Here’s why hut-hiking is the best way to see New Zealand

These inexpensive overnight bunks offer spectacular views, protection from the elements, and lots of local lore.

“It’s an old, moldy, grotty dog box. Absolutely disgusting. I would think about 10 people get there a year.”

That’s how Carol Exton describes Jacs Flat Bivvy, a wood-and-tin hut that sits in a dense forest at the base of a dark valley in New Zealand. It’s so small that you have to bend over to crawl inside. Yet among the country’s 1,000 government-run hiking shelters, it’s Exton’s favorite. It’s the kind of place that inspires her trekking adventures and exemplifies the lore embedded in New Zealand’s beloved hiking culture.

Indeed, in a country famous for soaring mountains and rugged coastlines, hiking is a way of life. Huts line more than 9,000 miles of public trails in New Zealand, providing an ideal framework for exploring.

Not all are two-bunk basics like Jacs Flat. Some are architectural stunners, perched on alpine ridges overlooking glaciers. Many have been around for more than a hundred years, standing as sentinels of old-growth rainforests and golden beaches. Through the decades, they’ve borne witness to history in the names and messages from past hikers etched on the walls.

It’s no wonder that these camps—many free or costing a nominal fee—inspire the kind of devotion that can motivate people like Exton to visit every hut in the country.

Icons of national heritage

Huts first appeared in New Zealand’s remote backcountry in the late 1880s. Using local stone, sheep herders built them into the tussocked foothills of the Southern Alps. Gold miners scraped tin huts together on the banks of rivers. Some outliers were erected on desolate coastlines, as refuges for castaways from sunken ships.

The shelters cropped up in even greater numbers in the mid-20th century, in the wake of ecological damage caused by deer, chamois, and other animals released by European colonists to make New Zealand feel more like “home.” Over the ensuing decades, professional cullers eradicated hundreds of thousands of these animals and left behind a legacy of six bunk huts in some of the most isolated parts of the country.

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More huts arose from stranger circumstances. Along the rugged south coast of Fiordland, in a sea cave not far above the high-tide line, lies a five-bunk hut built by a man named Owen West. “Westy,” as he was known, alighted at this spot in the mid-1980s after jumping off a fishing boat following an argument. According to legend, he swam through formidable surf to the shore, where he pulled flotsam and jetsam from the sea to build his abode.

Then there are the huts that sheltered people on the run. Ellis Hut, in Ruahine Forest Park, is named after Jack Ellis, an accused murderer who hid here from authorities in 1904. Asbestos Cottage, in Kahurangi National Park, was once the home of a woman escaping an abusive husband. She fled to the mountain hideaway with her lover in 1914 and lived there for 30 years.

Many huts had former lives as schoolhouses, lighthouse keeper cabins, and homesteads—all eventually converted for public use. By the time the Department of Conservation (DOC) was formed and inherited the entire hut network in 1987, there were hundreds of huts scattered like buckshot through the mountains of New Zealand.

Mountain memories

These origin stories combined with each hut’s architectural features (or lack thereof) add to the lore that make hiking in New Zealand so appealing.

Brian Dobbie, 64, worked on the team that manages the hut network since DOC’s inception. Over the past 34 years, he’s seen all manner of huts, including one painted bright purple with orange flowers, where he spent a funky night in the 1980s.

He believes that because DOC huts are always open and accessible to everyone, they foster a certain conviviality among strangers. He recalls one trip when a torrential downpour drove him and dozens of others out of their flooding tents and into one small hut. “At one stage there were 30 of us in the six-bunk hut,” he says. “We had less than three square feet each.” They cheerfully made do.

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That’s part of the allure, says Dobbie. Even the humblest shack can take on a significance that transcends its corrugated iron roof and timber walls. They become places of connection and self-reflection, places where memories are made and simple pleasures savored.

The logbooks tell the tales in the scribbles of hikers passing through. In lesser-used huts—the most popular kind—logbooks might date back years, with only a handful of entries recorded over a 12-month stretch. Not all are made of paper. “The logbook for Jacs Flat Bivvy is the door,” says Exton, where people have scratched their names along with a few short phrases about where they’re going and what they’re doing.

This recording tradition means some huts yield startling finds. On a wall in Double Hut, in Hakatere Conservation Park, in Canterbury, Dobbie spied a particularly famous name scrawled among several others. “[It] was Sir Edmund Hillary,” he says. “Of course, [he didn’t write] ‘Sir Edmund.’ It was ‘Ed Hillary.’ This man, who topped the highest mountain in the world, also stayed here and left his mark.”

A local obsession

The potential for uncovering such hidden stories is one reason some particularly zealous hikers have made it their mission to visit every hut in the DOC network. These “hut baggers,” as they call themselves, come from all walks of life and have often been obsessed since childhood.

Exton grew up in a suburb of Wellington, bordered by the harbor on one side and steep bush-covered slopes on the other. While her classmates walked home from school along the road, Exton took to the hills. “For two or three hours between school and teatime I used to just go off and explore,” she recalls. Now 60, Exton often disappears into the hills, packrafting, kayaking, and hiking her way to some of the most remote huts in the country. So far, she’s clocked 525 huts.

She thrives on the irresistible allure of huts scattered through the wilderness, just waiting to be found. The more difficult to access, the greater the thrill. Reaching Jacs Flat Bivvy took two attempts, a three-day trek and “a hard 12 hours” of hiking, she says.

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Benjamin Piggot loves the freedom that hut-hiking affords. “It’s an escape,” says the 25-year-old. “It’s time to go reset with your friends, have a cup of tea around the fire, and talk about things that actually matter.”

Piggot visited his first hut when he was 11 years old, which sparked a lifelong passion. Since going all in 10 years ago, he’s logged 312 huts. His favorite is East Matakitaki, reachable via a six-day hike into Nelson Lakes National Park. “It was just a brilliant trip, lots of snow, lots of adventure, one of those trips where you were cold and wet most of the time,” he remembers.

Feeling bonded to nature is what hut hiking is all about. “New Zealanders are an outdoor going kind of people,” Piggot says. “I think that we have a deep-seated connection, to ngahere [in the Maori language], to the land and the forest.”

TRAVEL TIPS
Reservations: Huts are priced according to the facilities they offer and range from free (basic) to about $10 USD per night for a serviced hut with heat and cooking facilities. Great Walk huts are the most comfortable with gas cooking, solar lighting, and flushing toilets. They’re also the most expensive at about $75 USD and must be booked online. The vast majority of backcountry huts don’t require booking and are paid for via hut tickets, which you can buy in advance and use as you go. The DOC’s online mapping tool lists each hut, along with its location, fees, and features.
Etiquette: Non-bookable huts operate on a first-come, first-served basis, but getting in first doesn’t mean the hut is yours. It’s customary to make space for latecomers—even if the hut is full—and to put the kettle on for them.
Some huts have dedicated wardens, or managers, but many aren’t serviced for months at a time. Hikers contribute to keeping huts clean and tidy. Before you leave, sweep the floors, wipe the benches, and restock the firewood. Carry out all your trash (don’t burn it or throw it in latrines).
Health advisory: As of press time, there are no vaccine requirements for staying in DOC huts, so visitors should assess the risk of exposure to COVID-19 when planning their trip. As sleeping, cooking, and washing facilities are often shared, you may wish to look at options such as pitching a tent close to the hut when camping is allowed, or avoiding busy periods such as Saturday nights and holiday weekends.
Petrina Darrah is a freelance travel writer from New Zealand. Her work has appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, Atlas Obscura, and the New Zealand Herald, among others. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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