In the South Island tramping huts provide accommodation for much of the trail. Most of these need a backcountry pass purchased in advance from the Department of Conservation (DoC) for $92 for six months or $122 for twelve (as at Jan 2019). You can purchase single night tickets too, but this is much less economic if you are going to be staying in most of the huts. In the South Island you could be staying in up to 28 huts at $5/night, and six at $15/night if you pay per hut. In the North Island there are at most eight huts, all of which are $5, except one at $10 and Mangatepopo Hut at $36 and for which the hut pass is not valid. So if you are only doing the North Island then its not worth hut pass, but it definitely is for the South Island.
The huts are basic. They usually have bunks with plastic mattresses, though some have sleeping platforms and mattresses, which allows couples to sleep side-by-side. There used to be some sort of male and female segregation of sleeping areas but these days it is up to you to choose where to sleep (and identifying who the snorers are might be your first consideration). There are no showers and the toilets are long-drops, aka pit toilets (bring your own toilet paper). The DoC Great Walks huts generally have wardens, gas cooking, and sometimes solar powered lighting and flush toilets. But that’s not the case for the huts you will be using, except the Greenstone Hut, in the South Island (flush toilets), and Mangatepopo Hut (gas cooking), in the North, both of which have wardens. And just to be clear, even at these two huts there will be no-one to cook your food for you, and no-one to clean up your mess: it’s your job to wipe the benches down, turn the mattresses on their sides, sweep the floor, empty the fire ashes and makes sure the door and windows are securely closed when you leave.
Huts generally have either a rainwater tank or a nearby stream. Such water is generally safe to drink but you may prefer to take no chances and boil or purify it. Most huts have a fireplace, sometimes in the form of a wood burning stove, but these should be used only when needed so there is always some fuel for the poor souls who might arrive tired, wet and frozen on a dark and stormy night. If you burn some wood it is good etiquette to cut or gather at least as much as you’ve used, and especially to set aside some twigs for kindling in a dry place, as dry kindling can be hard to find in pouring rain.
Other, hopefully obvious, hut etiquette points: don’t walk inside in dirty boots or in wet clothes; don’t party all night if others are trying to sleep; put your gear in the dining area (if the bunk rooms are separate) if you are planning to get up before everyone else so you don’t drive people crazy rustling plastic bags and flashing your torch about before dawn; and finally, take all your rubbish with you (if each person took one piece of someone else’s rubbish with them the huts would all be rubbish free!)
There are a few locations where there is no hut, so a tent is necessary. There are six or seven such points on the guide as written here. As you will be carrying the tent all the way just for such a small number of uses, it is worth going for the minimum level of comfort you can handle in order to save weight (and money). A bivvy bag may be an option to consider. With so few nights out, the chances that many of them will be under wet skies is low, but not assured (if you check weather charts you can work out the probability for different locations – see the Weather and Hazards page).
However, as the TA grows in popularity it will be increasingly difficult to find a bunk in some of the huts. That’s where a tent is useful too. And as you are going north and most of the TA people are going south, you can never be sure how many people are heading towards the same hut you are. On holidays or weekends you may also find a hut full with a tramping club party, though most of the TA is not on the more popular routes (the Greenstone Hut and Nelson Lakes being key exceptions.)
Camping outside a DoC hut is free of charge, except for the serviced huts, of which there are seven you might use over the whole TA and which cost $5 to camp. Note that not all huts are built on level ground, not have much open space around them. Also that you should let people in the hut have first priority for cooking and eating space because they have paid for it and you may be staying free, or paying very little.
Once in towns or settlements there are usually hostels and camp grounds within easy walking distance of the trail. There are usually plenty of more expensive places to stay as well but it is not so often that TA-ers are likely to use these, so I have not bothered to list them.
You can get a discount at the BBH network of hostels but it isn’t worth it if you are only doing the South Island part of the TA (the card costs $45 and you get a one-off discount on one online booking of $15, and then around 10% on other bookings, so you need about eight to break even.) Likewise with the Youth Hostels membership ($25 for YHA membership, and 10% discount off accommodation, requiring about 6 bookings to break even, but note that you also get $22 off a DoC annual hut pass, though not on the 6 month pass). The YHA Low Carbon Traveller discount doesn’t require any fees upfront, and gives you a whopping 32.5% discount, but you need to make an application and meet certain conditions. Plus you will be walking to only two of the four participating locations on the trail.
Getting a bunk in a town can be as much of an issue as getting one on the trail. New Zealand is currently undergoing a boom in tourism and accommodation is often booked out well ahead. This is a problem for TA-ers as you often can’t guarantee when you will turn up. However, a cancelled booking typically only costs 10% of one nights accommodation if made 24 hrs ahead. So that’s just $3.50 or $4 for a hostel. Better to make the booking and call or email if you aren’t going to make it. Usually you will have cellphone coverage 3 or 4 days ahead. Of course, if you are going to be a day later for one hostel, then this will flow through to all the following ones, so the cost might be higher than I’ve suggested, but major tourist centres like Te Anau, Queenstown, Wanaka, Tekapo and Arthur’s Pass can easily fill up a week or more ahead. And small centres like Lake Hawea or St Arnaud, with limited accommodation, can be booked up with a wedding party or sports event.
That leaves camp grounds. There are motor camps, typically with a kitchen containing stoves and refrigerators plus a laundry, a shower block and toilets. Many have cabins as well, though these are not so economical for just one person. Cabins tend to go fast, as their numbers in camp grounds are limited but generally you can find a space for a small tent without booking. The summer school holidays are when camp grounds are at maximum occupancy. Then there are basic camp grounds, usually run by the local council or DoC, and with toilet facilities only. There will be an honesty box for the fee, so carry some cash, and someone may come round to check that people have paid.
Free wi-fi is universal at hostels, and motor camps increasingly have it as well.
Motels, Hotels, Cottages, Rooms
These are generally more expensive than all of the above, but for a couple or good friends sharing a room can work out competitively compared to hostels. In some places they may be all that is available. Or you might simply like a bit of luxury now and then. Country hotels, usually with a bar attached, can be a bit run down, but cheap. Beware the ones that have a band playing on Friday or Saturday nights – you mightn’t get much sleep. Motels are found in every town. But in out-of-the-way places it can be worth checking Airbnb or BookaBach for rooms or cottages. Occasionally there are cheap ones. (A bach, also known as a crib in Southland, is a holiday cottage.)
Header photo: Camp Stream Hut, Two Thumb Range