Great Walks mythbusting

Department of Conservation —  15/07/2021 — 30 Comments

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 mighty Milford!

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.

Takahē on the Heaphy Track. 📷: Jake Osbourne

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.

Routeburn Flats. 📷: Lizzy Sutcliffe

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.

Totaranui beach, Abel Tasman National Park. Photo: Samuel Mann | CC BY 2.0.
Abel Tasman Track

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.

30 responses to Great Walks mythbusting

  1. 

    This is incredibly helpful – thank you! The Great Walks are on our must-do list in NZ for sure.

  2. 

    I was lucky enough to be able to book the Milford Track the morning it opened, but only after initially missing out on my target dates. By refreshing I eventually found a spot opened up and I was able to book. So keep trying and you may get your dates. I agree with others that some people may be speculatively booking, or double booking, to try to put an itinerary together. (I was also in the position of trying to book Milford reasonably adjacent to Rakiura) So don’t despair – check back frequently because people’s plans do change, and they’ll cancel to ensure they can get their refunds.

  3. 
    Jim Shannon 06/08/2021 at 4:16 pm

    For the 2019 summer season I booked online from my home in Alaska, tramps on Lake Waikaremoana, Queen Charlotte (a fabulous but not great walk) Able Tasman, and Routeburn. So simple to do. So inexpensive. Such a marvelous resource! Met a few international travelers, but most of our hut mates were Kiwis. Walks of a lifetime. Good on ya DOC.
    NZ should be proud!

    P. S. I book the walks six months in advance. Seemed reasonable to me

  4. 
    Peter Mataio 06/08/2021 at 4:04 pm

    Thanks for all the information Doc. You only live life once. Our country is beautiful. I’m going to make the most of it. Reading everything has reaffirmed the need to take in nature while we can. chur

  5. 
    Steve Newport 06/08/2021 at 3:47 pm

    I run a guided mountain bike business on the Heaphy and just like everyone else we are there waiting at 0900 on the morning to book the few trips we need. For each we are required to provide the names of the clients we are taking. Generally we only have one or two trips pre-booked by clients and book the huts for other trips later in the season as the bookings come in and we check availability.
    Personally I think the biggest problem is “The Big Rush” on one day for the rest of the season, I believe it would be better to open one month at a time 12 months ahead of that month rather than the whole season at once. Often we have clients wanting a specific date but we miss out on the date needed and have to renegotiate with clients who are often unable to move dates.
    One thing that people need to realize is that on the morning of the rush the huts will often show as having been booked up, this is usually not the case, what actually happens is that when somebody starts a booking the system locks that hut out until the booking is finishes as the system does not know how many places are being booked until later in the process and having it open to multiple people booking at the same time would cause issues with over booking. So if you find the hut is “full” on the rush morning, it usually is not and it’s just that someone else is making a booking at that time. If you try again 5-10 minutes later you usually find you can get in to book the places you need.
    As a concessionaire we get no preference and in fact we are quite restricted to how many places we can book in any one hut at any one time. What we have notices though is that sometimes a family group will book out an entire hut using fictional names so that they can have the hut to themselves, This is very selfish and fortunately DOC are realizing this is happening and the rangers are starting to clamp down on these groups.
    No system would be perfect, but DOC are doing there best here to keep things fair and I can assure you as concessionaires and commercial businesses we get no preferential ability to book ahead.

  6. 

    So commercial operators can prebook beds in public huts for private clients ahead of the public? And not just on the Able Tasman as was mentioned in the reply. Can DOC please clarify…..https://www.stuff.co.nz/travel/back-your-backyard/125931865/doc-gives-great-walk-operators-notice-to-stop-prebooking-huts

    • 

      I am a DOC concessionaire and run guided walks on the Heaphy Track. We have never been allowed to prebook or make block bookings without actual names, so nothing has changed. We concessionaires all sit on our computers at 9.30am, waiting for the bookings to open, so we can join the ‘****** and grab’ race that many of the Great Walks have become, just like everyone else. The only difference being we usually have 10+ trips to book at one time (often unsuccessfully). DOC is just wanting to check we are all following the rules in our concession documents (as it appears some haven’t been).

      • 

        I have been operating a guided walks business in Stewart Island for the past 22 years.
        We have provided a service for people from all walks of life and abilities. We are proud that we have made it possible for a variety of clients to get out there and experience the backcountry, including those with limited confidence and experience, recent hip replacements, in their 80 years, or with other considerations.

        We are also helping clients to understand and appreciate a special environment through our interpretation of the fauna, flora and history using our extensive local knowledge.

        Our clients have come from overseas, but also from New Zealand pre-COVID. We provide a service for a small proportion of the market and should be recognised for this and not penalised.

        Like all concessionaires we pay additional fees for each person guided along with hut and camp fees.

        The Rakiura Great Walk originally did not have bookable huts and it was a free for all.

        A number of years ago the Department of Conservation decided to make the Rakiura Great Walk huts bookable. So like everyone else we have booked hut spaces when the booking system opens up each year. We have never complained to DOC when we miss out – we understand how it works. In this article DOC indicate that there is also some speculative booking by the public.

        Client bookings for any of our tours are haphazard and especially since COVID lockdown. We book a limited number of spaces for the busy season to ensure that we have hut space when needed, otherwise we cannot offer tours when the bookings come in.

        Currently 95% or more of New Zealanders are not pre-booking day trips or overnight trips – making it a difficult environment to operate. Neither do all members of the public decide on a set day in winter each year which walk they want to do when the booking system opens.

        Everyday even in the winter months, visitors have arrived with nothing pre-planned yet we make ourselves available not knowing what we will be asked to do day by day.

        We encourage DOC to allow guiding businesses some allocation to survive because booking patterns are not set in stone, otherwise we would not be able to run our overnight walks on the only Great Walk on which we operate.

        Our concession permit does not prevent us from pre-booking to assure we have space when we get bookings. Probably 95% of people walk the Rakiura Great Walk without a guide. We are only taking up a small portion of hut spaces for a proportion of the market that for whatever reason are unable to do the walk on their own.

        Booking a small proportion of hut space for each month allows us to operate and survive, without being able to pre-book we would loose part of our income in a highly competitive environment where it is regular practise for DOC staff to guide for competitor concessionaires thereby undermining other business.

        This is Stewart Island not the Able Tasman or Milford or Routeurn – we do not get the visitor numbers that other location get and need to be able to operate these overnight walks – a service we have provided for the past 22 years.

    • 

      The article specifically says that isn’t the case

  7. 

    “Kiwi kids (17 years and under) are free on the Great Walks” – that’s awesome, thanks for that!

  8. 

    Thanks DOC, I appreciate your myth busting insights and I was one of the >3000 people that missed out on booking for the Milford Track over the peak Xmas/New Years time. I also appreciate DOC replying to my complaints promptly. The thing that I found unfair was that despite me following all the great advice to prepare for booking, the website crashed so that I couldn’t access it and then when I could get back in (after 9 minutes) it would booked out for the peak periods. There should not be advantage to those that have a faster internet connection than others or are more tech savvy than others. I really urge DOC to try a ballot/lottery system (see similar comment from Adrian above) for the Milford Track only. Perhaps DOC could try it out next season?

  9. 
    Thomas Maunder 21/07/2021 at 5:08 pm

    Great blog that gives a bunch of people a better understanding. To anyone wanting to go tramping, there is no better feeling then doing it at campsites, or bushwacking if allowed. Knowing that all you have is what you carry is an insane sence of accomplishment at the end of the night. I would recommend it for anyone, even if its just a few hrs to a hut then back out, give it a try and you’ll find out just how fun it is. Best hike i ever did was a walk home hike through forestry and public routes. Great fun exploring and discovering the route using a topo map….. just have a backup and a beacon.

  10. 
    Adrian Merrall 21/07/2021 at 1:43 pm

    I think a better system would be that used for limited place trips in the US such as rafting the Grand Canyon. Register your interest anytime (no taking a day off work on opening day) and pay a small deposit. Places are then allocated on a ballot . If you miss out and want to stay in, for next season you get two entries in the ballot, year three you get three entries and so on. No discriminating against people who can’t take that day off to try to book, and importantly, a much simpler booking system for DoC. As someone who works in IT, scaling to handle surge loads can be difficult and expensive.

  11. 
    Mike Wilson 17/07/2021 at 7:27 am

    Great article. Thank you!

  12. 
    Tipene Kahukare 16/07/2021 at 8:45 pm

    Could you please explain why guided groups only have to put the names of guides and not the clients when they book for say a group of 10, when the public have to write the name of every person in a similar group of 10. Writing the name of each person in the general publics group takes time and means the guided groups have an advantage. Could the system change so that the general public could initially book with only two names for a larger group too?

    • 

      If this is true, then it is not a fair playing field and it explains why ordinary people can’t book milford track. It also means the above article is misleading where it refers to guides and agent shaving no advantage and only making up 4% of bookings. If this 4% is concentrated on the milford and routebourn then they obviously have a distinct advantage.

    • 

      Kia ora Tipene and Amt,

      Outside of the Abel Tasman Coast Track (which has the largest amount of accommodation space compared to other Great Walks) no one has the ability to make bookings without entering the details of genuine people/clients.

      On the Abel Tasman Coast Track guiding operators are able to make a limited number of bookings without (initially) providing client details. This is only permitted through long-standing guiding concessions. Even on the Abel Tasman Coast Track these operators can only book up 7 additional spaces (without names etc) once they have 2 confirmed customer bookings.

      The operators make little impact on public bookings as they book spaces in large campsites that are seldom full.

      As stated above, no one can make speculative bookings on the Milford Track or Routeburn Track.

      • 

        Hi there, I find that a little bit hard to believe actually, so when companies that guide clients on tracks like the Milford, Routeburn or Heaphy book a bed in advance in June for the rest of the coming season they know the actual names and enter into the system those of they are guiding? The point in the article that you are trying to myth bust was simply that groups of New Zealanders have to enter the name of every single person that is going on the tramp when doing the initial booking, while the companies do not. Can you please confirm that if on the day when bookings open do commercial companies have to enter the full names of all people that they will be potentially guiding on the Milford, Routeburn, Heaphy? and if not could groups of New Zealanders do the same.

    • 
      Morgan Erickson 21/07/2021 at 10:48 am

      Guiding overnight on the Milford and Routeburn tracks, don’t use the DOC huts, they have their own, (which I believe is limited to a certain number of people)so these folks wouldn’t be taking away bed numbers from the public

  13. 

    Great myth buster from the source itself!!

  14. 

    Excellent write up and myth buster! I have managed to book my Great Walks over past two seasons but man it’s stressful!!

  15. 
    Inclusive Campsite Pass 16/07/2021 at 11:59 am

    Look forward to the blog that explains how DOC decided to have campsite passes that enable a huge discount to those that stay at Scenic and Serviced camps and no discount whatsoever for those that stay at Standard Camps and only need a space to stay. It is not an inclusive pass for all Tax Payers for publicly owned camps and has no consideration for what is available in different regions.

    • 

      Kia ora,

      The new Campsite Pass is intended to be simple to use and apply consistently across all campsite categories in New Zealand.

      No one is required to purchase a pass and can continue to pay the very affordable standard rate where it makes sense to (e.g. standard campsite = $8 per night). We even offer free campsites around New Zealand so there is something for every budget.

      • 
        Inclusive Campsite Pass 21/07/2021 at 10:07 am

        There is nothing consistent about it. The cost for 2a/2c for 7 nights is $168 at a Standard camp and in some regions that’s all we have access to. Those with the options of Scenic and Serviced camps that are upwards of $15 a night with the purchase of the campsite pass will be able to stay for the same cost as a Standard site with more facilities etc. I ask again, why has such a huge discount been made available for the benefit of some regions/Tax Payers and not all?

  16. 
    Bruce Jefferies 16/07/2021 at 9:18 am

    Great clarification to some popular misconceptions.

  17. 
    The Botanist's Daughter 16/07/2021 at 8:07 am

    Great write up, thanks.

  18. 

    This would be great information to go out to FMC and tramping clubs.

    Thanks!

  19. 

    Well done! This is a great write-up.

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