Crossing Tongariro for Dummies: An Agony Free Hiking Guide

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One Does Not Simply Walk Into Mordor 

I’ve never been a Lord of the Rings fan (gasp! yes, I’ve said it), but I do know this: the filming locations in themselves could have been enough to make me watch it.

Acclaimed by many as the Best 1-Day Hike in the World, and even more popular after the Lord of the Rings movies, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a truly heavenly walk through New Zealand’s nature.

But regardless of the high number of people visiting every year, crossing Tongariro is no easy feat – and if you’re not used to hiking, you need to be aware of several crucial facts in order to avoid disappointment. So here it is:

10 Tips for Hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

people taking a break on the shores of Emerald lakes on Tongariro alpine crossing,
Chillin’ by the Emerald lakes

(with a bunch of picture credit rolls at the end)

1. Don’t Underestimate the Hike

20km may not sound too bad, but consider this: did you found your city walk in Rome or Barcelona tiring? Trust that Tongariro will be twenty times harder.

Tongariro will be giving you a way out: there is a point of no return by which you’ll need to be sure you want to complete the hike. If you have to change your mind, the place to do it is after you cross Soda Springs and before you start the first ascent.

2. Pace Yourself

Common reviews tell you to plan for a 7-hour trek, but I say be prepared for 9 hours. Again, if you get a headstart with the first transfer, you’ll get a breather & more wiggle room. Here’s an idea of your suffering during the hike:

tongariro hiking map with checkpoints

Recommended Time vs. Our Time

  • 1. Car Park to Soda Springs

Recommended Time: 1 hr. We did 1h20

  • 2. Soda Springs  to South Crater

Steep Ascent! Point of no return here, if you change your mind.

Recommended Time: 1 hr . We did 1hour

  • 3. South Crater to Red Crater

Steep Ascent! There are stairs to help with the climbing. Walking pole will be handy here.

Recommended Time: 45 min – 1 hr. We did 1 hour.

  • 4. Red Crater to Emerald Lakes

Steep Descent! If you like sliding down volcano ridges, this one’s for you.  Beautiful views as expected.

Recommended Time: 10 – 20 min. We did 25 minutes.

  • 5. Emerald Lakes to Blue Lake

Descent – but do expect some ascent as well. Beautiful views as expected.

Recommended Time: 30 min. We did 30 minutes as well.

  • 6. Blue Lake to Ketetahi Shelter

Recommended Time: 1 hr – 1 hr 30 min. We did 1h 10 mins. Then we spent 20 minutes waiting in line at the toilets. So we’ll count as 1h30

  • 7. Ketetahi Shelter to Ketetahi Bus Park

Long, scenic descent. Walking poles will come in handy here.

Recommended Time: 1 hr 30 min – 2 hr. We did 2h25 (with painful knees on this last portion. Everyone was passing us by this point.

Recommended: 6h-6h30 vs. Our Time: 8h10

Also, note that the hike is not circular – so you will need to arrange for a transfer – which is also why it’s best to just book a transfer instead of driving there yourself.

3. Go for the 05.30 AM Transfer

Because of what you just saw above, I’d suggest you go for the earliest transfer, and make sure you have enough legroom.

Tongariro Expeditions organizes transfers from Taupo at 5.30 and 6.30 AM. It takes around 1h30 hours to get to the Tongariro National Park. If you hop onto the first transfer, you’ll be there by 7AM & will have a grand total of 9h30 to complete the hike (last bus leaves at 16h.30)

Be there at 07.00 AM & you will have a grand total of 9h30 to complete the hike.

4. It will be Cold & Windy

The temperature in November was only a few degrees above zero (Celsius) when we started the hike at 7.20 AM.

Prepare accordingly. I was really surprised to see how many people came ill-equipped for the hike. So it appears I have to say it:

Don’t wear jeans, slippers (!) & cotton clothes

Do make sure to bring: waterproof clothes,  decent hiking shoes, hats & gloves! See more clothing tipson the official New Zealand website here.

5. Scorching Sun

We ignored the sunscreen this time, and one of us got a scorched nose in exchange. Bring your sun lotion with you. The higher SPF the more thankful your skin will be. And while we’re at it: sunglasses will come in handy too.

Somehow, people do remember sunglasses (read: fashionable) and mostly forget all about sunscreen (read: white smudges not looking pretty in selfies)

6. No Water

What you bring is what you get, so bring plenty of water. Don’t think you’ll be drinking the same as if you’re binge Netflixing. This is a serious hike, and you will be out in the sun. So it depends from person to person, but 2 liters is the bare minimum you should bring to make sure you’re comfortable.

7. Walking Poles

Especially if your knees are weak – or if you just don’t have hiking experience in general. Even one pole will make the difference between an enjoyable hike and a painful hike.

8. Toilets

Ah, toilets! Everyone’s favorite topic on a mountain. There are quite a few actually, so fret not. I’m also glad to report that they are well maintained – luxury compared to Kilimanjaro. However, there will also be many people using them, so make sure to count the downtime by the loo to your hike.

I used the toilets at the Ketetahi hut – and that was a good 20 minutes wait. Waiting time probably gets worse in December / January. So, you know.. be prepared.

9. Don’t Panic

If you are slow and can’t make the last bus for 4.30PM, don’t panic! Absolutely everyone was saying that no tourist was ever left behind. That doesn’t mean taking the bus for granted, as they will be the first ones to tell you to be on time. But you can call a taxi, and there will be people there with a car – so last resort, there’s always hitchhiking.

10. Prepare to be Blown Away!

It can get pretty windy. But I meant: blown away by a hike through an amazing, real-life nature documentary.

Our day on Tongariro reminded me very much of our Kilimanjaro trek. A hike layered with landscapes & vegetation so diverse, it almost felt like we were crossing the earth from equator to the pole.

Crossing Earth from equator to the pole.

The last leg of the hike down is particularly beautiful, and most unexpectedly so, since most of the iconic Tongariro pictures are mountains & lakes, not the lush vegetation of beech and podocarp trees. And let’s not forget the ever-present fern.

Tongariro Crossing – Picture Credit rolls:

vegetation in the Soda Springs streams, Tongariro Alpine Crossing, New Zealand
Soda Springs streams
vegetation in the Soda Springs area, Tongariro Alpine Crossing, New Zealand
Soda Springs lake
Mount Ruapehu snowcapped peak at Tongariro Alpine Crossing, New Zealand
Mount Ruapehu snowcapped peak
Mount Ngauruhoe, the stand-in for the Mount Doom. Tongariro Alpine Crossing, New Zealand
Mount Ngauruhoe aka. Mount Doom
 Mount Ngauruhoe, aka Mount Doom and a view over Red Crater. Tongariro Alpine Crossing, New Zealand
Mount Ngauruhoe and Red Crater
Mount Ngauruhoe and Red Crater
Mount Ngauruhoe
Emerald Lakes at the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, New Zealand
Dressed festively for the Emerald Lakes encounter
Emerald Lakes, Tongariro Alpine Crossing, New Zealand
Emerald Lakes
Emerald Lakes and the steep descent from Red Crater
Emerald Lakes and the steep descent from Red Crater
people taking a break on the shores of Emerald lakes on Tongariro alpine crossing,
Chillin’ by the Emerald lakes
The lush vegetation of beech and podocarp trees , hiking down Tongariro
Lush vegetation, hiking down Tongariro
Stairs to help with the hike down through lush vegetation of ferns, beech and podocarp trees, Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Stairs to help with the hike down
 hike down Tongariro, through lush vegetation of ferns
Possibly the prettiest of hikes

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