Routeburn Track Winter Hiking Guide
Most people think that New Zealand’s famous Routeburn Track can only be hiked in the summer, and this is incorrect! While you can’t complete the whole track in the winter, the Routeburn Track winter hike is simply gorgeous and worth checking out! This blog is a guide to the portions of the track you can complete in winter along with tips!
In winter though, the Routeburn Track becomes a ghost land with only very few hikers venturing onto the pristine trail. This is largely due to the cold weather and the fact that hiking the entire trail in winter is downright dangerous.
However, there is a large section of the trail that can be hiked all year round and with the right preparation, is completely safe! In my opinion, it’s a great time to avoid the large crowds and get out and see some snow!
For those thinking the same as I did, this blog is here to help you have fun but avoid any unnecessary risk on the trail. In no way is this a “you shouldn’t go” post but more of an “if you’re going to go, only go to where it is safe”.
I will also let you know of a couple of great Routeburn Track winter trips that range from 1 day to an overnight adventure!
What are the risks of a Routeburn Track winter hike?
Likely the most dangerous risk of a Routeburn Track winter trip is avalanches. Even on day hikes where you do not complete the mountain pass, there are large areas where steep cliffs and large amounts of snowfall create areas where avalanches are just part of the décor.
Of course, you can easily avoid these areas and below I’ll show you how.
With the remoteness of the trail and the very few visitors in winter, hiking the Routeburn Track can put you at risk of hypothermia. If you were to injure yourself and be forced to spend the night in the sub-zero temperatures things could turn for the worse very quickly.
To combat this, never hike alone, tell people of our intentions for that day, dress for the conditions and when you plan to return, and if you can carry an emergency locator.
3. Large Snow Fall
The trail itself in the alpine areas receives lots of snow. These areas can make the track impossible to find and open you up to new dangers like falling through the deep snow. Losing track of the path and getting lost is also a quick way to turn a fun trip to a dangerous one.
How much of the Routeburn Track can you hike in Winter?
From the Queenstown side of the Routeburn Track, you can make it to Routeburn Flats Hut without any trouble. This area is not alpine and only elevates to around 600m. This section of the trail is a flat 7.5km one-way trip. You could complete this in around 3 to 4 hours return.
Once you begin heading further in than Routeburn Flats is where the dangers begin to arise. From the Flats, you must begin your ascent up the trail to the Routeburn Falls Hut. Although most of this trail is covered in thick forest, some areas are exposed and in the dead of winter can collect snow.
This part of the track should only be hiked if conditions are good and there is little to no snowfall on the track. In my opinion, in most winter conditions the Falls Hut is as far as you should go.
*This will all depend on recent weather conditions so please check with the DOC (Department of Conservation) beforehand in Queenstown.
The next section from the Routeburn Falls Hut to Harris Lake poses a high risk of avalanches. The section I am mainly talking about is just before Harris Lake and continues all the way over the Harris Pass. Here, you enter a large valley where the trail follows the bottom of steep cliffs.
These peaks collect large amounts of snow and make hiking far too dangerous during avalanche risk times. Also, this is likely where the track will start to disappear under the snow, making both walking and finding the trail more difficult.
Although the first 1 kilometer past the Falls Hut is fine, you shouldn’t go any further if conditions and your experience don’t permit.
How far I went
I hiked the Routeburn Track at the very end of winter when there had been a few weeks or so of warm temperatures and a few weeks without heavy snowfall. Both Bailey and I always said we would hike as far as was safe and actually made it to Lake Harris (about an hour past Routeburn Falls).
There was lots of snow on the ground but not on the mountains. We could also easily spot the orange poles that marked the track and the cliffs around had lost most of their winter snow.
Read our blog all about our Routeburn Track day hike experience!
Routeburn Track Winter Itineraries
There are several different ways you can hike the Routeburn Track in winter, but one we can rule out is hiking past the Harris Saddle.
1. Hiking to the Routeburn Falls Hut and back
This option is great as there is no need to buy a hut pass and in one day you can be in and out! The hike up to the falls is 10km long one-way and takes you high above the valley floor raising you in altitude by 600m!
By no means is this a short day, but it’s a great way for those who are short on time and up for a long day hike!
2. Overnight at the Routeburn Falls Hut
After making the trip up and back in a day I realized that the best way to hike the Routeburn in winter is by spending the night at the Routeburn Falls Hut. This way you can take your time on both the way up and down, and then spend the night in a quiet hut with some pretty spectacular views!
Of course, even in winter the huts still cost money but the great thing is they never book out! You can buy your hut pass at any of the DOC offices! There is one in Queenstown so you can get your pass before you head up!
Before you go…
The Routeburn Track winter hike was an amazing experience that I highly recommend. Though there are more dangers in winter I loved the quietness of the track and venturing through the snow was really cool!
If you’re a hiker who loves getting away from the busy trails but still wants to hike one of New Zealand’s Great Walks then a Routeburn Track winter hike is the perfect option!
If you found this blog helpful be sure to check out all our New Zealand guides on our New Zealand Page here. Or, check out these related articles:
March 12, 2020