Walking the Routeburn Track

Walking the Routeburn Track, New Zealand.

Living in Te Anau meant that the outdoors were on my door step, including the best of New Zealand’s Great Walks. My love for hiking started at home, on the other side of the world and I knew it would follow me to New Zealand. The bigger mountains, different landscapes, forest and wildlife are hard to say no to! The Routeburn track would be my third great walking in New Zealand and it quickly became my favourite! If you love waterfalls, forest, mountains and crystal clear mountain lakes. Then walking the Routeburn Track is definitely for you.

Where is the Routeburn Track?

The start of the Routeburn Track is negotiable. This isn’t a loop trail, it’s a one way trail and requires transport to get to and from both ends. Most of us will start from The Divide, a stopping point between Te Anau and Milford Sound. This spot has no signal, is deep in the bush, mountains and a great place to start! Buses run to and from The Divide (85 km from Te Anau) and are often easy to hop on to. From here it is 33 km to the end of the trail, the small town of Glenorchy (68km from Queenstown).

Most people will travel to Te Anau on the first day from Queenstown. Stay overnight and enjoy the small town and stock up on goodies. The next day, head to the trail head and start walking. Walking 33 km doesn’t take too long on a flat road. But when in mountainous terrain and beautiful scenery it takes most people, 2 – 4 days.

Either way you walk the Routeburn is gorgeous. There are companies you can use within New Zealand to transport your car from trail head to trail head. This makes it super easy to figure out transport, but is costly. When I walked the Routeburn, my friend went to the other side and we swapped keys half way along. The other option, hitch hike. Hitchhiking is super popular in New Zealand and despite all the horror movies, pretty safe, especially in New Zealand. Many people who are walking the Routeburn Track will hitchhike to and from the trail head.

Key Summit stop whilst walking the routeburn track.
Key Summit is a must do on this trail.

Sleeping on the Routeburn Track.

A strange question to wonder, but important. In New Zealand the Great Walks are protected trails, looked after by the Department of Conservation. They set strict rules about where you can and can’t sleep on the trail. This is to make sure the nature, wildlife and trail is protected. So they supply bunk houses, maintain them in high season and also mark campsites. Get these booked! They book up fast and in high season, you don’t want to miss out on the best bunk houses and camping spots!

The bunk houses are the best place to stay when you’re walking the Routeburn track. They have toilets, a kitchen, bunks with mattresses and shoe storing facilities. The biggest bonus, they keep you away from the notorious sand flies and cheeky Kea’s! I loved these bunk houses! There is nothing better than a good nights sleep and a good laugh with the other hikers.

There are a few things you need to bring with you. A sleeping bag or liner is a must pack item, you wont find them in the huts and it can get a bit nippy at night. If you’re a pillow lover like me, I would recommend stuffing one of your packing cubes, or sleeping bag, bag full of clothes for a pillow. Flip flops and a fresh pair of warm socks are things I always carry with me. No fear of the socks and sandals here! When you’ve been walking the Routeburn trail all day, those smelly boots stay outside! So make sure to pack some comfy flip flops to wander around in and of course cosy socks to keep your feet warm.

Some of the huts will have showers if you’re lucky, but the water is unlikely to warm. I just dirt bagged it the whole way around the trail, because showering in cold water is not my jam. I opted for swims in the beautiful alpine mountain lakes instead!

Showing Erica my favourite stop on the Routeburn Track.
Walking this trail with friends for the first time, priceless.

What and how do you eat?

You eat food. Ha, I’m joking! The food you eat on the Routeburn Track is similar to most hiking trips and will really depend on how much you want to carry. The benefit of staying in the bunk houses along the Routeburn Track is that you don’t have to carry things like, camping stoves, pots and pans etc. When I hiked the Routeburn track I packed a lot of loose snacks, brought my favourite trailmix from Freshchoice and some dry meals from Backcountry Cuisine. Along the way if you stay in the lodges, or are sneaky enough to get in. There is gas in high season to heat up hot water and prepare those yummy dry meals.

The rule I use when hiking, less is definitely not more when it comes to food! If you’re like me and love to eat, especially on active days you don’t want to open your bag and sigh. I want to open my bag to a feast! Also this is important, if the weather turns bad, you get injured or stuck and you need to ride it out until someone comes to help, having extra food is a real life saver.

Backcountry Cuisine is very affordable and tasty. They cater to Veggies like me as well so I didn’t miss out on the delicious flavor or have to live on beans for a few days. Which I always appreciate! Oh, they also do desert as well which I kept for a day when my spirits really needed it. Walking the Routeburn Track is a big undertaking, so I would do your research on how much food to prepare and get advice. Remember, the longer you spend on the trail, the more food you’ll need. There’s no shops here. Yes, people do ask if this question.

Drinking from rivers on the routeburn trail.
This trail has the best scenery going. I mean, look at it!

Water on the Routeburn Trail.

Thanks to DOC’s efforts, the bunk houses have a supply of water and even if you aren’t staying there you can use it to fill up your water bottle. I always carry around a reusable water bottle that holds a liter of water, but on the trail I took two of them. When the sun is beating down and you have a big mountain climb ahead, you definitely want that extra water!

In terms of streams and lakes along the way, most of the water in New Zealand is fine to drink however you have to watch out for Giardia Bacteria which is infecting the rivers in New Zealand. It wont do too much harm, just keep you on the toilet for a few days! Which is not ideal when you’re walking the Routeburn Trail! I carry water purification tablets in my first aid kit just in case I need to use the water in the streams. This cleans up the water and makes it pretty safe to drink.

Fitness for Walking the Routeburn Track.

This track is classed by DOC as an intermediate hike and honestly, I would agree. A good level of fitness is definitely required. But if you want to attempt it and think you will struggle, break the journey up and take the four days. This will mean the distances are shorter, the days can be taken at a slower pace and you can really enjoy the journey. Walking is made for everyone, it’s a natural movement we can all do. So take you time and enjoy it, there are no prizes for doing it quickly!

I climb, hike and walk regularly and so found walking the Routeburn track relatively straight forward. But I could see how people could struggle. After walking the whole of the Routeburn track in a day (yes, we were nuts) my legs were like jelly! The trail for the most part is very well looked after and so you could do it in soft walking shoes. I always recommend boots as they give your ankles a lot more protection and are just a bit more sturdy than shoes. But this is personal preference.

Before you head out to go and walk the Routeburn Track I would recommend doing some basic mountain fitness training.

Walking the Routeburn Track with all my kit. Ready for an adventure!
My favourite view on the Routeburn. Also best snack stopping point!

Highlights of the Routeburn Track.

  • Lake Mackenzie – This was honestly my favourite point when I’ve walked the Routeburn Track. The stunning emerald green, blue lake is surrounded by the towering peaks and forest. It’s a true paradise and a great place for a swim and a lunch break! If you’re planning to walk the Routeburn Track, stop here.
  • Earland Falls – Honestly, you just have to see it in person because there is not much I can say that will make you understand how epic this waterfall is!
  • Key Summit – An epic added extra you can do at the start (or end) of the Routeburn Track. Hike up, enjoy the stunning views over the mountain tops of Fiordland. A hint at the scenery to come.
  • Lake Harris – This alpine lake hidden among the peaks is lovely. It’s like finding water on an alien planet and honestly, the most blue I’ve ever seen.
  • Harris Saddle – If someone could build me a house up here, I would sit at the window and watch the changing views all day long.
  • Swing Bridges – I love swing bridges! And there are a few on this trail, so enjoy them!
Harris saddle in the off season when walking the routeburn track.
Walking just before high season means a chance of snow. This is where I would like a house please.

I’ve walked this track a few times when I was in New Zealand and each time there was something new and different to enjoy. For anyone interested in walking the Routeburn Track, I’m 100% behind you. Also, if you could take me with you that would be awesome! Seriously, if you’re keen to get outside and go and experience the Routeburn Track, get in touch! I’ll be happy to give advice where I can, answer all questions and encourage you to get out there!

Looking for more hikes in New Zealand? Check out my favourite hikes for adventurers next!

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