How To Do The Routeburn Track For First Timers
- Distance: 32km
- Time: 3 Days (2 nights)
- Difficulty: Intermediate
- Nick Grant (LOWA NZ & AUS)
- Shane (LOWA NZ & AUS)
- Talman - @talman - LOWA NZ Ambassador
- Rachelle Jane - @rachellejane - LOWA NZ Ambassador
- Rach Stewart - @rachstewartnz - LOWA NZ Ambassador
- Logan Dodds - @logan.dodds - Videographer
- Book as early as possible to make sure you get the huts you want. As early as five months before you leave.
- Hike from The Divide side towards the Routeburn Shelter so that you are facing the view as you are hiking.
- Pick up your passes and get a track update from the Doc office in Queenstown when you get into town.
- The Sherwood is a great place to stay at before and after your trip.
- We were majorly jealous of people that had treats like cheese, crackers and wine at the huts.
- Pack lightweight, easy to prepare food options like Back Country Cuisine for at least one meal a day.
- Bring an extra bag to leave behind at your accommodation lockup, so you have clothes for going out in Queenstown when you get back.
- Give yourself a day either side of the hike so that you are not rushed.
Multi-Day Hike With Heavy Pack
Single Day Hike With Lite Pack
Must Haves in Your Pack (Apart from the obvious things)
- Headlamps. So much easier when the lights go off in the cabin, and you need to find something or go to the bathroom.
- Earplugs. When you have another 20 or so people in your hut, there can be some pretty chronic snorers!
- A strong pack liner. The last thing you want is your kit getting wet!
- One dry set of clothes that you only wear at the huts that is in a dry bag while hiking.
- Dry bag.
- Easy to prepare food options like Back Country Cuisine.
- Collapsible cup & Spork to save weight and space.
- Insect repellent. Those mountain mosquitos are relentless.
- A bladder of wine or a whiskey to have a celebratory cup when you get to each hut if you are that way inclined.
- Fresh food for the first day.
Preparing to Conquer:
In October 2017, myself, another member of the LOWA NZ team and three of our outdoor ambassadors started to put together a plan to tackle one of New Zealand’s beautiful, Great Walks. We wanted the hike to be no more than three days and to be considered easy to medium in difficulty. After weighing up the options, we decided that the Routeburn Track, just outside of Queenstown, would be ideal for our adventure.
When hiking the Routeburn Track, there are four different huts that you can stay at. Lake Howden, Lake MacKenzie, Routeburn Falls & Routeburn Flats. If you check out the side profile image below, you will see that Lake Howden Hut and Routeburn Flats Hut are both near the ends of the track at each end. While the hike is possible to do in 1, 2, 3 or 4 days based on your preference, we had decided to do 3 days (2 nights) so staying at Lake MacKenzie Hut and Routeburn Falls Hut made more sense. These two huts are also located at the best scenic locations on the track.
Once you've decided on what huts you want to stay at, you then have to decide what way to walk the track. From advice I had been given and read, the preferred direction is to hike from Milford Sound / The Divide and finish at Glenorchy / Routeburn Shelter. The reason for this is that you are walking into the view rather than having it behind you.
Once we knew which way we were hiking and the huts we wanted to stay at, I went about booking our shelters for sometime in December… This idea was quickly squashed; apparently, a few other people had the same idea to stay in the same huts as us. Booking Lake Howden Hut and Routeburn Flats Hut are not that difficult. If you want to stay in the bigger huts that are based at unreal locations: Lake Mackenzie and Routeburn Falls, you are looking at at least a three-month waiting list. As we needed six spots the earliest we could get space was at the beginning of March (keep in mind it was October), so almost five months! The hut passes can be booked on the Doc website www.doc.govt.nz/routeburntrack. The huts only need to be booked during the Great Walks Season (24th October 2017 to 30 April 2018). During the offseason, the huts are first come, first served.
To get to The Divide it’s a 4-hour drive while getting to the Routeburn Shelter is only 1 hour. If you check out the aerial view below, showing the roads to and from the track, you can see how this happens. After hunting around for a few options we decided to book a shuttle with Buckley Transport www.buckleytracktransport.nz to and from the track.
To make sure you are prepared for the adventure we would heavily recommend that you work through the pack list provided by Doc http://www.doc.govt.nz/routeburntrack#page-id-42280
Once we had all arrived in Queenstown and checked into the Sherwood (highly recommended) www.sherwoodqueenstown.nz, the first thing to do was head to the Doc headquarters to pick up our pass for the track. On request, you have to show this pass to the rangers to prove that you are meant to be using the facilities at each hut. To be honest, we never had to show ours; I just remembered our booking number and that was sufficient.
After gathering a few extra supplies, we headed back to Sherwood to start putting our final packs together as it’s an early start to head to The Divide. Having a bag that you can leave behind at the accommodation lockup is extremely handy as there will be stuff that you will have with you that you don’t want to take on the hike e.g. clothes for going out in Queenstown.
Being a first-timer, one thing that I was utterly oblivious to before the trip was pack liners. No matter how good your pack is, you will still want a pack liner (basically a thick rubbish bag) that goes inside your pack. All of your kit is in this then packed inside the bag to help make sure nothing gets wet if the heavens open up.
To keep things easy, lightweight and simple to prepare we decided to go with Back Country Cuisine meals www.backcountrycuisine.co.nz for breakfast, lunch and dinner each day. Their ration packs covered each meal as well as snacks and drinks for each day.
We had initially looked at flying into Queenstown and heading straight to The Divide. We decided that this would be a really tall task. Having the day to get our bearings and arrange our packs at the start of the trip was helpful, and we would highly recommend it.
Go time. We were all up and ready to go for our 7:15 am pick up. We loaded our packs into the shuttle and set off. The driver from Buckley broke the ice with some dad jokes which got a few laughs while helping spark up a bit of conversation with our team and the rest of the people in the shuttle. We were all a bit nervous about the weather as it was forecast for rain, but everyone was excited to get cracking. Knowing that we were going to be away from creature comforts for the next few days, Mark our driver was more than happy to stop and let us get coffees, pies, sandwiches, etc before we embarked on our adventure into the wilderness.
As we were staying at Lake Mackenzie Hut, we had around 12km to travel with an elevation of just under 1,000m during our first day of hiking. The weather had managed to hold off for us so we were all stoked that we weren’t wet. While we don’t want to give too much away (we believe that part of the adventure is not knowing what you are going to come across), the Earland Falls Waterfall was so cool. When we arrived, there was already a dozen or so people that were staring in admiration. Talman, Rach & Rachelle all quickly got their cameras out and started snapping. We were about halfway to Lake Mackenzie so it was nice to take our packs off for a while and have a snack as well, after 30 minutes or so we were packed up again and ready to continue.
The hike on the first leg is beautiful with diverse scenery such as waterfalls, dense forest, bridges and open areas. The first thing to do once you arrive at Lake Mackenzie is to pick your bunks for the night and put your selection on the board down in the common area. These huts get chocker during the peak periods, so make sure you get this done sooner rather than later. Doc has done an amazing job with the preparation and upkeep of these huts and we were all impressed with the setups. I was not expecting flush toilets that’s for sure. While we were still quite warm from the hike and keen to wash off, we all decided to go for a swim in the lake. I would like to think that I have a bit of a tolerance to the cold, but far out it was freezing! It was cold enough that your legs actually hurt. Talman was the only one that seemed to be able to just sit in the water. He reckoned that he was channelling the thoughts of being in front of a warm fire… Guess if it works, why not.
After we all settled into our huts and got changed into some dry clothes, we decided to go for a little walk around to the other opening on Lake Mackenzie. If you head towards where the campsite is signposted, it’s just past there. From the pictures, it would be hard to disagree that this place was remarkable. The sky had cleared enough to let good enough light through and Talman & Rach Stewart were getting pretty excited about what was about to happen. They explained that most people look to the sunset, but sometimes the best view is looking away from it, this was dubbed “The Reversal”. They weren’t wrong! As the sun set behind us the sky popped with dreamy like orange colours bouncing off the wispy clouds. Everyone was pumped and it was an amazing end to our first day.
Kicking off the Routeburn from The Divide
Earland Falls Waterfall
All I could hear during the night was rain teaming down on the roof of our hut. I was hoping that maybe it was going to rain itself out overnight. When I opened my eyes in the morning my hope evaporated; it was still coming down heavy. To our surprise, most of the 20 or so people in our cabin had already left (7:00 am), I guess they just wanted to get on with it. We did wonder if it was because they would get first dibs on the next bunks. When you know you are going to be getting wet, making sure your gear stays dry is really really important. Having a good dry bag inside your pack as well as a pack liner is essential, especially if you are carrying camera gear.
We set off at 9:00 am to tackle the second leg of our trip. Our next destination was Routeburn Falls Hut, with a lunch break at the Harris Saddle Shelter. Our total distance to cover was 11.3km.
Apart from the odd couple of minutes, we were in the rain the entire time. For the first few km, you are hiking a trail that looks back down on Mackenzie lake which gives you a better understanding of where you have come from. Although it was wet, it wasn’t exactly cold, with some of us still hiking in t-shirts. As we got to the top of the ridge (Ocean Peak Corner) and the lake was now out of sight, the feeling changed; we were now surrounded by clouds. It was still raining quite hard and we were walking on a skinny path that almost seemed like a waterfall at times. The next few hours of the journey was the most testing, with no outlook or reference to tell how far we had travelled and the rain coming down hard, it was difficult to stay excited about our adventure. We would cross paths with hikers heading in the other direction and I think the mood was pretty mutual. We would ask them “how much further” and the answer would always be something along the lines of “maybe another couple of hours”. The weather made it tough for the team taking photos, especially our videographer Logan, as the majority of the gear (apart from GoPros) was not waterproof.
Even after hearing that we had hours to go, it wasn't long again before we were lost in thought covering meter by meter. As we rounded up to the Harris Saddle Shelter, there was a sense of relief that we would be able to take our packs off and have some lunch in a dry room. To almost torment us the clouds, that had been shielding the few from our site, cleared for a few minutes and exposed the view that we would have been enjoying for the last few hours; It was beautiful! Huge mountain peaks, a touch of snow, waterfalls and valleys. Although it was disappointing that we didn’t get to see it for long, it was just the thing we needed to get everyone pumped up again. We took off our packs and had some lunch before getting ready to set off again.
We had not anticipated what we were going to see next. Just a short walk from the shelter the view on the other side of the ridge opened up. Lake Harris, even on a rainy overcast day, was insane. Massive waterfalls fed the lake surrounded by towering mountain peaks. The water was flowing down a valley which turned from rivers to waterfalls as it stepped its way down the mountain. In an instant, all of the bags were down again, and the cameras were out. Despite the rain still falling, the clouds this time were not inhibiting the view. New Zealand’s most raw untouched beauty, at its finest, warmed the soul.
We followed the path of the water from the track down the valley. We were now walking downhill and we were getting treated to a spectacular view. Spirits were back up and everyone was enjoying themselves again. It didn’t seem long until we were arriving at the Routeburn Falls Hut. This place needs to be seen to be believed. An impressive building structure sits just to the side of a pretty intense waterfall. As you walk through the hut to the front side, a deck opens up to a view of the valley.
After picking our bunks and putting our booking number on the board again, we got into some dry clothes and set up our bedding. The team enjoyed mixing with the other guests at the hut. When we first walked in we quickly realised that we had dropped the eight ball; people were eating cheese and crackers while washing it down with wine. Luckily we had enough lollies and other goodies in our packs to do some trading. We finished off the night with a few rounds of cards, some good chat and reminiscing about the last couple of days.
One last stint to go and the hike would be over. The track from Routeburn Falls Hut to Routeburn Shelter was the most relaxed track of the entire trip; it was broad and mostly flat. You could walk two abreast for the majority of the time. That along with the fact that it was downhill, made it an easy way out. Although the path was mostly covered by bush which limited the types of views we'd been enjoying, there were numerous bridge water crossings with raging waterfalls going under them, that were always worth a stop.
We finished off the rest of the hike, wet and a little sore from hiking 32km with unconditioned legs. For a group of reasonably amateur hikers, we all had an absolute blast and would highly recommend putting the Routeburn on the bucket list.