How (Not) to Hike the Tongariro Northern Circuit

Stormy skies on the Tongariro Northern Circuit New Zealand
“Calm” before the storm on the Tongariro Northern Circuit

The Tongariro Northern Circuit is one of the nine “Great Walks” managed by the Department of Conservation of New Zealand. Most people travelling to Tongariro apt for the challenging buy glorious day hike, the “Tongaririo Crossing”, that takes you to the Mt Doom of Lord of the Rings and past Emerald Lakes. I wanted to do the whole thing. So I did. And it was messy, but it was fun, and it was for me a Great Walk.

Where: Tongariro National Park, Central North Island, New Zealand
Closest City: Whakapapa Village, or Tongariro National Park Village. Closest airport would be Wellington, nearly 4h away by car.
When: Great Walk season is mid-October to the end of April, but you can technically do it all year round: in the Winter, you’ll need much more experience and awareness of avalanche risks, etc.
Length: 43km, 3-4 days… or 24 hours, if you’re unlucky but crazy like me
Hiking Trip Base Cost: $36/night for a hut, and $15/night for a campsite. In the off season, it is $15/night for a hut and $5/night to camp. $10-infinity/day for food = ~$100 for a 3 day trip in huts, and ~$70 to camp.
Additional Variable Costs: transportation to trailhead, the fuel for your stove, any new camping gear, a flight, accommodation outside the hike in Tongariro Village, beer, etc.

Tongariro Northern Circuit Itinerary and Route

Day 1 – Whakapapa Village to Mangatepopo Hut, 8.5km

I was idiotic and invincible and gave myself an hour of sunlight to walk the 8.5km of wet and muddy trail that, according to the DOC, should take 3.5h and is “heavily eroded in places and crosses many stream beds”. Great! I essentially ran through the mud for an hour and 45 minutes and arrived at the first hut before 7. I gladly upgraded and paid to stay in the warm and dry hut, and shared my day’s trials and tribulations with the fun group of others in Mangatepopo Hut.

Clouds and fog on the Tongariro Circuit
Mist, rain, and general wetness would be the theme for my 24 hour sprint of the Tongariro Circuit

Day 2: Mangatepopo Hut to Oturere Hut, 13km (planned)

The plan was to stay at Oturere Hut after what is supposed to be the most challenging day on the trail. Today includes the hike that is frequented by thousands each year: the day-long Tongariro Crossing. My views were non-existent and the rain was intense. The wind truly felt like it would soon blow me off the thin ridge, and I still felt like a million bucks!

Red vegetation and shrubs against black Earth on the Tongariro Northern Circuit
Reds, oranges, and infinite grey against the dark Earth

I crossed the crossing without seeing a glimpse of Mount Doom, and was only able to see the bright colour of Emerald Lakes through sideways rain. The landscape, however, was SUPER COOL despite the weather. It really felt like I was on another planet, and these views were still some of my favourite from New Zealand.

Trail marker against the fog on the Tongariro Northern Circuit
These route finders made my life so much easier through the thick fog

I made it to Oturere Hut by 10:30am. The shocked ranger told me that the weather was getting no better and I was far better off just pushing on to the next hut. So that I did, and off I went.

Day 3: Oturere Hut to Whakapapa Village, 22km (planned)

In reality, this was still my Day 2, as I had far exceeded my pace expectations and was finished my planned day by 10:30am. I made it to the next hut, Waihohonu Hut 7.5km from Oturere Hut by 1pm.

Rocky black, brown, and red Tongariro Northern Circuit landscape and features
I imagine this is what Mars looks like

Upon arriving, the equally as kind ranger told me at the pace I was at I could have a beer in my hand by 5pm. I was thoroughly exhausted, but frankly the weather was still getting no better and the thought of that beer was overwhelming, so I walked on. 4 hours of trudging through streams and pouring rain later, and I arrived at Whakapapa Village by 5pm as predicted. Tongariro Northern Circuit, done and dusted! Beyond tired and absolutely drenched, I hitchhiked my way to the Tongariro National Park Village where I hoped to find an empty bed and called it a day well spent.

rain on the flooded trail of the Tongariro Northern Circuit
A trail that became a stream and streams that became rivers after days of downpour

Gear and Food List

Gear

The Tongariro Northern Circuit is a proper backpacking route that requires a cook set and sleeping kit. See my Gear for the Trail list for somewhere to start. I didn’t have a stove in NZ, so my meals were all cold and dry – but they were meals nonetheless.

This would ideally be a part of a greater NZ adventure, so you will be able to figure out food and fuel as you go!

FOOD

Here are some ideas: Food on the Trail. In general, my days look like this…
Breakfast: hot oats on short days, cold granola with milk powder on long days
Lunch: snacks throughout the day including pepperoni sticks, tortillas, a LOT of peanut butter, granola bars, GORP, and dried fruit
Dinner: prepared dehydrated meals when I’m feeling fancy, or deluxe instant noodles/Sidekicks when I’m not. Again, this trail had cold food only – lots of tuna.

Grocery stores in NZ are well stocked for campers, so go nuts and get creative!

Make it Happen

  1. Understand the route and pick a time of year you want to go.
  2. Choose your route/itinerary: there are lots of hikes around Tongario and beyond on the North Island as well!
  3. Once that is locked in, book your flights and/or transportation to and from Whakapapa Village.
    • If flying, fly into Auckland or Wellington and rent a car. Alternatively, you can do as I did and take a bus (Naked Bus or InterCity are both great options)
  4. Book accommodation in Tongariro National Park Village if you choose to stay there before and/or after the trek.
  5. The fun begins! Plan your meals, get your gear in order, and start walking to work and taking the stairs to make your trip as fun as possible when you get there.
  6. Get outside and do the thing.
Tongariro landscape of dark sand and rocks
Extra-terrestrial rock formations littered the landscape

What’s the craziest hiking or travel experience you have had where things didn’t exactly go to plan? Or was there a time when weather completely changed your experience and agenda? Sometimes being flexible and spontaneous – and having a good attitude – can turn bad luck into good memories! from Want more great New Zealand hikes with slightly less stress? My favourite weekend hikes on the South Island were an overnight at Mueller Hut and summiting Mount Armstrong.

Hiking the Tongariro Northern Circuit

2 Replies to “How (Not) to Hike the Tongariro Northern Circuit

  1. Such an awesome hiking destination! I loved your guide I will make sure to avoid winter months when planning to hike there. Saving your post with the hope to reread it as soon as possible! 🙂

    1. Haha yes, or at least if you go in the off or shoulder season, wait for a sunny day! Thanks so much for reading along!

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