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 (24 October to 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.
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 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).
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.
No matter what season you hike bring a thermal base layer (top and bottoms). We’ve used them on every hike in Fiordland and they make a big difference.
You’re also very likely to need waterproofs as it rains most days. We’d advise avoiding cotton clothing where possible as they dry slowly and will make you very cold when wet. If possible wear merino wool as it dries quickly and is excellent at keeping you warm.
Always keep a set of clothes for hiking in and one for use at the huts so that you always have one set of dry clothes. Tempting as it is to wear the dry ones the following day it's really important to have a dry set of clothes for when you're not hiking. If all your clothes are wet you'll be incredibly cold once you settle in for the night.
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.
- Warm sleeping bag - It's well worth bringing a sleeping bag that can cope with low temperatures as it can get pretty cold on the track.
- 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 - Bring along plasters, blister packs and walkers wool (the latter can be bought from a DOC Visitor Centre and is our favourite prevention).
- We brought pack liners AND pack covers for each bag and additional waterproof covers for the camera which were essential, as by midday on the first day we were soaked! Pack covers alone cannot cope with Fiordland rain and you'll find your things will be damp.
- As you cannot wear your boots in the hut or bunk rooms it is a real luxury if you can squeeze a pair of flip flops in your bag.
- We'd strongly recommend downloading some music on your phone and bringing a pair of headphones or earplugs to help you sleep at night. The bunk houses will have snorers and it's the best way to sleep!
- You’ll need a small pot, set of matches, cutlery, plates and mugs as none of these are provided at the huts.
- Battery packs for charging camera batteries and phones/watches. Electricity is not supplied at the hut except in the form of solar lighting. We bought a very good one from Anker which doesn't ever seem to run out of charge.
- Small torch or head torch for use after the lights go out at 9/10pm depending on which hut.
- Wet wipes - great for helping with the no shower situation.
- Suncream and insect repellant. Look for repellant with a high deet content as this works best against the onslaught of sandflies. Alternatively you could bring clothes that expose minimum skin (the gap between my trousers and boots is ringed with sandfly bites).
- Zip lock bag for your rubbish, everything carried into the national park must be carried out again, including food scraps.
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.
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!
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.
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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.