What’s the Best Time for Hiking in New Zealand?
In this article:1. The best time for hiking in New Zealand 2. Kiwi hiking lingo 3. Seasonal hiking in New Zealand 4. Spring in New Zealand 5. Summer in New Zealand 6. Autumn in New Zealand 7. Winter in New Zealand 8. So, what is the best time for hiking in New Zealand?
New Zealand is known as a hiker’s paradise with a network of amazing tracks and trails weaving their way up and down the country. With thousands of kilometres of track spread across the North and South Islands, there’s a walk or hike to suit everyone no matter their age or ability.
If you’re planning a trip to New Zealand and would like to do some hiking or walking while you’re here, you’re already off to a good start. Exploring New Zealand on foot is one of the best ways to make the most of your time here as it gives you unparalleled access to the most beautiful parts of our country. New Zealand hiking is also something of a national pastime for Kiwis, so it’s a great chance to get out there and meet the friendly locals as you soak up the views together on some amazing New Zealand hikes.
The best time for hiking in New Zealand
With that in mind, we’ve put together this handy guide to help you decide the best time of year to explore our tracks and trails. We’ve also included a few insider tips and trail recommendations that will give you an advantage when planning your dream trip. So, grab a hot drink and settle in for the definitive guide to the best time for hiking in New Zealand!
Perhaps you’ve done a little research already, so you might know a thing or two about the seasons here in New Zealand; if not, this post is a great place to begin. Seasonal conditions certainly have a big role to play in deciding when to visit New Zealand, especially if you’re planning to do some hiking. Our seasons are markedly different, each bringing with it something unique and beautiful that adds to the landscape. Luckily there’s no bad time of year to visit New Zealand, you just need to be prepared for what the seasons bring, as the weather will undoubtedly have an impact on the way you experience our great outdoors.
Kiwi hiking lingo
To set the scene and avoid any potential misunderstandings out on the trail, we wanted to start by compiling a short list of a few common Kiwi words and phrases that you’ll probably hear while you’re researching your trip, or indeed while you’re out and about on some of those New Zealand hikes. It’s by no means exhaustive, but hopefully, it should clear up a few things and avoid confusion!
The uniquely Kiwi way to say you’re going hiking. A ‘tramp’ is a hike, so to say, ‘I’m going tramping’ means ‘I’m going hiking’. Also, a ‘tramper’ is a hiker. You’re going to hear this word A LOT.
New Zealand’s ‘Great Walks’ consist of nine (soon to be 10) premier walking trails located up and down the country. Well maintained and extremely popular, the tracks traverse some of our most stunning and iconic scenery. Rightfully famous, they often require booking months in advance, especially during the summer months.
DOC stands for Department of Conservation (or ‘Te Papa Atawhai’ in the Maori Te Reo language). It’s a public service department in charge of conserving New Zealand’s natural and historical heritage.
The Department of Conservation manages a network of over 950 huts of all shapes and sizes throughout the country. Strategically positioned along the various hiking trails, they provide a warm and welcome place for hikers to rest, shelter from the weather or stay the night during their walk. Basic facilities typically include wood fire, bunk beds with foam mattresses and stored water supply.
Native New Zealand forest. You might hear the phrase ‘I’m going bush for the weekend’, which means getting away from it all and spending some time in the great New Zealand outdoors.
This refers to New Zealand’s largely uninhabited areas of breath-taking natural beauty. A backcountry hike will allow you to head out into the rugged wilderness and soak up New Zealand in all its glory.
Also known as ‘trail mix’, a handy and delicious snack made up of dried fruit, nuts and, if you’re lucky, chocolate. Ideal for hikers as it provides a quick and tasty boost while out on the trails.
A pit toilet. You’ll commonly find these out on the hiking trail, a necessary evil.
Now that you’re suitably clued up on some Kiwi hiking lingo, let’s discover a little more about New Zealand’s seasons and the best time of year to head out for some bush or backcountry tramping!
Seasonal hiking in New Zealand
New Zealand’s climate is very favourable to hiking and for the most part, there’s no bad choice to make when it comes to the time of year you visit. As a small land mass surrounded by ocean, we enjoy a temperate maritime climate, which means we rarely experience extreme weather conditions either way.
Our climate varies from sub-tropical in the far north, to cool and temperate in the far south. Our sunshine hours are relatively high, with much of New Zealand enjoying at least 2,000 hours annually. There’s no wet or dry season, with most regions getting between 600 and 1,600mm of rainfall spread throughout the year, with a drier period over the summer months.
It’s been said that you can experience all four seasons in one New Zealand day, and while there is some truth in that, there’s enough difference between them to clearly define each season. Most of our National Parks and New Zealand hiking trails are open to walkers year-round, however, the time of year you visit will make a difference to your experience. Let’s investigate the seasons a little further.
Spring in New Zealand
September, October and November – the start of our walking and hiking season. Crisp, sunny days, blossom on the trees, wildflowers blooming, waterfalls at their peak flow and walking guides raring to go, fresh from their winter hibernation.
Spring is one of the best times for hiking in New Zealand and really, what’s not to love? Mild temperatures, new growth, baby animals and plenty of sunshine – we could dedicate a whole blog to extolling the joys of spring! In fact, we have already, you can read it here if you’d like.
New Zealand’s spring months are September, October and November, although it can sometimes stick around until December too. Weather-wise, spring temperatures are mild and perfect for hiking as it never gets too hot or too cold. The mornings and evenings can be quite fresh, so it’s worth packing an extra layer or two that you can take off once the sun starts to warm things up during the day.
September is the coolest month in spring, with an average temperature of 13°C (55°F) and a high of around 16°C (61°F). As spring progresses, things start to heat up with an October average of between 15 and 18°C (59 - 64°F). In November you’ll really start to feel the warmth in the air with a comfortable average of between 17 and 21°C (63 - 70°F). Because of the warmer temperatures and longer daylight hours, we reckon November is the best month in spring for hiking.
Temperatures will vary a few degrees, depending on whereabouts you are in the country, but you’re unlikely to encounter anything too extreme. The North Island is generally a few degrees warmer and can feel more humid, whereas in the South Island, the air is cooler and drier, so if there’s a breeze, it can feel colder than you might expect.
Spring conditions can be somewhat temperamental, so it’s best to expect the unexpected. You can look forward to a mixture of weather during your time here, with crisp, sunny days that can quickly turn to blustery rain and on the odd occasion, even snow. If you’re spending a few weeks here in New Zealand over the spring months, you’ll most likely enjoy a good few doses of blazing sunshine, as well as the odd shower and occasional downpour.
Pros of spring hiking
Longer daylight hours
As is the case in many parts of the world, our clocks ‘spring’ forward at the start of spring each year. Come the last Sunday in September, we’re all eagerly anticipating the clock change; whilst it means we get an hour less in bed in the morning, it does give us an extra hour of daylight to enjoy at the end of the day. It’s wonderful basking in the evening sun after the darker nights of winter, plus it opens the door to a myriad of after-work options, from hiking and biking to enjoying a tasty meal and a glass of wine outside in the sun.
Varying slightly depending on whereabouts you are in the country, the sun rises at around 6am and sets at about 8.30pm, giving you on average 14.5 hours of daylight to make the most of. As spring progresses, the days get longer and longer, which is ideal for hikers as it means there’s plenty of daylight to clock up those extra kilometres on the trails. As the evenings draw out, you’ll find you don’t need to rush to finish the hike before the sun sets. And there’s certainly something to be said for taking your time and appreciating the beautiful spring scenery on offer.
The spring scenery
Spring is perhaps best represented through the changes it brings to our landscape, with new growth flourishing in the form of daffodils, cherry blossoms, wildflowers and native plants like the bright yellow kowhai and harakeke (flax). Our countryside is alive with fresh greenery and young plant life establishing itself after the winter months.
During your travels, you’re more than likely to spot vast swathes of wild lupins growing on the side of the track or on the valley floor. Purple, pink and yellow in colour, these pretty wildflowers are quite spectacular en masse and you’ll want to keep your camera handy to capture the views. One of the best places to enjoy the wild lupins is Lake Tekapo on the South Island, an area we visit on all of our New Zealand Trails South Island trips. Nestled at the foot of the towering Southern Alps, the turquoise waters of the lake contrast beautifully with the colourful display of the lupins.
Another bonus of hiking in New Zealand during the spring months is the waterfalls. Many of our hiking tracks and trails meander past impressive falls that are at their finest during the spring months due to a little additional rainfall, as well as the snow melt after winter. Milford Sound is particularly majestic at this time of year, with its many hundreds of waterfalls cascading down the sheer granite faces of the fiord. We’ll be sure to show you a few of our favourite waterfalls during your time here.
Farm animals and other wildlife
There’s nothing that shouts ‘Spring’ quite like lambs, and you’ll quickly discover that they’re plentiful here in New Zealand. They’re a delight to watch as they struggle to contain their joy, charging around the green fields like lunatics, before collapsing in the sun exhausted from the sheer fun of it all! If you’re travelling about on our country roads, you’ll also see lots of cute calves soaking up the sunshine in the paddocks with their buddies.
Aside from lambs and calves, spring also sees a burst in activity from our other resident wildlife, with the New Zealand fur seals pupping, Fiordland crested penguins breeding and native birds such as the tui and bellbird singing in the treetops. If you’re a wildlife fan, then spring is hands down the time to be out exploring and observing our feathered friends in their natural habitats. Okarito Lagoon on the West Coast of the South Island is a particularly good spot as it’s home to over 70 different species of bird. You’re sure to catch a glimpse or two during a relaxed kayak on the tranquil waterways of the lagoon.
New Zealand Trails’ tips for spring hiking
✔ Pack sensibly
A good way to view spring hiking in New Zealand is that you get to experience the best of both worlds as far as the weather goes. In general, you’ll find it’s neither too hot nor too cold, although it certainly pays to be prepared. If you’re sensible about the clothing you pack, then you’ll have an amazing experience, despite the weather conditions you encounter. A favourite saying amongst Kiwi outdoors people is that “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing!”
We recommend bringing a good quality rain jacket (no plastic ponchos please) with a sizeable hood and enough coverage in the body to protect you from potential downpours. Quick-dry fabrics will also aid your comfort levels, as there’s nothing worse than hiking the next day in soggy trousers. Comfortable hiking boots with a good sole and ankle support are also essential. Our tracks and trails can get a little slippery, so it pays to invest in a pair of boots that will make your life easier when hiking in less-than-ideal weather conditions. Be sure to wear them in before your trip of course!
You may also want to pop in a pair of water shoes or sandals for river and stream crossings. Often water levels can rise rapidly particularly during spring, so what was a dry river bed in the morning could be knee-deep by the afternoon. You’ll want to include a few pairs of hiking specific socks - in our experience, merino wool socks are the ideal solution as they keep your feet warm when it’s cold, and cool as the temperature rises. If you’re prone to blisters, then make friends with ‘Hikers Wool’ – made from pure New Zealand lamb’s wool; it prevents friction and wicks away moisture, helping to avoid those pesky and painful blisters.
It may sound like common sense advice, but it’s the small details that will make your spring hiking in New Zealand that much more enjoyable. And of course, if you book a trip with us, the Trails team are always on hand to answer any gear-specific questions that you have.
✔ Get some training in before your trip
Again, this may sound like common sense stuff to you and if so, we’re glad. If you’re coming to New Zealand and you want to do some hiking, then the more accustomed to walking you are, the more you’ll enjoy the experience and appreciate your surroundings. We have hundreds of different tracks and trails up and down the country, from flat, wide pathways, to rugged and rocky climbs, so there’ll be something to suit everyone no matter their fitness level or experience.
Prepare for the type of hiking or walking you enjoy. For example, if you like the idea of a gentle stroll on a riverside path for an hour or two, then try and make time to do that a few times a week in the months leading up to your trip. If you’re keen to challenge yourself with some longer hikes on more varied terrain, then up your stamina and resistance by covering extra distance on the treadmill and maybe dusting off the old Stairmaster too!
Some of our best springtime views are reached only on foot and involve a fair amount of uphill grunt, but the panoramic snow-capped mountain vistas that unfold before you at the top will more than make up for the extra energy expended. Plus, the awesome guides here at Trails will be with you every step of the way to encourage and support you on the climb up.
Our favourite spring hikes
Key Summit on the Routeburn Track | 3.4km (2.1 miles) one way
This half-day hike is one of our absolute favourites and spring is one of the best times to be out on the track. Located in beautiful Fiordland National Park, the Key Summit track is part of the famous Routeburn Track (one of our Great Walks) and enjoys incredible views across the Humboldt and Darran Mountain ranges.
Starting just off the Milford Road at The Divide, you’ll walk about an hour on the Routeburn Track to get to the start of the climb up to Key Summit. It’s about a 20-minute climb to the top from where you’ll enjoy panoramic views of the National Park spilling out around you. During the spring months, there’s usually still quite a lot of snow on the surrounding peaks which means the views are even more dramatic than usual, especially when reflected in the mountain tarns.
You’ll see a variety of native vegetation, which changes and evolves as you gain altitude. Birdlife is prolific, particularly during spring, and you’re likely to spot New Zealand wood pigeons, tomtits, robins and bellbirds darting between the beech trees as you hike the trail.
Hooker Valley Track, Mount Cook National Park | 10km (6.2 miles) return
This is one of the South Island’s most popular day hikes and enjoys remarkable views of our highest peak, Mount Cook/Aoraki which looms overhead. We follow the trail that winds up the Hooker Valley past alpine streams and ancient glaciers, crossing several swing bridges to get to our destination - Hooker Lake, complete with icebergs. The Hooker Valley during spring is one of the best places to see the iconic Mount Cook lily in bloom, a hardy flowering plant that’s adapted well to its seemingly inhospitable surrounds.
You’ll have a chance to hike this track on our World Heritage trip, as well as our other South Island journeys.
Summer in New Zealand
December, January, February – generally warm, settled weather and lots of sunshine. Long, light evenings mean it’s a fantastic time to make the most of the outdoors.
Summer is an idyllic time of year here in New Zealand. Long, light days stretch out before you, while the warm sun beams down on relaxed and festive holiday-makers up and down the country. Kicking off in December and lasting through until February, and often on into March as well, summer is vacation season for most Kiwis, with school holidays and business closures on the cards for many.
The start of summer can sometimes still feel a little like spring, with average temperatures ranging between 18 and 22°C (65-72°F), perhaps a little cooler in the far south and a little warmer in the far north. As always with New Zealand weather, prepare for a surprise or two - in the past we’ve been known to get snow on Christmas Day one year and temperatures exceeding 30°C (86°C) the next!
January and February are typically the warmest and driest months of the year, with temperatures hovering between 23 and 28°C (73 – 82°F) up and down the country. We do get the odd heatwave, but it’s rare for temperatures to get much above 30°C. Despite the warmer temperatures, it’s still comfortable hiking weather as our climate is quite dry (aside from the sub-tropical far north where it’s more humid) and there’s often a fresh breeze blowing, which will help you stay comfortable. And if you do feel yourself heating up a little too much out on the trail, there’s often a crystal-clear stream or mountain lake nearby to take a quick dip in and cool yourself off!
Over the summer months we enjoy long days, with the sun rising at around 5.30am, and not setting until around 10pm at the height of summer. That’s an awesome 16.5 hours of sunlight to do with what you will – perfect for both relaxed hikers or those intent on an epic mission. Weather-wise, you may get the odd shower during your travels, but for the most part, you can anticipate blue skies and glorious sunshine!
Pros of summer hiking
The seemingly endless sun-drenched days spread an infectious summer holiday vibe across the whole country and you’ll encounter many Kiwis out hiking on the trails, making the most of their time off work or school. Many trades and businesses shut down for at least two weeks over the Christmas and New Year period, so it’s a chance for lots of Kiwis to get out and enjoy their own backyard.
As well as hiking, popular summer pastimes include BBQs, swimming, biking, cricket, camping and snoozing in the sun with a good book! Whilst in the lead-up to the festive season, things can get a little hectic, everything usually calms down by the New Year as we relax and look forward to the rest of our summer.
Out on the trails, you’ll meet a variety of locals enjoying their summer holidays and mixing it up with day hikes and multi-day tramps. Well-equipped and friendly, they’re often happy to share a handful of their scroggin and offer a pointer or two for the track ahead. Be warned though, evenings spent in DOC huts can get quite competitive, with heated games of cards unfolding and a race to secure the best bunk. If you’re staying overnight in a DOC hut, earplugs are advised as the sound of snoring is an inevitable soundtrack!
Low rainfall levels
As mentioned above, summer brings with it some of our best weather conditions. In most parts of the country, rainfall is at its lowest level for the year, so there’s less chance of you getting soaked out on the trail. While it may not be ideal for farmers, it does mean that it’s a great time to hike. Rivers and streams are generally very low, making them safe and easy to cross.
You’ll find the earth underfoot on the trail is compact and dry, giving you a sure footing to plant your feet. No matter how we spin it, most people aren’t thrilled to be walking in a torrential downpour, so if that’s the case for you, summer is a good time to visit!
New Zealand Trails’ tips for summer hiking
✔ Book your trip well in advance
Summer is peak season for visitors to New Zealand and if you’ve read up until now, you’ll understand why. In 2017, a record-breaking 3.7 million international visitors descended on our shores, a sizeable chunk of whom came during the summer months. For a hiker keen to experience our Great Walks, it’s the most popular time of year which means places on guided hikes and spaces in DOC huts are at a premium.
Accommodation in popular holiday destinations can also be scarce, so it’s worth booking your trip, accommodation and activities well in advance if you intend to travel over the summer months.
Luckily if you’re taking a Trails trip then you don’t need to worry about any of that as we’ll take care of all the nitty-gritty details! We also pack our trips with lots of off-the-beaten-track locations and hikes that will fulfil your desire for tranquillity in a stunning New Zealand setting.
It’s worth noting that while summer is our busiest season, New Zealand never really gets as busy as, say, the European Alps. With a small population of just over 4.5 million and plenty of wide-open spaces, there’s enough room for everyone without getting under each other’s feet. There are plenty of secluded beaches, quiet coves, peaceful walking trails and picturesque mountain lakes to enjoy, and despite the additional numbers, often you can still get those views all to yourself!
✔ Remember your hat and sunscreen
The New Zealand sun is incredibly fierce and often catches unwitting visitors (and even locals) out, leaving them with painful and unsightly sunburn on exposed parts of their body. Burn time can be as little as 10 minutes in the height of summer, so our motto is ‘slip, slop, slap’ when it comes to sun protection – slip on a shirt, slop on the sunscreen and slap on a hat! We recommend coating yourself in good quality, high factor sunscreen, particularly if you’re prone to burning, and remember to reapply if you go for a swim or work up a bit of a sweat while out hiking.
Over the summer months, you’ll notice that most Kiwi kids don large hats to protect themselves from the sun. It’s a standard part of most summer school uniforms and is often so ingrained in their little psyches that they’ll wear their hats with little or no complaint! Us adults perhaps need a little more coercion, but it’s one of the best and easiest ways to prevent sunburn and heat exhaustion. We recommend choosing a wide-brimmed, lightweight and quick-drying hat with a UPF rating. For an additional cooling factor while you’re hiking, you can soak your hat in a river or stream and wear it wet. The breeze against the wet fabric will be a welcome relief when things start to heat up.
✔ Hike at your own pace
If you’re hiking with others, it can be tempting (and tiring) to try and keep pace with the fastest member. Conversely, it can be frustrating trying to slow your speed to keep pace with others. Here at Trails, we encourage everyone to take the hikes and walks at their own pace. Particularly so during the summer months; it’s important to hike to your own ability. Stop and take in your surroundings, enjoy a drink of water and snap a photograph or two.
If you want to challenge yourself and raise your heart rate, we’re all for that as well, but the main thing is, it’s up to you; you can hike as much or as little as you’d like. We reckon that the journey is as important as the destination, so make the most of the journey and set a pace that works for you.
Our favourite summer hikes
Hollyford Track, Fiordland National Park | 56km (34.8 miles) one way
A little off the beaten path, this 4-5-day hike offers a fantastic taste of Fiordland National Park. While it’s not on the Great Walks list, it’s still highly recommended and well maintained with excellent DOC huts along the way. Fortunately, it’s a little less busy than some of our other tracks during the summer months. Beginning in the Darran Mountains area, you’ll follow the mighty Hollyford River through lush forest and past clear lakes to the sea at Martins Bay. There are no alpine sections, so you can hike this track year-round, however, the favourable weather conditions during summer mean it’s the ideal time to explore.
You can opt to hike the full length of the track, or just enjoy a day walk on the Hollyford. We reckon we’ve nailed the ultimate way to experience the Hollyford on our World Heritage trip. We start the day off with a wee taster on the world-famous Milford Track before hopping on board a helicopter and flying into the remote but beautiful Martins Bay, where we’ll have the chance to check out the resident fur seals and Fiordland crested penguins.
We’ll spend the night in a charming wilderness lodge, before jumping into a jet boat the next morning which will take us to the Hollyford Track where we’ll stretch our legs with a hike through this stunning part of Fiordland. The perfect summer adventure in our opinion!
Angelus Circuit, Nelson Lakes National Park | 30.6km (19 miles) one way
Again, this hike is one of our favourites because it’s a little further from the well-trodden paths, so offers a good opportunity to escape the summer crowds. Situated in the impressively rugged Nelson Lakes National Park, there are a few different ways to reach Lake Angelus Hut, which sits atop a mountain range between Lake Rotoiti and Rotoroa (not to be confused with the city of Rotorua in the North Island) at 1,650 metres. On a clear day (which we get lots of during summer) the views from the ridgeline are incredible and put the steep climb up into perspective.
We hike the Angelus Circuit on our Kiwi Classic trip over the course of three days and two nights. It’s certainly something of an adventure, with varied terrain to cross, freezing cold mountain lakes to swim in and the chance to spend the night in a DOC hut, enjoying a real taste of the New Zealand backcountry.
The peak is often covered in snow through winter and into early spring, which can make it difficult/impossible to hike, so we recommend November through to April as the ideal time to hike it. Nelson Lakes National Park is popular with Kiwi hikers making the most of their summer breaks, so while you won’t be inundated with other walkers during your time there, it’s a good opportunity to meet the locals in their natural habitat!
Autumn in New Zealand
March, April, May – dazzling autumn colours make for a photographer’s dream! Long, sunny days linger on and quieter trails with cooler temperatures make this an ideal time for walking.
Autumn is our most colourful season and enjoys mild temperatures and settled weather, with plenty of clear sunny days. As a result, it’s a popular time for travellers and hikers, although not quite to the same degree as the summer months. Autumn in New Zealand runs from March through until May, with the first few weeks of the season often still feeling more like summer. March is the perfect time of year for those who want to make the most of the warmer temperatures and longer daylight hours of summer while avoiding the crowds and potentially scoring a good deal on flights.
As far as temperature goes, March is usually only a few degrees cooler than the summer months, with average daytime temperatures ranging between 18 and 23°C (64 - 73°C). It’s these comfortably warm conditions that make March such an excellent time of year for hiking.
As we move into April our clocks ‘fall’ back, which means there’s an hour less of daylight and in contrast to the light summer evenings, it can be quite a shock when the days suddenly start getting shorter. That said, you’ll still enjoy a good few hours of daylight with the sun rising around 7am and setting at about 6pm. The sunsets at that time of year are particularly spectacular, so it’s worth it.
As far as the temperature goes, conditions are still mild during the month of April, with the thermometer usually hovering somewhere between 16 and 20°C during the day (61-68°F). You’ll notice that the nights are considerably cooler compared to daytime temperatures, with overnight lows of 6 – 11°C (43 – 52°F) up and down the country. Particularly on the South Island, mornings can be quite crisp before the sun starts to warm things up over the course of the day. Don’t be deterred though, as it’s nothing that an extra layer of clothing and a warm mug of coffee in hand can’t fix!
May is when you might really start to notice things cooling down and you might even get the odd frost on the ground in the South Island. You’ll need to bring a warm jumper and a pair of woolly socks to keep you cosy if you’re heading down our way in May. Daytime temperatures on the South Island can quite easily drop to below 10°C (50°F), while up on the North Island, it’s usually a degree or two warmer in most places.
Days are starting to get markedly shorter by the end of May, with the sun not rising until after 8am and setting by 5.15pm. If you’re after a true autumn vacation (as opposed to a winter sampler in May) and want to make the most of our hiking tracks and trails, then March and April are the months to aim for.
Pros of autumn hiking
March and April typically enjoy some of the most settled weather conditions of the year, with long, fine spells common. These months are characterised by warm sunny days, bright blue skies and a lack of wind and rain. Nights are clear and cool and there’s a definite nip in the air first thing in the morning, with the odd frost likely as autumn progresses towards winter. It’s an ideal time to be out and about hiking and you’ll enjoy some longer periods of dependably pleasant weather. Plus, as it’s a few degrees cooler than summer, temperatures are perfect for stretching your legs without breaking a sweat!
Despite their celebrated status as the most settled time of year weather-wise, the autumn months are not one hundred percent infallible. However, our weather forecasters are good at predicting any unseasonable storms heading our way, so if you’re planning on venturing out into the backcountry alone, be sure to check the long-range forecast for the area you’re walking in, especially if it’s an alpine region. Rainfall is relatively low over the autumn months, but as always in New Zealand, it’s worth packing a raincoat despite the apparent lack of clouds, as conditions can change quickly.
Less people around
After the crowds (a term I use lightly, as New Zealand is never really teeming) of summer, the autumn months are quiet in comparison. Children are back in school and the locals are working hard, already looking forward to their next opportunity to get back out into the wilderness – hang on guys, the next long weekend is just around the corner! Most holiday-makers want to visit when it’s warmest, so despite March and April still enjoying sunny weather, the popular spots are generally significantly quieter.
All of this means that it’s the ideal time of year to get out on our tracks and trails, especially the more famous ones which are often quite busy over the summer months. It’s worth noting that some of our Great Walks have a specific hiking season, usually October through April, so if an autumn trip is on the cards for you, then be sure to plan for either March or April so that you don’t miss out.
Autumn colours and local produce
New Zealand is known for its lush green rolling hills and abundance of trees, but as autumn rolls around the foliage starts to change colour, covering our hillsides in a fiery red and yellow blanket. It’s an incredibly beautiful time to get out hiking on our colourful tracks and trails. The South Island is exceptionally glorious at this time of year, with places such as Wanaka and Queenstown ablaze with autumn colour.
The quaint gold-mining settlement of Arrowtown, just outside of Queenstown, is one of our favourite places to visit in autumn – the surrounding leafy hillsides turn bright yellow, orange and red. The vivid colours set against the clear blue autumn skies create stunning photographic opportunities, as well as very enjoyable hiking backdrops. Arrowtown celebrates all the beauty of autumn with a five day festival in April, showcasing a variety of local talents, market crafts, food and wine.
Speaking of wine, the autumn months also herald the start of harvest time for many vineyards. Before the first frost hits, you’ll spot an abundance of plump purple and white grapes patiently hanging from their vines, awaiting the busy hand of the pickers and their higher purpose of filling your glass! If you’re interested in New Zealand wine, then check out this guide to our 12 different wine regions. Fresh local produce is abundant at this time of year, with farmers markets in full swing. So, if you’re a foodie as well as a hiker, then you’ll enjoy autumn immensely.
New Zealand Trails’ tips for autumn hiking
✔ Wear layers
When packing for your autumn adventure, it’s all about the layers. The cool nights and warm days mean that you need to be able to add or take away layers to maintain your comfort. A thin merino base layer or vest, a quick-dry t-shirt, fleece or sweater, followed by a waterproof outer layer is ideal, that way you can layer up if it’s cold, or strip down if the temperature heats up.
We also recommend you bring a warm hat and gloves for those higher altitudes, alpine environments and chilly mornings. Long johns or thermal leggings are also a good tip – wear them underneath your hiking pants or shorts first thing and then whip them off as the day warms up. They’re also ideal nightwear if you’re staying in a DOC hut and will save you bringing your PJs.
✔ Join a guided walking or hiking trip
To make the most of your autumn travels in New Zealand, you can’t beat joining a well-organised group tour. If you’d like to experience all that New Zealand has to offer during the autumn months, look for a local company that can get you out on a variety of different tracks and trails.
You’ll enjoy the benefits of their vast New Zealand knowledge, as well as the comfort of experienced guides to lead the way and keep you safe. Make sure that you choose a small-group tour, because it’s not much fun to be stuck on a coach with 100 other people watching the countryside roll away behind them!
Our favourite New Zealand in Autumn
Milford Track, Fiordland National Park | 53.5km (33.2 miles) one way
Perhaps our most famous hike, the Milford Track draws visitors from around the globe to experience the majestic Fiordland National Park and the impressive peaks of Milford Sound itself. Follow in the footsteps of the early pioneers who journeyed from the head of Lake Te Anau through to Milford, via valleys and over mountain passes, through thick forest and lush native plant life, marvelling at the cascading waterfalls and enjoying the company of chattering birds flittering in the treetops above them.
Known as the ‘finest walk in the world’, the Milford Track is rightfully popular and is best hiked during the Great Walks season, from October through to the end of April. Over the summer months, it can get pretty busy, so a good time to hike it would be as the season is drawing to a close in March or April. If you’re planning on going it alone, then you’ll still need to book well in advance to get a bunk in the DOC huts even during the autumn months.
You can also hike a section of the Milford Track on our World Heritage walking tour, which explores the Fiordland area in depth and will help you to tick off not only the Milford Track but various other Great Walks and incredible areas from your New Zealand bucket list.
Tongariro Crossing, Tongariro National Park | 19.4km (12miles) one way
Tongariro is New Zealand’s first National Park and boasts dual World Heritage status, as well as being home to three active volcanoes! This stunning hike traverses a strange natural landscape made up of volcanic tundra, turquoise coloured lakes and flat plateau that stretches out below you. It’s a good climb to the top where you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views on a clear day.
The best time to hike in New Zealand, particularly the Tongariro Crossing, is from October to the end of April, with the summer months the most popular. Things start to quieten down in March and April, so that’s our favourite time of year to hike the Crossing. The track is closed during poor weather conditions, so always check before you depart.
You can hike the Tongariro Crossing with us on our Sweet North tour, where we’ll make an early start to get the most from our day’s hike. We’ll take care of everything, from transport and checking the weather, to snacks and camaraderie, all you need to do is lace up your boots and enjoy the views!
Winter in New Zealand
June, July, August – New Zealand Trails doesn’t run any trips during winter. However, it’s a great time for skiing and the snow-capped mountains are spectacular.
Winter – brrrrrrrrrrrrr! For some, the mere mention of the word sends them scurrying into hibernation on the couch and while we’ve got nothing against relaxation here at Trails, we know that winter in New Zealand still has lots to offer travellers and well-equipped, experienced hikers. The New Zealand winter season lasts from June through until August and sees the most consistently cold weather up and down the country, although probably nothing like what many Americans and Canadians are used to.
In the North Island daytime temperatures usually settle between 10-16°C (50 - 61°F) with the odd frost inland and colder overnight temperatures. The far north of the island is known as the ‘Winterless North’ and temperatures never really drop much below 15 or 16°C, even in mid-winter.
In contrast, the South Island experiences more winter extremes with regular frosts and daytime temperatures struggling to get much above 10°C (50°F). Around the alpine regions, there’s often snow to low levels, as well as regular flurries on the mountain tops. You’ll need to pack a warm jacket, sturdy boots, hat and gloves if you’re going to fully enjoy winter outdoors in the South Island.
Our hiking season at Trails runs from October to April and we don’t offer any trips during the winter months. That’s not to say that you can’t hike, but the winter weather conditions do impose limits on which tracks you can access and how high you can climb. We want our guests to experience the full diversity of landscapes and views New Zealand offers, so we’ve decided to run trips between spring and autumn to ensure that happens. But, if you’re planning a winter trip, we still have few ideas and tips for you, so read on.
Pros of winter travel
Blue sky days and snow-capped mountain peaks
Despite the cooler temperatures, the winter months often enjoy some of the clearest and most brilliant blue skies imaginable. It might surprise many to know that even in the depths of winter, the sun still shines cheerily, soon banishing any winter blues that may have crept in. You’ll need to rug up of course, but it can be very exhilarating going for a stroll in the fresh air and enjoying a dose of sunshine in the brisk conditions.
Winter also brings plenty of snow to our mountain tops, blanketing their stark peaks with a fresh white covering. If you’re flying into the South Island in the winter, you’ll enjoy unforgettable views across the Southern Alps. This towering mountain chain, home to some of our highest peaks, divides the island like a spine and, set against the clear blue skies, makes for an impressive welcoming sight!
Cheaper travel options
Over winter you’re likely to find that flight prices are slightly lower, and you might be able to grab a bargain! Keep an eye out for airline sales and jump on any deals you see. Even in the spring and autumn months, fares are typically a good $300-400 lower than over the peak summer months. So, if winter doesn’t appeal, don’t worry, as spring or autumn are still good alternatives for those frugally inclined.
If you’re travelling with us on a Trails trip, we can help with flights, travel insurance and any other travel arrangements you need to make – just drop us a line.
During the winter months and into early spring, New Zealand’s ski fields come alive with skiers, snowboarders and those just enjoying the views. There are around 25 ski areas spread between the North and South Islands, some commercially run, and some club owned and operated. Most of our ski areas are located on the South Island due to its colder climate and mountainous topography. There’s terrain to appeal to all abilities, with most fields offering lessons, as well as comfortable cafes for those who prefer to watch – there’s something to suit every taste.
New Zealand Trails is based in Queenstown, the adventure capital of the world - which has four large ski areas close by - Coronet Peak, The Remarkables, Cardrona and Treble Cone. Showcasing incredible views, these ski fields offer some of the best skiing and snowboarding in New Zealand and we’re lucky to have them right on our doorstep.
Heli-skiing is a popular option for the more advanced snow sports enthusiasts, accessing isolated backcountry areas and the thrill of first tracks on fresh snow. Other winter sports options include cross-country skiing, luging, curling, ice skating and ice hockey. Soaking in hot tubs and building snowmen are also considered sports, so feel free to enjoy both during your winter trip!
New Zealand Trails’ tips for winter hiking
✔ Be prepared
Many of New Zealand’s most famous walks simply can’t be accessed over the winter months due to snowfall and dangerous conditions. If you are going to head out on an unguided hike into backcountry areas over winter, ensure that you chat with DOC and stay updated on track and weather conditions. Outside of the Great Walks season, facilities, including bridges, are greatly reduced and flood and avalanche risks exist, so you need to have plenty of experience and be prepared for these conditions.
We can’t stress enough how changeable conditions can be over the winter months in these isolated areas. Cell coverage is limited, and you won’t find many other people out on the track, so if in any doubt, stick to low-level hikes in more populated areas.
✔ Stay warm
The days are shorter and colder, so you’ll want to dress warmly even if you’re just out for a short hike. Always bring a few additional layers in your day pack just in case. Merino wool is a great investment and will keep you warm, snug and dry underneath your outer layers. Choose boots or shoes with a good grippy sole for ice and snow days and remember your hat and gloves. If you’ve got the proper gear, winter in New Zealand can be exhilarating and refreshing, if not, you might just wind up shivering in the local coffee shop the whole time!
So, what is the best time for hiking in New Zealand?
We hope this summary of the seasons in New Zealand has helped you decide when to visit New Zealand. As anyone who has visited will know, the weather here doesn’t always follow the rules, but no matter what time of year you visit, you’ll have an incredible time in the land of the long white cloud!
However, if hiking is your main reason for coming to visit our stunning country, then we recommend planning your trip for spring, summer or autumn, as walking in winter has its own set of unique challenges.
The Trails’ season kicks off every spring in October and our five fully-guided, multi-day, small-group tours set off around this beautiful country again. Whether you are looking for the comfort and restaurant dining offered on our World Heritage Walking Tour, or the Masterpiece's mix of activity and experiences, the more challenging Kiwi Classic, the Pure South for those who want an awesome adventure jam-packed into eight days, or a cultural taste of the North Island offered by the Sweet North – we're sure to have something just right for you.