Camping on the tops or in a high valley during winter is one of life’s great adventures, writes Pat Barrett
The sense of living on the edge and pushing your own comfort and experience levels are just some of the rewards of camping in winter. Yet there is no need to make it miserable – pick your weather, companions, and location to make the most of the opportunity and your skills.
Always be aware of the avalanche danger in your chosen area and be prepared to relocate, or postpone the trip if conditions are not favourable. Mid-winter during a long fine spell is likely to provide more stable conditions rather than later in the season when the avalanche danger increases.
So keep your eyes open for a weather window and be ready to go, taking adequate gear to keep warm, a strong four-season tent that will withstand both wind and snow, a reliable stove, ice axe and crampons and a good sleeping mat.
Choose a site that maximises the available sun hours – there’s no point camping in a spectacular alpine cirque that is like a freezer all day. And don’t forget your camera for those amazing panoramas, particularly at dusk and dawn.
Lewis Pass Tops, Canterbury
Access onto the Main Divide is nowhere more immediate than from the Lewis Pass Summit. A well-marked track leaves the highway opposite the car park for the St James Walkway and eases into a moderate climb to the bushline, which is gained after barely two hours.
Snow poles mark the way ahead, onto the open tops which head south-west over several sub-summits, averaging 1500m, to the narrow rocky crest of Lucretia, 1643m. Well before this summit is a large area of rolling tops, littered with frozen tarns offering innumerable campsites and outstanding views into the Spenser Mountains.
This site has some of the best tops camping in Canterbury and is accessible by those with only modest snow skills.
Mt Oxford, Mt Oxford Forest Park
This is a popular day hike for many Cantabrians and is also regularly used in winter, but there would be very few who have ever camped up here.
A 2-3hr walk will get you to the summit, provided there isn’t too much snow in the bush, and a mega-view of the Canterbury Plains, especially at dawn as the sun rises over the Pacific Ocean.
It is one of the best mountain views in the country and offers a round-trip back to your car via View Hill.
There is no water at the summit, so bring a little with you and melt the rest from the snowpack – just make sure there is good snow cover as at only 1364m, Mt Oxford doesn’t carry snow all season.
It can be very windy up here, so check the forecast before committing to the trip.
Mt Holdsworth, Tararua Forest Park
A camp on Mt Holdsworth is a great place for experiencing the Tararuas in winter on nature’s terms.
Forget the nearby Powell Hut and carry on, in good weather, to the open tops around Mt Holdsworth where there are a few scattered sites to camp, mostly north of the peak on the route to Jumbo.
This trip is at the upper end for novice winter campers, so take extra care with the weather and wind at this season. The views up here are stunning though, and well worth the hike in from Holdsworth Lodge. You will be camping at around 1400m.
Te Kinga, Westland
West of the Main Divide on the way to Greymouth is the West Coast’s largest lake, Lake Brunner, and a beautifully located lakeside hill called Te Kinga.
At 1204m, it has a moderately steep track to the summit from Iveagh Bay and an incredible panorama of all the nearby Alps, including Arthur’s Pass National Park, as well as the varied magnificence of Westland. This summit, though easy, definitely has the wow-factor.
There is one big disadvantage – there is no water, and at this altitude in Westland, only sporadic snow cover.
Tama Lakes, Tongariro National Park
A winter camp at one of the two spectacular explosion craters, known as Tama Lakes about three hours from Whakapapa Village, is a trip with an edge of adventure.
These large lakes are sited immediately south-west of Mt Ngauruhoe, which towers over them in a massive snowy pyramid, and can be accessed from the south via steep gullies. The lower lake provides the better campsites and more space for exploring. Camping here on a clear night when stars fill the void above the rim of the crater as you cook up a few treats with some good friends will live in your memory forever.