Hiking the Milford Track is an experience of a lifetime and it is the most famous track in New Zealand. It's a moderately challenging hike and although it's tiring, we believe most people could do it in some form (either guided or independently). You can read all about our experience on the Milford Track in our other post, but here's our advice for booking and preparing for the track.
Please note this is based on walking the track during the Great Walks season (1 May to 23 October). Outside of this time is only recommended for experienced back country trampers.
Milford Track Overview
How hard is the Milford Track?
There's plenty of opinions on the difficulty of the Milford Track, but we'd say it was a moderate hike. A brief synopsis of the track is below.
The third day is pretty challenging with a 750m climb, a 900m decent and over 20km of walking if you add in Sutherland Falls. However, the other three days are relatively flat with the first day being only 5km long in total. Given that you will likely be walking the track in the Great Walks season you will also have plenty of light and can take your time.
By the time you reach Sandfly Point, you will feel all 60 plus kilometres (assuming you take some of the side tracks) in your legs and be in that happy place of feeling like you've walked a good distance but without feeling like you're going to collapse at the end!
The condition of the track is very good for the majority of the trail (there is a bolder field on day 3 and the MacKinnon pass is rocky on the way up and down), so as long as you make early starts we believe most people will find this achievable.
Doing the Milford Track Walk Independently
We did the Milford Track as independent walkers and this involves a 4 day/3 night walk starting at Te Anau Downs and finishing at Sandfly Point (a stone's throw from Milford Sound). Doing the Milford Track as an independent walker means you have to bring everything yourself including food, cooking equipment and anything you think you'll need over the four days (we have a more comprehensive list down below). You cannot skip any of the huts on the Milford Track and you cannot walk it in the opposite direction.
To us, the independent walk is the most liberating way to hike the Milford Track. You set your own timetable and are in control of how you want to do it. The guided walkers may have more luxury, but they are on more of a fixed timetable.
How far in advance to book the Milford Track
The hardest part of the Milford Track (yes, including the walking) is booking tickets! This track has become so popular that whole season books out in a day. So getting tickets for the track is the biggest achievement.
The key is to find when the Department of Conservation in New Zealand will put tickets on sale. We booked our tickets the minute it went on sale and this was nine months ahead of when we walked the track. Get in touch with the DOC to find the exact day that the tickets go on sale and make sure you have already registered on the DOC website in advance and that you are logged in prior to the time of release. This will give you the best chance of success. Unless you are incredibly lucky the website will keep crashing but hang on it there.
Only 40 independent walkers can start the Milford each day so it really is like booking tickets to an A list concert.
*UPDATE* For the 2018-2019 season, the Department of Conservation have introduced a new pricing system. NZ Residents will continue to pay the same rate per day ($70 NZD), but foreigners will see the price double to $140 NZD per day. However, we don't anticipate that this will stop the whole track selling out in a day.
Milford Track Itinerary
As mentioned you can only walk the Milford Track in one direction and you have to book the full itinerary that DOC stipulate. This means whether you like it or not, you can only do the track in 4 days, and you have to hike 5km on day one, staying in Clinton Hut for the rest of the day. If the weather's good you can swim in the river or explore. There's is also a nature walk at 5pm with the hut ranger (free of charge) which is a great opportunity to learn more about the birds and plants in the area. If you still have some energy in the evening you can visit the nearby glow worm dell or go star gazing.
The track starts at Te Anau Downs and finishes at Sandfly Point. Whilst there are day walk options, you can't start at Milford Sound and do the track in reverse (as most other Great Walks allow you to do).
The upside of this fixed itinerary is that you soon begin to know everyone in your group as no one has shortened or lengthened their itinerary. We got to know our group quite well and kept bumping into them around Milford Sound and Te Anau which was lovely and really added to the experince.
Milford Track Transport
A note on flights
One key thing to note is to have a few days that are flexible after the track. In the case of heavy storms and severe weather, the track is closed and hikers who are already on the trail stay in the hut stay for as long as it takes for the track to become safe again (usually an extra day). We'd recommend not having any flights booked within a day or two of the end of the track as you run the risk of not making it or having to helicopter out and missing the end of the hike.
Every year, the track is closed at some point because of the track flooding.
Getting to and from the boat terminals
Transport is another fiddly part of the Milford Track and requires a little planning. Firstly, the track is one-way and the start and end points are a long way away from each other. There are three options you can choose:
- Book a company to relocate your car from Te Anau Downs to Milford Sound (Track Hopper or Easy Hike offer this service)
- Park at Te Anau Downs and get a two hour bus from Milford Sound to your car at the end of the track.
- Get a bus to Te Anau Downs and then get a bus from Milford Sound to either Te Anau or Queenstown.
You can book these at the time of booking the hike, but it makes sense to build an itinerary with this in mind. Accommodation in Milford Sound books out months in advance (there is only one lodge), so if you want to stay there you will need to plan that in a long way in advance.
The other transport access is the boats to the start and end of the track. Both Glade Wharf (start of the track) and Sandfly Point (end) are only accessible by boat.
At the time of writing, the Department of Conservation offer two boat services at 10am and 2pm from Te Anau Downs to Glade Wharf. This takes just over an hour and is a picturesque way to start, with a boat tour of Lake Te Anau. Unless you want to spend a long time at the hut on day one, we'd advise getting on the later boat!
Real Journeys also offer private services on the same route which is the option we chose as the DOC 2pm boat sold out also instantly. The Real Journeys boat left at 1pm. We'd advise booking the boat tickets at the same time as your track tickets to make sure you get the time that suits you.
At the end of the track you have a choice of three boats, 2pm, 3pm or 4pm. In reality these are all pretty flexible. Although priority is given to those who have booked on the earlier services, if you arrive at 2pm with a 4pm booking, and there is space on the 2pm boat they will take you.
We found most people made it to Sandfly Point in time for 2pm even if they thought they would arrive later so we'd suggest booking this slot. The boat to Milford Sound takes about six minutes, dropping you at the boat terminal and offering stunning views along the way.
Hut Facilities on the Milford Track
The hut facilities on the Milford Track are as good as DOC huts get. All are well maintained with gas cookers, clean running water and decent bunkhouses to sleep in. They all have incredible views and have birds like Wekas and Keas playing around.
Out of the three you stay in, Clinton Hut was our least favourite. Despite its stunning location, the hut has just two dorms which means you're sharing a room with 20 people. This made night time pretty loud with people continuously opening and closing the door, moving around and quite a lot of snoring.
A highlight of Clinton hut was the nature walk which the ranger leads.
After a day of heavy rain, there has rarely been a sight as sweet as Mintaro Hut. Based in a forested area at the foot of MacKinnon Pass, Mintaro was our favourite of all three huts. From the hut you can see all the waterfalls that form on a rainy day as well as the beautiful forest. You may also see a weka or two.
Our top tip would be to get there earlyish if you are a very light sleeper as the ground floor has two dorms that hold eight people. This was not only more cosy, but you're much more likely to get a good nights sleep and eliminate a snorer or two! Leave very early though as you don't want to rush this day, it is spectacular.
The main room has a wood fire which helped dry out our soaked clothes, you can only dry the clothes that will go next to your skin the next day. All rain jackets and more sadly boots must stay outside so if like ours your boots are waterlogged they will stay like that for the remainder of the trail.
Another thing to watch out for is the playful Kea who love nothing more than to steal hiking boots! We'd advise hanging your boots up on the outdoor hooks to stop them being stolen.
Dumpling Hut is set in another stunning location just off the flattest part of the track. From the verandah you'll have panoramic mountain views and it's the lovely place to be in the evening if you can put up with the sandflies.
The dorms here are split into four rooms, each holding ten people. This was better than Clinton, but we sadly had a very loud snorer infiltrate our dorm! No need to arrive early for this day as the bunks are all the same.
You'll notice the water from the tap is a yellowy/brown colour, don't worry it is just tannins and perfectly safe to drink. All the water on the Milford Track is fresh and delicious, coming from the river or waterfalls.
Weather on the Milford Track
The weather on the Milford Track is notoriously wet. We've heard of some lucky folk go the whole four days without rain, but this is a rarity. Fiordland National Park is one of the wettest places in the world with an average rainfall of nine metres per year. What this means is that it's more than likely that you'll have rain on at least one of your four days hiking.
If you're lucky it will only drizzle, if you're unlucky it will pour or even snow (yep, this can happen at any time of year). As you have to book so far in advance you have no control over the conditions you get.
On the flip side, in the rain you will see far more waterfalls which make the track even more spectacular. Make sure you bring excellent rain gear and something to keep your camera dry.
What to pack for the Milford Track
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. it is imperative to have a rain jacket and you might want waterproof trousers too.
You should also bring a spare set of clothes that are for the huts only to ensure you always have dry clothes to change into. Having wet clothes on the trail isn't too bad as you warm up, but wearing wet clothes in the hut will make you very cold. Cotton clothes also dry slowly and sap your body heat, so bringing woollen or synthetic clothes are a better choice for wet conditions. Merino wool would be our advice, as it is quick to dry and keeps you warm.
Even after two hikes we're still not sure we've mastered hiking food! We'd suggest eating a decent lunch in Te Anau before getting the afternoon ferry to the trail. You will need three lunches, three breakfasts and three dinners.
For dinner we chose to change it up and brought some filled pasta and a block of cheese to break up the freeze dried food. We also brought porridge for breakfast, some muesli bars, bread rolls and fruit for our lunches.
The key for packing your food is weight. Whilst freeze dried food is hardly appetising, it barely weighs anything. You should also pack an extra day's food as being flooded in on the Milford Track isn't uncommon.
- Pack liners and pack covers - These are a must on the Milford as when it rains, everything gets wet. We also brought a dry bag to ensure the camera didn't get wet.
- Small first aid kit - if you want to keep it simple you can buy the kit from the DOC when you pick up your track tickets like we did.
- Blister prevention gear - We saw quite a few people suffer from blisters on the Milford so bring along plasters, blister packs and walkers wool (the latter can be bought from a DOC Visitor Centre and is our favourite prevention).
- Flip flops - Something that comes in very handy as you can't wear your boots in the huts.
- A warm sleeping bag - We found that Clinton Hut in particular got very cold (even when 20 people were there), so having a sleeping bag that can cope with cold temperatures will make a big difference.
- Battery packs - 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)
- Kitchen set (pot, matches, cutlery, plates and mugs) - The essentials for cooking. You can get really light sets from an outdoor shop.
- 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.
- Wet Wipes - As there's no showers, wet wipes are the best solution.
- Suncream & Insect Repellant - The Milford 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.
- 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.
- Torch - 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:
- Water purification tablets - The water on the Milford is as clean as it gets. Probably cleaner than the water out the tap.
- Toilet paper - All huts and toilets on the track provide this.
- Gas stoves - All huts on the Milford Track are equipped with gas burners.
- Soap - All huts provide hand soap and you're not allowed to use soap if you swim in the rivers or lakes as it will contaminate the water sources.
Milford Track Day Walk Alternatives
The Milford Track is a public walk, so although you can't use the huts with a booking or camp (you can't camp anywhere on the track) you can hike. If you get a boat from Sandfly Point, you can do a hike to the Giant Gate Falls and back. Alternatively you can do a walk along the Clinton River from Glade Wharf and back.
These sections of the Milford Track aren't the most inspiring parts and aren't as good a compromise as the day walks on the Routeburn Track. However, if these are your only options then we'd recommend doing the walk to Giant Gate Falls.
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Are you planning on doing the Milford Track? Have you done any of the other Great Walks? Let us know in the comments below.