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Hiking the Routeburn Track in 3 Days: Tips | What to Pack | What You’ll See

Hiking the Routeburn Track in 3 Days: Tips | What to Pack | What You’ll See

If you’re after a multiday adventure in New Zealand you’ve probably already considered doing a Great Walk. The Routeburn Track is one of the best, and is the perfect place to start if you’re new to multiday treks. We hiked the Routeburn Track in three days earlier this year and it was an amazing experience – keep reading for a taste of what you’ll see on the Routeburn Track as well as some tips.

Which Way Should You Walk?

The Routeburn Track can be walked in either direction, with one end of the track near Glenorchy (Queenstown) and the other close to Milford Sound. There doesn’t seem to be much of a difference in terms of effort whichever way you do it. We started at the Glenorchy end, which I’m guessing is the most common place to start as it’s so close to Queenstown, making that first day a little easier.

READ MORE: 8 of the Best Things to Do in Glenorchy

How Many Days?

The Routeburn Track is usually walked in three days, although there are people who do it in two, and some even do the whole thing in a day! Days one and three are pretty easy (whichever direction you walk), with day two being by far the toughest.

Getting There and Back

Most people hiking the Routeburn Track will need to organise transport to and from the Routeburn Track. One option is to drive to Queenstown, organise transport from there to the start of the track (near Glenorchy) and then get transport back to Queenstown from the end of the track near Milford Sound.

READ MORE: 15 of the Best Things to Do in Queenstown

You can also pay someone to drive your car from one end to the other (could be a good option if you have a few people with you, expensive on your own though) or get someone to drop you off and pick you up. We got a ride to the Glenorchy side and then paid for a bus back from the end of the track.

When Can You Hike the Routeburn Track?

The Great Walk season runs from late October until late April. This means that outside of those times you can still do but there won’t be a hut warden and things will be more basic. It could also be cold, although it can be cold in the middle of summer in the mountains.

I’ve heard some people hike the Routeburn Track in winter, but some of it would be dangerous in snow and ice – I’d recommend waiting until the Great Walk Season (for the best experience) or very close to it.

Booking Huts

If you’re planning to hike the Routeburn Track during Great Walk Season, you’ll need to book ahead. Bookings open in early June (it varies slightly year to year) and tickets sell out fast, especially for the December – February period. Go to this website to book hut tickets or check availability. We booked our tickets quite late in the season (around February) for a March hike – I was just browsing the site and noticed a window with some free slots – we were lucky!

For the typical three day Routeburn Track hike you’ll want to book a night in Routeburn Falls hut and Lake Mackenzie Hut (Routeburn Falls for night one if starting from the Glenorchy side).

Routeburn Track Packing Tips

One of the most important things to consider when doing any multiday hike is what to pack. Pack too much stuff you don’t need and you’re making your bag heavier than it needs to be, but pack too little and you might not have the right gear when the weather turns (and it turns quite a lot in these mountain areas of New Zealand).

You’ll need to pack wet weather gear, warm jackets (layering is a good idea) and enough clothes to last you three days (and maybe some spares in case things get wet). The main thing you need to think about is the potential for the weather to be terrible (as it was for us on the Kepler Track). You need to be able to stay warm and dry, so pack accordingly. Also consider a pair of jandals to use in the huts.

You’ll need to bring your own sleeping bag as well. The beds in the huts have padded mattresses, so you shouldn’t need anything other than a sleeping bag and maybe a pillow (or a pillowcase to stuff with clothes). Food is the other big one. We bought a few hiking meals which you just pour boiling water into – they don’t taste great but are easy and filling. I’d also advise bringing some tuna and crackers (makes for an easy lunch out on the trail), fruit, nuts, cereal etc. And don’t forget some coffee and chocolate (or whatever treats you normally eat).

What You’ll See on the Routeburn Track

I’ve written full posts about each day of the Routeburn Track, so I won’t go into too much detail here. Check them out, even if you’re only up for day walk (there are excellent day walk options for both day one and day three).

Day 1: Routeburn Shelter (car park) to Routeburn Falls Hut: Day One on the Routeburn Track (if starting at the Glenorchy end) makes for a relaxing start. From the car park you’ll walk through the forest for an hour or so. The track takes you along the Routeburn River, with occasional views of the incredibly pristine looking water lighting the way.

From there you’ll reach Routeburn Flats (there’s a hut there too) and then it’s an uphill walk to Routeburn Falls Hut. There are some stunning views from this part of the track. Once at the hut you should head up to check out the falls (it’s only another few minutes). The perfect way to end an easy and very scenic day of walking. If you don’t have time (or you couldn’t get a booking) to do the whole three days you could walk up to the falls and back – definitely a worthwhile day walk.

Day 2: Routeburn Falls Hut to Lake Mackenzie Hut: Day two on the Routeburn Track takes you over the Harris Saddle and down to Lake Mackenzie Hut. It’s by far the hardest of the three days, but it also has the best views.

At one of the highest points on the track (Harris Saddle) you have the option of going even higher. The side-trip up Conical Hill is worth it, but if you’re really feeling the strain you can skip it. You see kinda the same view, but just a different angle of it. If you have the energy do it, but don’t worry too much if you don’t.

There are so many great views on day two, but the moment Lake Mackenzie comes into view is hard to beat.

Day 3: Lake Mackenzie Hut to the Divide: The last day of the Routeburn Track takes you up the hill from Lake Mackenzie and then along a ridge all the way down to the road to Milford Sound. Highlights include the amazing views down the Hollyford Valley and the impressive Earland Falls.

Towards the end of the track there’s an option for a detour to Key Summit. We’d already done it as a day walk, and if you’re feeling a bit tired and think you’ll be back in these parts at some stage, it could be worth leaving it for another time (it should take a couple of hours from the car park and back). If you’ve got the energy then it’s well worth the detour. The views up there are amazing and offer up a slightly different angle than you’ll see from the rest of the track.

READ MORE: Check out our post about the Milford Track, another Great Walk in the South Island

Hiking to Key Summit, Fiordland National Park, New Zealand

And that brings to end our guide on the Routeburn Track – hopefully it makes planning it a little easier!

Are you planning a New Zealand road trip? Check out our South Island itinerary

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Jon Algie

I'm a South Island local -- born in Timaru and raised in Dunedin. I left the island in 2006 and returned 10 years later. Having seen a good chunk of the world I realised how special this place is -- the most beautiful island in the world! Seven years (and almost 400 posts) later I'm still helping locals and tourists alike plan their trips around the South Island.