Saturday, July 3, 2010

Ten Backpacking Recommendations for New Zealand

I'm leaving New Zealand in 30 hours after being here 4.5 months.  Here's a collection of recommendations I wish I knew before I arrived.  May this assist you, anonymous fellow traveler!

(1)  Bring your own gear.  Outdoor gear is incredibly expensive in New Zealand compared to the U.S.  I saw Whisperlite camp stoves going for NZD$300, hiking poles and camp mattresses going for NZD$200, and gaiters going for up to NZD$150.  It would be cheaper to send a box home than to purchase equipment here.

If you're visiting during the summer and do one or two short excursions, you can rent ("hire") gear.  If you're in the shoulder season or plan on extended tramping or climbing, bring your own stuff.

The one exception:  generic camp stoves can be had for NZD$25-30.  Totally random.

(2)  Wear gaiters.  Tramping through pasture in the early morning, tramping through mud, tramping through the rain:  your legs, socks, and boots will get soaked.  Unless you've got gaiters!

Gaiters are the national tramping uniform.  If you want to look like a Kiwi tramper, wear shorts with gaiters.  (See also:  Flickr group Shorts and Gaiters and/or Shorts and Longjohns)  I left my gaiters in the States, so I had to make do with my feet stuck through two bread bags that were held around my calves with rubber bands.  It made a sticky, swampy mess out of my skin.  No photo evidence.

(3)  If you are in decent physical condition, you can do pretty much any of the Great Walks.*  The trails ("tracks," here) are generally wide and well-maintained.  Permanent streams are almost always bridged.  Most of the huts are serviced, with gas cooking rings during the summer and firewood in the winter.  School children do these tramps.  You'll be fine.
*I say "pretty much any" because I haven't tramped all of the Great Walks.  Freak storms do happen.  So do accidents.  Trampers have died on Great Walks.  Be competent and prepared when headed into the backcountry.

(4)  Visit in the off-season.  During the season, you must reserve bunks in the huts on popular tracks and pay a premium price per night.  In the off-season, the backcountry hut pass (NZD$60/ 6 months, NZD$90/ 12 months) gives you access to nearly all of DOC's huts.  It is definitely worth tramping the shoulder season, May and September.  Fewer crowds, lower fees, more snow on the scenic mountains.  (Note:  beware of avalanches in September.)  Bring more clothing layers and a liner for your sleeping bag (or a four season bag).

(5)  Consider WWOOFing or HelpEx.  You'll live with Kiwis who will provide a place to sleep and three meals a day in exchange for ~5 hours work per day.  Work can be anything from gardening to light carpentry to keeping an elder relative company.  Meet Kiwis, do some honest work, save travel dollars.  Win-win-win.

(6)  My favorite experience was tramping in Nelson Lakes National Park.  Highly recommended.  The most over-hyped tourist destination?  Moeraki Boulders.  I only stopped off because we, literally, were passing by.  A few big rocks is not worth a special trip (and this advice coming from a rock climber!).

(7)  Since I've been here for 5 months, I gotta sing the praises of the Coromandel Peninsula (see photo at left).  It has the reputation among Kiwis as the home of hippies and stoners (I can't comment on the validity of such stereotypes).  It's pristine, it's beautiful, it's home to huge tracts of native forest, you might hear a kiwi bird calling in the night, and it should be your first stop out of Auckland.  Take the 360 Discover Ferry.

(8)  "Freedom camping" was the best way to see the country.  Freedom camping is sleeping in your car or campervan (RV).  If you are discrete, quiet, and don't park overnight under a "No Camping" sign, you can stay nearly anywhere without getting hassled.  One thing Kiwis uniformly and rightly hate is when Freedom campers stop on the side of the road and pop a squat.  Do yourself a favor and park for the night within a 10 minute drive of a public restroom, located in nearly every municipality.  If you need to go and there's no bathroom, bury your waste and pack out your toilet paper.  If you're squeamish about proper management of your waste, imagine what it feels like to step in an unexpected  pile of human crap.  New Zealand is a beautiful country:  don't shit on it.

(9)  The ferry between the North and South Islands is expensive if you bring a vehicle.  We paid around NZD$50 per person, but an additional $100 for the van...  one way.  Yet if you stay in your vehicle, you don't need to pay for hostels every night, so it's still cheaper in the long run.  We took Bluebridge in one direction and Interislander in the other direction.  They were basically the same price, but the Interislander ship was much nicer.

(10)  See penguins in Otago for free.  You don't need to pay for the show at Penguin Place.  Get to Sandfly Point a few hours before dark to see the yellow-eyed penguins.  Make sure you leave well before sunset, though, because you've got to huff and puff up the big sand dunes back to the car, then drive out to the albatross colony at the end of the peninsula (it's actually on the left right before the turn around in front of the building).  Make sure you get there well before dark to see the blue penguins.

Whatever you do, DO NOT DISTURB THE BIRDS.  Stay in the hide to view the yellow-eyed penguins, and don't shine your headlamps on the blue penguins.  You are visiting their turf, and you should act accordingly.  If you don't know how to act accordingly, educate yourself before you go.

Questions about New Zealand?  Not quite convinced that this must be your next destination?  Send me a message, and I'll set you straight.  :-)


  1. Hi Nicole,
    Great advice thanks Nicole. Interesting trip you have planned.

    I can't believe you are only spending a week in Australia!!



  2. But Frank... it was one of the most amazing, random, and hilarious weeks of my life! And now I can't wait to go back!

    I checked out your blog--I love the "shorts and gaiters" post. Keep up the good work!