Hiking the Routeburn Track
Located in the Southern Alps, the Routeburn Track is an absolute must if you're backpacking and travelling New Zealand. The guys from Wild Weekend ventured out there, traversing alpine landscapes, weaving past snow-capped mountains and walking through impressive beech forests. Let's follow them as they explore one of New Zealand's most well-known hikes.
Your next adventure: Trekking the Routeburn Track
Where in the world?: Queenstown, New Zealand
Activity: Hiking, Tramping
Difficulty: There are a range of options to suit different travellers but you will need to be well prepared for this track. Day trips are available for families and those without much time, while keen adventurers can do multi-day trips. Note: only experienced hikers should take on the Routeburn Track in the off season (30 April 2015 - 26 October 2015).
Wrap up: An easy to follow and well maintained track with some challenging sections along the way. Great for a range of travellers and backpackers with one day and multi-day hiking options. There are comfortable campsites and huts along the way where you can rest up for the next of adventure.
Wild Weekend suggested itinerary
Day 1: Drive from Queenstown to Kinloch Lodge to stay overnight (closest accommodation to Routeburn Track).
Day 2: Embark on Routeburn Track from Mt Aspiring National Park. Hike the four hours to Routeburn Falls Hut for an overnight stay.
Day 3: Continue the Routeburn Track – hike six hours along the ridge to Lake McKenzie Hut for an overnight stay.
Day 4: Depart Lake McKenzie Hut and hike four hours to the Divide Car Park. Drive to Milford Lodge to stay overnight.
Day 5: Drive to Mitre Peak at Milford Sound. Continue driving to Arrowtown.
Day 6: Mountain Biking in Arrowtown.
Day 7: Mountain Biking in Skyline Park.
Day 8: Depart.
As the plane flew in to Queenstown, we caught a glimpse of the sublime landscape we would soon be exploring. Once we had two feet firmly on the ground we drove to Kinloch Lodge for the night, the closest accommodation to the track and just an hour and 30 minute drive from Queenstown for weary travellers and backpackers.
Depending on where you're staying, you can start your Routeburn trek at either end of the track – Routeburn Shelter or The Divide Shelter. Routeburn Shelter is located 68km from Queenstown (near Glenorchy) and a 30 minute drive from Kinloch lodge, while the Divide Shelter is on Milford Road (85km from Te Anau).
We'd heard about the beauty of Routeburn Track, but you don't fully understand it until you're there. Leaving the first bridge, we entered a mossy forest that felt like a fairy tale as we wound past ancient looking trees, streams and waterfalls. Later in the trek, the medium-grade climbs along the ridges take you above the tree-line and, although it's very exposed, the views are incredible.
The Routeburn track is well signposted and well-maintained, making it suitable for beginners and families in the busy season. If you're thinking about tackling the track during off-season, like we did, be aware that there are more safety risks and rangers aren't as readily available. We would strongly suggest you should only attempt off season hiking if you're fit, experienced and well-equipped.
Whether you're in for the long haul, or cutting it shorter, it's vital you are prepared and take the appropriate gear. Check out our recommended gear list below and find a comprehensive checklist on the
Department of Conservation website.
Places to stay
There are a number of huts and campsites to rest your weary feet along the way. In the busy season (27 October 2015 - 27 April 2016) you will need to book your hut or campsite, however in the off-season (30 April 2015 - 26 October 2015) you can buy your hut and campsite tickets at the Department of Conservation visitor centre before you walk.
On the first leg of our trip we walked through mossy forests for 3 hours before hiking a medium-grade climb to Routeburn Falls Hut. From higher ground the valley, rivers and snow-capped mountains were a real treat and you can't help but pause to take them in. Routeburn Falls Hut provided reasonable warmth and we had a much needed sleep before the next leg of our adventure.
Unforgiving rain and wind set in the next day as we embarked on the 6 hour stretch to Lake McKenzie Hut. With the roaring wind and awe-inspiring views, it was sensory overload. Preparation was key at this point because the ridge offered no shelter from the weather – we both layered a fleece shirt with a soft shell jacket and our rain jackets provided protection against the elements. Although the conditions were rough, the views of snow-capped mountains and valleys were enough to make it well-worth it.
By the time we got to Lake McKenzie Hut we were tired and our gear was wet (tip: take a backpack cover!). We were desperate to get warm and dry our things, but unfortunately the firewood at the hut was damp and we couldn't start a fire with it. In the end we used our portable cooker to dry the wood and didn't start the fire until midnight. After the frustrating and long night, the beautiful morning brought a new day with light snowfall covering part of the track. All dried out and reinvigorated by the beauty of the morning, we were ready to complete the final stage of our hike to The Divide car park.
Keep an eye out for…
There's plenty to see along the Routeburn... in fact, at times it's hard to take it all in! Below are just a couple of gems you might like to keep an eye out for during your adventure.
- The endangered mōhua (yellowhead) bird
- The Kea bird at Routeburn Falls. If you're travelling New Zealand you may have come across these cheeky green parrots chewing pieces off cars (I hope it wasn't yours).
- Key Summit – you'll have a breathtaking view of alpine wetland
Tips and hints from Wild Weekend
- Pack a rain cover for your backpack.
- Take a jacket with good ventilation and protection.
- Layer your clothing – wear a light merino/thermal shirt, water resistant soft-shell jacket and waterproof and windproof rain coat. You will really feel the cold and rain on the ridge.
- If you have a portable cooking system with you, you can use it to dry your wood if it's too damp to light. We took a Jetboil to cook our dinners and it also came in handy when we needed to dry wood at Lake McKenzie Hut.
- If you are hiking the Routeburn between May and October you should take snow grips for your shoes because the track can become slippery.
- Make sure you wear new hiking boots in for at least a week before you leave.
- Take quick-dry, clothing that can be worn a few days without needing to be washed.
Places to continue your adventure nearby
Mountain biking at Arrowtown and Sky Line Park
Queenstown offers a huge range of adventure mountain bike, cycling and cross country trails that you can do with a guided group or solo. Head to Arrowtown (a short 20 minute drive from Queenstown) to explore the landscape on bike or enjoy the thrill on the more difficult tracks. You might also like to check out Sky Line Park for some serious downhill action. We've had experience in mountain biking, so we tackled the grade 3 and 4 tracks… we'd go as far to say it was on par with German and Austrian tracks!
Other places to check out
- Queenstown Bungy Jumping
- Mitre Peak at Milford Sound
- The Double Cone: The Highest point in The Remarkables mountain range – great view from Lake Wakatipu
What we packed
Whether you're backpacking or going on a multi-day hike, you'll need a good backpack that will fit all your necessities. We took a Girraween 70L backpack that fit all our gear and was comfortable throughout the hike.
Hiking over the rocks and through water can be painful and tough on your feet, but a good pair of boots will provide you with the protection and comfort you need. Our Zamberlan Vioz boots remained dry even through the Routeburn rain and river crossings.
For a long hike like the Routeburn you're going to need to be well prepared for a range of conditions. Since you won't be able to wash your clothing, we'd recommend wearing a base-layer that breathes well, dries quickly and can be worn multiple times without absorbing body odour. We used the Ultralight Merino LS Crew as a base-layer, Pacer Repel Softshell Jacket as a mid-layer (and outer-layer on the first leg) and Cumulus 15 Rain Jacket as an outer-layer for the exposed ridges. The Softshell was also great for mountain biking because it provided great movement and ventilation.
The cold wind can take its toll on your hands, particularly on the ridges. When you're buying your gloves, look for a pair that are thick enough to keep your hands warm but thin enough to feel and grip properly. We wore Mammut Merti Pulse Gloves and they worked a treat.
Keeping your water in easy reach will help you make sure you're drinking enough. The rivers are so clean along the Routeburn that we were able to refill our water bottle along the way. For mountain biking we used a Camelback Antidote hydration pack to keep hydrated on the move.
In the winter season (May to October) there is no gas provided at the Routeburn huts, so a compact portable cooker will come in very handy. We took a Jetboil, to cook our backcountry food and, as it turns out, dry damp firewood.
When you're on a long hike you'll want some satisfying food that you can cook up at the huts. We used our portable cooker to cook up some freeze dried curry, pasta and veggies. Take some energy bars, trail mix and snacks for the track too.
If you're planning a multi-day hiking trip like the Routeburn Track you'll want to make a list so you don't forget anything important (like a pack cover!). If you need a help, you can use the Mountain Designs hiking checklist to get the ball rolling.