We just finished hiking the Routeburn Track in the stunning Mount Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks and loved it (well, apart from the fog which blocked the view for half the track!).
We've already written about our experiences walking the track, but we thought we'd also put together a blog that outlines everything you need to know to hike the trail, including transport, distance, elevation and difficulty as well as information on the huts.
The Routeburn Track Elevation and Difficulty
The trail is meant to be a steady three day hike where each day is 4-5 hours long. However, we were a bit optimistic and decided to cut it down into two days, giving us a brutal first day that was over 20km long which took over 7 hours to get from Routeburn Shelter to Lake McKenzie Hut!
The elevation on The Routeburn cumulatively is pretty big. The Department of Conservation documents tell you about the highest point being 750 metres above the lowest point, but there’s quite a lot of undulation in-between. Our Apple Watch estimated that we climbed 1300 in total and we felt like this was probably right.
However, the elevation of the Routeburn is spread out and there are a few sections that feel intimidatingly steep. You tend to only feel this in your legs the next day!
In terms of difficulty, we'd agree with DOC on The Routeburn being an intermediate hike. If you cut off a day, then it's harder, but only for one day. It's a challenging walk, but we'd like to think that most people with a bit of hiking experience or training could take it on.
This guide is about walking the track in the Great Walks season (the New Zealand Summer, starting from 23 October until the following 30 April) outside of these times the track should only be walked by experienced hikers due to increased avalanche and flood risk. Whilst the huts do not need to be booked outside the season this also means they are not manned by rangers so if you do run into difficulty no one will know. The huts have reduced facilities out of season, a pit toilet rather than flush and no gas, meaning you have to carry more gear with you.
You can read our full account of walking the Routeburn Track on our post about it being the first of the 9 Great Walks we hiked.
Booking The Routeburn Track
The Routeburn Track is incredibly popular and sells out very quickly (we’re talking A-list concert tickets quick). We booked on the day that tickets went on sale, and we’d strongly advise anyone wanting to do it on certain dates to do the same.
Check with the Department of Conservation to see when the huts go on sale (usually May), set the alarm and get the laptop ready. For the 2017/18 season, the Routeburn was the first of all the Great Walks to go on sale.
During the Great Walks season huts and campsites must be booked. Outside this period places go on a first come first served basis.
Hut places are NZ$65 per person for New Zealand residents. Children under the age of 18 go free but bookings are still required. International visitors (including children) must pay NZ$130 per place.
Campsites are NZ$20 per person for NZ residents and free for children. International visitors (including children) pay NZ$40 per person.
Outside the Great Walks season hut places are NZ$15 per person with children under the age of 18 being free. Campsite places are NZ$5 per person with children under the age of 18 being free.
Huts on The Routeburn Track
The advised itinerary (starting at the Routeburn Shelter) is to do a 2 night/3 day hike where the first night is at Routeburn Falls. This is only a 6.5km hike from the start, so you wouldn’t need to leave too early (however, the views from here are pretty spectacular).
The DOC then advise that the second night is spent at Lake McKenzie Hut, a sublime place to have an overnight stay. This is about 11.3km from Routeburn Falls but is a 4-5 hour hike due to steep up and downhill sections. The trail is quite rubbly at this point, so even if you usually beat trail times you might not here.
The final day is a relatively straight-forward 12km hike which first undulates and then heads down to the Divide which took around four hours.
There are alternative huts such as Routeburn Flats (only 4km from the Routeburn Shelter) or Howden Hut (3.1km from the Divide) if you want to extend your time on the track. You can also camp at Routeburn Flats and Lake Mackenzie (again bookings in the Great Walk season are compulsory).
Transport for The Routeburn Track
Organising transport is probably the one downside to the Routeburn. The road between The Routeburn Shelter and The Divide is over 300km and takes over four hours to drive!
As far as we’re aware there are only two options: get a very long (and not that cheap - people we met paid over $100 return per person) bus from Queenstown or get a quite pricey but more convenient car re-location.
We opted for the car relocation (we used Track Hopper) as it suited our plans best (we were going onto the Milford Track after) and was very convenient. We simply parked our car at the Routeburn Shelter, put our keys in a combination box and found our car waiting at the end of the trail. This cost us $270, so more than two bus tickets but saved us hours and hours of additional travelling.
What to expect from the DOC Huts on The Routeburn Track
The huts are well equipped with gas burners and hot water in the kitchen, mattresses in the bunkhouses and well maintained and clean flush toilets.
You’ll need to bring all your food and cooking equipment for breakfast, lunch and dinner on all of the days of the trail, as well as a sleeping bag and pillow. The huts do provide clothes and washing up liquid so you don't need to carry this with you as we did.
We were really surprised by how much was there, as we expected it to just be a roof over our heads.
However, unless you get lucky and get a single bunkbed, then it’s likely you’ll be on the shared bunks which sleep eight, so you are right up next to someone you don’t know unless travelling in a group of four. At Lake McKenzie, we were in the 32 person bunkhouse - there are two bunk houses, the other one looked like it had less beds and would be the better option if you get there early enough.
32 people after a long days hike, means a lot of snoring. We would strongly suggest that you bring very good earplugs or a set of headphones to listen to music, otherwise you won’t get a wink of sleep. People also begin rustling and shining torches from around 5.30am.
We'd also suggest if you plan on staying up until after 9pm (lights in the communal area go out at 10pm) that you get changed and clean teeth etc before this time as when we went back into the bunk room close to 10pm everyone else were already in bed and it was hard to find everything in the dark.
The Hut Talk
The DOC ranger who looks after each hut give a nightly talk, from our experience this has tended to be around 7.30pm. The ranger for Lake Mackenzie Hut was a real character and we learnt loads about the bird life of New Zealand and the work being done to try and protect them. You will also get a weather and track update.
As you have to book the trail so far in advance, you'll need luck with the weather. In Fiordland National Park, the weather changes quickly and the warden told us that the Routeburn Track gets between four and five metres of rain per year. It's likely that you'll be receiving some of it on the trail!
It can also go from really hot to freezing cold quite quickly, so be prepared for all seasons (we've had snow in the middle of summer on one of our trips to New Zealand).
Day walks on The Routeburn Track
If you were unlucky and unable to book into the huts or campsites, then you can still do three day walk return options. You can do The Divide to Earland Falls (approximately 7.5km return) or The Routeburn Shelter to Routeburn Falls (17km return).
The most popular day walk is probably the divide to Key Summit and back which is basically a straight up and down option with a fabulous view on a clear day (3.4km return). If you are really fit like one family we met you can even do Routeburn Shelter to Harris Saddle and back which is 27km!
What to pack for the Routeburn Track
The Routeburn is an alpine trail in Fiordland and Mount Aspiring National Parks, so expect all weathers, even in summer. We hiked in this area before and had 30C sunburn weather in the morning, followed by gale-force winds, rain and 1C in the afternoon.
Base layer thermals are a must for this hike. Even on warm days, it gets cold at night and those DOC huts don't have much in terms of insulation. We used Icebreaker as they make their layers using merino wool, meaning you’ll be kept warmer than the cheaper alternatives. This is a must for all New Zealand hikes!
If you’ve read our account of the Routeburn, you’ll see just how wet this track can get, even if it’s sunny at the start of the day! Bring a good quality rain jacket to keep yourself dry.
Hiking socks are often undervalued as they can make the difference between getting blisters or not. You’ll want a pair that are warm, but high quality to look after your feet on the hikes. We tend to choose Keen, but there are plenty of good brands (veer away from just getting the cheapest thick socks you can find!).
A spare set of clothes for the huts
Bring a change of clothes that you only wear in the huts. This will ensure you have a set of dry, warm clothes at night. Having wet clothes during the walk isn’t too bad as your body will warm through the hiking. At night you won’t have this option, so having a dry set of clothes is important.
Another important item to fight the cold weather!
Another item for keeping you warm, on and off the track.
Footwear for the huts, so you don’t have to wear boots all the time. Particularly useful if your boots are wet.
Osprey is the backpack of choice for hikers and you’ll see the majority of others on the Routeburn using them. We use Osprey packs for hiking and travelling as we own a large one, day pack and tiny day walk pack. We used the Kestrel Pack (above) for the Routeburn as we could comfortably fit everything we needed in the one bag (and we always seem to carry a lot with the camera and more!).
Alternatively, you could for a smaller day pack like below.
We love these packs as they have good waist supports and straps that are designed to take the weight off your shoulders and around your hips. This will reduce the aches and pains you’ll feel across 4 days of hiking.
The top line big backpacks also have mouldable waist straps which customise the fit.
Pack Liners or Pack Covers
The rain on the Routeburn can be so heavy that you will want to get either a pack liner (goes inside the backpack) or a rain cover (outside the pack).
These will keep your food and spare clothes dry. Even if you think your pack is water proof, you should get one of these to make sure.
Merrell Hiking Boots
Getting the right hiking boots can be tricky, but as soon as we tried Merrell we haven’t turned back. They are great quality, comfortable, hard wearing and last years! It is the only brand we’ll use.
We recommend trying on hiking boots at a shop before buying as each fit (no matter what the size) differs between every brand.
Black Diamond Hiking Poles
We are hiking pole converts, making descending a lot easier and taking the weight of your pack from going entirely through your knees. Black Diamond are light, reliable and a brand we’ve been using for years.
Sleeping bag for cold temperatures
The huts can get very cold, so having a good quality sleeping bag that can cope with the cold is important. Make sure you check the temperatures they can cope with before you buy.
Working out what food to take is tricky and we haven’t mastered this yet. Essentially you’ll need 2 breakfasts, 3 lunches and 2 dinners, and a little extra just in case. We’ve taken freeze dried dinners as they’re light. However, they don’t taste very good!
We've also tried quick cook filled pasta and noodles which make a nice change from the freeze dried food. We usually pack porridge or muesli bars for breakfast and things such as sandwiches and snacks for lunch. There’s probably a better way to pack, but this is what we’ve done so far!
Also don't forget tea, coffee and sugar sachets if required. Having a hot drink at the end of a long day gives you a real boost.
Kitchen set (pot, matches, cutlery, plates and mugs)
The essentials for cooking. We recommend buying a set as otherwise you’ll spend hours getting every little bit and realise you forgot something simple like a mug!
Zip lock bag for rubbish
As you need to carry everything out with you (including food scraps), a rubbish bag will stop all your gear of smelling of food.
Health, Hygiene & Safety Gear
First Aid Kit
You will not need to have a huge first aid kit, but having a compact one with the essentials is something you must have for the Routeburn Track. There are rangers and people who can help, but having your own first aid kit will take the reliance off anyone else.
Walkers Wool is a game-changer if you’re susceptible to blisters. This is a pack of wool that you can tear up and put around your toes and feet to either prevent blisters or make it a lot more pleasant if you have one.
Getting blister packs (or plasters) will help if you get a dreaded blister on your heel or ankle. If you have this and walkers wool you should be ok for any blister!
As there's no showers, wet wipes are the best solution.
Suncream & Insect Repellant
The Routeburn is very exposed in certain sections, so when it's sunny there's nowhere to hide. Insect repellant will also stop the pesky sandflies who move in the second you stop hiking. A high deet content works best and cover up as much as possible as they do seem to attack relentlessly and find any area of exposed skin.
Amazon seem to be the only place selling it as high as 100%, so check the link below if you want the strong stuff!
These were helpful in ensuring our phones and Apple Watch were charged every day (although the watch struggled with just how much hiking there was). We used the Anker Powercore which last through the whole of the Routeburn Track on one charge, keeping all our devices working throughout.
Headphones & Music or Earplugs
These are our only solution for dorms. After this much hiking, it's likely you'll be a victim of vicious snoring.
There's no electricity at any of the huts, so you'll need a torch after sunset and in the morning.
What you don't need to bother with
You won't need water purification tablets as the water throughout the track is very clean (and much better than anything that comes out a tap!). It is also readily available throughout the track so you don't need to carry too much at any one time which helps with the weight of your pack.
Toilet paper, this is provided at the huts.
Soap - the hut provides this in the toilets and even if you decide to go for a dip in the river or in the lake you are not allowed to use soap.
A gas stove as all huts on the Routeburn track include gas burners.
Neither of the first two tracks are too difficult nor the third if you don't mind a bit of uphill. Another great option would be a walk/swim combo - if you walk from Routeburn Shelter and are a fan of wild swimming, the river just a couple of kilometres in looks absolutely spectacular for a dip and there are several places you can access it.
For more photos from the Routeburn Track, check out some of our favourites.
Where to stay in Queenstown
Our pick - Kinross Cottages
Just a short drive outside of Queenstown, Kinross Cottages are picturesquely situated in a vineyard in Gibbston. The cottages are beautifully furnished and have a great kitchen, so you can cook for yourself. The views are beautiful and there's a cycling path nearby if you wanted to warm up for the upcoming hike. Otherwise you can take a relaxing soak in the outdoor hot tub.
Central option - St Moritz
If you're looking for a great hotel that's closer to Queenstown, then the St Moritz is a great option. The hotel is a five minute walk from the centre of Queenstown and the rooms are stylish and with stunning views of Lake Wakatipu and the Remarkables. The breakfast and dinner menus have suggestions for hikers wanting to fuel up or recover from the Routeburn and it is the perfect pre or post walk hotel.
Where to stay in Te Anau
Our Pick - The Distinction
The Distinction was our base for the walks we did in Fiordland and it was the perfect place to rest up between the Routeburn, Milford and Kepler Tracks. The hotel has a free hot tub and sauna on site to help soothe those aching muscles and the rooms are nice and comfortable. It also happens to have one of the few working (and fast) internet connections in town.
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Are you planning on hiking The Routeburn Track? Would you do it in two or three days? Let us know in the comments below.