Hiking the Routeburn Track in Winter!
The Routeburn track is a fantastic great walk in New Zealand. Offering a journey through deep Beech forests along bright blue rivers, stunning alpine terrain complete with lakes and wide ranging vistas, it has become a highly sought after trip for both those living in New Zealand, and also those visiting.
The majority of hikers complete the Routeburn track in summer in the months from November to March, and you’ll often find the track quite crowded (by New Zealand standards) in this period. Many are also under the assumption that in winter, with snow blanketing the ground, that it is off limits or not doable.
Not at all!
For those experienced enough, or even novice hikers with the ability to make cautious decisions and be conservative in their choices, there is a way to see the best parts of the Routeburn in winter, and without the crowds!
WHY WINTER CAN BE A GREAT TIME TO GO
Winter is a bit of a hate it or love it season I’ll admit. If you aren’t too fond of it, enjoying winter is possible, and at the minimum, being able to make the best of the season is a sure way to make it more enjoyable.
Winter landscapes can offer a truly unique perspective to the natural environment. And in the case of the Routeburn track, less people allow you to enjoy the track in a new way and have it all to yourself.
But before you go you need to plan and prepare, as well as be aware of the risks!
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW!
When hiking in winter or venturing into any alpine terrain, there are risks that you need to be aware of, and some of these are especially magnified in the winter and spring. So before getting too excited about tackling the Routeburn in winter, here are some of the risks you need to be aware of and consider in your planning:
Anytime there is a slope above you with snow, or you are on one, there is a avalanche risk. Often, you may not be able to see the slopes above you, especially in the valley floor. Avalanches can reach incredible distances (run outs) from their point of release.
Always assume there is a risk, even when the forecast may say otherwise. In the case of the Routeburn track, there are known avalanche paths that cross the track, and during or after heavy snowfall, as well as on clear days with the bright sun out, avalanches do occur. It is wise to be especially conservative with avalanches- they are deadly!
The best way to handle avalanche risk is to do a avalanche safety/awareness course. They are well worth doing to gain some more understanding of the subject.
You can find an online course HERE, however this is not a substitute for an actual avalanche safety course and will in no way prepare you for what you may encounter!
Alpine weather can change in an instant! My time climbing mountains has shown this time and again. Mountains form their own micro climates and all the wind, rain and snow is magnified by the steep sides into violent displays of nature. No forecast is 100% certain. Being prepared with the right layers is just the beginning. Learn to make good decisions by knowing when to turn back, and always check the forecast before you go!
An obvious feature in winter is snow, and the more there is of it, the harder and riskier your trip becomes. Plodding through deep snow is exhausting and requires the use of snowshoes or skis. If you do not have boots rated and designed for snow travel, anything higher than ankle deep will not only be uncomfortable, but could be dangerous. Frostbite is a real danger if you are spending extended time walking through snow.
When you get too cold and your body can longer heat it up as fast as it is losing it, hypothermia kicks in. It’s a medical emergency and a silent killer. Wind, rain and snow are the obvious contributing factors, but it doesn’t need to be windy or snowing for you to be at risk. What you wear, and your decision making, will affect whether this turns into a real problem or not.
If you injure yourself while hiking through snow, are you prepared with the right gear, and will someone know where you are and come looking for you?
To get a full idea of the risks of venturing beyond the bushline into alpine terrain, have a read of my article about alpine dangers.
While all this may sound like doom and gloom, more so if you are a novice, you can still do part of the Routeburn track if you plan and prepare properly. We will look at some options below which may suit you.
YOUR GUIDE TO HIKING THE ROUTEBURN TRACK IN WINTER!
Before starting any trip, you should visit the DOC office in Queenstown (Department of Conservation) to get the latest updates and talk your plan through with them.
So, provided you have prepared accordingly with the right gear, clothing layers, a plan to stay safe and turn around options, you could look at some of the following ideas for a trip along the Routeburn track in winter.
Options for the Routeburn track in winter:
1) Carpark to Routeburn Flats Hut (Day Trip)
A trip to the Routeburn flats is quite easy for any moderately fit hiker. The terrain is mostly flat and follows the Route Burn river with its stunning blue water. There’s a few little side stops to rest and enjoy the scenery, and in winter, it’s usually free of snow on the ground, though heavy snowfall does happen a few times each season.
2) Routeburn Falls Hut (Day Trip)
If the way to the Routeburn flats hut is free of snow, a trip up to Routeburn Falls hut is well worth considering if the forecast is looking great. The going gets steeper from the valley floor but is well worth it for the incredible views! The hut is well built and comfortable, though facilities are limited in winter. For most hikers with some trips under their belts, doing this trip in a day is easy and a great way to get part of the experience of walking the Routeburn track.
Tips: The hut sits just on the edge of the bushline so is relatively sheltered from the worst alpine conditions. Keep in mind that snow from a previous day/s can still be on the ground so keep an eye on the forecast both before and during your trip.
3) Routeburn Falls Hut (Overnight Trip)
Just like above, spending a night in Routeburn Falls hut is a cool experience. You would be lucky to find another person staying, so will practically have the place to yourself. Unlike summer, hut fees are heavily reduced as well. You can leave the tent behind and use the bunks, but just remember to bring lots of warm clothing, and use winter rated sleeping equipment!
4) Going Past Routeburn Falls Hut
In winter, going past Routeburn Falls hut is much riskier and should be carefully considered against the weather forecast, the current conditions (including avalanche conditions), and your skills. If all of them show green, you can consider a trip to have a look, but even experienced hikers rarely venture past Lake Harris, and the track that cuts above Lake Harris would be treacherous in snow and ice.
Like anything in the outdoors, investing in skills to allow to venture into new terrain and handle challenges pays off with the experiences you can have. The Routeburn track is amazing in summer, but in winter, it can be magical and a place few get to see.
For some more winter hiking tips, have a read of this: