A group of our friends recently visited New Zealand from Malaysia, and we joined them for a hike near Wanaka that they’d chosen during their extensive trip research. Unfortunately, it was the wrong walk for our group for a number of reasons, and though we ultimately enjoyed ourselves, we’d have had a better day if we’d chosen more wisely. So how do you choose a hike in New Zealand? There are a number of factors to consider, which will have more or less weight depending on your group and your circumstances.
How much time do you have? Are you looking for a 15-minute stroll through the forest, or do you want to do a five-day Great Walk? If you’re after a day walk, four to six hours is a good length, or you could choose two shorter walks to string together.
Where exactly do you want to walk? If there’s one particular hike you want to do, you might need to travel for it, or organise your itinerary to incorporate it. However, if you just want to do a day walk during a longer stay in one place, you could look at options nearby. Check out DOC for information on tracks by region.
How are you going to get to the walk you’ve chosen? If you have a car and it’s a loop track, you’re probably fine: many of the more popular paths boast a small carpark at the trailhead. However, if you want to go in just one direction, you’ll have to look into transport options for getting back to your starting point — and public transport is sparse or nonexistent in many parts of rural New Zealand. The track we did with our friends started 6km from Wanaka, and many of the hikers we met had walked along the main highway to start the track itself — an option for sure, but a boring way to start your hike.
Distance and difficulty
Although many of the track writeups will give you an indication of how long it’ll take you to complete, this isn’t the only measurement you should look for. Also check out how long the track is in kilometres, and consider the difficulty level if given. Walks range from the very easy — flat plank-boarded walks suitable for wheelchairs or prams — to super-advanced trails for the well-equipped adventurer. You’re probably looking for something between these two extremes. If you’re not so good with hills, keep an eye out for any mention of inclines.
Your fitness and your group
While looking at these indicators, keep yourself and your group in mind, and choose accordingly.
One of the main elements many people consider is what they’ll see during their walk. In Northland, short walks take you into stands of ancient kauri forest; in West Auckland seeing the Fairy Falls waterfalls is a pleasant reward at the end of a hike. Our friends chose our hike based entirely on this factor (the views of Wanaka and the lake were amazing), and while important, it shouldn’t be the only thing you look into.
Track condition and facilities
Our main problem was that the track wound up a steep hill; it was a hot day and there was no shade. The track itself was well-maintained, but it was too steep and one of our number had hurt her knee.
It’s worth calling or dropping into a DOC information centre to ask about current conditions before starting a hike — they can tell you if the track is in good condition or if you’d be better off choosing another option. We visited just before heading up our hill and the attendant told us it’d be “a scorcher up there today”; three days earlier they’d recommended a different path for the opposite reason: low clouds would obscure any view we’d have hoped to get from the top.
New Zealand is full of excellent walks, on the whole well maintained and equipped with basic facilities. Remember that you won’t find any shops or water fountains in many cases, so take enough water with you for the whole day, as well as snacks, sunscreen, and a hat. Also tell someone where you’re going and your expected return time: many walks are quite isolated and lack cellphone coverage.