A first-timer’s guide to hiking the Milford Track
If hiking the Milford Track has been on your bucket list, we’re here to answer all of your questions and provide you with the information you need to book with confidence.
Learn how to book your track accommodation and transport whilst understanding what to expect whilst on this incredible tramp.
The Milford Track is often described as one of the finest walks in the world.
Its popularity is proven year after year when tickets for the Great Walk summer season (which runs from November to April) sell out in minutes.
It’s a bit like trying to get tickets for an incredibly exclusive concert since there are only 40 spaces available each night.
There is no doubt, however, that this world-class tramp lives up to the hype.
If you’re looking for a detailed introduction to this incredible tramp, you’re in the right place. Join us as we share everything you need to know about hiking the Milford Track for the first time.
This post is written by Meghan Maloney. Megan is an acclaimed New Zealand landscape photographer that has travelled extensively throughout our beautiful country. Having seen the most beautiful parts of Aotearoa, she’s pleased to share her insights into the Milford Track with you all. Unless otherwise stated, all photos shared in this post were taken by her.
Hiking the Milford Track: Everything You Need to Know About New Zealand’s Most Famous Walk
Even with international borders shut (which should result in less demand), this tramp is just as popular as ever and remains one of the best things to do in Te Anau!
We were well-prepared for Milford Track to come online for the new season, but still only just managed to secure tickets for late April – this meant we’d be walking in the very last week of the season.
We were a bit nervous about how cold it might be, but we weren’t about to complain – we actually had tickets, and hiking the Milford Track had been on my bucket list forever.
Fiordland has the most extraordinary climate. With annual rainfall more than double that of the Amazon rainforest, it rains all year round. Therefore, it doesn’t really matter what month you hike, you’re likely to get very wet at some point during your four days on the track.
The quicker you are to embrace this as being part of the Milford experience, the more likely you are to actually enjoy stomping through puddles for hours on end. Plus, you’ll have the pleasure of watching temporary waterfalls cascading down the cliffs all around you.
And oh, if you really enjoy walking/hiking/tramping, download the AllTrails app. It’s very helpful for seasoned hikers and even first time visitors who want to hike around the country.
Even in the pouring rain, Milford is spectacular.
After all, if you haven’t had a day like this on the Milford Track, have you really even experienced it?!
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Great Walks in New Zealand
New Zealand is currently home to ten Great Walks. Three in the North Island, five in the South Island and one on Stewart Island.
In order of north to south, they are:
- Lake Waikaremoana Track: 3-4 days, 46km
- Tongariro Northern Circuit (including the Tongariro Alpine Crossing): 4 days, 41km
- Whanganui Journey (the only river journey in a series that is otherwise made up of hikes): 5 days, 145km
- Abel Tasman Coast Track: 5 days, 51km
- Heaphy Track: 4-6 days, 78.4km
- Paparoa Track (the newest Great Walk): 2-3 days, 56km
- Routeburn Track: 3 days, 32km
- Milford Track: 4 days, 53.5km
- Kepler Track: 4 days, 60km
- Rakiura Track: 3 days, 32km
These trails weave their way through some of the most spectacular scenery in the country.
However, plenty of other hikes in Aotearoa are incredibly impressive yet aren’t included in the Great Walk list. So, what makes a Great Walk a Great Walk?
Great Walks tracks are well formed and easy to follow. While most people prefer to explore on their own terms, guided trips offer a bit more comfort. Great Walks are accessible from major towns that are well serviced by local operators and accommodation and transport providers.Department of Conservation
Where is the Milford Track?
The Milford Track is located in the spectacular Fiordland National Park in Southland.
Te Anau is the closest town to the departure point of this walk (a 25 minute drive), but Queenstown is still relatively close (just shy of 2.5 hours away).
The trip departs from Te Anau Downs and takes 4 days to complete. In this time, hikers cover a total of 53.5km.
Booking the Milford Track
How to Book Tickets for the Milford Track
Tickets for the Milford Track go on sale around mid-June for the upcoming November – April season. Based on previous years, you can assume that all tickets will likely sell out in 15-30 minutes. Check the Department of Conservation (DOC) booking site well in advance to see the exact day and time they go live.
When the day comes, you’ll want to camp out by your computer. When it comes to booking the most popular Great Walk of them all, if you snooze, you lose!
Ideally you’ll set up an account on the online DOC system in advance of this date so you can be logged in ready to go when the time comes.
We recommend having more than one person ready to book the tickets. Also, try to be flexible with your dates if possible – locking into a short timeframe can quickly become problematic when dates are in such hot demand.
If required, you can always book dates and release them within 24 hours without any cancellation penalties. Doing so gives you the chance to confirm your travel plans.
Currently, the huts cost approximately $80pp per night for NZ adults whilst kids under 17 are free (but you’ll still need to book their place). International visitors are charged approximately $110 a night.
You’ll need to have these funds available on your credit card at the time of booking.
Budget for between $240 and $330 in total for your accommodation on the Milford Track.
How to Cancel or Change Your Booking
Fortunately, it is possible to change or cancel booking to hike the Milford Track.
Given the fact that many people face the choice of either booking less-than-ideal dates or missing out, this gives you the chance to secure the date available and then change it out should a more suitable one become available.
Cancellation fees are as follows:
It is, however, important to note that bookings are not transferrable by name. If a member of your party is no longer able to travel, they will need to cancel their ticket altogether.
Modifying an existing booking may result in a penalty. Any fees (and indeed, the ability to change rather than cancel) are based on your original booking and your new dates. If you plan on changing the dates of your booking, it is best to check the Great Walk cancellation and modification policies which are available online.
What If I’ve Missed Out on a Milford Track Booking?
If you missed out on securing passes when they first went live, you may still be in luck!
When people cancel or change their bookings these newly-available dates are released back into the system.
If you are interested in hiking the Milford Track (or any other Great Walk, for that matter), ensure you check the booking site periodically for cancellations made by other trampers.
Transport to the Milford Track
So, you’ve made the decision to walk the Milford Track and have managed to secure tickets for appropriate dates – congratulations!
Next, you’ll have transport to organise.
Unlike some other Great Walks, the Milford Track requires a fair amount of planning and logistics – plenty of support is available here though so it needn’t be difficult.
Milford can only be walked in one direction starting from Te Anau Downs – this is 30 minutes north of Te Anau. You’ll have the choice of either joining a transport service or using your own car (and paying for a relocation service).
Getting to Te Anau Downs
Transport can be arranged, both from Queenstown and Te Anau into Te Anau Downs.
Joining a tour negates the need for a rental car and will allow you to sit back and relax both before and after your walk.
These packages also include the required boat transfers, making them a one-stop booking solution.
Though they suit everyone, they are particularly good value for people travelling solo or in small groups.
What can you do if you’d prefer to drive your own car?
That’s where car relocation services come in.
After booking this service in advance, you’ll drive to Te Anau Downs, board your boat (which will need to be booked and paid separately) and begin your walk.
By the time you complete hiking the Milford Track, your car will be waiting for you in Milford.
Car relocation works best for people who are travelling in groups, with their own car (should you be keen to drive yourself).
Of course, many people travelling in groups still appreciate the benefits or letting someone else organise their transport for them – in this case, we’d recommend booking the transfers listed above.
Boat Transfers – An Essential Part of Your Milford Track Transportation
As well as booking the huts (which range from $80-110/night for adults, depending on your nationality) you also need to book boat transfers at the start and end of the track. These cost approximately $140 per person.
If you plan to book a Milford Track transport package, you will not need to book boat transfers independently. These packages are a complete transport solution for hiking parties, providing road and water transport. You will, however, need to book your accommodation independently; we recommend doing this before organising transport.
Accommodation on the Milford Track
Staying in Huts
Staying in a Department of Conservation (DOC) hut on a Great Walk is likely to be more comfortable than you might expect.
Sure, you’ll have to go without hot showers and you do have to bring your own bedding, food and cooking utensils, but on the Milford Track the huts have flushing toilets, drinkable water, gas cookers and mattresses to sleep on so the basics are most certainly provided.
Whilst living in a hut with up to 20 other people you’re bound to make some new friends.
Let’s be honest though, you’re also likely to come across a snorer or two… though as the days progress and you get more tired, the less you notice this.
To be safe, we recommend taking ear plugs to help drown out the noise or having headphones hand (and some music loaded up).
The Different Huts on the Track
Each of the huts on the track is quite different – all of them are comfortable and fit for purpose though.
The first hut on the track, Clinton Hut has larger bunk rooms, sleeping 20 in each, with a separate dining room across the verandah and a short walk to the toilets.
The new Mintaro Hut (we were the 3rd group to ever stay in this as it had only just opened) has been built as an all-in-one lodge with a large dining area with high ceilings. It has smaller bunk rooms with only 10 per room, and toilets which are situated outside, along a short covered walkway.
The final hut on the Milford Track, Dumpling Hut also has smaller bunkrooms and a dining room up a short path. The pièce de résistance here is the large drying room which comes in very handy if you’ve spent days walking in the rain and have a lot of gear needing to dry out!
Can I Sleep in a Tent on the Milford Track?
Some Great Walks will allow trampers to camp overnight, however, it isn’t possible to sleep in a tent on the Milford Track.
All Great Walk tracks require trampers to pitch tents either within designated campsites or a minimum of 500m off the trail.
The Milford Track does not have any designated campsites and it’s all but impossible to travel 500m off the track to find a spot to pitch your tent.
With this in mind, staying in a hut really is your only viable option on this hike.
How Fit Do I Need to be to Walk the Milford Track?
Anyone with average fitness can do this hike, but it isn’t without its challenges… it is, after all, a four day hike.
Thankfully, day one and the first half of day two are pretty flat, reasonably wide and easy.
Day three is definitely the most challenging due to a 500 metre ascent followed by a 1,000 metre descent. Ouch! As you would expect though, this day also provides incredible views.
As if to reward your hard work the day beforehand, day four is reasonably flat again which provides a nice way to end this world-class tramp.
To ensure you enjoy the tramp and finish injury-free, we do of course recommend training in the months leading up to your booking.
The best way to train for the Milford Track is to do several walks of 4-6 hours. Pick hilly locations – ideally ones that that have at least 500 metres of ascent and descent.
If you’re able to carry a weighted pack you’ll also be better off, emulating what you’ll be carrying on the hike.
Of course, ensure that you’ve broken your hiking boots/shoes in too – wearing them on your training walks can help with this.
To make your long-distance hike easier, we recommend hitting the trail with hiking poles. One is good, but two is even better.
Not only do they take the strain off your knees on the downhill, but they also help keep your balance, particularly if you are dodging water or rock hopping in some of the trickier sections.
Did you know? Wearing hiking pole loops around your wrist can cause you to break bones (or poles) if you fall. Because of this, it’s important to read up about the correct way to wear them – or leave them off your wrist altogether to be safe.
Milford Scenery – What to Expect on the Trail
Fiordland has an incredible sense of scale and mood like nowhere else in New Zealand – and this track walks you right through the middle of it all!
The Milford Track journey essentially takes you through two river valleys and over a 1,000 metre high pass in-between.
There’s nothing like walking below giant peaks with waterfalls cascading and mist swirling to make you feel like you’ve just stepped into a scene out of Jurassic World.
There is a reason this is widely considered one of the most memorable hikes in the world.
If you are lucky enough to take in the amazing 360 degree views from Mackinnon Pass (on day three) you’ll feel an incredible sense of accomplishment at where you’ve been, and awe at where you are heading next.
So many people miss out on visibility from the top of the Pass, so if you do, count yourself extremely fortunate.
After the pass on the third day, the 1,000 metre descent into the Arthur Valley is long but there’s such a variety of scenery that you don’t really notice.
In fact, the journey down the staircases, beside Roaring Burn, is one of the most unique parts of the whole hike.
There the forest is full of moss and ferns – it simply is magical.
On this day, you also have the option to take the side route to Sutherland Falls, long thought to be New Zealand’s tallest waterfall at 580 metres, and certainly the most accessible of our tallest waterfalls.
It adds another 2 hours onto what is already the most challenging day, but if you can do it, you really should. Standing at the base, and feeling the power of these falls is simply awe inspiring.
The last day of the track (day four) has two beautiful waterfalls (Mackay Falls and Giant Gate Falls) with multiple river crossings. Even if you are on a time restriction to catch the boat from Sandfly Point back to Milford Sound, there’s still plenty of time to pause and soak in the views along the way.
One our last day, we experienced torrential rain that didn’t let up for the whole 18km that we covered in 6 hours, so we have very few photos from this day.
I’ve never been so wet, but I’ve also never felt so alive and adventurous wading through streams and skipping over waterfalls on the track.
Of course, knowing we had dry clothes, a hot shower and good food waiting for us at Milford Sound Lodge afterwards helped keep the spirits up too!
Birdlife on the Track
There is a fantastic array of birdlife in this beautiful part of Fiordland National Park, thanks to the huge efforts that have gone into restoring the quality of birdlife over the past 10-20 years.
In 2000, there were only 10 pairs of whio (New Zealand’s rare blue duck) counted in the Clinton Valley, but thanks to the massive ongoing pest control operations in the area, this has been turned around. At last census there were an impressive 90 pairs!
Did you know? The whio (or blue duck) is found on the $10 note in New Zealand. Aptly, this note is also blue in colour.
We weren’t lucky enough to see any whio whilst walking, but we had an awesome experience on day two, not long after leaving Clinton Hut.
We were delighted to come upon a glade in the forest with bellbirds singing in a deafening chorus whilst robins hopped happily underfoot.
Whilst walking the Milford Track you may also see kea, kererū (huge wood pigeon), tomtits, kākāriki (green parrots), rifleman, ruru (morepork), weka and more.
The birdlife along this trail really is one of many highlights.
There are plenty of online gear lists that we recommend you use as packing guide.
The Department of Conservation List is an excellent starting point but we would suggest making the following additions.
- A really good quality waterproof rain jacket and waterproof pants – if you’re walking in rain for a whole day, staying semi-dry will improve your enjoyment levels ten-fold.
- Dry bags – you need two layers, a large one to use as a full pack liner (a black rubbish sack does the job well here) and smaller bags. These provide a way to logically separate out your gear so you don’t have to remove everything when you’re in the huts.
- Ziplock bags – a great way to store toiletries, and other small items. They also pull double-duty, working as rubbish bags. After all, what you carry in, you’re required to carry out.
- A water bladder – these are the most convenient way to drink on the go without having to take your pack off.
- Dehydrated meals – not only are they lightweight, but these days the flavours and options are so tasty (our brand of choice is Radix which is used by Olympic athletes and mountain adventurers alike).
- Heavy duty insect repellent – unless you are walking in very cold conditions like we were, the sandflies are guaranteed to drive you crazy in Fiordland. But you don’t have to let them eat you alive – covering every part of your exposed body with repellent definitely helps. Wearing long sleeves and pants will also help reduce your exposure.
- A lightweight cookset – this is a game changer for space and weight. For two people we used the Sea to Summit X-11 cookset. This comes with a collapsible silicone kettle and two cups which fit inside. It only weighs 300g and packs down to 35mm. It’s the perfect way to make your morning cup of coffee.
- Headphones or ear plugs – to drown out snoring.
- A power bank – while this can be a heavy addition, it does allow you to charge your phone (or even your camera) so you can keep taking photos throughout the hike.
- If you’re a serious photographer, a wide angle lens should be your first choice if you are conserving weight, since the deep valleys and high peaks really need a wide lens to be able to fit in the whole scene. You’ll also want to pack your favourite lightweight camera accessories.
- Finally, invest in walking poles and do some practice hikes with your backpack on to prepare – your body will thank you for it later!
When you’ve been wanting to complete a hike your whole life, can the reality live up to expectation?
For us, it absolutely did.
Even though our weather was far from perfect (it was cold and we did get wet every single day while hiking), our experience walking the Milford Track really was everything we could have hoped for.
To see such incredible scenery in constantly changing moods and light, with fresh snow on the peaks, and the mist and waterfalls creating atmosphere in the valleys, I wouldn’t change our experience for the world.
Will you take on the challenge of walking the Milford Track?
We certainly recommend it!
Interested in Other South Island Walks?
- Our favourite Queenstown hikes
- Tramp Mount Alfred (Glenorchy)
- Walk to Lake Alta (Queenstown)
- Wonderful Wānaka walks
- The best day walks in Christchurch
- A first-timer’s guide to the Milford Track
- Worthwhile Nelson hiking trails.
Post by Meghan Maloney.