People enjoying a guided walk, Fiordland National Park

Clothing to wear (and not) for hiking in Fiordland

23 Jan 2023

These are the 2 best tips for what to wear, from someone in the know!

‘Tramping’ is the New Zealand word for hiking or long walks in the hills – in other countries it has quite a different meaning which has made for some funny conversations for Trips & Tramps guides!  For the benefit of our international visitors I will just refer to hiking in this article.

I have been a guide for Trips & Tramps for almost 10 years now and have spent my life hiking in the hills around Fiordland.  It is not uncommon to pass hikers on the trails who look woefully underprepared and there have often been times I have thought they look like a disaster waiting to happen because of what they are wearing. 

It is critical that you are well prepared for your hiking trip to ensure you not only enjoy it but that you come back alive (yes, it can be that serious).  Travelling safely is one of the principles of the Tiaki Promise.  Let me help you out with some personal experience and top-tips.

Here are the two top-tips for clothing to wear while hiking in Fiordland (from someone who has tried it all!)

two hikers with walking poles in the mountain sunlight at Key Summit on the Routeburn Track in Fiordland

The alpine area can be amazing, but the weather can quickly change, ensure you have the right clothing for the conditions.

1. Layers, layers, layers - Dress like a cabbage!

Having multiple layers of clothing makes it much easier to regulate your temperature while you’re walking.  If you’re like me, you will be a bit cold when you start walking and as you warm up you can take layers off as you need to.  Then when you stop for a break and cool down you layer back up! 

Start with a base layer next to your skin – it’s important the material in this layer is breathable, can wick moisture away from your body and is warm when wet.  Merino wool is the best option for this and luckily there is a lot of it in NZ!  There are some good synthetic options also.  A thermal hat for your head is also a good idea.  If you don’t wear it no harm is done, but if you need it you’ll be grateful you have it.  Remember even a short walk can become a long one if someone gets injured.

The next layer is called a mid-layer and goes between the base layer and any other wind or waterproof layers you might want to wear.  Again, it should be breathable and have thermal properties.  Merino or synthetics are good.  I suggest you have two mid-layers, a t shirt and a heavier garment like a polar fleece that you can take on or off as you need.

Base and mid-layers are for moderating your temperature, everyone is different so you might have to trial a few different items of clothing to work out what works best for you in different conditions.  The last layer or layers are just whatever you need to manage the environmental conditions for example wind, rain or even sunshine! 

In Fiordland you need a good, solid raincoat.  Imagine a tropical downpour except colder and that is what you could encounter anytime of the year in Fiordland!  Sometimes I wear a light down jacket if it’s not raining until I warm up.  For UV protection there are now some great lightweight tops and coats you can wear that keep the sun off.  I find this really good on sunny days when I’m on the tops (or in the garden!) – still keeps me cool but not sunburnt.

two hikers in the mountains on the Routeburn Track, FiordlandChoose lightweight and quick drying items for clothing, and ensure you bring them.

2. Cotton is useless for hiking - please don't wear it.

As a child I was always taught that you should NEVER wear cotton clothing while hiking.  The reason being that cotton has zero thermal properties when it’s wet or even damp.  In fact, when it is wet it will quickly start sapping your body heat to the point you become very cold.  It also becomes heavy and does not dry.  Even a light rain shower or a good sweat is enough to make you cold and wet if you are wearing cotton.  This can quickly start to head towards hypothermia.

The biggest mistake a person can make while hiking in NZ is to wear jeans.  It is so frowned upon that it is considered a serious social faux pax and you are likely to be laughed at.  Also, jeans are just really uncomfortable to hike in. 

There are many excellent lightweight, quick drying garments available now – some even look alright!  Do yourself a favour and get some clothing that is suitable to wear hiking.  

So those are my two top-tips on clothing items to wear while hiking in Fiordland – or anywhere in NZ.  Remember that even if you are an experienced hiker back home the conditions in NZ will possibly be different to what you are used to, so listen to the locals and be prepared. 

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