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Camping the Great Walks

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October 2018 Issue

The Great Walks are renowned for having some of the best huts in the country – but many of the campsites are even better. So should you pitch a tent, or book a bunk?

There’s nothing quite like waking up after a sound sleep and unzipping the door of your tent to reveal a stunning view of the Routeburn Valley, or an idyllic beach in Abel Tasman.

While most people opt to stay in a hut on the Great Walks, camping is cheaper – $20 a night compared to $65 a night on the Routeburn – and campsites are less likely to book-out.

Camping can also be quieter and more private, compared with staying in a 40 or 50 bunk hut.

But camping isn’t without its drawbacks. It means lugging a tent and cooking equipment and it’s going to be a lot colder on the more exposed walks.

Tramper, photographer and travel blogger Jack Austin has camped on three Great Walks and stayed at huts on another four. He says he opts to camp for the sense of freedom and to be closer to the scenery.

“It gives you a greater sense of being self-reliant and being a bit more integrated into the environment,” Austin says.

It’s also nice not to be too pampered in the backcountry, he says.

“The huts are turning into little hotels. Sometimes it’s nice to get back to basics and practise your own outdoor skills.”

Another thing to consider is the social life. Huts are a great way to meet new people, whereas camping tends to be more private. But Austin says camping can be just as social.

Best Great Walks to camp
1. Abel Tasman Coast Track: Ample campsites in stunning beachside locations
2. Waikaremoana: Lakeside campsites with better settings than the huts
3. Heaphy: Ten campsites to choose from, including four beachside sites on the West Coast
Best Great Walks to book a bunk
1. Tongariro Northern Circuit: Can be cold and exposed, while the huts are excellent
2. Kepler Track: The more you have between you and the sandflies, the better
3. Milford Track: For the simple reason camping is prohibited on this track

“I’ve had some amazing nights with other campers. Yes, it is easier to integrate with different groups in huts, but ultimately you are socialising on the trail anyway.”

For more experienced trampers, camping also means you can add on some backcountry side-trips for a true wilderness experience, like camping at Lake Wilson on the Routeburn, or heading off-track in Tongariro National Park.

So, having both camped and bunked, what does Austin prefer?

“When you use huts, your pack is definitely a lot lighter and the facilities are incredible – often you don’t need to bring your own gas cooker or pots and pans. But I do love a good backcountry tramp and camping is a lot closer to that experience.”

But he says you still need to do a bit of research before you commit to camping and not all walks are as suited to sleeping in a tent.

“Waikaremoana has epic camping spots that trump the huts in terms of views – some of the sites are literally metres away from the lake edge, whereas the huts are set back in the bush.”

But after walking the Tongariro Northern Circuit in May, Austin says he did regret camping.

“It was the coldest night’s sleep I’ve ever had. Even during summer, I’d recommend staying in a hut on the Northern Circuit – the huts there are second to none.”

For those set on camping, it’s also important to check the forecast and be prepared to call off the walk if the conditions are going to be poor – and take a few extra layers for the colder nights.