Great Walks mythbusting

Department of Conservation —  17/04/2023

Reminder – Great Walks bookings are opening between 20 April-16 May for the 2023/24 season. DOC works hard to remind people our popular Great Walks can book out very quickly. Just like a concert, it’s first in first served- but every year we get a high number of queries around why people couldn’t secure their desired spot.

From people asking if we gave all the best spots to tourism businesses even before bookings opened, to claims bulk bookings were being made by bots or, heaven forbid, Australians (seriously), we’ve heard it all. This blog tackles the most common misconceptions and provides advice on how best to bag your spot on one of our fabulous Great Walks.

The mighty Milford!

Myth #1: The Great Walks are all booked out

No, they aren’t – not even close!

Sure, the Milford Track is a beast that can make a liar out of that headline, but even the Milford has cancellations across the year. Meanwhile there’s so much to get excited about on the other Great Walk experiences, that’s how they earned their status after all.

Across the network of 10 Great Walks, there’s almost always space available, especially if you’re able to be flexible with your travel plans.

Top tip: Great Walks with the most hut capacity include the Whanganui River Journey, Tongariro Northern Circuit, Lake Waikaremoana, Rakiura, Abel Tasman Coast and Heaphy tracks. – See graph below.

Myth #2: It’s just the Milford right?

Nope. We have 10 Great Walks and they are all epic. Milford is pretty special, but there are nine other mind-blowingly beautiful Great Walks out there offering walking (plus biking and paddling) opportunities throughout the year.

Climb over old lava flows on the Tongariro Northern Circuit, look out for kiwi on Rakiura and takahē on the Heaphy, follow the footsteps of goldminers on the Paparoa, paddle down the Whanganui River and stay at a marae – every Great Walks experience is special.

Do it your way…hike, run, bike, paddle; camp or stay in a hut; do part of a walk or the whole thing.

Top tip: If it’s diversity of scenery, incredible nature (including takahē) and lush rainforest you’re after, try the Heaphy. Yes, it’s still open. Despite flood repairs in once small section, you can still book and walk from either end, and all huts are still okay. Once the repairs are completed you will be able to book the whole thing all the way through. All going well this will be possible from October 2023.

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.

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, my workmate has worked for DOC for 14 years and yes, she still has to book a Great Walks spot the same way everyone else does.

Agents – such as i-SITES which 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:  No one gets an advantage, so it does pay to be prepared in advance of bookings opening:

 Check our website in April 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 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 less popular 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 remember). For peak dates and popular walks, there’s a good chance no matter how organised you are, you may not get your preferred spot.  We can’t control booking demand, but we do work to operate a fair and even system.

Myth #5: Tourism businesses are taking up all the spots

No, they absolutely aren’t. Our bookings data shows public/independent bookings make up 93% of total bed-nights booked. Concessionaires (e.g., guides and tourism 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. (Yes, we do check to make sure rules are being followed).

Across all 10 Great Walks we have more than 280,000 hut bed nights for sale.

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

Although these walks are world-famous and well loved by our international guests, they have always been popular with Kiwis. The introduction of differential pricing for international visitors (now on seven Great Walks, and later this year eight, as Paparoa Track will be added) has led to a rise in New Zealanders accessing these walks, and, of course, the previous pandemic border restrictions saw the numbers of Kiwis on these walks go through the roof. While borders were closed 97% of bookings were from New Zealanders. Since the borders have re-opened around 30% of all bookings are from international visitors.

Top tip: Kiwi kids (17 years and under) are free on the Great Walks. You can take your children 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!”

Although we have already established 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 preferred 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 and Whanganui River Journey. 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.

Check out our Know Before You Go webpage for Alerts and preparation advice.

Top tip: Winter is generally a great time to get onto the Heaphy and Abel Tasman tracks. . Plus, you can hear birdsong all year round. Air New Zealand invests in large biodiversity projects alongside the Great Walks network enabling is over 43,000 hectares of sustained pest control and the return of native birdsong to these special places.

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

In summary, we acknowledge the disappointment 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 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 the system has significant capacity 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 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 to 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 delivering the best possible opportunity for everyone to get into nature.