The Routeburn Track is a world-renowned hiking trail in New Zealand. Many enjoy this Great Walk as a multiday hike. Or you can run it in one day. Here’s how.
New Zealand is an outdoor adventure paradise. And among the activities that draw people here are the many Great Walks: multiday hiking trips where hikers cover 10-20 km a day and then end up at huts stocked with beds, stoves, and places to hang wet clothes and dirty shoes.
Some places are more like lodges. You can hike with nothing but a daypack. They have hot showers, linens, and amazing meals waiting in the lodge. Touted as one of New Zealand’s nine Great Walks, hikers usually complete the Routeburn Track in 2-4 days depending on fitness levels and pace.
Running the Routeburn Track in New Zealand
Although taking your time and relaxing in lodges and huts sounds nice, I’m not yet that kind of outdoor user. I like to see how many miles I can cover in a day. And a good old New Zealand-local pie is all I need at the end of a long day on the trail.
If you’re anything like me and in relatively good shape, the Routeburn Track is 20 miles of beautiful and diverse trail a runner can easily cover in a day. Here, you’ll find my tips for planning your trip on the Routeburn and the gear that got me from beginning to end.
Running New Zealand’s Routeburn Track
Logistics & Choices
Run this trail in either direction. You can start at the Divide, which is a 40-minute drive from Milford Sound and a 1-hour drive from Te Anau. Or you can start at the Queenstown side, which is a 1-hour drive from Queenstown and a 20-minute drive from a sweet little town called Glenorchy. Either way, there is roughly 1,400 meters of elevation to gain and lose.
The most popular route for tourists is to start from the Queenstown side, as many people fly into Queenstown and use it as their base to start adventures from. Also, hiking the Routeburn (32 km) is a much more enjoyable way to get to the Milford Sound (another amazing place to check out) than taking a car all the way around (324 km).
The next thing to figure out is how to get your car from point A to point B. Luckily, there are a number of ways. The easiest and most popular way is to check out Trackhopper. It is a shuttle company run by two local runners. They are very nice, easy to get in touch with, and know the track like the back of their hand.
The next-easiest task is to find someone who wants to swap keys with you somewhere on the track. One person drives and starts on one side, and the other person drives to the other side and starts. When you see each other, you swap keys or tell them where the key is hidden. You can find these people by going to the local Queenstown, Glenorchy, and Te Anau FB Community pages. Ask if anyone is “keen” (makes you sound more local) to swap keys with you and see who bites.
Weather & Planning
While it is completely possible to do this hike in a day, much of it depends on the weather. It’s best to pick a good weather window where there’s little-to-no possibility of precipitation. Snow on the pass can slow down the pace significantly and be quite dangerous. Last year, they actually canceled the Routeburn Classic Race because it snowed 1 foot over night.
Heavy rains are also not something to mess with. The rivers can rise quite rapidly, and rain on the already technical trail can make for slow going. The best chance for good weather is anywhere between October and late April. Always check the weather before you go so you are aware and prepared.
Running the Routeburn
My friend and I arrived at the Routeburn Shelter on the Glenorchy side at a leisurely 1 p.m. in the afternoon after dropping our kids off at “Kindy” and getting a coffee. We had gotten a ride with a friend who had been hired to run a double shuttle that day. Our goal was to have fun, enjoy the views, and either beat him or arrive around the same time as him on the Divide side 5-6 hours later.
The trail started gradually climbing pretty much right away along a beautiful turquoise-colored pool-drop river. We warmed up by making sure we could still talk and run at the same time. If it ever got too steep, we would power walk it. Fifty minutes from the start, after stopping a couple of times for some quick pictures, we made it to the first hut: Routeburn Flats.
At the hut junction, we turned to go up and started switchbacking our way up to the second hut. Fifty minutes later, and we were already at the second hut, Routeburn Falls, which looked more like a lodge than a hut. It’s a beautiful structure that blends into the trees and mountainside perfectly. We stopped for a quick bathroom break and to take in the views off the balcony, where a bunch of backpackers were enjoying their afternoon beverages and snacks.
The distance to the next hut was the longest (12.5 km), steepest, and, in my opinion, prettiest. After filling our bottles from Routeburn Falls, we headed up the technical, rocky, and highly engaging trail. The hardest part was not looking up all the time to take in the views, because if you did for too long, tripping and falling off the side of the mountain was highly likely!
The Halfway Point
Once we hit the saddle, aka “The Divide,” we again took a moment to take some pictures. From that spot, you could see all the way out to the ocean.
Two hours and 10 minutes later, we made it to the third hut: Lake Mackenzie. We stopped here for 10 minutes to take off our shoes, digest some solid food, and take in the views of the amazing lake. If we had been stopping there for the night, I would have for sure gone swimming with the other backpackers, as it looked very inviting. But we had a ride to catch and kids to get back to, so we headed out after a nice break for our final hut, or “checkpoint.”
We made it to Lake Howden Hut after 8 km up and down rocky, rooty, and technical trail. After this hut, there is a steep 10-minute hill climb and then a steep 10- to 15-minute run down to The Divide car park. Five hours and 15 minutes later, we arrived at the car within 10 minutes of our friend. All in all, the whole mission, including driving time, took us 10 hours.
Many people who run/walk this in a day do it between 5 to 9 hours, with the fastest time being 3 hours 13 minutes.
The Gear I Used to Run the Routeburn Track
The 305 is my go-to shoe for varied terrain. It performs well from groomed trails to the techiest of trails. I wore these shoes for a big portion of the recent Patagonian Expedition Race, and they proved more than worthy for everything I put them through. So I was confident they would be perfect for this leisure run (in comparison to the race).
Like most Inov-8’s, they are durable, light, and very responsive on multiple types of terrain. I didn’t fall or slip once the entire run, which is saying a lot, as there are many places to do so.
2XU Run Mid-Rise Compression Tights: $55-110
I have been running and racing in 2XU tights for the past 9 years. The gradual compression, fit, and durability have kept me on as a loyal customer and happy athlete for many of my adventures. The waistband is wide enough to not dig into the skin, and it helps to keep the tights from slipping down. Not once did I have to stop and pull up my tights.
When I travel, I love to bring clothes that can do it all: the trail, the mat, the rock, and the town. The Cotopaxi Quito tank’s moisture-wicking fabric and simple athletic cut move with me no matter what the activity is. On this run, it kept me dry and cool the whole time. Usually, I end with a wet, sweaty back after a big effort such as this one. This time, I was pleasantly surprised that I didn’t smell, and I wasn’t even sweaty.
One of my favorite things about going on adventures in New Zealand is that you can almost always drink the water here. On the Routeburn, there’s a waterfall, a stream, or a river just about every 500 meters, so the need for a bladder is out, making your pack weight even lighter.
I opted for the HydraPak 750 mL Stash because I’m OK with running with a bottle in my hand. It was also extremely fast and easy to fill up because of its perfectly sized and sturdy opening. However, if I wasn’t in need of so much water (I’m pregnant, so I’m constantly thirsty), I would have gone for the SpeedCup or the 300 mL Ultraflask.
Inov-8 Race Elite Vest: $73-99
The weather in Southland, New Zealand, can change on a dime, so it’s always good to bring extra layers. For a pack, I brought my Inov-8 10L Race Vest. It’s light, molds to my body well, and can fit enough layers, food, and a small med kit for one day. Whether it has nothing in it or it’s packed full, it never bounces around due to the easy-to-use compression cinches. And the six different front pockets made it quick to grab all of my essentials.
Although I didn’t have to use it this trip, this jacket is always in the bottom of my backpack just in case. It scrunches down into a pouch the size of my palm, is water-resistant, and weighs 3.4 ounces. It’s just as important as my first-aid kit, if not more.
It’s form-fitting yet doesn’t obstruct any necessary movements when running, climbing, or biking. The hood has come to my rescue many times, as I often forget a hat. Lucky for me, the Houdini has a built-in adjustable hood that easily fits under a helmet.
Ciele GOCap: $40
Ciele is like the cadillac of hats. All it does is make high-performance hats, and it shows. Every one fits like a glove and stays on through all types of weather. For this run, I opted for the GOCap, a lightweight, wicking, reflective hat. It stayed on my head, kept the sun out of my face, and kept my head cool. There’s not much else I could ask for.
Smith Reverb Sunglasses: $189
The Reverb Sunglasses are my No. 1 choice for big missions. They’re a go-to when I need a pair of sunglasses that will not slip while shielding my eyes.
New Zealand is known for its intense sun rays, and the winds can be quite strong on the tops of the mountains. The Reverbs stayed on me the whole time and didn’t fog up from the sweat. Although they were made to be used on the bike, I love running in them because they’re so lightweight and comfortable.
All in all, this is an amazing, must-do track. Whether you’re in leisure mode or want to tackle it in a day, you’ll see spectacular countryside. Either is possible and totally worth the effort.