Thinking of hiking the Milford Track in New Zealand's South Island?
The Milford Track is recognized as one of the best hikes in the world and is one of the "10 Great Walks of New Zealand."
Hannah Goodburn has just completed the four-day hike and shares her top tips for preparing for the hike and what to expect on the hike itself!
Here are some good practical and useful tips from her experience!
PHOTO CREDIT: Rick McCharles (Flickr)
How the hike came about!
In November 2020 a friend contacted me to ask whether I would be interested in hiking the Milford Track in February 2021. Her group of three had a spare ticket for the DOC huts and were looking for a fourth person to join their group. I didn’t hesitate in saying ‘YES!’ It felt like a fantastic opportunity given my love of walking in the NZ bush.
I’ve walked and run many tracks in New Zealand but had never done a multi-day tramp before where I was required to carry a backpack with all my supplies for four days. I’d walked the Queen Charlotte Sound multi-day track (October 2020) which appealed to me given that all our luggage was transported from each accommodation site daily, meaning we only had to carry a day pack on the walks. That was such a fantastic walk and I’d totally recommend it – just stunning!
It turned out that Kendra, who booked the tickets, needed to spend quite some time online when the tickets for hut bookings on the Milford Track were released by DOC (Department of Conservation) in August 2020 and was thrilled to have secured four of them. She said the whole season was sold out within two hours. And that was during COVID-19 so she was only competing with fellow New Zealanders for the hut bookings as overseas visitors were unable to travel to New Zealand.
If you are considering hiking the Milford Track check the DOC website to see when bookings will be open and make a diary note to ensure you go online at the opening date and time to ensure you are able to book the huts for the dates you require. However, we came across two fellow hikers who had secured tickets just days before the walk as people had pulled out. So it’s worth checking the website if you can drop everything and do the walk at short notice!
So, the next few months were spent trying to work out what equipment, footwear, clothing, backpack, and food I would take whilst trying to keep the weight of the backpack to an absolute minimum!
SHOES OR BOOTS? -The biggest dilemma!
THE MIRACLE REMEDY- Trail Running Shoes and Waterproof Socks!
I can’t tell you how many painful walks I’ve been on and how much of an impact having sore feet has on my enjoyment of the walk. On the Queen Charlotte Track in the Marlborough Sounds, I took a pair of boots and a pair of shoes and struggled with both. I ended up wearing one boot and one shoe and was still suffering. I had underestimated how swollen my feet would get in the boots and this resulted in my toes and the widest parts of my feet really suffering. I was miserable!
A LOT OF RESEARCH
I was really concerned about finding suitable footwear for this 4-day hike when I would also be having to carry a backpack. I did a lot of research! All the websites I visited stated "You must wear a good pair of boots to protect your ankles" and "waterproof boots are a must." But my question was "How did boots actually protect your ankles? Was this just a myth? Had studies been done on whether wearing boots as opposed to shoes lessened the chance of an ankle injury?" and I could not find a scientific answer.
THE SUCCESSFUL CONCLUSION
After much deliberation, and even more research and trial and error, and against all advice, I finally bought a pair of trail running shoes and waterproof socks and the results were nothing short of MIRACULOUS. The waterproof socks were totally waterproof and my feet stayed dry even after walking through two streams. My feet felt wonderful the entire four days. No pain or sore feet (other than the expected pain of having walked for up to eight hours a day).
Check this post out about the problem of hiking boots versus trial shoes or trainers. You will find all the information and the pros and cons of both to help you make your decision. https://www.somanyplacessolittletime.com/hiking-boots-versus-trail-shoes
MACPAC CASCADE 75L
I borrowed a friend’s Macpac Cascade 75L backpack which was fantastic. (Thanks Latonia!). I had originally tried to cram all of my stuff into a 50L lightweight backpack but everything was so tightly packed and the soft backpack got a bit bent out of shape so would have been quite uncomfortable I think.
The Macpac backpack was VERY heavy (about 2kg) compared to my 50L (about 500gm) as it was much more substantial but as far as comfort went, it was FAR SUPERIOR to my lightweight one.
I think my backpack weighed about 13kg (including water) at the beginning of the track – the weight reduced as the days went by as the food was being eaten.
SLEEPING BAG or not?
I took my feather sleeping bag. We’d had discussions about whether or not we even take a sleeping bag at all, as the overall weight would be significantly reduced if we didn’t take one. We thought we could just wear all our clothing and be fine given that we were doing the walk in the middle of summer on 7-10 February.
After much discussion, we finally decided to take our sleeping bags, and we were very glad we did as a massive front came through and the nights were really cold. It would have been very miserable and potentially sleepless without the comfort and warmth of our sleeping bags!
CLOTHING- As little as possible!
As far as clothing went, I took the bare minimum i.e, leggings, waterproof pants and jacket, a poncho, merino short and long sleeved shirts, down jacket, shorts, and hut wear.
PONCHO WAS AMAZING FOR KEEPING DRY!
I didn’t end up using the waterproof jacket as the poncho I'd bought at Macpac the day before the hike (Macpac Pack it Poncho) and sprayed with extra waterproofing was incredible at keeping the rain off myself and my backpack whilst allowing air to flow underneath it. I often struggle with the heat of a jacket and find myself getting very sweaty inside it. The poncho has a pocket at the front that it folds into which was quite useful to hold snacks and my camera. So, I probably wouldn't bother with the raincoat next time- just use my poncho.
AH- THE FAMOUS SANDFLIES!
I wore the waterproof pants for three of the four days due to the rain but also because of the sandflies! I found my legs didn’t get overheated or sweaty at all – the pants were perfect! I wore Lycra shorts underneath. When we stopped for lunch I had to put my socks over the pants so the sandflies wouldn’t get to my ankles!
IN THE HUTS
Clothing for whilst at the huts is also required. I used merino leggings and my ‘everything travel dress’. This dress is a quick-drying, lightweight poly material, shaped like a sack with shoulder straps and I used it as swimming togs and hut wear - very practical. A pair of jandals or light shoes (like Crocs) for the huts are also a must.
A GAME CHANGER FOR ME!
As far as equipment went, taking walking poles was a great decision. The poles were a last-minute purchase in Queenstown after a conversation with my tramping friend Tonita who swore by them.
They ended up being a game-changer on the up and downhill parts of the track. They just gave me that extra bit of balance, security and support which I was very grateful for. On the flat, I didn’t find them so useful, but I used them anyway.
You shorten them when going uphill, and lengthen them on downhills for obvious reasons.
I had never used walking poles before so it was quite a big decision to take them given how cautious I was being with weight but I’m glad I did.
I thought I should also mention that my friend also used poles for the first time and didn’t find them useful at all.
Knowing what food to take was probably the hardest decision to make given we had to feed ourselves for four days (plus have an extra day supply in case of an emergency).
Here’s what I ended up taking:
Breakfast – Quick-cook porridge (I added LSA and toasted pumpkin/sunflower/sesame seeds for protein).
Lunch – I boiled up rice in the morning and put it in a plastic food container then added a packet of flavored tuna to it – perfect lunch for me!
Dinner – on the first night I ate a large sandwich I had bought in Queenstown that morning and had carried to the hut. Given the walk on the first day is only about 5km, it seemed like a good practical thing to do to take care of the first evening meal.
The next night I had a 300gm packet of Dahl Makhani given it was heavier than the freeze-dried meals I had brought. I had left-over rice from lunch and used that with it. Delicious!!
The next two nights I had freeze-dried meals. I’m not a huge fan of these but given I wanted to be weight conscious I conformed.
The freeze-dried vegetables (corn, peas, and carrots) were an excellent way to get vegetables – I think I added them to the Dahl too.
Snacks – I divided up nuts into four separate ziplock bags so I could ration them every day. I also had some protein/fruit bars.
Electrolytes – I took electrolytes which came in handy not only for myself but a fellow traveler shared these too at the end of day three as she was totally exhausted. They perked her up.
Teabags, coffee, milk powder (I also put milk powder in the porridge to cream it up and add more protein).
I had plenty of food and a left-over freeze-dried meal as a backup.
My friend took sachets of baby food. There are some great flavors out there and they are a good way to get vegetables and other nutrients. The only downside is the weight.
Remember that your pack gets lighter as the days go on so make sure you eat your heavier foods first.
Also, remove any unnecessary packaging before the walk so you don’t have to carry any extra weight.
And take a large ziplock bag for rubbish as everything you take in, you have to take out – there are no rubbish facilities along the way.
First aid stuff (plasters, emergency blanket, insect repellant), toothbrush, toothpaste.
I took a small micro fiber cloth which I used to wash myself with on the days we couldn’t
swim due to the cold weather.
Water – I took a bladder and used about 2-3L a day.
IMPORTANT TIP- ANTI CHAFE CREAM!
Next time, I would definitely take a tube of anti-chafe cream! I hadn’t anticipated the pain of skin-on-skin rub (or as my fellow walker called it ‘Chub Rub’). Fortunately, my friend had some I was able to use otherwise I would have been in agony!
Other than that – there was nothing I would change.
PART B: THE MILFORD TRACK HIKing EXPERIENCE!
The DOC huts were great and had single bunks with mattresses.
I took a pillowcase and put clothing inside to use as a pillow (I took a thin down jacket which came in handy due to how cold it was and also doubled beautifully as a pillow). Ear plugs were a must and I also used an eye mask.
The huts provide gas cookers so all you need are some pots to cook with. The huts provide dishwashing liquid too.
The huts had flushable toilets and sinks in the bathrooms – fantastic!!
The water from the kitchen taps was totally fine to drink and I used this water to fill up my water bladder each day.
The DOC Rangers from each hut were informative and entertaining. They gave a talk each night giving us a weather update and advising what we could expect from the next leg of the track.
There were also drop-loos dotted along the tracks.
The friendly South Island Robin
DOC information says The Milford Track is 53.5 km overall but I seem to remember it being about 54 or 55km? I’m pretty sure we walked somewhat further past the 53km post.
I was surprised at how flat the walk was.
I think we finished each day’s walk over the average time as given by DOC. This was due to us walking slowly, taking photos, watching birds, and generally stuffing around!
DAY 1: Glade Wharf to Clinton Hut -5km - 1 to 1.5 hours
Pleasant walk through beautiful beech forest alongside the Clinton River to Clinton Hut.
Day One – This is a very easy and stunning flat walk from where the boat drops you off. It's only about 5km to the first hut- the Clinton Hut. We had beautiful weather on this section of the walk and had an amazingly refreshing swim in the stream at the end of the walk.
We were thrilled to be greeted by South Island Robins who came so close to us on the track – they weren’t unsettled by our presence at all. We also saw Bellbirds, Tomtits, Weka, Kaka and a variety of other beautiful native birds.
DAY 2: Clinton Hut to Mintaro Hut - 16.5 km- 5 to 6 hours
A gradual climb to the Mackinnon Pass
Day Two – started with a really lovely flat walk through the beech forest following the Clinton River. It then starts going uphill up the Mackinnon Pass and goes about a third of the way up the Pass to the second hut- the Mintaro Hut.
It started raining at about midday on Day 2 and was quite wet when we arrived at the hut. Kelly in our group got a wasp sting near the beginning of day 2 which threw her a bit and slowed her down. It was quite an effort to get to the end and we were knackered!
The scenery was amazing. At this time there were no streams running into the Clinton River as it had been dry for about 16 days prior to this so the rain was welcome and made for a more interesting walk.
This section is about 16.5 km and the official DOC guide says it will take about 6 hours. I think it took us about 7 hours.
DAY 3: Mintaro Hut to Dumpling Hut -14 km - 6 to 7 hours
Our favorite day! Such amazing vegetation- alpine garden.
Day Three – This was the best day of all in my opinion! We climbed the rest of the Pass taking us up to the Mackinnon Pass shelter at about 1100m high and then over the other side. The climb was gradual and the change in scenery was stunning. We climbed above the tree line and found ourselves surrounded by alpine flora and fauna I’d not seen before – it was incredibly beautiful!
We stopped for lunch at the shelter at the top of the Pass - the Mackinnon Pass Shelter. There is a gas cooker in the shelter and a great toilet with spectacular views!
Then, the descent! This took seemingly forever but we were treated with stunning scenery that kept changing all the way down. Waterfalls kept us company as we descended alongside them. Once at the bottom of the descent, we walked a wee bit further along swampy land until we reached the third hut -the Dumpling Hut.
DAY 4: Dumpling Hut to Sandfly Point -18 km- 5 to 6 hours
Swing bridges, stunning waterfalls, stream crossing & SANDFLIES!
Day Four – There was a bit of pressure to make sure we kept pace on this last stretch due to the boats meeting us at the end of the track at certain times. We timed ourselves by the distance marker pegs to see how we were pacing. I think we left the huts at about 7.30am and got to the end of the track where our boat was waiting for us bang on time.
We had a good lunch stop but were ravaged by sandflies at the shelter
*Top tip – after we had lunch we saw one group of walkers having lunch by the stream near the shelter where there was a breeze and there were NO sandflies!!!
There were plenty of stream crossings via swing bridges and so many stunning waterfalls and photo opportunities along the way.
GETTING THERE AND BACK AGAIN
We used the company ‘Fiordland Outdoors’ who organized a bus from Queenstown to Te Anau and another bus from Te Anau to Te Anau Downs where a boat took us on about an hour’s journey across the lake to the beginning of the track.
We were hoping to fly back to Queenstown with Glenorchy Air. We pre-organized this on the understanding that if the weather was unsuitable for the plane to fly, then they would arrange with Fiordland Outdoors to pick us up by bus.
Unfortunately for us, the weather wasn’t great for flying so we were met at the end of the track by a water taxi, then taken to the Milford Lodge for a hot drink before being taken to the Bus Terminal to get our bus back to Queenstown.
It was entirely seamless given that they’ve been doing this daily for quite sometime!!!
Overall, I thoroughly recommend doing this walk. Being in unique NZ bush, not being able to access the internet or phone, pushing yourself physically – it’s just superb for the soul!
You don’t need to be a super-fit walker – to be honest, I did two three hour walks a week prior to this walk and handled it fine.
I have been reasonably active my whole life however so I wouldn’t recommend doing this if you have no prior walking experience or aren’t reasonable fit.
Definitely look into the trail running shoes / waterproof socks combo – your feet will love you for it!