Backcountry New Zealand - the basics

Hiking – a common term around the world for walking, usually away from vehicle roads.

Tramping – a uniquely kiwi term for independent hiking in New Zealand backcountry and wilderness areas, usually overnight and in small groups.


Most hiking and tramping in New Zealand is over "Conservation Land" which includes National Parks, Forest Parks and other areas.  The Department of Conservation (DoC) is responsible for maintaining most huts, campsites, tracks, bridges and other facilities.  Apart from some special reserves, access to Conservation Land is free and usually unrestricted, but you pay for the overnight use of most huts and managed campsites.

The ‘Great Walks’ are high capacity tracks through some of New Zealand's better known scenery, the facilities and services are developed to a higher standard and usually cater for people of less experience.  On Great Walks and some other high use areas, you must book and pay for each night's accommodation before you go and camping is restricted to specific sites.  They are very popular especially with visitors  in the summer season and are often relatively busy.  DoC staff are often at huts.  Commercial guiding services are often available. 

At quieter times like winter the facilities and services may become unavailable, the hazards increase and higher levels of experience are needed to enjoy the experience safely.

DoC information centers are highly recommended sources of information for these tracks. See DoC – Great Walks  

Te Araroa is a recent initiative to promote walking the length of New Zealand using a combination of tracks and roads.  Several sections are tramping tracks on conservation lands. See Te Araroa – The long pathway.

Tramping - on most other conservation lands, away from the 'Great Walks' and a handful of other high use areas, is unrestricted. Use levels vary but it is common to have huts, tracks, beaches, mountains and valleys to yourself; expect to need more experience and to take a high level of responsibility for your own safety. Over 950 huts are unlocked and available for the public to use subject to payment by backcountry hut tickets. Some huts are within hours of a road and very suitable for a first trip in NZ, other huts take days of travel to reach, through heavily bushed untracked mountainous country. In general, you cannot book hut space.  You must be prepared to welcome and share with all hut users, even if the hut is overcrowded. Camping is allowed anywhere on these conservation lands unless specifically restricted.  Some huts are owned by other organisations such as alpine and hunting clubs, but are often also open to the public.


Accessing conservation land sometimes involves crossing private land. Different restrictions will apply and you need permission – please contact the landowner concerned.


“Tramping doesn’t really start until you leave the tracks behind.” John Rundle 1977.


{{15655|enjoying the view from above Edwards Hut}}

Hints for trampers.

You cannot learn how to enjoy tramping solely from a website – but here are some hints you may find useful.


Environment –

NZ is simply the best place in the world to journey into the wilderness. Get quality information before you go, select the right trips (there are hundreds to choose from) and you will tell everyone what amazing experiences you had. Have fun, learn lots and leave the place undamaged for the next visitor.

Planning –

Leave written intentions with a reliable person who will call the police if you are not out when planned. Get enough information about the specific area to know what to expect. Know the limits of your knowledge and skills. Practise the essentials. Can you tick each of the following headers?

Weather –

expect bad weather, and also plan for fine. The weather in NZ changes, often and dramatically. Storms are common. Heavy rainfalls are the norm. Snow can fall at any time of year. Consider forecasts, plan for alternatives.

Supplies –

take everything you need, there are no shops out there. Huts usually have no lighting or cooking facilities.

Communications –

most huts do not have radios or wardens. Cell phone connections are not common. Personal Locator Beacons, radios and other forms of satellite based communication  are a very good idea but are not always reliable.

Clothing –

Have the layers to stay warm when it is very wet and very windy. A waterproof and windproof jacket is the starting point, but you will get wet anyway. Your feet will also often be wet, even in fine weather. A warm hat is essential. A sunhat and a light shirt are often needed for protection from the sun.

Navigation –

a few tracks are obvious well marked and easy to travel, many, probably most, are not and so require experience to find, and skill to follow.  Where ever you go - know what to expect. Take good topographical maps, and make sure that someone in your group has the skills and experience to use them. Digital devices can be useful but plan ahead for what you are going to do when the device fails for whatever reason. Compasses are useful – remember your northern hemisphere unit won’t work in NZ.


there are some bridges over a few of our rivers, but usually there is not; and even when the map or your notes says there should be one – it may not be there when you need it. Streams that on the map look too small to matter, can be impassable.  When it rains and it often does, tiny trickles become torrents, streams become major rivers and rivers … well rivers carry away hillsides. Some one in your party (preferably you) needs to know how to select a good place to cross the different types of water ways under different conditions.

  • In normal flows use skill and techniques to support each other on the safest crossing. 
  • In raised flows - remember you never have to cross, water levels go down almost as fast as they go up.
  • In flood - know when its stupid to go in the water; instead stop, wait or go back.


NZ has the best public hut system in the world. The buildings do vary a lot, from 60 bunk multi roomed self catering lodges on some great walkways, to small 2 person shelters the size of a tent. Again find out what is there before you go.



always take emergency shelter. A plastic bag large enough to use as a bivvy bag can save your life.


Packs –

no pack is waterproof enough by itself. Using two plastic bin liners, provides a double layer of protection for your sleeping bag and dry clothes at least.


Bugs and beasties -

there are virtually no animals that will threaten you in New Zealand if treated with respect.  Sandflies, mosquitoes and wasps can be a serious nuisance and are worth knowing about before you go.


Emergencies –

sometimes things do go wrong and its not much fun getting really scared, hurt or killed. Staying safe is having enough experience to know what to look out for and then using your common sense. Understand the place and know your own limits. Avoid problems and plan what you will do in the unlikely event of an emergency.  (Do you know what is the most common causes of injuries and death in the NZ outdoors? Do you know how to request help when you really need it?)  Now go and enjoy our backcountry.


Information –

there is plenty out there, especially on the internet, but know who is giving the advice and choose carefully who you listen to. Tramping and hunting clubs exist in most areas.  NZ often has a unique set of conditions. DoC offices are always a good place to start but many front desk staff in particular don’t actually know much beyond the high use tracks or the pamphlet rack.