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Ambassador Ashley Hill Takes on New Zealand’s Te Araroa Thru Hike

A notoriously difficult thru hike, Te Araroa winds from deep wilderness to wild and scenic beaches, volcanoes and cities.

Most Americans know the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Northwest Trail, even if they’ve never set foot on either. But mention New Zealand’s Te Araroa thru hike, and you’re likely to get blank stares from your countrymen. Relatively new, the Te Araroa runs 1864-mile from Cape Reinga in the north of the country to Bluff in the very south. Opened late December 3, 2011 by the Governor-General of New Zealand, Sir Jerry Mateparae, the hiking trail (or “tramping trail” if you are a Kiwi) is long and challenging, typically taking hikers three to six months to complete. It involves startlingly different types of terrain; one day you might find yourself walking along a road and then, the next day find yourself deep in the wilderness.

Hyperlite Mountain Gear Ambassador and happily obsessive thru hiker Ashley Hill recently completed the journey in three months and three days, saying it was one of her favorite trails ever. Read our Q&A with Hill.

Q: Why did you decide to do the Te Araroa thru hike?
A: I just got off my last trail, the PNT, and wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself. Winter was approaching, and hiking season would be put on hold, unless I traveled to the Southern Hemisphere, that is. The Te Araroa was the perfect fit. I was still in good shape from the last hike and had all my gear ready to go. So why not walk across a new country without any snow?

Q: What makes this trail unique in your mind?
A: I think that this is more of a pathway or journey across a country, rather than a trail. It is not your typical thru hike. You really get to taste some diversity here, too, from the beaches, to the farmland, to the urban cities, and suburban neighborhoods, to the fern forests and high alpine huts. There are sections where you’ll be wondering why you’ve been walking on a highway for a few days, and then you’ll have eight hours of river fording. A taste of everything, indeed!

Q: What was the biggest difference about hiking in New Zealand compared to the USA?
A: There are a few stark contrasts from what I’ve experienced on US trails compared with NZ. First of all, switchbacks don’t seem to exist in New Zealand. Their trails go straight up or down the mountains, making us hikers grow some super human calves in no time.

Secondly, the hut system is spectacular. They are completely different from anything I’ve seen in the United States, from new buildings to wooden shags from the 19th century. They are beautiful, built in the wilderness and accessible to everyone (for a small fee). I think there are over 900 of them in the country. They were originally built in the bush for hunters and trampers to take refuge since the weather is so drastic over there. You can experience four seasons in one day… hypothermia and drowning are the biggest killers because the weather changes so rapidly. Mostly, there are huts every 10-20 miles so you can count on having a dry place to sleep most nights. However, the huts get full when the storms come. There was this 16-bunk hut way up in the mountains that was totally full for three days straight as none of the hikers wanted to leave. More hikers kept piling in. They have bunks with mattresses, a pit toilet, and almost all of them have a fireplace. I think that one of the most unique things about the Te Araroa is the Hut Culture. It’s special like the Trail Angel culture of the Pacific Crest Trail and Appalachian Trail.

Interior of a New Zealand trail hut

Q: So how much time did you spend cowboy camping versus staying in huts?
A: Hikers on this trail tend to plan their daily itinerary around the huts, rather than hiking until sundown or when you find a nice flat piece of land to sleep on. There weren’t as many opportunities to cowboy camp here, but I still managed to sleep under the stars once the sand flies disappeared.

Q: What were your favorite sections of the trail? Your favorite experiences on the trail?
A: What a difficult question. The last day is always the best day on a thru-hike, but the Richmond Range was one of my favorite spots in all of New Zealand. Raging rivers, wobbly foot bridges, old wood fire stoves in rustic huts to dry yourself from the rain atop alpine mountain views. It was a magical place. Did I mention the swimming holes? Best swimming on any trail I’ve ever seen. You can read more about my experience on my blog here.

Ashley Hill sitting with ultralight backpack overlooking a waterfall

Q: You often extoll the virtues of hiking alone and being separated from civilization, did your time on the Te Araroa differ because of the constant contact with civilization?
A: It differed immensely. Solitude is something I yearn for on trail, perhaps due in part to how social I am back in my city life. I go on these hikes to clear my mind, to relearn the gifts nature has to teach and to absorb the lessons one gains by walking in silence for a five-day stretch without seeing another human being. However, I was rarely alone on my Te Araroa thru hike. I think I only camped by myself on five occasions. But this was a beautiful new experience, too. I made long-lasting friends along the way. I learned how to slow down and set up camp before complete exhaustion. There are so many different hiking styles on trail: fast or slow paces, heavy or light packs, long or short days, independent or social hikers. None bettering the other. I’m happy I got to taste the diversity here and it also helped me define my own preference.

Q: What food did you bring/eat? How was your food different from other trails you have hiked?
A: I had a pretty regular diet of three energy bars for breakfast with several spoonfuls of instant coffee. I always packed out a kilo of cheese to slice into my tortilla at lunch with a package of flavored tuna, fresh sprouts and avocado. Dinner consisted of cheesy instant bacon flavored pasta with smoked salmon. Yummmm… Smoked salmon. Oh, I can’t forget about my candy supply to get me through the day, Gummy Bears and Werther’s Originals. I started to pack out fresh vegetables and herbs to make my diet more complete on this trail. For instance, green onions and broccoli are great additions to your instant meals.

Q: Can you outline your gear list?

  • Backpack: Hyperlite Mountain Gear 2400 Southwest Pack (with a trash compactor liner), trimmed straps to save weight
  • Shelter: Hyperlite Mountain Gear Echo II Ultralight Shelter System with Aluminum and Titanium Stakes
  • Sleeping System: Western Mountaineering 20 Degree Alpinelite (much too warm for this hike), Therm-a-Rest ZLite Sleeping Pad (cut down to save weight)
  • Kitchen: MSR Stove, Fuel, Mini Bic Lighter, Titanium Pot (no lid), Titanium Spork, Sawyer Squeeze Mini, 1 Liter Water Bottle
  • Clothing Carried: Smartwool Long Underwear, Darn Tough Knee Socks, Darn Tough Short Socks, Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Down Jacket, Long Sleeve Wool Base Layer, Beanie (used as a camera case), Hanky (cut in half), Bedrock Sandals
  • Clothing Worn: Salomon XR Mission Trail Runners, Superfeet Green Insoles, Darn Tough Short Socks, Nike Pro Running Shorts, Tank top, Wool Sports Bra, Baseball Hat + Cowboy Hat Gifted Along the Way, Two Hair Ties
  • Miscellaneous: Leki Cressida Cork Trekking Poles (with duct tape wrapped around for repairs), Printed Maps Double Sided, Small Swiss Army Knife, Hyperlite Mountain Gear Stuff Sacks x3
  • Toiletries/First Aid: Toothbrush (cut in half), Mini Toothpaste, Dental Floss Spindle, Hand Sanitizer, Mini Sunscreen, 100% Deet, Biodegradable Wet Wipes, Diva Cup (essential for women hikers), Sewing Needle, Ibuprofen, Neosporin, Ziplock Bags
  • Electronics: Black Diamond Headlamp, Nikon DSLR D600 Camera and Charger, IPhone (with GPS capabilities) and Charger/Adapter
  • Extras: Father’s Prom Photo, Crystal (best friend gave me from India), Pins of the Golden State Warriors, SF Giants and President of Laos, Evergreen Essential Oil, Feathers and Rocks Collected On Trail

Q: What was your favorite piece of gear on the trip?
A: My attitude, of course! This is the most important thing one can carry to get you to the end of a 3,000 kilometer trek. In all honesty, though, I am absolutely in love with my pack. I’ve used the Southwest Pack on two thru hikes now, and I can’t imagine using anything else. It is simple, it is lightweight, it is beautiful, it is tough, it is waterproof, it is everything a hiker needs. I was once bellybutton deep crossing a river, pack submerged in the rapid and I almost shed a tear to find all of my gear dry and safe after reaching the shore. This is something I stand by and recommend to all thru hikers with enthusiasm.

You can find Ashley Hill on Instagram or on her blog.


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