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Tramping (also known as hiking) is one of the best ways to explore the pristine forests, clear blue lakes, sparkling rivers, fern-filled valleys, and snowcapped peaks of New Zealand. The Department of Conservation (DOC), P.O. Box 10-420, Wellington (tel. 04/471-0726; fax 04/471-1082; www.doc.govt.nz), maintains more than 12,500km (about 7,700 miles) of tracks (trails) and 1,000 backcountry huts throughout New Zealand's 13 national parks and numerous scenic reserves.

A series of short walks or one big multiday hike? Both are available, but much will depend on your fitness level and the amount of time you have. Consider whether you want to be a freedom walker (independent) or a guided walker. Independent walkers can sleep in huts with bunk beds, cooking facilities, and toilets, but they must carry their own food, bedding, and cooking utensils. These overnight huts are sometimes staffed, should you need any assistance or advice along the way.

Tramping in New Zealand is best tackled from late November to April, when temperatures are the most moderate. From May to October, alpine tracks can be difficult and often dangerous once snow falls. Don't forget to bring broken-in boots, a day pack, water bottles, sunglasses, sunscreen, a flashlight (known as a "torch" in New Zealand), and a hat. 

Remember: You should never attempt any multiday hikes without first checking in, paying your fees, and giving DOC staff an idea of your plans; and always be aware of changeable weather conditions and the very real potential for hypothermia - even in summer. The importance of this cannot be underestimated. Every tourist season dozens of people ignore this sound advice and a good number end up being rescued by emergency services. Be warned that in some circumstances you will now have pay for the rescue services and that is never a cheap exercise.

New Zealand has some of the best multiday walks in the world. The trails are well maintained and take you through unforgettable scenery. Several can also be done as guided walks, which makes them accessible to people of all fitness levels.

Not everyone can agree on which one is the best walk, but the DOC has identified these tramping tracks as the "Great Walks" in New Zealand: the Waikaremoana, the Tongariro Crossing, and the Ruapehu Circuit on the North Island; the Abel Tasman Coastal Track and the Heaphy, Routeburn, Milford, and Kepler tracks on the South Island; and the Rakiura Track on Stewart Island.

If you'd like to strike out on your own, contact the Department of Conservation, P.O. Box 10-420, Wellington (tel. 04/471-0726; fax 04/471-1082; www.doc.govt.nz). It maintains visitor centers throughout the country. Freedom walkers (independent hikers) need to get hut passes or tickets and register their hiking plans (known as "intentions") before setting out. The Milford and the Routeburn are generally the only two tracks where freedom walkers need to make advance reservations. Facilities along other trails are on a first-come, first-served basis. The DOC advises against children 9 and under attempting any of the serious multiday hikes.

See the individual walks below for information on guided walks. Outfitters will arrange a guide, accommodations, meals, and the carrying of all gear except daypacks, which individual walkers carry themselves.

New Zealand's Best Tramps

Marlborough, Nelson & Beyond

Abel Tasman Coastal Track -- Because of the enormous popularity of this stunning walkway through coastal forest and gorgeous beaches, the DOC introduced a booking system for overnight huts that is in effect from October through April each year. The four huts have bunks, heat, and water, but no cooking facilities. Access to Marahau, where you begin, is by road or boat. Water taxis make it convenient to do just 1 day of the walk if your time is short. Buses pick you up at the end of the trail.

Duration/Distance: 3 to 5 days/52km (32 miles)

Start: Marahau, Abel Tasman National Park

End: Wainui Bay, Abel Tasman National Park

Open: Year-round; guided walks available year-round

Contact Information: Independent walkers can contact the Department of Conservation, King Edward and High streets, P.O. Box 97, Motueka (tel. 03/528-1810; fax 03/528-1811). Hut fees are NZ$36 to NZ$38 per night; camp fees are NZ$13 to NZ$15 per person per night; transport is extra. You can book online at the DOC website; purchase a Great Walks Ticket to ensure access to the huts.

For guided walks, contact Wilson's Abel Tasman National Park (tel. 03/528-2027; fax 03/528-2029; www.abeltasman.co.nz). Its 5-day kayak-and-walk package costs NZ$2,030 for adults only. They also have a 3-day guided walk for NZ$1,350 for adults and NZ$945 for children over 12. Kahurangi Guided Walks (tel. 03/525-7177; www.kahurangiwalks.co.nz), has 1-, 2-, and 3-day walks in the Abel Tasman and customizes trips to meet customer needs.

Heaphy Track -- This track is known for its beauty and diversity. It crosses a range of landscapes, from the junction of the Brown and Aorere rivers over expansive tussock downs to the lush forests and roaring sea of the West Coast. The seven huts on the track have bunks, heat, water, and cooking facilities (except at two huts), and although you need a hut and camp pass, this does not guarantee a bunk. There are accommodations and transport at each end of the track, but be sure to arrange this before setting out. For transport to the beginning of Heaphy Track, contact The Heaphy Bus Co. (tel. 0800/128-735 in NZ, or 03/540-2042; www.theheaphybus.co.nz) or Golden Bay Coachlines (tel. 03/525-8352; www.gbcoachlines.co.nz). If you're planning to travel to Westport or return to Nelson at the end of the track, make your transport reservations before you leave through the Golden Bay Visitor Information Centre, Willow Street, Takaka (tel. 03/525-9136; gb.vin@nelsonnz.com).

Duration/Distance: 4 to 6 days/77km (48 miles)

Start: Brown Hut, Kahurangi National Park

End: Kohaihai River Mouth, north of Karamea, Kahurangi National Park

Open: Year-round; guided walks available year-round

Contact Information: For an independent walk, contact the Department of Conservation, 1 Commercial St., P.O. Box 53, Takaka (tel. 03/525-8026). Hut fees are NZ$32 per night; camping fees are NZ$15 per night; transport is extra.

For guided walks, call Kahurangi Guided Walks (tel./fax 03/525-7177; www.kahurangiwalks.co.nz), Bush and Beyond (tel./fax 03/528-9054; www.naturetreks.co.nz), or Southern Wilderness NZ (tel. 03/520-3095; fax 03/520-3096; www.southernwilderness.com).

Queen Charlotte Walkway -- This 71km (44-mile) track passes through lush coastal forest, around coves and inlets, and along ridges offering spectacular views of the Queen Charlotte and Kenepuru sounds. (Boating is also popular here.) Stretching from historic Ship Cove to Anakiwa, the track can be walked in 3 to 5 days, and if you want a richer experience, you can add kayaking, mountain biking, diving, fishing, and bird-watching along the way. If you take a guided walk, you'll stay in cabins, rustic lodges, and homestays, and your pack will be carried by boat, meeting you at each overnight stop. If you'd rather not complete the whole 5-day venture, you can take a guided 1-day walk. Access to Ship Cove is by boat or floatplane, and you can start or finish the walk at any point.

Duration/Distance: 5 days/71km (44 miles)

Start: Ship Cove, Marlborough Sounds

End: Anakiwa, Marlborough Sounds

Open: Year-round; guided walks conducted November through May only

Contact Information: For an independent walk, contact the Department of Conservation, Picton Field Centre, Picton (tel. 03/575-7582; fax 03/573-8262; www.qctrack.co.nz). Camping costs NZ$10 per night; lodging is available at various price levels. All adult unguided track visitors will also be asked to contribute NZ$5 to the Queen Charlotte Track Tribute Fund, a trust fund established to maintain the track as a place of rare beauty. QCT Tribute tickets can be purchased from the dedicated machine located at Picton Town Wharf prior to your departure, or paid to the water transport operator you use. Note: There are no rubbish facilities on the walk, so you must take out everything you take in. Transfers are available with the Cougar Line (tel. 0800/504-090 in NZ; fax 03/573-7926; www.queencharlottetrack.co.nz), which will drop you off, transfer your pack, and pick you up. Similar services are offered by Endeavour Express (tel. 03/573-5456; fax 03/573-5434; www.boatrides.co.nz).

You can arrange a guided walk of Queen Charlotte Track with the Marlborough Sounds Adventure Company (tel. 0800/283-283 in NZ, or 03/573-6078; fax 03/573-8827; www.marlboroughsounds.co.nz). Its 3- to 5-day walks include boat transfers, a guide, meals, hot showers, and accommodations in three lodges for around NZ$1,595 to NZ$1,950. The Ultimate Sounds Adventure (3 days/2 nights) starts at NZ$755 with bunkroom accommodations, or NZ$970 twin-share en suite. It features 1 day of walking, 1 day sea kayaking, and 1 day of mountain biking. Wilderness Guides Marlborough Sounds (tel. 0800/266-266 in NZ, or 03/575-5432; fax 03/573-5430; www.wildernessguidesnz.com) organizes 1- to 5-day guided or independent walks including luggage transfers and hotel-style accommodations.

Canterbury

Banks Peninsula Track -- This private Canterbury track crosses farmland, Hinewai Reserve, and volcanic coastline. You'll experience sandy beaches, safe swimming, waterfalls, cliff faces, beech forest, penguins, seals, dolphins, and rich bird life. The track twice rises to over 600m (1,970 ft.) and features rugged exposed headlands, requiring a reasonable level of fitness. Children must be accompanied at all times. Accommodations are supplied in four farm cottages, two of which have a small shop for purchasing basics.

Duration/Distance: 4 days/35km (22 miles)

Start & End: Akaroa Village, 80km (50 miles) from Christchurch

Open: October 1 to April 30

Contact Information: Call Banks Peninsula Track Ltd. (tel. 03/304-7612; fax 03/304-7738; www.bankstrack.co.nz). The 4-day tramp costs NZ$255 per person; the 2-day tramps costs NZ$165.

Kaikoura Coast Track -- This popular, dramatic coastal walk takes you through the best of New Zealand's high-country farming territory, with cottage accommodations at three farms along the way. You'll need a reasonable degree of fitness, as the track climbs from the sea to a height of 600m (1,970 ft.), with wonderful views over the Kaikoura Mountains. The track is also suitable for mountain biking. It's located a 1 1/2-hour drive north of Christchurch and 45 minutes south of Kaikoura.

Duration/Distance: 3 days/43km (27 miles)

Start & End: "Hawkswood" historic sheep station, Kaikoura

Open: October through April

Contact Information: Contact Sally and David Handyside (tel. 03/319-2715; fax 03/319-2724; www.kaikouratrack.co.nz). The track costs NZ$215 per person; groups are limited to 10 people. A 2-day mountain-bike option is available for NZ$85 per person. Public transport is available in the form of shuttle buses and the InterCity coach service, both of which run between Christchurch, Kaikoura, and Blenheim. Shuttles depart the Christchurch visitor center, where you can get details about the service. The cost of a shuttle to the track beginning at the Staging Post (on St. Hwy. 1) is NZ$65.

Queenstown & Fiordland

Independent walkers must have a reservation for walking the Milford and Routeburn tracks discussed below. Contact the Department of Conservation, Great Walks Booking Desk, Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre, P.O. Box 29, Te Anau (tel. 03/249-8514 or fax 03/249-8515 outside NZ; 03/249-7924 or fax 03/249-7613 inside NZ; www.doc.govt.nz). The number of people allowed on the tracks is limited and the demand great, especially from mid-December through January, so reserve as early as possible - 6 months ahead is sometimes necessary. Remember those safety rules and warnings about hypothermia - they hold particularly true here. In this region, unpredictable weather can occur at any time, in any season, and you should always carry appropriate clothing for the worst weather conditions.

The Grand Traverse -- This 6-day excursion follows the Routeburn Track northbound for 3 days and then crosses into the Greenstone Valley Track for 3 days; it's available between November and April. The guided walk costs NZ$1,765 for adults, NZ$1,560 for children ages 10 to 15 (no children 9 and under permitted) and includes transport, meals, and accommodations. Make arrangements through Ultimate Hikes (tel. 0800/659-255 in NZ, or 03/450-1940; fax 03/450-1941; www.ultimatehikes.co.nz).

Greenstone Valley Track -- This walk follows an ancient Maori trail used by tribes to access the rich greenstone lodes near Lake Wakatipu. The trail you'll walk, however, was cut in the late 1800s by Europeans, who created a route between Lake Wakatipu and Martins Bay on the Fiordland coast. You'll pass Lake Howden and Lake McKellar, and follow the Greenstone River through deep gorges and open valley to Lake Wakatipu. Boat transfers are available to and from Elfin Bay. The Greenstone track can be walked in either direction, or can be linked to the Routeburn or Caples tracks for a 4- to 5-day round-trip.

Duration/Distance: 2 days/40km (25 miles)

Start & End: Elfin Bay, Lake Wakatipu, 86km (53 miles) from Queenstown via Glenorchy

Alternative Start & End: Lake Howden near the Divide Shelter, 80km (50 miles) from Te Anau on the Milford Road

Open: November through April

Contact Information: For independent walks, contact the Department of Conservation, Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre, Lakefront Drive, P.O. Box 29, Te Anau (tel. 03/249-7924; fax 03/249-7613). The hut fee is NZ$30 per night, plus transport.

For guided walks, call Ultimate Hikes (tel. 0800/659-255 in NZ, or 03/450-1940; www.ultimatehikes.co.nz), which provides accommodations and knowledgeable guides.

Hollyford Track -- This relatively flat track follows the Hollyford River out to the coast at Martins Bay. You can walk it as a round-trip or as a one-way with a fly-out from Martins Bay. You can also jet-boat the Demon Trail section of the track. Because there are no alpine crossings, this is one of the few Fiordland tracks that can be done year-round.

Duration/Distance: 4 days/56km (35 miles) one-way

Start: Hollyford Camp, 9km (5 1/2 miles) off Milford Road

End: Martins Bay (walk back or fly out)

Open: Year-round; guided walks available October through April only

Contact Information: For independent walks, contact the Department of Conservation, Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre, P.O. Box 29, Te Anau (tel. 03/249-7924; fax 03/249-7613). There is a hut fee of NZ$25 per night. The jet-boat, flight out, and bus transportation are extra.

For guided walks, contact Hollyford Track (tel. 0800/832-226 in NZ, or 03/442-7789; fax 03/442-7781; www.hollyfordtrack.co.nz), which offers stays in a comfortable lodge with hot showers. The 3- to 4-day package costs from NZ$1,695 for adults, NZ$1,295 for children ages 10 to 14, and includes pre-tour lodging in Te Anau.

Kepler Track -- This 4-day tramp starts and ends at the Lake Te Anau outlet control gates. You'll pass through beech forests and a U-shaped glacial valley, and walk along the edges of Lakes Te Anau and Manapouri. This is a challenging hike with a lot of altitude variations. The track zigzags up 800m (2,600 ft.) and drops 1,000m (3,300 ft.) - the single most useful thing you can take is a walking pole. Access is provided by shuttle bus and boat transfer.

Duration/Distance: 3 to 4 days/67km (42 miles)

Start & End: Te Anau Control Gates

Open: Late October to mid-April

Contact Information: For independent walks, contact the Department of Conservation, Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre, P.O. Box 29, Te Anau (tel. 03/249-7924; fax 03/249-7613). Hut fees are NZ$52 per night; the night camping fee is NZ$16. Transport is extra. Early bookings are essential.

Milford Track -- Many consider the famous Milford Track the finest anywhere in the world. Known for its glacially carved valleys, alpine flowers, and waterfalls, the 4-day walk is closely regulated by DOC staff, both for the safety of hikers and for the preservation of the wilderness region. You'll walk from Glade Jetty at Lake Te Anau's northern end to Sandfly Point on the western bank of Milford Sound. The track follows the Clinton and Arthur valleys and crosses MacKinnon Pass, the one steep and more difficult stretch that takes about 2 hours to ascend. From here, at 1,073m (3,519 ft.), it's all downhill to Sandfly Point, where you'll be ferried across Milford Sound. You can spend the night at Milford or return to Te Anau, but reservations must be made for either option.

Duration/Distance: 4 days/54km (33 miles)

Start: Lake Te Anau (Te Anau Downs)

End: Sandfly Point near Milford Sound

Open: Late October to mid-April

Contact Information: For independent walks, contact the Department of Conservation, Great Walks Booking Desk, Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre, P.O. Box 29, Te Anau (tel. 03/249-8514; fax 03/249-8515; greatwalksbooking@doc.govt.nz). Reservations are accepted from early November to mid-April for the following tramping season, which runs from mid-October to mid-April. No more than 24 people can start the walk on any given day. The cost is NZ$155 for all three huts and about NZ$100 to NZ$125 extra for transport.

Milford Track Guided Walk (tel. 0800/659-255 in NZ, or 03/450-1940; fax 03/450-1941; www.ultimatehikes.co.nz) provides coach transport to Te Anau via Queenstown and allows walkers greater flexibility in making international flight connections. Prices include guides, meals at overnight lodges, and accommodations at each end of the trek. Walkers carry their own day packs. From December to March 13, fees for a 6-day package (beginning and ending in Te Anau) run from NZ$1,995 to NZ$3,020 for adults and NZ$1,790 for children ages 10 to 15, depending on the style of accommodation chosen. In November and from March 14 to April 4 (dates vary slightly each year), the package costs slightly less.

The highly rated Trips 'n' Tramps (tel. 03/249-7081; fax 03/249-7089; www.tripsandtramps.com) offers a 1-day option, with one guide for a maximum of 12 people. The package includes a scenic Lake Te Anau cruise, up to 5 hours on the Milford Track, easy walking (no hills), and a lunch stop (bring your own) at Clinton Hut. The cost is NZ$175; it's available November through March.

Routeburn Track  -- The Routeburn is a moderate track that links Mount Aspiring and Fiordland national parks via the Harris Saddle. In summer, it is one of the most popular tracks, but in winter, it's extremely hazardous and impassable with high avalanche danger. It takes you into the heart of unspoiled forests, along river valleys, and across mountain passes, and requires a good level of fitness. Bus transfers are available to the start of the track and from the finish for about NZ$125 one-way from Queenstown; the DOC can furnish you with a list of all transport options. Remember that the Routeburn is not a circuit track and there are over 350km (220 miles) of road transport required between both ends of the track. Transport may cost you up to NZ$250 if you need to return to your starting point.

Duration/Distance: 2 to 3 days/39km (24 miles)

Start & End: The Routeburn Shelter, 75km (47 miles) from Queenstown via Glenorchy, or the Divide Shelter, 80km (50 miles) from Te Anau on the Milford Road. The Routeburn can be walked in either direction.

Open: Late October to mid-April

Contact Information: For independent walks, contact the Department of Conservation, Great Walks Booking Desk, Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre, P.O. Box 29, Te Anau (tel. 03/249-8514; fax 03/249-8515; greatwalksbooking@doc.govt.nz). Hut fees are NZ$52 per night, camping fees NZ$16 per night. Transport costs are extra; advance track reservations are required.

For guided walks, call Ultimate Hikes (tel. 0800/659-255 in NZ, or 03/450-1940; www.ultimatehikes.co.nz), which offers a 3-day guided Routeburn Walk package that begins in Queenstown. A coach will take you to "The Divide" (on Milford Rd.); you'll walk to Lake McKenzie, across the Harris Saddle, and past the Routeburn Falls. A coach will return you to Queenstown. Comfortable lodges are provided. The cost is from NZ$1,270 for adults, NZ$1,065 for children ages 10 to 15. Rates include transport, meals, and accommodations. Tours depart regularly from November through April, but you should reserve as far in advance as possible. Guided Walks New Zealand (tel. 03/442-7126; fax 03/442-7128; www.nzwalks.com) also offers a 1-day option on the Routeburn for NZ$245 for adults and NZ$140 for children under 14.

Stewart Island

This is New Zealand's third-biggest island and a veritable nature paradise overlooked by most of the world -- including the rest of New Zealand. But it is a spot for some astounding multiday treks and hundreds of delightful short walks.

North West Circuit -- This track is designed for well-equipped, experienced trampers who will take 10 to 12 days working their way around the island's northwest arm. Nature is at its best in clean beaches, birds, and bush, but mud is widespread and often knee-deep on the track. You'll get great views and complete solitude.

Duration/Distance: 8 to 12 days/125km (78 miles)

Start & End: Half Moon Bay, Oban

Open: Year-round

Contact Information: For independent walks, contact the Department of Conservation, P.O. Box 3, Stewart Island (tel. 03/219-0002; fax 03/219-0003; stewartislandfc@doc.govt.nz). The North West Circuit Pass costs NZ$40 and allows 1 night in each hut on the North West Circuit Track, excluding the Great Walks huts at Port William and North Arm. A Great Walks Pass (NZ$15 per night) is required for Port William and North Arm huts, which are part of the Rakiura Track. This also applies to campgrounds at Port William, Maori Beach, and Sawdust Bay. All other huts require hut tickets. A NZ$99 Backcountry Pass may be used on the North West Circuit or Southern Circuit tracks. Huts are equipped with running water, mattresses, toilets, and wood-fired stoves. Before undertaking this walk, consider watching the excellent video of the track at the DOC office in Oban village, Half Moon Bay.

Kiwi Wilderness Walks, Queenstown (tel. 0800/733-549 in NZ, or 021/359-592; fax 03/442-8342; www.nzwalk.com), offers a 5-day tour in Stewart Island National Park, which includes kiwi spotting at Mason Bay, a visit to Ulva Island, and sea kayaking in Paterson Inlet for NZ$1,695 adults. This walk is not recommended for children 9 and under. Ruggedy Range (tel. 03/219-1066; www.ruggedyrange.com) has guided treks on part of the North West Circuit priced from NZ$455 to NZ$860 per person. These include kiwi-spotting trips.

Rakiura Track -- This is one of New Zealand's Great Walks and is suitable for anyone of moderate fitness. It takes trampers through bush and along beaches and open coast, and much of it is boardwalked. There are two huts and three designated campsites.

Duration/Distance: 3 days/36km (22 miles)

Start & End: Half Moon Bay, Oban

Open: Year-round

Contact Information: For independent walks, contact the Department of Conservation, P.O. Box 3, Stewart Island (tel. 03/219-0002; fax 03/219-0003; stewartislandfc@doc.govt.nz). You must purchase a date-stamped Great Walks Pass or campsite pass (NZ$20 per-night hut fee) before taking this walk. Conservation staff may be on the track, and they will impose a surcharge on trampers using accommodations facilities without a pass, which must be displayed on packs at all times. Nightly campsite fees are NZ$5.10 per person. Ruggedy Range (tel. 03/219-1066; www.ruggedyrange.com) has a 3-day guided walk on Rakiura for NZ$895 per person.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.