Home / Articles / Great Walks

Advice from Great Walks wardens

Image of the September 2021 Wilderness Magazine Cover Read more from the
September 2021 Issue

More Kiwis than ever are discovering tramping, but some are underestimating the Great Walks. Do your homework, say the hut wardens.

The couple descending Mackinnon Pass were struggling. 

“The track is so rocky it’s really hard on my feet,” the lady sighed. 

They were in their late 50s, neither had ever been tramping and they’d chosen to start with the Milford Track. They told me, they didn’t think it would be so hard.

Hearing this doesn’t surprise Sam Buchanan, who has been a hut warden for eight years, mostly on the Tongariro Northern Circuit but also on South Island tracks. Last summer, New Zealanders took to the Great Walks in their droves; booking data showed 75 per cent more Kiwis undertook a Great Walk compared to the previous year.

Buchanan said many were first-time trampers, and he met a lot who found the walks harder than expected.

“There is this expectation that because it’s a Great Walk, it’s easy,” Buchanan says. “I met people who found the Tongariro Northern Circuit much harder than they expected. So do your homework, perhaps start with something shorter or easier, other than a Great Walk. There are brilliant options around Mt Ruapehu.”

Phil Armit is another fan of pre-trip homework. After 13 years working at Abel Tasman Coast Track huts, he spent last summer on the Heaphy. “Clothing was an issue up there,” he says. “It’s higher altitude, more mountainous and not everyone checks forecasts or arrives equipped for the conditions.”

Phil Armit says to remember your cooker on the Abel Tasman Coast Track; Pack your thermals for the Milford Track advices warden Simone Goldsmith

“Know before you go,” agrees Milford Track warden Simone Goldsmith. “You won’t need a fresh shirt every day but you will need a set of thermals in case the weather changes, even in midsummer.”

That said, Clive Rule reckons the outdoor shops will have done well this past summer. Rule would be New Zealand’s most experienced hut warden, after working 30 years at Routeburn Track’s Lake Mackenzie.

“A lot of money had been spent on new gear, although I did see old packs that might have been dragged out of the cupboard and were perhaps too big for the people carrying them,” he says.

Rule welcomed the new Kiwi trampers, many of the families. “The Routeburn is a good track for starting out. It’s shorter, just 34km, and there’s a lot of different scenery. It was really nice to see so many young ones, they’d be diving in the lake, playing on the rocks, it was like a big adventure playground and their parents had to drag them away to get tramping.

“A lot of people said to me ‘this is something we’ve been meaning to do and never got around to it. Now we’re going to look for another Great Walk next season’.”

Rule says Kiwis are a compliant lot. “With mostly New Zealanders, there was a very different atmosphere in the hut; it was more relaxed. Kiwis toe the line, we didn’t have any compliance issues. Other wardens agree that the whole season was really smooth.”

Wilderness asked the wardens for their top tips for newbie trampers.

Read the fine print of your booking, says Armit: “A lot of people don’t realise until they arrive that gas cookers are not supplied in Abel Tasman huts. Also, people are surprised that a lot of Great Walks have no cell phone coverage.”

Buy a pack liner, advised Sam Buchanan: “Don’t use cheap plastic bags, they won’t keep your gear dry in heavy rain. A liner only costs a few dollars and it can also be an emergency shelter.”

Get the essentials, says Clive Rule: “A good pair of boots and a waterproof parka are essential, aside from that, the rest you can probably make up with stuff lying around at home.”

If you are cooking your own meals, rather than a dehy ‘add water’ option, try them at home first, says Simone Goldsmith. “Make sure you have the cooking equipment you need and plan how you are going to take your rubbish out.”

Goldsmith adds some ‘on the track’ advice: “If you’re in a group, decide before you start if you are staying together or are happy to split up, in which case make sure everyone knows where they are going. Yes, we do get people who walk past the hut turnoffs.

“And if you are walking as a group it’s nice to yarn, but if you want to see the birds try being quiet at times, especially if you’re introducing kids to the outdoors. Sometimes we forget to look at and enjoy what’s around us.”