home to a lot of good things. Good food, good people, good scenery. However, we don’t quite have the historical wealth or foresight to have invested heavily in comprehensive public transport networks like Europe. The best way to get around, especially when exploring the great outdoors, is by car. There are plenty of rental companies, with plenty of options. A lot of tourists run with a campervan, being smaller and cheaper than a full motorhome. A normal car could also do the trick if you plan on staying at a lot of campsites. 

All of this being said, a lot of our roads are single carriageways, so exercise caution, stick to the left, and be careful where you overtake. Can’t drive, or dont want to? There are intercity buses and planes you can catch, and plenty of track transport packages for the big great walks (particularly down south).

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Can I camp anywhere I want?

Freedom camping is somewhat contentious and fraught with rules and regulations in New Zealand. Generally speaking, you can’t just park up wherever you fancy and sleep in your campervan or tent for the night. Different rules apply depending on whether your vehicle is self contained (has a toilet) or not, so be sure of what you are renting. 

There are plentiful holiday parks and campgrounds – both private and Department of Conservation run, as well as designated freedom camping spots. As a blanket rule, do your research for each region and play it safe. Campgrounds are cheap and have facilities you can utilise to your heart’s content. It takes a certain type to turn their nose up at the opportunity for a shower. 

You’ll face hefty fines for breaking local laws and regulations, so do your best to be as tidy and respectful as possible during your stay in NZ. 

camping in Routeburn, NZ

Image source:George Strang

Where are the best places to hike in New Zealand?

The big question for you is, North or South? Do you split your time or focus on one island? It’s a tough one, and depends entirely on how much time and money you’ve got to play with. 2-3 weeks per island would allow you to see a good chunk of both. Hiking and Camping in NZ is not about rushing, so try to relax and enjoy it. 

If it was my first time and I could only do one, I’d head south. It has the seamless blend of picture perfect mountain ranges, crystal clear lakes, ancient forests, and arid plains of your wildest Middle Earth dreams. Here is a very brief overview of where I think you should focus your attention. 

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North

Bay of Islands

Temperature in the high 20s, camping and hiking by white sandy beaches, kayaking, swimming, potential orca sightings. Need I say more? 

Tongariro National Park

A 5 hour drive from Auckland lies the gem of the Central Plateau, dominated by the mystical Mt. Ruapehu. The 3-4 day Northern Circuit is one of our 10 Great Walks, the Tongariro Crossing is its one day counterpart. Both will take you past the mouth of an active volcano, mesmerising turquoise waters (they are hot and sulphuric so don’t bother changing into togs/flip flops), and a mixture of barren volcanic wasteland interspersed with beech forests and tall grasses. 

If you’re opting for the Circuit, camping in tents instead of huts will allow you to better absorb the wondrous surroundings a bit further away from other hikers. Keep an eye out for Kārearea/New Zealand Falcon, and take the side quests to Tama Lakes and Taranaki Falls. If your legs aren’t too shattered afterwards, Mt. Ruapehu is climbable and right next door. 

Amenities can be found either at Whakapapa Village or National Park Village. Otherwise, Taupō is your closest large town. The once glorious Chateau Tongariro you will undoubtedly see is closed indefinitely due to earthquake strengthening requirements, so don’t hang around on the doorstep looking for a last minute reservation, but it’s nice to look at from afar! 

Tongariro national park, New Zealand

Image source:George Strang

Other multi-day hikes

Lake Waikaremoana and the Whanganui Journey are both listed NZ Great Walks and not to be overlooked (Whanganui Journey is technically a canoeing trip not a hike, but who cares). A stone’s throw from Whanganui is Mt. Taranaki, another breathtaking New Zealand volcano, and not one to be laughed at. With steep scree slopes, expect the quad workout of a lifetime. 

Undiscovered gems

If you’re looking for something off the beaten track, try out The Bay of Islands, Coromandel Pinnacles, or The Kaimai Ranges. Just make sure you’re comfortable being further away from potential help. 

Sticking around Auckland? Tāwharanui, Tiritiri Matangi, and Rangitoto are all beautiful spots in the Auckland region, and are all on the more gentle end of the spectrum. All happen to be pest-free nature reserves, giving you a prime opportunity to get out the binoculars and the amateur ornithologists guide. All three have hiking options, no camping on Tiritiri Matangi though.

Abel Tasman, New Zealand

Image source:George Strang

South

Upper South

Abel Tasman National Park is home to an unmissable Great Walk, adorned with clear blue emerald waters, sandy beaches, and rich green forests. Keep one eye on the Weka (they’ll steal your food), and one on the sky, as there are Kākā (large parrots) flying about for your viewing pleasure. The Queen Charlotte Track is a stone’s throw away, as is the Heaphy Track (another great walk). Right next door are the breathtaking Nelson Lakes, so fill up that camera roll. Both are excellent options for an intro into hiking and camping in New Zealand.

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Mount Cook National Park

A four hour drive from Christchurch, at the head of Lake Pukaki, our tallest mountain rests, Aoraki/Mount Cook. In your excitement to get there you might drive straight through Lake Tekapo, but please don’t! Tekapo is home to Mount John, hosting an observatory with some of the best star-gazing opportunities in the world due to the low light pollution. 

After channeling your inner astronomer, be sure to check out the local salmon farms and channel your inner bear instead. After hibernating for a day or two, you’re now well set up to traverse the tremendous Hooker Valley Track, ending with marvellous views of Aoraki itself. 

If you’re up for it, take the trek up to Mueller Hut, a picture of the quintessential New Zealand backcountry vernacular. It’s gruelling at times, but well worth the effort for the once in a lifetime vistas you’ll be spoilt with. You’re also in an area steeped with hiking history and prestige. 

Once you reach Mueller hut, you’ll hit Mount Ollivier, Sir Edmund Hillary’s first major climb in a career that wound up at the tippy top of a Nepalese Mountain which you may or may not have heard of. Take the trip up if you’re not too worn out!

Just over the alps is the wild, untouched West Coast. Fox and Franz Josef glaciers are well worth a visit, and it’s home to another great walk – the Paparoa Track. 

You could spend a lifetime hiking and camping your way through this part of the country, but unfortunately you’ll have to move on at some point. Alas, there is hope yet, I still haven’t touched on Queenstown! On your way there stop in at Mt Aspiring National Park, home to our pointiest mountain, Tititea/Mt Aspiring. Be sure to check out Brewster hut while you’re there.

Tongariro, New Zealand

Image source:George Strang

Queenstown region

Queenstown is your gateway to the drug that is adventure. There is something here for literally everyone, at any skill or ability level. Skiing, jet boating, skydiving, bungee jumping, horse riding, you name it (and you can do them all on Contiki’s New Zealand trips!). 

Milford Track

If you’re lucky enough to get tickets to what’s been pegged as ‘The finest walk in the world’ since 1908, and helped put New Zealand on the tourism map, you truly are in for a treat. It’s nothing if not beautiful, but it can also be wet. Milford Sound is the wettest place in New Zealand, and one of the wettest spots in the world. On the upside, the plethora of waterfalls you will see put on a show good enough for your Insta story. It truly is one of the most dramatic landscapes you’ll ever encounter.

Make your way to Te Anau for the water taxi to the track start, then begin your 4 day hiking extravaganza. Unlike most other great walks in New Zealand, this one can only be done in Department of Conservation huts, no camping allowed. The track is heavily managed, so don’t try getting in without your golden ticket. Once there, you’ll meander through the Clinton Valley for the first 2 days, passing flowing rivers, beech forest, all the while being flanked by steep, dramatic cliffs on both sides. 

On day 3 you’ll go up and over the McKinnon Pass, hopefully with clear views down the majestic valley you just walked up. As you saunter (or plod) your way down the side of the mountain, you will wind up near Sutherland Falls. At 580m, they were once thought to be the tallest in Aotearoa (they aren’t, sorry) and are well worth the side trip. 

At Sandfly Point lies the end point and the water taxi back to civilisation. Be sure to capture the views from the Jetty, but no that isn’t Mitre Peak in the distance. Once you get back to Milford Sound village you’ll see it, however I’d recommend some hot chips (fries) and a real coffee before venturing back out. Unless you splashed for the scenic flight option, you’ll be driving back to Te Anau/Queenstown. It’s probably one of the most beautiful drives you will ever undertake, so snap it up (unless you’re driving). 

Milford Track, New Zealand

Image source:George Strang

Other hikes in the area

Te Anau is your gateway to Fiordland and the deep south, so by all means continue that way for some camping bliss. It’s also home to the Kepler Track, another multi-day Great Walk with views to die for. However, I’m banking on you going back to Queenstown. And luckily for you, there are plenty of closer mountains to climb. Day walks include Queenstown Hill (good for getting your bearings), Roys Peak towards Wanaka (try for sunrise), and the ever-present Ben Lomond. I’d give it a day or two of rest before tackling this bad boy. 

You’re also lucky enough to be in the proximity of yet another Great Walk! The Routeburn track begins at Glenorchy, which sits at the head of Lake Wakatipu and is home to some iconic Lord of the Rings filming locations. You have the option to start the Routeburn from the road back from Milford Sound instead of going to Te Anau/Queenstown. It all depends on your appetite, fitness, and overall sanity. 

The Routeburn offers both camping and staying in huts, so take the tent if you’re up for it. The scenes at Routeburn Flats truly are unreal. You might even hear deer roaring if you’re there during mating season. If thats not quintessential hiking and camping in NZ I dont know what is. 

What kind of equipment should I pack?

Abel tasman, New Zealand

Image source:George Strang

Hopefully this has answered some of your burning questions about hiking and camping in NZ, however travel planning always seems to raise more questions than it answers, so have fun with that! This article has focussed on some of our great walks and better tread areas, however the opportunities are endless. New Zealand has infinitely more to offer, so stay as long as you can. 

If you are new to camping and hiking – or tramping as us kiwis call it – please take it easy. I want you to enjoy your time here. Day Walks and Great Walks should both be manageable, then graduate to backcountry mountaineering in due course. Use the New Zealand Department of Conservation website as a starting point for specific track information and difficulty. So take a hike! 

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