The Tongariro Alpine Crossing Guide for the Unfit

I live just a three hour drive away from New Zealand’s Tongariro Crossing and I’ve only this week worked up the daring to go through with this strenuous hike.

The Tongariro Crossing is New Zealand’s most popular day hike and located in the central North Island. It passes between volcanoes Tongariro and Ngauruhoe (or Lord of the Rings Mt Doom), and the scenery is otherworldly and beautiful.

Arriving at National Park Village I was relieved to see a variety of age groups preparing to walk the track; ten year olds and sixty year olds, people large and small. I’m not sure how I would have felt if it everyone else was twenty and at the highest possible peak of human fitness.

I’m not a hiker. I’m not even particularly active and ten kilos heavier than I should be, but I really wanted to do this. I mean, I can walk can’t I? I’m young and in good health, so it should be feasible. Right?

The first four kilometres of the Tongariro Crossing were easy and enjoyable, a walk in the National Park; pretty, evenly pathed, framed by waterfalls, green and cool.

Then the next four were vile; an hour of ascending over the Tongariro Mountain with a chant of “Why did I ever want to do this,” on loop in my head. Of the thousand people on the track that day (just after Christmas) half of them must have passed me as I plodded a slow trudge upward. There’s no shade, the sun scorched down and every time I thought I had conquered one peak another would emerge and it was just The Worst Thing Ever. But I saw a few other people struggling, and I felt better, so that makes me a horrible person.

See all the tiny people?

Although despite all the sweat and groaning and aches and discomfort, the scenery was spectacular. We gained encouragement from seeing Mt Taranaki behind us and sliding down the scree towards the Emerald Lakes was electrifying.

I surprised myself that day. I did something I knew would be a challenge and actually did pretty well. So if I can do it, you can do it. Chances are you won’t be the most unfit hiker of the day, and the rewards of walking this hike are huge.

I took my time, took as many breaks as I wanted and still made it across in seven hours, catching the first return shuttle in the nick of time. I could have taken an extra hour and a half, and it would have been no problem.


Transport: The Crossing starts in one location and finishes in another, so a shuttle service runs from all the hostels and hotels in National Park Village for $35, dropping you off in the morning and picking you up late afternoon. Don’t bring your car to the Crossing, the carparks are overloaded and cars are backed up down the street.

Take your time: There is plenty of extra time on the track go at your own pace and take breaks when you need them. Enjoy yourself.

Sun protection: Bring sunglasses and a hat that won’t fly away; the wind whips the dust and sand up into your face and there’s little to no shade, and bring sunblock and reapply a few times during the day

Footwear: Most people we saw wore running shoes/trainers, so if you don’t have hiking boots don’t go out and buy them especially.

Water: 3L of water for each of us was sufficient and there is no water once you’re on the Crossing so bring all you’ll need. I wouldn’t bring more than 4L per person with the 4km assent early on in the day you’ll carry the extra weight for nothing.

Food: Bring two sandwiches per person, something sweet for energy and something salty to replace lost electrolytes.

Wear: I walked in the summer so shorts/yoga pants and a t-shirt were perfect. I also brought a light jacket and a raincoat but used neither.

Hiking poles: I saw a few people with them, they’d make the walk easier but I wouldn’t go out and buy them especially for Tongariro, I managed fine without.

Plan a rest day: Expect a day or two of stiff and sore leg muscles afterwards, so rest up and rewatch Lord of the Rings while pointing out local mountains.

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Hey, I'm Emma

Fuelled by wanderlust, curiosity and a little restlessness, a natural at budget travel, so naturally, a travel blogger. An experienced chef, a proud kiwi, and a burgeoning photographer. And my old friends reading and writing? We go way back.

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