This is a big topic on which much is already written, many opinions held, and where personal preferences reign. So here’s my two cents worth, but what works for me may not for you. See also my clothing page for other sorts of gear.
First of all, consider weight. On a regular hiking trip you will probably be walking less time each day, and for only a few days, so you don’t have to put up with a heavy pack for long. That’s not the case here. Pare weight back as much as you can. Check out lightweight hiking websites. Think about the stuff you really need vs the simply nice-to-have. Do you really need a book? Liquid shampoo? A sheath knife? An inflatable pillow? More than one cooking container? Get some scales and weigh every single item so you see how much each contributes to the total. A 100g T-shirt, cellphone, or whatever doesn’t seem like much on its own, but they quickly add up.
A 2013 MSc thesis¹ that surveyed hikers on the Appalachian Trail found that hikers with lighter pack weights tended to be finishers, and that all hikers progressively lightened their packs as they discarded stuff they realised they didn’t really need. The conclusion was that you shouldn’t carry more than 20% of your body weight, with a maximum for any person of 30 lb (13.6 kg). The average pack weight for completers was 18% of body weight. Pack weight also correlated with back, shoulder and torso injury.
Before getting into discussing some specific items, I’m going to put my gear list out there, but as I say, personal preference does come into it a lot. My pack base weight was 7.4 kg (16.3 lb). In practice I was carrying about 10.2 kg on my back including food and water at the start of each section, though I did often start off sections with some heavy fresh food, so maybe it was a bit more than that. I think this is quite light, and due in part to a light tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, cooking gear and, once I’d eaten the freshies, food. But let me say that the tent wouldn’t have stood up to a storm, I was freezing in my sleeping bag on several nights, and the sleeping mat wasn’t as comfortable as inflatable ones. So 11.5 kg would see you a lot more comfortable. Still, there are people who go lighter than my 7.4 kg base weight. I could have left out the book, water filter (only used it a few times), and maybe gaiters, and got an alcohol burner that could cope with wind so as not to be bothered with gas.
So you can download my gear list as a spreadsheet and use it to add in your own gear.
Tents, Sleeping Bags and Mats
Tents: You can get away with not camping very often on the South Island TA, so there is no point carrying a large, heavy tent for the whole trip when you might use it only 7 or 8 times. In fact, with careful planning, spending more than average on accommodation, and maybe good luck, you might be able to avoid taking a tent entirely in the South Island. Issues to consider are full huts at peak time, when having an option of camping outside is useful, and full cabins in some camping grounds such as the one at Arrowtown and at some backpackers. You can get round these issues by going off-peak and booking well ahead. Then there are specific spots where camping is difficult to avoid: in Canterbury, Lake Middleton (stay at expensive Ohau Lodge or sleep under the stars?); Harper Village (no easy alternative, unless you choose not to walk from Lake Coleridge Village to Harper and catch a ride instead, or sleep out); and in Marlborough-Nelson at Pelorus River (sleep out or hitch/bus to Havelock to stay and hitch/bus back next day?) The North Island is a different kettle of fish though and there you can expect to be camping quite often and come to appreciate the benefits of having a good tent.
You could consider tarpaulin tent types which dispense with an inner enclosure and use walking poles for support, as tent poles are a large part of the weight of a tent. However, note that NZ conditions are often wet and windy, so a tarp tent can be breezy and not as dry and warm as a tub-floor tent. And it offers no protection against sandflies or mosquitos. I made a very cheap and light tarp style tent out of Tyvek weighing about 250g (plus pegs, plus Tyvek groundsheet = 535g total). That’s using a lighter weight variety than the Tyvek used by the building industry for wall lining. I never had heavy rain or strong wind when I was camping though, so the concept remains a bit untested.
Home-made Tyvek tent
A few people have tried hammocks. These can be quite good in the New Zealand bush, as it is often very hard to find a flat, open space to pitch a tent, but bear in mind that large sections of the TA are in tree-less areas, such as Otago and Canterbury and the Ninety Mile Beach. And camping grounds rarely have suitable trees, if any. In general, a hammock will probably limit your options. Bivvy bags are another thing a few people favour, but while they save a lot of weight, I can’t see them being a very pleasant experience in heavy rain. You will also have to figure out how to protect food in your pack from possums and rodents if it won’t fit inside your bivvy.
Sleeping bag: Go for lighter and compensate for lack of warmth on occasion by wearing some clothes to bed. Down bags are lighter than synthetic in terms of weight for warmth and, just as important, crush down much smaller in your pack.
Sleeping mat: Inflatable mats are all the rage these days. They certainly offer a level of comfort undreamed of years ago, but they are expensive and heavy. The lightest is the Therm-a-Rest Neo Air XLite at 350g for the medium size and costing about NZ $310 at NZ’s Gear Shop. The Sea to Summit Ultralite, sold at Bivouac for about $100 less, is 480g, more comfortable but just too bulky and heavy for the TA in my view. The alternative are the closed cell foam pads. The Therm-a-Rest Z-lite SOL folds nicely in concertina fashion to strap easily to the outside of a pack, but is still heavy at 410g and costs NZ $85. Macpac’s 10mm thick roll-up pad is 315g and costs $20, and Kathmandu’s version is lighter (and 2mm thinner) at 240g and costs about the same. Which to buy? I would spend the money and get the Neo Air XLite if doing the North Island TA, as there is a lot of camping. But if only doing the South Island I would accept some discomfort for the relatively few nights you may be camping and get a roll mat (depending on whether you plan to keep camping to a minimum or do it regularly of course). OR, maybe consider just toughening up and sleep on bare ground! My parents tramped a lot, and there were no mats at all in their day and huts were often without mattresses. My mother recalled fellow trampers who couldn’t afford sleeping bags carrying woollen blankets and stuffing newspapers inside their clothes to keep warm at night. How soft we have become!
Kiwi trampers are gradually adopting these, often carrying one pole, but a pair of poles is essential for long distance walking like the TA. They allow you to go faster, they give you more stability on uneven ground, stabilise you on slippery patches and reduce the impact on your joints when going downhill. They could even be used to fend off hostile trampers! The twist-to-lock method of adjusting length is said to be less secure than the lever sort, but tends to result in a lighter pole. Carbon fibre sounds good in theory, but these poles are often heavier than the aluminium ones, and can break, whereas aluminium just bends and can be hammered back straight with a rock or hut axe. You don’t have to buy one of the expensive brands, though some of these do come with cork handles, which is apparently very nice to hold. One of Kathmandu’s Fizan models comes in at 158g, which is very hard to beat for weight, and it survived my South Island trek OK. When choosing a pole make sure it is the right length: bend your arms at right angles at the elbow and your hand should then grip the handle. That’s the length to set it up each day too. And when using them, rest your wrist on the strap. Google ‘using walking poles’ for more on effective technique.
Packs – Saving Weight Starts Here
Most regular packs are heavy but the good news is that manufacturers are making them lighter all the time. In early 2018 Osprey have released their Levity/Lumina packs, which weigh 830g for the 45L and 870g for the 60L versions. That’s as light as you get from a mainstream manufacturer for a multi-day hiking pack. I carried the Osprey Talon 44, as that was the lightest you could buy in New Zealand in 2016 (at about 1100g). This pack is still around and remains a very good choice. The women’s version (the Tempest) is a bit smaller at 38 to 40L and correspondingly lighter. Forty-four litres is small by Kiwi tramping standards, but you are supposed to be cutting back on carrying all that stuff you don’t really need, remember? I found the Talon 44 fine for size myself, and it wore well, but on the longest section, over the Richmond Range, where I had to carry about 9 days worth of food it was full to bursting point.
But what of the Levity/Lumina (the Levity is variously claimed to be either unisex, or a mens pack, and the Lumina suited to women)? It has generally been reviewed as having a good harness but fragile, lacking features (Osprey have omitted many extras, such as hip pockets, in order to save weight), and suitable only for light loads. Certainly the fabric doesn’t look like it would stand up to bush-bashing or to the brutal treatment sometimes offered up by transport operators, and the lid buckles are too tiny for large, cold, or gloved hands. The price is about NZ $100 more than the Talon and as of March 2018 only the 60L version seems to be sold in NZ.
Another Osprey alternative to the Talon is the slightly larger Exos (female version Eja), a 48L pack weighing 1190g. This is popular with long distance walkers for its balance of features (including a trampoline back mesh), weight and price, but it is not sold in NZ.
If you need 50L (and it is carrying a tent that may push you in this direction) then Kathmandu’s Altai is 1.34g and comes in a 100g lighter women’s version. Macpac had a lightweight pack, the Tasman 45 (45L) at a claimed 1.1kg, in 2016 but seemed to have dropped it quickly and now have the Fiord at 40L and 1.04kg. That’s a shame, as the Tasman had a nice mesh panel on the back that kept the pack separated from your back (no cold wet T shirt from sweat). A friend bought the Tasman and loves it, so nothing wrong with it and you may be able to find one second hand on TradeMe or elsewhere. The Macpac Fiord looks similar to an Osprey but has bigger hip pockets, which is a definite plus in my view, as there is a lot of stuff you want to have at hand without having to take the pack off – maps, the guides, sunglasses, cellphone/camera, museli bars/scroggin, etc. In 2017 Macpac have brought out the Pursuit 40 Alpine Series made from the incredibly light and strong dyneema fabric. That pack is 37L and weights just 610g, but is a very pared back climbing pack, with no mesh back, no frame, and no padded hip belt, let alone hip pockets. As at Nov 2018 it is no longer listed on Macpac’s website, so a brief-lived experiment it seems. If only Macpac could remake it into a long distance trail pack we’d have a NZ winner.
Speaking of NZ winners, there is the Aarn pack, a novel pack system invented in this country that spreads the load between your front and back so strain on your back is relieved and energy is saved. The packs themselves are relatively heavy (even the lightweight Featherlight one at 1.7 to 1.9kg all up), though I guess the makers would argue that this is offset by better distribution of weight on your body. I’m sure these packs are good for heavier loads, but once you get into the ultralight realm of hiking then load distribution becomes less important in my view.
Note that manufacturer’s claims for capacity can vary considerably from figures published by independent testers. The Tasman 45 looks a lot smaller than the Osprey Talon 44 for example though its claimed capacity is about the same. Part of it may depend on whether external pockets are included in the capacity measurement or not, so comparing one pack to another requires a consistent measuring methodology.
Packs lighter than the Osprey can be found via lightweight hiking sites in the USA and elsewhere. See the ultralight backpacking section of SectionHiker for example, and ultralight packs at Backcountry Gear or Hyperlite Mountain Gear. But while you may be able to save 200 or so grams, there will probably be a trade-off in comfort and functionality, not to mention price. Note that the very lightest ones don’t have frames, so require very careful packing and light loads to be comfortable. There is a review of ultralight backpacks on Outdoor Gear Lab. The packs here average between 40 and 55 L, and weigh around 850g. The top rated and exceptionally light Z-Pack Arc Blast 52 (50 L measured) weighs just 603g but costs NZ $470 list, plus probably around NZ $100 shipping. Compare that to the $200 to $300 (or less than $200 in a sale) you would spend on buying a pack in New Zealand.
Lastly on packs there is the issue of waterproofing. It is a fact of life that most packs will leak in sustained heavy rain. If you have a top pocket the stuff in here will probably get wet. You can use a pack cover. Advantages are they covers the top pocket as well as the body of the pack, they often come in bright colours (see cycle stores for fluoro green ones), which is great for being visible when road walking, once off the inside of your pack is very accessible, and they double to protect your pack when being transported in buses, planes, etc. Downsides are they won’t keep the pack dry, or floating, if you fall over in a river, and they weigh a bit. The alternative of a pack liner is that it can be a faff accessing things in the pack, watertightness if you fall in water and, well, weight again. Sooner or later you will probably start getting holes in a pack liner too, especially a light one. An alternative is just to put all critical things – sleeping bag, down jacket, spare clothes, maps, cellphone, first aid gear, food that will be affected by water – in water tight bags.
Stoves – Gas or Alcohol?
Most TA hikers have some sort of gas stove. They are quick to set up and get going and burn with a hot, strong flame. The lightest and most compact way to go is to get one of the small screw-in burner heads. Both Kathmandu and Macpac have a titanium one that weighs about 50g. Your weight then is just the additional weight of the gas and the bottle. Make sure you unscrew the stove burner after use, as the tap can be knocked to the on position in your pack and drain the cylinder (it happened to me!) A problem with gas is knowing how much gas you need, and at any given point, how much is left. With some previous experience you can work out how many burns you can get out of a given size bottle to boil your usual quantity of water. Then, as you go, scratch a mark each time you burn the stove so you know how much you have left before you need a new bottle. This is an inexact business however, and you can easily get caught out. Then there is the question of where you can get a new bottle. Invercargill, Te Anau, Queenstown, Wanaka and maybe Twizel are certain sources, but it’s hard to guarantee there will be a bottle in stock of the size you want in places like Arthur’s Pass or St Arnaud. So you may have to carry much more than you really need.
Another option is an alcohol stove. These are lightweight, you can see exactly much fuel you have left, are cheap to run, and you can buy the fuel almost anywhere there is a store or petrol station. In NZ you want methylated spirits, also known as meths (but you are unlikely to get much joy if you ask the storekeeper for meth, singular, as that’s something else in NZ!) It is coloured purple to identify it and has a foul tasting additive to prevent you drinking it. Make sure you keep your meths stove in a plastic bag when it’s in your pack, as any slight seepage of residual fluid into your cookware or food will make it taste truly horrible. Methylated spirits is usually sold in a one l litre container, more than you want to carry, so you will have to put it into something smaller and throw the rest away (or better, carry it all to the first hut and leave the surplus for someone else). But again, make sure none seeps out in your pack (in another out-of-fuel mishap I lost a whole lot of fuel this way when an insecurely screwed bottle went upside down in my pack – maybe two small bottles are an insurance against this).
Alcohol stoves are not commonly available in stores in NZ. The only one I am aware of is the Esbit brass stove at Bivouac but it weighs 92g, and you still need a pot support. But you can make your own. I was astounded to meet a TA walker who had fabricated one by simply slicing slits with a knife all the way round the top of a tuna can. I made one myself and found it worked like a charm, though it was trickier to use than gas, and it had an issue of being unstable with a pot-full of water on top. I suffered the embarrassment in a crowded hut of the contraption falling over and flaming meths sweeping across the bench top along with my dinner. Fortunately burning meths is easily extinguished with water and my dinner mostly achieved that. Still, the stove itself only weighed 7g and used about 25ml (20g) of meths to boil 600mls of water. You can make a more professional and probably effective version by drilling the holes. Start with the smallest tuna or cat food tin you can buy. New World supermarkets have the Pams brand of tuna cans, as well as Fancy Feast cat food, both of which are perfect. They are made of thin aluminium, which has advantages of weight and heat conductivity.
Note that a drawback with alcohol stoves is that they need a wind shelter outdoors because their flame is not strong. Some say that their use outdoors when there are fire restrictions (which apply for most of the South Island in summer) is prohibited as they are a naked flame. You could argue the same for gas stoves, but admittedly the chances of an alcohol stove falling over, being blown away, or flaring out are greater than for gas. Anyway, in either case you should make sure your stove is not used near dry grass, etc.
Another stove option is solid fuel tablets such as Esbit. They are useful in an emergency, and with the same advantage of alcohol that you know exactly how much fuel you have. But you need a pot stand and something to burn the tablets on, and sources of the tablets can be hard to find. The Bivouac shops in the four main cities have them, and you may find them in hunting and fishing stores in smaller centres. And finally amongst alternatives to gas stoves are wood chip burners. A bit heavy and bulky perhaps but you don’t need to carry fuel (though remember that New Zealand bush is not described as rain forest for nothing, so you could struggle to find dry wood). You can make wood chip burners yourself too.
In summary, the real weight of a stove is best considered as a combination of the stove itself, plus fuel, plus fuel container, over time. Rather surprisingly, Thru-Hiker found that the Esbit solid fuel tablets came out best, and a cat food meths burner and a gas canister with screw-in burner to be about equal at 14 and 28 days.² But I would suggest that you will be carrying more gas (and gas canister) than you really need in NZ for the reasons of difficulty in estimating remaining gas usage and unpredictability of replenishment mentioned above.
Lightweight Pots – You Heard it Here First!
If you follow my practice and only use a pot to heat water (or food in that water) to a boil, then one pot is all you need, and in fact you may as well use it to do double duty as a mug. Now, you could buy a titanium mug, but here is an ultra money-saving idea: cheap stainless steel kitchenware of the sort sold in Asian stores is sometimes made of such thin metal that its weight is the same as the sort of titanium mug/pot sold in tramping stores. Don’t believe me? My 850ml stainless steel mug that I’ve used for years and which has no dents or deformation weighs 120g. It cost me less than $5. A Toaks 800mm titanium mug/pot weighs 112g, and costs $68 (sale price, plus freight from Gearshop). Macpac’s 900ml titanium pot is 114g and costs $97 discounted. The only advantage of the titanium pots is that the handles fold away, making packing easier. I bought my mug at New Gum Sarn supermarket in Mercury Lane (off Karangahape Rd, in the same building as the Mercury Plaza food court) in Auckland.
Navigation – Helpful Gadgets?
GPS: Nice to have, but if you take paper maps, a compass, and have the topo maps functional with GPS on your cellphone you should be right. I mainly used the GPS on my cellphone to find out how far I was from the hut towards the end of a tiring day and never once got out my compass, though that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t carry one. If the weather is murky and you can’t see the marker poles, and the ground trail is not well-defined (common in many open country sections), you could be wishing you had a GPS. And when it’s cold, wet and windy, you might find that fiddling about with a cellphone to get a position fix is just too hard. In the interests of cost and weight savings though, I would favour a smartphone over a GPS device.
Cellphone: a smartphone is pretty useful for its ability to carry back-up maps, downloaded documents like the guides on this site, a GPS, web access for checking weather forecasts and booking accommodation, keeping in touch with other people on the trail as well as the folks back home, taking photos, and oh, making phone calls. However, GPS and photography in particular really drain your battery. You can maximise battery life by only turning them on when needed, keeping your phone in flight mode when out of range, and maybe using a battery saving app. Being in flight mode really cuts down battery drain. If you want to turn flight mode off in areas with cellphone reception make sure you switch wifi off if there is no wifi, as that’s another battery drainer. You can always run a test with your phone over several days before you go, using the GPS a few times and taking a dozen photos with flight mode on to see what % of battery is used.
The ever increasing weight, size and price of cellphones is a pain for the lightweight hiker. Unihertz’s crowdfunded Atom sounds like it might be the hiker’s friend when it is released though.
Many people these days use rechargable battery backup packs, but these weigh about as much as an entire cellphone. Much lighter and sometimes cheaper is simply a spare battery if your phone will take one. The other alternative, solar charging, sounds like a good idea but is yet to be fully practicable in terms of weight. I believe that keeping your phone cool is good for getting maximum charge when you charge it, and for holding the charge. So don’t tuck it under a pillow when charging or leave the phone exposed to the sun at other times. Cellphone reception is, of course, mostly non-existent in backcountry areas. The Spark network is much better in these places than Vodafone however. Spark also carries the cheaper Skinny, and Vodafone the 2degrees service.
Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs): If you are on your own and you fall down a bank, or worse, who is going to find you? PLBs are expensive, but then, what is your life worth? There are important differences in the types of beacons. The popular and cheaper SPOT device is essentially an activity tracker and needs a relatively clear horizon to transmit a message to a satellite. Apparently in NZ the satellites it uses orbit closer to the horizon, so there is less chance of a signal being received. PLBs work by transmitting an emergency signal only when you activate them, and work with higher orbiting satellites. A good rundown on the difference between a PLB and an activity tracker is provided by Andrew Burfield in the TA Facebook archives. Outdoor Gear Lab also explains the differences and recommends some models, though you would have to be sure these will operate in NZ. And Mapworld has a brief summary of what is available in NZ. New Zealand coded 406MHz PLB beacons are legally required to be registered in NZ. This enables searchers to know who you are and have some information about you, including your emergency contact people if your beacon is activated, which just might help save your life. So if you buy a beacon second hand you should re-register it under your name. You can register it at beacons.org.nz, plus find plenty of information about beacons there.
Zip-lock bags are handy for food items and other uses, but the ‘free’ ones you use to buy nuts and dried fruit at supermarkets are not very robust. The zips tend to fail and the bags get holes in them with repeated use. Better to pay the money and buy better quality bags. Even better, buy double zip bags. BUT, these are not available in NZ! You can buy Hercules resealable bags with twin zips in Woolworths supermarkets in Australia though. Good for putting your electronics in, as well as critical clothes, books, maps, first aid, etc. Consider paper bags too. Clearly not waterproof, but OK for containing food within an outer plastic bag. They have the advantage that you don’t end up carrying a whole lot of empty bags out with you as rubbish, as you can leave them behind in huts for starting fires. And you avoid adding more plastic to the planet.
Another thing you can’t buy in NZ is Glacéau Smartwater. The bottles are ideal for backpacking in my view as they come in long, slim bottles, making them easy to slip down the side of your pack. So far as I can see you can only get the 700ml size in Australia, but they come in larger sizes in the USA and UK. ‘Balance’ water with wild flower flavouring bottles are available in Australia and are perfect – they are 1 litre and slim.
Women might like to consider two specialist items. One is a pee rag as an alternative to toilet paper. The pros and cons seem well discussed here. And the other is a menstrual cup. Both male and female hikers might also like to consider a bag in which to put used toilet paper for those moments when you have to go in the bushes. Toilet paper takes a surprisingly long time to break down and there is nothing more off-putting than coming a cross an area strewn with toilet paper. And it gives hikers a bad name.
Suppliers in New Zealand include the Australasian outdoor chain stores Kathmandu and Macpac, with branches in many cities and their own branded gear, plus Torpedo 7, Bivouac, Outside Sports (stores in Te Anau, Queenstown, Wanaka only) and the mail order Earth Sea Sky (whose products are also carried in other stores) and Gearshop. Many smaller towns also have hunting and fishing stores which carry hiking gear, but it tends to be the heavier variety. And the Rebel Sports chain sell trail runners, often at sale prices.
There is always the well-respected US Outdoor Gear Lab for reviews of clothing and equipment, though you will have to put up with the obsolete measures of pounds, ounces, feet and inches, and reading about gear you can’t buy in NZ stores. However, if you live in the USA you are in a haven for ultralight gear and you would be best to do your shopping there. Even fairly regular gear will be a fair bit more expensive in New Zealand. The price of footwear in particular often gives our American visitors a shock.
1. ‘Effects of pack weight on endurance of long distance hikers’ by Anthony T Thomas, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Daytona Beach, 2013. Available online at Scholarly Commons.
2. This is confirmed by my own tests. The alcohol stoves pictured above use 20g of fuel (25ml) to boil 600ml of water at a starting temperature of about 20 degrees C. The gas stove described with a screw-on burner uses just 10g of gas. But for the smallest type of gas canister (110g gas), you are also carrying about 150g of metal canister and burner. You get about 10 boils out of this. So average weight over time for the two types of stove is actually about the same. You start out carrying more with alcohol stove because you have to carry more fuel, but the weight decreases as you use the fuel (since the weight of the stove itself is negligible), but with gas you are still carrying the 150g weight of the canister even when you’ve run out of gas. Also, the alcohol stoves pictured are primitive, and probably not very efficient compared to some better models that are likely to use less fuel per boil.
Last updated 25 October 2018