Thinking of doing New Zealand’s Milford Track and want to know how hard it is and what you’ll be getting yourself in for? Well look no further! Here’s everything you need to know.
First of all, let’s get the big question out of the way:
How hard is the Milford Track?
Good news: you don’t need to be an experienced hiker at all! The Milford Track is a great introduction to multi-day hiking; I saw people aged 18 – 65 do this hike of all different levels of experience. The track is incredibly easy to follow and the path is well-formed (no scrambling or climbing needed). It’s also pretty flat overall, considering it’s through mountains – there’s roughly an 800m ascent and descent on the third day, but on the other days the gradients are almost unnoticeable.
There’s one catch: you do need to be comfortable with walking moderate distances (about 8-10 miles a day) with a fairly heavy backpack (around 14kg). In my opinion, anyone of average fitness and mobility will be fine with this, but it’s a good idea to have a practice walk simulating these conditions to make sure you’ll be okay. You’d be surprised at how easy it is to clock up 10 miles of walking – it’s not that different from being on your feet all day on a city break. But your legs might not be used to doing this with an extra 14kg of weight, and your back and shoulders might need to get used to it as well. If you haven’t walked distances like this or carried this much weight then go grab that backpack, fill it with something heavy like a sack of potatoes or rice, and see how far you can walk. As I say, if you’re reasonably fit you’ll find it pretty doable, with some aches here and there at the end of the day.
And now here’s what else to expect on the Milford Track, including the good, the bad, and the ugly.
About the Milford Track: the good
The Milford Track has a rigid structure – you can only do it in one direction, there are no campsites, and you’ve got to stay in the set huts each night. Therefore you really get to know the 39 other people who are doing the hike with you. They’re a bit like an extended family; they’ll help you out, lend you things, give you food and endless fun and entertainment. They’ll be people of all different ages and nationalities and you have one very strong thing in common – you all want to see the beauty of the Milford Sound!
No phone signal
You’ll have no choice but to switch off from the rest of the world and just enjoy the environment around you. The main forms of entertainment on this great walk generally are card games, reading, and chatting. Lovely stuff.
It’s good because all those rock faces turn into awesome cascading waterfalls. The path you’re walking on will turn into a waterfall. Waterfalls will cross over the path. There is so much water running through this place and it’s awesome.
Get back to basics! You find you become more in sync with the rhythms of night and day, too.
It’s very hard to get lost
The track is signposted all the way, and there are even markers laid out each mile. The worst that is likely to happen is you walk past the hut turning and carry on down the track. The huts aren’t usually more than 5 minutes off the track, so you’ll quite quickly realise if you’ve done this.
The track is well-formed
Almost everyone could walk days 1, 2 and even 4 of the track – it’s never steep, it’s fairly wide, and it’s not too rocky or uneven. Day 3’s walk needs a little more time and attention; whilst the ascent is fine, the descent gets pretty rocky and uneven. It’s never really steep but in heavy rain it gets a little slippery and you have to cross numerous waterfalls. But still, you’ll never have to climb – just some lunging steps here and there.
This track feels seriously wild. You have to get a boat at both the start and finish. Apart from the odd helicopter flying over you are surrounded by mountains, forests and water. And that’s about it.
You can enjoy this amazing place in a way that has minimal impact on the environment.
All the water is drinkable
You can drink from the waterfalls/rivers. The huts have a disclaimer saying you may want to treat the water, but I drank it the whole time and had no problems. This is great because you don’t have to bring water treatment and/or litres of water with you each day as there are so many places to fill up.
Rangers at the huts
Each hut on the Milford Track is manned by a ranger. These cool people know a ridiculous amount about the area and can also help you out with any problems. It’s awesome to pick their brains when they come in and meet you all in the evening.
Seriously amazingly awesome scenery
This one goes without saying, really. I mean, it’s the main reason you’re doing it, right? Well it won’t disappoint, come rain or shine. Though there are many other awesome walks with amazing scenery too…
This track has probably the most rewarding end points of any hike I’ve done: the Milford Sound itself!
About the Milford Track: the bad
These guys are everywhere on the Milford Track. If you stop for a few minutes, especially by water, you will attract clouds of them. Then they get everywhere. They seem to be worst at the first hut – they’re not so keen on the higher altitudes of the others. Oh, and Sandfly Point is called that for a reason!
There are no showers, no hot water, and not many mirrors. It’s refreshing, though, in a smelly kind of way – no one cares what they or each other look like. And when you’re walking through rain for hours on end it’s really the last thing you’re worrying about. The toilets at the huts do flush, and there is soap, but the toilets on the track are composted.
Lack of flexibility
The hike’s rigid structure also means there is no opportunity to walk it at your own pace – for example you can’t skip a hut and walk further in a day, or equally stay in the same hut for two nights. On the other Great Walks you can do this.
Whilst it does make the fiordland come alive, it also will make you very wet. Hours of fiordland rain will seriously test your raingear, and a lot will fail the challenge!
No phone signal
Social media addicts will have to go cold turkey. For the more practical-minded it also means it’s not so easy to get in touch with the emergency services/work, etc.
Aches and pains
If you’re not used to walking these kind of distances you will feel pretty tired and stiff at the end of each day. Nothing some painkillers/a stiff drink can’t remedy, though. And make sure to try out your backpack before you do the hike! Make sure it sits above your hips comfortably, that the straps are adjusted to fit you properly. The same goes for your boots – wear them in first!
Lights in the huts’ communal rooms are the only form of electricity on the walk. They’re on a timer; they tend to go off around 9pm. The bunkrooms don’t have lights at all. Bring a powerful torch if you don’t want to be fumbling around in the dark! And make sure all your electric devices are fully charged/you have spare batteries.
It won’t be a bad thing for everyone, but most of this walk is done below the tree line (only Day 3 takes you above it), meaning less alpine views and lots of forests. If you’re looking for a hike with more variation in elevation, landscape and more mountain views, a track like the Routeburn or Tongariro would be better suited to you.
As the most popular hike in New Zealand the price tag reflects it: +70 NZD per night makes this track is the most expensive of the Great Walks, and indeed any hike in New Zealand. Transport is more costly too, as you have to pay for the two boats to get you to the start and from the finish.
About the Milford Track: the ugly
Some will probably be wet too – which makes them even smellier. Bring spares!
Not a lot you can do about this – it’s a good idea to have waterproof boots but they’re still likely to get damp and smelly in one way or another.
YOU will smell!!!
There are no showers, remember, though there are some nice swimming spots on route. At least everyone else is in the same situation.
Some lucky people get away with this. People like me, however, are sandfly magnets and they get me anywhere that isn’t showered with repellent or covered up. They even got me in places that were covered up – namely my ankles, which didn’t take kindly to 10 bites and swelled up and itched. Yuk. Then they bit me on my face and even my scalp through my hair (which is no easy feat as I have a lot of hair!).
Blisters (especially if you’re walking with wet feet)
My walking boots never gave me blisters until the Milford Track – when I had to walk the last two days of it with wet feet. And if there’s one thing that can suck the joy out of a hike it’s a big fat nasty blister. I was in quite a lot of pain by the end, I can’t lie! So wearing your boots in beforehand will help to prevent blisters caused by general rubbing, and it’s absolutely crucial that you do this. To help prevent blisters caused by wet shoes/feet, bring spare socks – walking socks and normal socks – and, if the going gets really wet, tying your feet up in plastic bags (with socks on underneath) actually works quite well. Your feet will stay dry and your skin won’t become so sensitive to rubbing. Oh, and bring LOTS of different plasters!
I loved doing the Milford Track – it’s beautiful, with the greenest wildest forests you’ll probably ever see. The view at the top is undoubtedly world-class. In the grand scheme of multi-day hikes it’s well-organised and not difficult to do (a tribute to New Zealand’s Department of Conservation), which means that it’s accessible for a whole host of people.
But is it one of the best hikes in the world? For a hike that doesn’t need much previous experience or a guide to complete, there surely can’t be many better.
I can’t say it’s my absolute favourite, though. In New Zealand I actually preferred the Routeburn Track. Then there are the more difficult/technical hikes in Europe that easily rival it for the top spot. I’d do it again in a heartbeat, though.
Do you agree? Or did I miss anything in my list about the Milford Track? Let me know!
To find out more about the Milford Track check out these other articles:
Great Walk comparisons [coming later!]