New Zealand is utopia for backpacking. The country has 11 “Great Walks” that are a huge draw for tourism. While New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC) has a wealth of material on their website, I am nothing if not a planner, and still had a lot of questions I couldn’t answer online. I even bought the Lonely Planet South Island book because it said it had a section on the track, but it was more like a paragraph! Hopefully this might help someone else. Apologies to everyone else who just wanted to see some pictures.
Click here to see our GPS account of The Routeburn Track!
Guided vs. unguided
There are two ways to do a Great Walk: guided or unguided. I didn’t feel like we needed a guide, (there’s a trail and you follow it, how hard could it be?) but when I looked into it, guided walks are the place to be–if you happen to have piles of money sitting around. The companies that run guided walks pay the government a concession to build their own, fancy huts next door to the standard DOC huts. These huts have hot showers. They have duvet comforters. They have chefs. They. Have. Bars. It is like glamping on steriods. All you carry is your water and clothes. I thought…honeymoon+backpacking=perfection. And then I realized it is $1700/person vs. like $250/person. Which I was definitely not going to get past Keith. We’ll be down in the 99% hut, thanks. The guided walk people are really nice though…until they pass you and say things like “wow, that pack looks really heavy.”
So back to the huts…the government has a system of huts throughout the trails that are basically like giant cabins in the middle of nowhere, thus eliminating the need to carry a tent (I welcome the opportunity to leave ANYTHING out of my pack!). The huts also have communal living rooms and kitchens with gas “cookers” (kiwi for stoves)–you guessed it–no need to carry a camping stove.
The sleeping quarters are dorm-style bunkbeds with a mattress. However in some huts (Lake Mackenzie Hut, I’m looking at you) where there are 4 bunkbeds stuck together…so Keith and I basically slept on a giant mattress with another couple. Thankfully, he let me sleep next to the wall, as I tend to sleep snuggle attack whatever is around…and that would have been awkward. All the more reason to hike really fast so you can get there early and pick the best options. Definitely bring ear plugs because you’ll definitely have some snorers! You can also camp in designated sites if you are concerned about keeping your backpacking resume pure.
The huts also have flush toilets (hooray, the only issue I have with backpacking SOLVED!) and sinks with running water in the bathrooms and kitchens.
Each hut has a warden that checks the tickets for the night, provides a hut talk in the evening covering what you likely saw during the day and can expect for the next part of the trail (and their opportunity to practice their stand up routine). The wardens also have territories of the trail that they are responsible for maintaining. They have their own houses next to the huts and typically work in a rotating “6 days on/8 days off” schedule throughout the summers. I have this fantasy of becoming a park ranger (even though we all know I’d last approximately half a day) and I feel like hut wardens might be the rock stars of the park ranger world.
How we chose our trail
I knew I wanted to do one of the Great Walks while we were there, and settled on the Routeburn solely because my brother had done it a few years ago and said it was incredible. It wasn’t too hard to sell Keith on the idea, though this was going to take up a significant portion of our trip and would likely make the scope of our vacation just Queensland and the surrounding area. I guess it leaves the rest of the country for our next trip .
Routeburn Track Profile Map (elevation in feet)
Routeburn Track map
Planning your Routeburn Tramp
You can walk the track from either end (The Divide or Routeburn Shelter). Routeburn Shelter is a two hour ride from Queenstown, and The Divide is about four. Most people go East to West, which is what we did, but I met some people in our hotel who went the opposite direction and thought their choice was best. Tomato/tomato, I guess. +
Since tramping is so popular in NZ, there are a lot of small businesses that cater to every need. It is very easy to arrange transportation to/from the trailhead, and they’ll even “mind” your luggage for $10 (though we found every hotel we stayed at more than happy to do this for a few days as well). There are companies who will even move your car from one end to the other. They do this in pairs, leaving a rally car at one end, and then RUNNING the length of the trail to their own, and driving yours around to the other side. It took us 3 days, so when we saw them we definitely got an inferiority complex. This strikes me as an excellent occupation for a certain college roommate of mine…
Routeburn Shelter: just that--a shelter. Our "start."
Reservations for the huts are required, but we didn’t book until about a month ahead. I hear the summer/high season sells out quickly. We arranged our transport the day before we left. It was NZ$120pp for a drop off and pickup. There are only a few times a day that they run buses out there, so we arrived at the trailhead at 2pm on the first day and were picked up at 4pm on the last day.
I think the huts were NZ$45pp/night, though they are free in winter as there is no hut warden (and reservations are not required–so you might get there and not have a bed). You can pick up your tickets at a DOC office (there are plenty) before you leave.
What to bring
Generally you’ll want to bring everything you normally would on a backpack, minus the tent and stove. I made sure to ask tons of questions about these gas cookers, like “Do we need to bring fuel?” (No.) “So just a pot?” (Yes.) and “Is there anything else I should know?” (No.) But there was—you need to light the gas cooker. Which left me having to bum a light (how 70′s of me) from other trampers. Which was fine, but I spend a lot of money to look like a legit backpacker, and this does not help my cause. So bring a lighter or some matches, okay? You’re welcome!
You’ll also want to pack extra rain gear. As my coworker told me, “Pretty much plan on being soaked to the bone during your trip. Make sure you have gear that won’t result in hypothermia and trenchfoot.” We were really lucky and it only rained during our ride to the Routeburn Shelter (thus we kind of cursed our gear, yet we knew it was necessary), but like all alpine conditions, you need to be prepared. There were many photos in the huts of epic snowstorms mid-summer.
How many days?
We debated heavily on completing the hike in two or three days. Everything said the track took 2-4 days but most people did it in three. Keith was pushing for two so that we didn’t burn up so much of our trip, but I felt like we’d be panicked trying to complete it in two days. Especially since the last pickup is 4pm. There’s NOTHING at either trailhead, so you don’t want to miss the bus, especially since you don’t have a tent! Mostly we decided on three days due to the spacing of the huts…they weren’t what you’d call evenly spaced, and we were really glad we did (especially since Keith’s boots disintegrated…more on that later) as we aren’t exactly early risers, and apparently we are really slow hikers. We took the maximum estimated time for each section on the profile map. However I suspect the shortest estimated time is for those guided walkers who are only carrying a spare sweater!
I think we chose the best huts to stop at as well–Routeburn Falls has a great waterfall (as one would expect) next to it, and if you get there before nightfall, you can go swimming in Lake Mackenzie. The other two huts just seem awkwardly placed.
There are two main side hikes you can do on The Routeburn: Conical Hill and Key Summit. We did neither (due to Keith’s boots and our Slowsky-family speed), so I can’t say much, but I did hear a few things. (You can get a different version of this Routeburn Track DOC brochure that details the side hikes in their office)
Conical Hill: You can drop your pack at the day hut (no beds or running water) at Harris Saddle and do this hike. The trail is quite rough though. According to one hut warden, it needs a complete overhaul. I doubt that hurts the views to the Tasman Sea though!
Key Summit: Again, you can drop your pack on the trail and do this side hike that is between Lake Harris Hut and The Divide. We met a couple who was doing the trail in 4 days and their third day was a short walk from Lake Mackenzie hut to Lake Harris and then this side hike. Their fourth day was just the one hour hike out to The Divide. You can also just do Key Summit as a day hike from The Divide if you weren’t doing The Routeburn.
Here are some photos from our trip:
Watch out for swingy bridges!
One waterfall picture, to represent the approximately million waterfalls we saw. Really. Every 5 minutes. Keith got annoyed that I was trying to take pictures of even half of them.
Routeburn Falls bunkroom
Routeburn Falls Hut communal area and kitchen (it
Morning fog from Routeburn Falls Hut
Everything in NZ has it
Can you say "trail maintenance?"
OK, one more waterfall...
A helicopter had dropped 5 giant bags of rocks off along the trail--I assume to spread out for trail definition.
Lake Harris (summit)
Looking down at Lake Mackenzie
Dipping a toe in the lake...
Trailhead at The Divide
Waiting for our bus at The Divide shelter.