We’ve been blown away by the interest New Zealanders have shown over the last couple of years in undertaking a Great Walk. Last year, defying all expectations with borders closed, on the first day of bookings opening for each walk, numbers were up an average of 40% compared to the previous year. This year, they were up another 70%! But that doesn’t mean you’ve missed your chance get out on a Great Walk this year as you’ll see below.
The flip side of all this interest has meant there’s been a wee bit of misinformation going around about booking onto our Great Walks and even the odd conspiracy theory. From people seeking to know if we had given all the best spots to tourism businesses even before bookings opened, to claims that bulk bookings were being made by bots or, heaven forbid, Australians (seriously people), we’ve seen it all this year. So we’ve written this blog to tackle the most common misconceptions and provide advice on how best to bag your spot.
Myth #1: The Great Walks are all booked out 😔
No they aren’t – not even close! Across the network of 10 Great Walks, there’s about 45% of hut space available and 95% of campsites available.
The Milford Track is the only Great Walk that has sold out so far and even that will have cancellations across the year.
You may not be able to book a party of 25 into huts on the Routeburn over New Year, but there are still PLENTY of opportunities to get out there.
Top tip: Great Walks with the most hut capacity currently include the Whanganui River Journey, Tongariro Northern Circuit, Lake Waikaremoana, Heaphy, Rakiura and Abel Tasman Coast tracks (see graph below)
Myth #2: It’s just the Milford right? ⛰️
We have ten Great Walks and they are all epic. While everyone who has done it during a reasonable weather window would probably agree, the Milford is pretty special, there are nine other mind-blowingly beautiful Great Walks out there offering walking (plus biking and paddling) opportunities throughout the year.
Top tip: If it’s diversity of scenery, incredible nature (including takahē) and lush rainforest you’re after, try the Heaphy.
Myth #3: You can’t camp on a Great Walk ⛺
Milford and Paparoa tracks are the only Great Walks where campsites aren’t provided. You can book camp sites on all the other walks. We know carrying a tent, sleeping bag and mat, and all the cooking equipment you’ll need, really isn’t for everyone. But for those who are keen and able, this is a cheaper option. Camping offers heaps of capacity for groups and night-time quiet and privacy for those who want it. Great Walk campsites range in price from $5 to $32 a night, with New Zealand adults paying no more than $21 a night even in peak season.
Top tip: For people new to combining camping with tramping, with a warmer climate and multiple entry and exit points allowing you to do shorter trips, the Abel Tasman Coast Track would be a good place to start.
Myth #4: Half the places are taken before bookings open 📅
No they really aren’t! No one gets early access to the booking system. (for example I’ve worked for DOC for 13 years and I have to book onto the Great Walks the same way everyone else does).
Agents (such as i-SITES who make bookings for customers over the counter or on the phone) and concessionaires (the majority of which are walking or kayaking guides) book Great Walks in the same way the public does (i.e. online when bookings open on a first come, first served basis, including the details of each client).
Top tip: While no one gets an advantage, it does pay to be prepared in advance of bookings opening:
• Check our website in May to see when bookings open for each Great Walk and set a reminder in advance of bookings opening for you preferred walk.
• Make sure you have created your customer account in advance of bookings opening.
• We recommend using the latest versions of either Chrome or Firefox web browsers. Also, having a strong internet connection will help, as losing connectivity part way thorough your booking will often lead to the loss of that booking.
• If you open the booking screen prior to the specified opening time you will need to refresh your screen when bookings open in order to see where there are spaces and to make your booking.
• Have a few dates in mind, and consider choosing quieter times (i.e. not New Year, long weekends, Easter etc) or quieter walks.
• Have the details of everyone in your group to hand so you can quickly enter these into the system.
• Try again for dates, as multiple group members may make duplicate booking and then drop them particularly during the first 25 minutes of bookings opening. Also try again over the coming months as people cancel.
• Finally – be prepared (like booking concert tickets for Lorde) that for peak dates and popular walks, there’s a good chance no matter how organised you are, you may not get your preferred spot. It’s really quite likely unfortunately.
Myth #5: Tourism businesses are taking up all the spots ❌
No, they absolutely aren’t. Our bookings data shows that public/independant bookings make up 93% of total bednights booked, concessionaires (e.g. guides and agents) make up just 4% of bookings and 3% are school or community groups. Concessionaires must enter into the booking system the names and details of each person booked before the start of their booking.
Across all ten Great Walks we have over 280,000 hut bed nights for sale. On the first days of bookings opening 4,300 were sold via concessionaires, that equates to just 1.5% of all available hut spaces.
Top tip: Not everyone has the skills, physical abilities or confidence to set out on a multi-day tramp independently. If you’d like more support, or just want a comfy bed and hot shower at the end of the day, guided walking options might be for you.
Myth #6: Great Walks are mainly for international visitors ✈️
While these walks are world-famous and well loved by our international guests, they have always been well-used by Kiwis. The introduction of differential pricing for international visitors (now on 7 Great Walks) has led to a rise in New Zealanders accessing these walks and, of course, the current border restrictions have seen the numbers of Kiwis on these walks go through the roof. This year about 92% of bookings are from New Zealanders.
Top tip: Kiwi kids (17 years and under) are free on the Great Walks. You can take your tamariki for an overnight option on most of the walks. Our recommendation would be hiking into Routeburn Flats Hut or taking a water taxi in to overnight on the Abel Tasman Coast Track.
Myth #7: “DOC should just put more huts in!” 🥾
While we have already established that there’s heaps of capacity across the 10 Great Walks, we get asked all the time why we don’t just expand huts and bunk spaces – on the Paparoa and Milford tracks in particular. The Great Walks have a limited number of bed spaces (camping space and bunks in huts), to keep numbers at an appropriate level – this ensures the natural and cultural heritage surrounding these walks is protected and that people have a high-quality experience on them.
Top tip: Most Great walks can be done in either direction so if your huts are booked out going one way on a walk, try seeing if there might be availability across your preferred dates doing the walk in the opposite direction.
Myth #8: We can only do the Great Walks in the summer ☀️
With the right skills, preparation and packing, five Great Walks can be undertaken all year round: Lake Waikaremoana, Abel Tasman, Heaphy, Paparoa and Rakiura.
Due to greatly increased risks for walkers over the colder months, there is a Great Walks Season (October to April) for the southern Great Walks (Milford, Routeburn and Kepler) and Tongariro Northern Circuit. Outside the Great Walks Season these walks should only be attempted by fit, experienced and well-equipped people as facilities are greatly reduced and there are additional hazards such as ice underfoot, river crossings and avalanches.
Top tip: Winter is generally a great time to get onto the Heaphy and Abel Tasman tracks.
In summary, we do acknowledge the disappointment that many are feeling at not getting their spot on their preferred walk this year (or previous years). Alongside DOC’s delight at seeing more New Zealanders than ever take up the opportunity to get onto their world-famous walks (this is what our heritage and visitor rangers and teams come to work for), we also acknowledge that if 3,240 people bagged their spot on the Milford within the first hour of bookings opening, then it’s likely another 3,240 people missed out. That sucks for them. We wish we could enable all New Zealanders (even those who wouldn’t do a Great Walk if you paid them) could get out and enjoy a Great Walk (no seriously non-Great Walk people, we think you’d love it – go on).
The Great Walks are diverse and delivered locally to suit the nature of each walk and align with National Park Management Plans etc., so the rules and systems do vary.
You do need to do some organising in advance. Besides booking onto the walks, you need to do your homework regarding how to ensure you are properly prepared for your adventure and there are wider logistics to sort including transport to and from the start and finish of each walk.
Our Great Walks are the popstars of the walking world. The pressure on peak dates for popular walks or walks where bed spaces are (out of necessity) limited, can certainly make the booking process competitive. We do however ensure that the system has significant bandwidth to deal with the high demand and as a result the Milford does sell out rapidly.
We understand why customers might be surprised by how quickly space are filled, but it is a case of demand exceeding supply.
This also means that some will try to get around the system by making speculative bookings or trying to on-sell their spots. Our investigations show this hasn’t been a significant issue to date, but we are onto this and have checks and balances in place to prevent it from happening. We also monitor bookings and have a team that can respond where needed.
At the heart of our Great Walks booking system is a team of dedicated people ensuring we provide a fair and transparent service that delivers the best possible opportunity for everyone to get into nature.