Hiking the Milford Track in New Zealand: Get Prepared

When you've had an experience on your bucket list forever, can the reality really live up to expectation? I'd been wanting to hike the Milford Track ever since I was a little girl after hearing the stories of my dad and grandfather hiking it together back in the 1970's. Fast forward almost 50 years and it was finally my turn.

After hiking the Routeburn Track in summer 2019, the Milford Track was always going to be next in my sights. Though with its popularity, I wasn't quite sure if we'd ever be able to get tickets. But then COVID-19 hit and with the borders closed to all international tourists, the summer of 2020-21 seemed like our best chance to secure an elusive spot.

milford track mackinnon pass
View into Arthur Valley from the top of Mackinnon Pass

Even so, hut tickets for the season sold out in 20 minutes online, and despite attempting to book places in mid-January, we could only get tickets for late April - in the last week of the season. I had some trepidation about hiking at this time of year - how cold would it be? Would there be snow? Would it be wetter than usual? We were going to find out!

To read the detailed account of our 4-day hike, head over to Hiking the Milford Track: NZ's Greatest Walk.

To get the low-down on all the logistics of hiking the Milford Track: booking, costs, transport, weather, gear, huts and other tips, then read on.

Getting Tickets: How to Book

This is actually the HARDEST part - tickets for the Great Walk season (November to April) for Milford Track sell out in minutes. The year we booked (2020/21) we had hoped to walk in January, but we were only able to secure tickets for late April. I recommend having at least two people online at the same time trying to book the dates you want, and you have a grace period to cancel them if for any reason you end up with two bookings. Check the DOC Great Walk Booking site to find out the day and time tickets are being released (often around June), and make sure you are online ready and waiting to have the best chance of securing tickets.

There are only 40 spaces available each day on the Milford Track, and prices are (as of the 21/22 season) $78 per hut per night for New Zealand adults (kids under 17 are free but you still have to book a place for them) and $110 per night for internationals.

Getting there: Transport Options

Hiking the Milford Track requires a degree of planning because you can only hike the track in one direction and there's boat transport required at either end, so you can't just wing it and hope for the best.

To get to the departure point at Te Anau Downs, you can either take a Tracknet bus from Te Anau/Queenstown, or drive yourself to the wharf. If you drive, you will have to organise a car relocation to Milford Sound or get the bus back to Te Anau Downs to pick your car. We used Trackhopper for our relocation (we also used them when we walked the Routeburn Track in 2019) and have always been very happy with the service.

We booked our boat transfers with Real Journeys, and found the 1 hour journey up Lake Te Anau informative with lots of useful information on the area, which helped to set the scene for our hike to come.

Real Journeys Te Anau Downs

Because there is always a possibility that bad weather will mean you spend an extra day on the track (the rangers won't allow you to walk if it's unsafe which forces everyone in the huts to have to stay put for another night), it's also worth giving yourself at least one day's leeway with your return travel, particularly if you have flights booked out of Queenstown.

An Overall Budget: How much does it cost?

Excluding costs to get to the nearest city (such as Queenstown), this was the cost for our transport and hut fees for our group of four.

Rental car (assume 5 day hire at $50 per day): $250
Track transport relocation: $260 with Trackhopper
Petrol: $100 (1 tank of petrol to get from Queenstown to Milford and back again)
Boat transfers: $140 per person = $480
Hut Fees: $234 per person = $936

TOTAL: $2,100 / $525 per person (not including any food/gear costs)

We also chose to stay the night at Milford Sound Lodge afterwards which cost us $430 for the four of us in a 2 bedroom chalet with breakfast.

If we had decided to take the Tracknet bus option to/from Queenstown, the total cost for 4 people would have been $2,156, so it was actually cheaper for us to organise our own vehicle and relocation and gave us more flexibility on our timings too.

The Hike: How hard is it?

For the most part, the Milford Track is easy. Even the third day which has the most ascent and descent is OK so long as you have trained in advance with ascents/descents with some weight on your back. However, the days of walking are long - especially if you happen to be walking at the tail end of the season like we were with reduced daylight hours - we headed out each morning not long after it got light and were almost finishing in the dark on the biggest day (Day 3).

If there was one thing I would do differently to prepare, I would practice with longer days of easier walking as well. We trained for a lot of shorter, steeper walks which helped for the elevation on Day 3, but we did find ourselves quite tired by the time we got past the 6 hour mark as we hadn't done many hikes that tested our endurance that long.

Source: Department of Conservation, New Zealand

Day 1: Glade Wharf to Clinton Hut - 5km - flat
Day 2: Clinton Hut to Mintaro Hut - 17km - flat to ascending
Day 3: Mintaro Hut to Dumpling Hut (via Sutherland Falls) - 14km (though it becomes 20km if you include the side trip to Sutherland Falls), steep ascent and descent
Day 4: Dumpling Hut to Sandfly Point - 18km - flat

Weather: What to Expect

Most people would say that summer is a more ideal time to hike the Milford Track, however it can be hot and sticky and you WILL be plagued by sandflies. By contrast, walking in late April, it was cold (think less than 10 degrees during the day, and only 1-2 degrees overnight) but the upside was NO sandflies! I'll take wearing a few extra layers any day over not having sandflies in my face or trying to bite any exposed part of my body the whole time.

hiking milford track clinton valley

Being one of the wettest places on the planet, it's unlikely you will walk the full 4 days without any rain regardless of what month you hike. Four days of sunshine in a row can happen, but it's pretty rare. So you're best to prepare for a wet hike, and be pleasantly surprised if you get some fine breaks in the weather. Our forecast was pretty dire, but didn't end up being anywhere near as bad in reality. Personally, I loved having fresh snow on the peaks to add some interest to the scenery, and though we walked in torrential rain for 6 hours on the last day, luckily it WAS our last day so we were able to get warm and dry with fresh clothes and a hot shower.

The Huts: Setup

The huts come equipped with bunks, mattresses, gas cookers, running water, flush toilets, heating and solar powered lighting. There are nightly talks by the DOC rangers which are very entertaining and informative and not to be missed!

Clinton Hut

This hut has two large bunk rooms (sleeping 20 in each room), and a dining room in a C-shape layout with the verandah separating the three. This is the night you'll probably get the least sleep sharing with the most people as there are bound to be snorers, but earplugs or headphones do help drown out the noise. The toilets are also located a short distance from the hut so you will get wet going in the rain. The helipad directly behind the hut also makes a really nice vantage point out over the valley.

clinton hut milford track
bunkroom milford track

New Mintaro Hut

As mentioned in my full Milford Track review, we were the 3rd group ever to stay in this new hut so we felt very fortunate. The new hut has been built further up the valley from the old hut, which was deemed a high earthquake risk in its previous position. The hut is an all-in-one setup with smaller bunk rooms, only 10-12 per room along a hallway. The large dining room has high ceilings and plenty of space to spread out, though we fond the swinging entry doors were a bit noisy every time someone walked in or out. The toilets are located under a short outdoor walkway up the hill, and from here you get a great view up towards Mount Balloon and Mackinnon Pass.

new mintaro hut milford track
bunkroom new mintaro hut

Dumpling Hut

Again, the bunk rooms at Dumpling Hut are smaller and more intimate, only 10 per room, with four rooms in total. The dining room is in a separate building up a short incline, and the toilets are located a few metres behind the bunk rooms. There's a really good drying room at this hut which is very welcome if you have clothes/boots that have been wet for 3 days straight that need drying out. The setting here is also lovely, tucked right under a hill so you get a great view of the waterfalls if they are cascading down the cliffs.

Dumpling hut milford track

You and your Gear: Ten Tips to Prepare

There are some things we did well in preparation for this hike, and things I'd do differently if we did it again, so here are my tips for making sure you really enjoy the track:

  1. Go on some practice hikes - the track is not hard but the days and kilometres are long, so I definitely suggest getting out with your full hiking pack weight on to clock up some miles for a few hours at a time in the weeks leading up to the hike, including testing yourself with up to 1,000 metres in elevation and descent.
  2. Invest in a good rain jacket and waterproof pants - it's Milford so you're going to get wet regardless, but when I saw just how bad the weather forecast was a week beforehand, I promptly went out and purchased the best rated tramping rain jacket in NZ - Earth Sea & Sky Hydrophobia. Even then I still got wet, but I was a darn sight drier than I would have been in my lightweight Kathmandu rain jacket. Can I also just say that Earth Sea & Sky's customer service was second to none - when I was desperate to get a new jacket they couriered two different sizes to me where I was staying in Queenstown and I just sent the bigger one back to them once I'd tried them both. So impressed!
  3. Eat dehydrated meals - this keeps the weight down in your pack and these days the options are pretty tasty. When you're very hungry at the end of a day's hiking, you'll appreciate hot food regardless of what brand it is. We used Back Country and Radix meals for breakfast and dinner and ate scroggin, muesli bars, and energy chews during the day. One thing I will say is that we felt like we under-catered food wise this time whereas on the Routeburn Track we took too much food, and didn't eat it - it's a hard balancing act! We found that hiking in the colder weather meant we used up a lot more energy trying to stay warm, so we could have done with a bit more food while out on the trail. That's definitely something to think about if you hike when it's colder, whereas in the heat you'll probably want more water than food when you're on the trail.
  4. Use dry bags - that includes having dry bags inside dry bags - one layer alone isn't likely to be enough on a wet Milford day and just using a pack cover won't cut it. We had Sea to Summit pack liners AND smaller dry bags with clothing, camera gear and sleeping bags separated out into different dry bags - it makes it easy when you get to the hut, you can pull out only what you need rather than having to pull everything in your whole pack out.
  5. Ziplock bags - these are a lifesaver. You can pretty much put anything in these - from toiletries, to food, your phone (though I invested in a waterproof phone case before the hike), and your rubbish (you have to take everything out with you). The more you can cut down on unnecessary bags and packaging the better, and ziplock bags have a degree of waterproofness to them too.
  6. Walking poles - I WON'T hike without walking poles due to my dodgy knees. Even though one pole is good, two are better. I found having two was particularly helpful on the last day when we spent the majority of the day wading through puddles and waterfalls. It gave me much better balance and speed when finding my way over slippery rocks.
  7. Layer up - merino clothing is great to walk in as its breathes and doesn't sweat like cotton and dries out much faster too - you can wear multiple layers under rain or warm down jackets without looking like the Michelin man.
  8. Choose your camera gear wisely - I took my Sony A7rIV with a wide angle 16-35mm lens which I used the most and a 70-300mm lens. I also only took a mini Gorillapod tripod (which I didn't end up using). I also invested in a Peak Design camera clip so I could wear the the camera on my pack while hiking - but unfortunately the very wet weather meant there were times I couldn't even have the camera outside of my backpack for fear of it getting soaked.
  9. Use a water bladder and drink that fresh Fiordland water - having to fill up a water bottle and stopping to take it off your pack is a pain, whereas a Camelbak or water bladder means you can sip as you go. Having a lightweight, foldable bottle you can fill up at the nearest stream or waterfall is also a great way to get a cool refreshing drink along the way. The official party line from DOC is that the water on the track is untreated and untested so should be boiled before use - but if you can't drink the water in Fiordland when you're getting almost 100mm of fresh rain a day, then where can you?! We've always drunk our water straight out of the tap on the tracks, and it's been fine. We did however test the limits of our water intake by only filling up with 1 Litre on the 2nd day to conserve weight - this was a bad idea. We ran out of water quite a way before reaching the hut - we'd assumed we would drink less in the cold but we underestimated how much we needed that day.
  10. Use heavy duty insect repellant - Bushman's repellant seems to be the best out there, but funnily enough it was so cold when we hiked that we really didn't need it much apart from the first day. It would be a very different story in summer though!
Milford Track Gear List

For a more detailed list of gear to take, check out the DOC Gear List as a starting point.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, your own experience hiking the Milford Track will be completely unique - and will depend on your mindset and fitness, your preparation, the personalities of the group you walk with, and the weather conditions you experience whilst hiking. Hopefully after reading this post, you will feel more prepared and informed to successfully tackle the Milford Track and to have a great time whilst doing it!

If you enjoyed this post, you can also read the full account of our hike over at Hiking the Milford Track: NZ's Greatest Walk.

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