How to Prepare for a Winter Hike: Lessons from the Routeburn Track NZ

Our Living Lab Legend, Rachel Dimond, shares her top tips for your next winter hike. You can follow Rachel’s adventures on her instagram feed @wanderer_rachel as well as ours @blueymerino.

Hikers always joke about the inclement weather on New Zealand’s West Coast, but when you’re caught in the middle of it, it can be hard to laugh about.

Where were these verdant alpine meadows, soaring mountains… and rain? The land of the long white cloud offered me a few lessons about winter hiking. Read on for some of my best tips.

Image: Rachel Dimond 2018. Lake Mackenzie with the Hollyford face behind on Day 2.

Location Guide

TheRouteburn Track crosses the mountains of Glenorchy, just outside Queenstown and Milford Sound, in Fiordland National Park and Mount Aspiring National Park. Annual rainfall ranges from 1200 to 8000mm – that’s up to eight metres of rain each year! I was unfortunate lucky enough to complete the hike during a particularly inclement weekend. Highlights included monsoonal rain, gale force winds, snow, sub-zero temperatures and track closures. Did I mention it was Summer?

Lake MackenzieLake Mackenzie

Physical and Mental Preparation

I attribute ninety per cent of my success to preparation, and ten per cent to sheer luck. As a stubborn and over-enthusiastic hiker, I won’t let a spot of rain, wind or sub- zero temperatures derail my plans except in the name of safety.

Mental clarity is critical, and separates the fair-weather amblers from those with true grit. If you think you’re going to have a shocking time, you probably will. Make the most of it, and remember the daring stories you will share around the fire on your return.

Day two of the hike was the most challenging, physically and mentally. The night before, the Ranger had warned us that it would be raining (if not snowing) all day, and that there was a risk of being turned around due to gale-force winds on the saddle.

Although the wind warning had dropped by the time we set out, it certainly didn’t feel like it. The wind whipped up heavy rain into our faces, became icy slush and generally threatened our spirits. I volunteered as the whip at the back of the group, delivering positive reinforcements and an inspiring rendition of The Message by Grand Master Flash.

Lake Mackenzie Hut

Image: Rachel Dimond 2018. Bluey Merino base layers dry faster than other clothes in the Lake Mackenzie Hut on Day 2.

Quality Gear and Layers

If you plan on hiking through the rain and snow like we did, invest in good quality gear. After six hours of hiking, I was thankful for my Bluey Merino base and mid- layers, which although became damp kept me warm. The biggest advantage was that they dried SO quickly. Whilst everyone else was trying to dry their clothes by our tiny fire, I was wrapped up in bed.

My Merino layers also didn’t smell like they had been wet and sweaty for two days (even though they had been), so I could comfortably keep them warm in my sleeping bag, ready for the morning.

Routeburn Falls Hut

Image: Rachel Dimond 2018. Enjoying provisions in the Routeburn Falls Hut on Day 1.

Food and Provisions

Go to the extra effort and make sure dinner is something to look forward to, not another source of distress. Keep snacks accessible, rather than in your pack. I recommend a combination of sweet and savoury treats – with one packet of lollies and chocolate and another of jerky and nuts, you can’t go wrong.

I brought several wheels of cheese and a few too many bottles of wine (decanted of course), but the weight was well within my limits so it wasn’t a problem. Every afternoon, I sat down with the girls, drank wine, ate cheese and played cards in front of the fire. The joy that it brought us all can’t be overstated.

Harris Lake NZ

Image: Rachel Dimond 2018. The Saddle and Harris Lake on Day 2.

Staying Safe

Never throw caution to the wind in the name of adventure. On Day Three, we woke to find the track behind us closed, the alpine pass covered in several feet of snow and many groups having been turned back. It was encouraging to see that although disappointed, no one had disobeyed the Ranger’s instructions.

Alpine Meadow

Image: Rachel Dimond 2018. Alpine Meadow on Day 2.

Remember the adventure and thrill along the way. When we set off that day, we were greeted by more rain, but after about half an hour it was replaced by beautiful snow. Our Summer adventure brought us several inches over the course of the next hour or so.

Avalanche zones are particularly important to stay aware of. Never risk your life (or your friends’ lives) for a photo opportunity or a great story. Whenever we heard a crack or rumble we legged it as fast as we could to avoid falling foul of an avalanche. Of course, it could have been thunder… but we prefer not to tell the story that way.

Snowy Forest

Image: Rachel Dimond 2018. Snowy Forest on Day 3.