In the South Island tramping huts provide accommodation for much of the trail. For most of these you can use a backcountry pass purchased in advance from the Department of Conservation (DoC) for $108 for six months or $144 for twelve (as at Nov 2022). 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 26 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 $37/$56 and for which the hut pass is not valid (book online for that). So if you are only doing the North Island then its not worth hut pass, but it definitely is for the South Island.
Note that the hut pass is not valid from 1 Oct to 30 April for a few huts. You will need hut tickets for at least two of them (a serviced hut ticket plus a regular one for each) in the Nelson Lakes National Park – see the Tasman-Marlborough notes. And the Greenstone Hut covered in the Southland notes also needs the two tickets. Peach Cove Hut in Northland needs a ticket but you may not being stay there. So you will need to plan ahead as to which huts you will stay in and buy the tickets from a DoC office in advance. On the other hand, if you just camp at these huts the hut pass will cover you.
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 on the trail where there is no hut, so a tent is necessary. There are at least seven such points in the South Island but many more in the North Island. It is worth thinking how many times you will be camping and choosing your level of tent comfort, weight and price accordingly. If you are minimising camping then no point carrying an expensive, heavy, luxury tent around. A bivvy bag may even be an option to consider. If you are only camping rarely then the chances are that you won’t get a rainy night (if you check weather charts you can work out the probability for different locations – see the Weather and Hazards page). But if you plan to camp a lot, then clearly it’s worth getting a really good tent.
Also, 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. 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.)
Where Can You Camp?
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, nor 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.
You can’t legally just camp anywhere in NZ. There has been a big crack-down in recent years on ‘freedom camping’, which is generally taken to mean campervans, but also includes staying in a tent (under the 2011 Freedom Camping Act). This Act says you can’t camp within 200m of a formed road, a vehicle accessible area (a car park, say), the low tide line on beaches, or a Great Walks track. However, you can otherwise in general camp on Conservation land, though another piece of government legislation, the Reserves Act, prohibits camping on certain types of such land: scenic or recreation reserves unless there is an area specifically for camping. This DoC page on freedom camping has more information and links.
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. Plus, they are easy enough to find either by a Google search or by looking on Airbnb, Booking.com, BookaBach, etc.
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 $35 and you get 10% on bookings, so you need about nine to break even and I count 12 BBH’s on the route at Nov 2022.) 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 a discount on a DoC annual hut pass, though not on the 6 month pass. There are 7 YHA’s on the trail, plus one at Hanmer Springs, which people often go to for resupply).
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.
Also, the lack of international backpackers due to Covid-19 restrictions has decimated the hostel industry. Before Covid, NZ has 385 hostels. But with a shock announcement late November 2021 that YHA will be closing 11 hostels (including Te Anau, Wanaka, both in Queenstown, Wellington and Auckland!), along with many other closures, saw the total reduced to 187, less than half.
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 or tourist hot spots it can be worth checking Airbnb, BookaBach or Booking.com 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