Liz Carlson, of the popular travel blog Young Adventuress, recently walked the Milford Track and has some exclusive, what you should know before you go, insights to share with us…
Nestled deep in the heart of Fiordland, in the most remote corner of the South Island, the Milford Track traverses some of the best landscapes and vistas New Zealand has to offer, earning it a place at the top of many traveller’s bucket-lists.
After spending a week in Fiordland this summer, and tackling the Milford Track, I thought I would go ahead and share my thoughts about what everyone should know before starting out.
1. Book in advance
If you plan to walk the Milford Track in the summer season, and you have a tight schedule in New Zealand, you really need to book it in advance.
It’s almost like New Zealand’s main event or concert. People will wait until the minute the hut passes go on sale for the next summer and book straight away—they sell out very quickly.
Otherwise, if you have a more flexible schedule—or are a solo traveller like me—people frequently cancel bookings and you can usually nab a spot. There is no wait-list. You can just check the online booking system, or ring up the local DOC office in Te Anau and ask if there are any spots.
2. Sort out transportation
Once you have your hut passes booked, then you have to sort out transport. You can do it at the same time you book the huts online, or ring up before the walk and do it over the phone.
You’ll have to book a boat to start the walk from Te Anau Downs, which is 30 minutes past Te Anau towards Milford. Then you’ll have to book a boat back from Sandfly Point at the end of the trek, which will bring you to the Milford Sound docks.
What most people do is arrange transport from Te Anau to Te Anau downs, catch the boat, do the walk, catch the boat back to Milford, then catch a bus to Te Anau from there.
The drive between Milford and Te Anau is about 2 hours, and it’s one of the best in New Zealand.
There are many beautiful day walks and stops on the road between Milford and Te Anau that are worth exploring if you have the time.
If you’re anything like me, I recommend driving it yourself and spending a night or two in Milford itself. So I arranged it backwards—I drove all the way to Milford Sound, parked my car, stayed the night, then caught a bus back to Te Anau Downs to start the trek. Then, when I finished in Milford, I had my car with me so I had time to do all of the other Milford activities I wanted to do and leave at my leisure.
3. Pick up your hut passes at the DOC office in Te Anau
I almost missed this, because all of the other huts I’ve stayed in in New Zealand have been first come first serve, or you can just print out your booking.
Luckily I noticed in a confirmation email that I had to pick up my hut passes and boat tickets from the Te Anau DOC office in advance of the walk.
It’s a great system because you have all your tickets and passes together and can just pull them off when required.
4. What to bring
The huts along the Milford Track have to be some of the nicest I have ever seen. Big, comfortable, clean and modern, they definitely set the bar high for trekking accommodation in New Zealand.
In the high season, they are all equipped with amazing bathrooms (with toilet paper), bunk beds, sleeping mats, sinks, water you can drink, and gas stoves you can cook on (no need to bring fuel).
Everything else you have to bring, and bear in mind you have to take out everything with you too. Read more here.
My packing list consisted of clothes, good hiking boots, flip-flops (no boots inside the huts), enough food for the trek plus an extra day just in case, sleeping bag, tiny pillow, earplugs (a MUST in my opinion in shared huts, there is always a snorer), rain gear, plate/bowl and utensils and a little pot for cooking, bottles for water to carry, head torch, and a first aid kit plus anything extra you think you might need.
5. Be prepared to get wet
Milford Sound gets over 268 inches of rain a year. It’s one of the wettest places in the world so, more than likely, you’re going to get wet. It’s best to pack accordingly.
Having waterproof layers is essential, plus enough changes of clothes and socks to ensure that you will have something dry to change into. A waterproof pack liner or cover is also important.
The weather is very changeable and the rivers and streams can flood out the trail in heavy rainfall making them impassable so it’s important to keep that in mind and always follow the instructions of the hut wardens.
It is not uncommon to be wading through waist deep water in heavy rain, which is another good reason to have a waterproof pack liner.
Often times, if the weather is really good on the second day, people will walk to Mintaro Hut, drop their packs, and continue up to the top of the Mackinnon Pass for clear views (in case of bad weather the next day). The views from the top of the pass are incredible on clear days.
6. Bug spray is essential
One of the reasons Milford is so beautiful and untouched is because it’s filled with sandflies, the most terrible little creatures in New Zealand.
Tiny black flies, if you don’t prepare you can get eaten alive, and trust me, their bites itch for days and they have a special knack for finding any exposed skin possible.
My advice if you aren’t used to them is bring a big bottle of bug spray and long light layers. If you react badly to bites, you might also want to bring some kind of antihistamines to take if you swell up. But don’t be deterred, there are many places on the track that don’t have sandflies and they really vary according to the seasons, but best to be prepared. And when in doubt, cover up and keep moving!
7. Seasonal changes
During the winter season (May to October) the Milford Track remains open, but with reduced facilities. You can read more about winter tramping on the Milford Track here.
There are plenty of alternatives if you want to experience the Milford Track in winter, doing day walks or walking only part of the tracks, and even flying over the most dangerous sections.
8. Kea encounters
Kea are the world’s only alpine parrot and they are found along the Milford Track, and you will most likely get to see one while exploring.
Big and green, with beautiful coloured wings, they are considered to be one of the smartest birds in the world. They are also very cheeky, inquisitive and love to play, so it’s important not to leave things outside the huts, like boots or walking poles, in case they get curious. They are rare and threatened birds, so it’s also important to minimize contact with them, and definitely do not feed them.
We were woken up at sunrise by dozens of them flying around and squawking to high heaven at Mintaro Hut, which to be honest, isn’t the worst way to wake up at 5 am.
9. Why Fiordland is special
Fiordland occupies the bottom corner of the South Island. With no phone service for hours and hours, it’s the perfect escape and one of the best places to experience the amazing landscapes and wilderness New Zealand has to offer.
Here takahē and kākāpō—some of the most endangered birds in New Zealand—used to roam.
Now you can find other local birds, such as the kea, fantails, tūī, bellbirds and kererū, along with beautiful forests and high alpine mountains.
If you are looking to experience New Zealand as it would have been before humans arrived, Fiordland is one of the best places to go.
10. Some alternative walks and hikes
The Milford Track is very popular but, depending on the type of experience you are looking for, there are plenty of other options to get outside in Fiordland—there’s something for everyone.
The Routeburn Track is shorter and also goes through beautiful parts of the region. It’s also a Great Walk, but tends to have more availability and flexibility with how it’s walked than the Milford.
If you are looking to do a multi-day mission that’s a bit more off the beaten track than Milford, the Hollyford Track is a good alternative and doesn’t have the same restrictions in winter.
If you don’t have as much time, and would like to do a day walk, there is the Key Summit Track and Lake Marion, which is one of my favourites; both leave from the Milford Road. Here is a more in-depth list of walks in Fiordland.