Hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is one of New Zealand’s most famous tourist activities. It’s always on the “Must Do for Tourists” lists. It’s home to Mount Doom of Lord of the Rings fame, as well as some of those stunning colorful geothermal pools you always find when Googling New Zealand. It’s 19.4 kilometers of volcanic wonderland, and it’s heaven for gloat-y Instagrammers and aspiring photo-bloggers.
There’s a lot of information out there about the Tongariro Crossing. Look back over the last 5 years and you’ll find articles like, “Trampers Close to Dying” and “Heart Attack on Tongariro Crossing“. There’s too much written about what to wear, when to go, how to get there, and how to not die. The latter is actually fairly important. So I am here to your rescue, to provide you with a simple 10 step guide on how to both enjoy and avoid death on the Tongariro Aline Crossing.
1. Check the Weather
This seems so simple, but it’s your first and most important rule in not dying. (In fact, apply it to every day life.) If the weather is poor on the Tongariro, if the shuttles aren’t running or are advising you take caution, don’t go. The highest point on the crossing is 1,886 meters (6,187 feet, Americans). Add this elevation, low oxygen, some wind, some cloud and even on a beautiful day it is cold. We went on a relatively clear day, yet were in and out of the clouds at the top. It was around 15 degrees C when we started, yet easily 0 degrees by the time we were at the top.
And also in regards to the weather: plan your trip, then be flexible. Give yourself a few days in the Tongariro area. There are tons of cool hikes, glow worm sightings, etc. to see if it’s not a suitable day for the crossing. Don’t be stupid.
2. Bring ALL the warm clothes!
I basically packed an extra puffy vest by accident. And I was so grateful for it. On our 0-15 degree day with moderate wind and frequent clouds, I wore a wool shirt, wool long sleeve, puffy vest, and puffy jacket. I also wore thick wool socks and a hat that I wished was a beanie. I got away with hiking leggings, but would not recommend this on days any colder than ours.
This hike is open even in the winter. Consider how cold it would be on a mountain top in winter, then pack extra. Consider mittens or insulated gloves, extra socks, beanies, insulated pants and jackets. Prepare for it to be wet and windy. The unfortunate group of 16 unprepared people (!) from the first article “Trampers Close to Dying“, set out in freezing conditions without enough clothing. That was it. And they all were found delirious and had to be rescued.
I’m not even going to make a bullet point out of wearing sturdy footwear. If you don’t have good hiking boots, you won’t make it far enough into the hike to be in a danger zone. We saw lots of people in rented hiking boots. Though I had no idea you could do that (or why you would do that) it’s an option! If you wear sandals, your toes will freeze off and fall into the Red Crater. Don’t be stupid.
Do you want to leave your toes in here?
3. Plan Your Transportation
When Scott and I finished the crossing, we came upon 50+ people waiting for shuttles. Shuttles back to their cars at the start, back to their hotels in Taupo, back to some random place where they started with the shuttle. There were also hundreds of people on shuttles, waiting for that one random hiker who hadn’t come down yet. They sat in those buses looking exhausted, forlorn, even mildly outraged as they waited, the bus driver yelling, “Has anyone seen #68? Hiker #68?!” I would be thinking, Damn you #68! I’m f*&King STARVING! I just hiked 20 kilometers, I’m cold, I’m sore, I’m tired. Let’s leave #68!”
Of course they can’t leave #68 though. He’s the guy who didn’t check the weather and either has hypothermia or tried jumping on the fluffy cloud which turned out to be a steaming crater. Oops.
My point is this: Do what we did (if you have a car). Book a one way shuttle with Mountain Shuttles. Leave your car at the end of the hike and get a ride to the start. Yes, its $30 per person. Open your purse strings because trust me, when you’re done, you’d pay way more than $30 to have the bus driver leave #68 for dead on the mountain.
Instead, when you finish the walk you’ll smugly saunter past all the hungry, stranded shuttle-waiters, and hop into your warm car and clean clothes. The other option for those traveling in a group would of course be to self shuttle- leaving a car at the start and a car at the finish. This is completely acceptable as well, but stock the end car with food!
4. Speaking of food, BRING LOTS.
This is a multi-sandwich hike. Throw in the trail mix, some fruit, some chocolate and you should be sweet. But do pack all the “just in case” food. And water. I found 2 liters to be enough, but I wouldn’t have packed less. You’ll want all the foods when you reach the top of this:
5. Take your time… PLEASE!!!
The night before we did the crossing we stayed at a hostel, where the host kind of drove me crazy. But this eccentric dude did say one thing (of thousands of gems…) that turned out to be incredibly useful. Don’t rush. Don’t mind the young German guys who pass you like you’re standing still (his words, not mine). I didn’t think much of it when he said it. Actually, I thought to myself, “I’m fit, I’ll probably be passing them!”, but I didn’t really take his advice to heart. Until the next day, when he was totally right.
Here’s a secret they don’t tell you in Taupo, or on the shuttle bus, or really even on the internet: You will be doing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing with hundreds, if not thousands, of other people. It is probably the most touristy thing we’ve done in New Zealand, and that’s saying a lot. I actually thought it wouldn’t be that crowded because we did it on a random Tuesday in the fall, no school holidays, etc. Nope. People galore. I avoided taking photos that showed the actuality of the crowded-ness, but if you look closely in the one above, or the ones below, you’ll see the steady stream of bodies.
At first it can be really off putting. For the first couple of kilometers, I had 19-year old guys practically pushing me off the boardwalks trying to get by. My inner competitor wanted to shove them off and take off jogging to prove my fitness, but my calm, mature outer self took the hostel hippie’s advice and let them go. (Ok, Scott actually suggested it.) We stopped at the 6k mark and ate even though we weren’t that hungry yet. We let a hundred or so people go by. They wouldn’t have even looked up to see these views!
For the rest of the hike I re-programmed my brain to ignore the people. Despite the hundreds of bodies around me, I was still always able to get the photo I wanted and able to get the space I desired around me to take in the experience. I don’t know what the young bucks who power-walk the whole thing really take away from it other than First Guy Back To Shuttle Who Now Waits 4 Hours. Don’t be that guy. (Don’t be stupid!)
6. Know your fitness level
Look close at this beautiful crater. Look real close. See the trail wrapping over the peak, wiggling steeply down the ridge? That’s you. This is your trail:
So, a few people have had heart attacks doing the Tongariro. And others turn back due to exhaustion or injuries like sprains and strains. This is a long hike, 19.4 kilometers with plenty of rigorous climbs. The DOC recommends 6-8 hours to complete the journey when you have reasonable fitness. The air is thin, so you will feel more out of breath than on a normal walk. The hike is steep in many places, so you should take your time and conserve energy.
We took 7 hours. We maintained a pretty good clip while we were moving, but we did stop numerous times for photos and food, and we really took our time at the Red Crater and Emerald Lakes. As you do.
Some honesty: this was not the hardest thing I’ve ever done. In fact, it was quite manageable. I’m sure we could have done it in 5 hours. Most of the climbs have stairs. There is one scree slope that left us highly entertained watching people try to get down, but we applied our mountain bike skills to hiking and really enjoyed it.
If you are un-fit but young and otherwise healthy, you could probably give it a go. But take an early shuttle and give yourself 10 hours. If you finish early, good on you! If not, you’ve got time on your side and you avoid being a newspaper headline.
If you are quite fit, and want more of a challenge, climb Mt. Ngauruhoe (Mt. Doom) or Mt. Tongariro. Both of these side excursions are off the main trail, are basically scree slope scrambles, and take 1.5-2 hours. We planned to do one of these two summits, but we had such cloudy weather that the view would have been nonexistent. Next time!
Looking back at Mt. Ngauruhoe an hour after we decided not to climb her due to clouds. Fickle mountain!
7. Wear sunscreen and a hat
You are mega-exposed. Have I made that clear yet? This probably didn’t need to be a bullet point, but we’re trying to avoid death here. If you did everything else on this list but didn’t apply sunscreen, you’d probably die of melanoma 15 years later, but it would be due to this hike, and then it would be my fault.
See? Exposed. Steep. Cold. Rocky. You will get cold, hungry, tired, and sunburnt at the same time. Are we clear?
8. Pay attention to warning signs
Specifically, this one:
There are three highly active volcanoes along the Tongariro Crossing. This track does close and for good reason! The start and finish of the track will be sign-posted if it is closed, but along your hike you will also pass three of these warning stations which alert hikers of suddenly detected volcanic activity. Know this about the area [don’t be stupid].
If the lights start flashing, you turn back, and in a hurry. It is also recommended that in an actual eruption, you go to the highest ground you can, since lava flows down.
If this all seems like silliness to you… like, what are the odds?… Well, the Te Maari crater on the north side of the Tongariro Crossing blew its lid just back in August 2012! Ash and rock as large as 1 cubic meter blew out in a 10,000 cubic meter radius, with one of these rocks crashing through the roof of a hut 1.5 kilometers away! As we descended, we could see the Te Maari crater, still steaming away like a factory… and we also saw tons of yellow colored (sulfuric) rocks, which left the ground poc-marked after they hurtled from the billowing crater.
Oh, and then there was this:
Lahar is made up of volcanic explosives (lava, rock, ash) mixed with snow, which essentially becomes a landslide of death. So get out ‘da way! And pay attention to those signs and flashing lights!
9. Nerd Out
There’s so much to learn from this place. Why are the rocks red? Why are the lakes green? DOC has a great website with some intro-level info about these things and more. There’s lots of flowers if you look for them, and even some wild life. In my opinion, every experience is even better when you nerd out a little!
10. Take lots of photos!
Ok this isn’t really a tip for survival or even enjoying the experience, but this is a place you don’t want to forget! Don’t rush by it, intent on not letting that young tourist walk faster than you. This is a special place. Be a part of it and take it home with you. This is why you came to New Zealand. This is why you bought new hiking boots. Take your time, take too many pictures. Shit, maybe even buy a new camera!
Alright, that’s it. Now suit up, lace up, pack up, and get out there!