Glacier hiking offers a more adventurous spin on traditional hiking and can be done on every continent except for Australia. Whether you love nature, a physical challenge, or simply being outdoors, glacier hiking is a great way to feed your sense of adventure.
The sheer scale, beauty, and uniqueness of glaciers make the experience of hiking on them unforgettable. It’s an activity that often takes you out of your comfort zone and can provide a sense of accomplishment. Glacier hiking usually involves using specialised equipment and often requires exhilarating transport to reach them such scenic helicopter rides.
So now that I’ve piqued your interest, you may be asking where to start searching for glacier hiking experiences. My answer would be to start in New Zealand. While Australia may not have any glaciers, its neighbour has numerous that are “Sweet as, bru!”
Glacier Hiking in New Zealand: Ultimate Guide & Tips
What is Glacier Hiking?
Glacier hiking, or glacier trekking, is a thrilling outdoor adventure activity that involves exploring and walking on the surface of a glacier. Glaciers are massive bodies of ice and snow that flow slowly over time due to the accumulation and compression of snowfall.
Glacier hiking offers the chance for people of nearly all fitness levels to experience a bit of icy adventure that doesn’t risk your life like let’s say trying to summit Everest, frozen waterfall climbing, or exploring dangerous ice caves.
And because glacier hiking is often done in guided groups, it can be a great way to meet new people, share experiences, and create lasting memories with fellow adventurers. It’s also a fun way to increase awareness of climate change and the importance of preserving these fragile environments.
Why New Zealand is Popular for Glacier Hiking
New Zealand is home to some of the most stunning glacier landscapes in the world, and there are over 3,000 of them to choose from by some estimates. Most of New Zealand’s glaciers can be found on the South Island, with several being quite accessible such as Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier.
New Zealand’s glaciers provide a dramatic contrast of ice formations descending from the Southern Alps that lead into lush green rainforests. These contrasting landscapes make for breathtaking scenery and fantastic photo opportunities.
As with any New Zealand holiday, the best way to experience the country and its glaciers is to rent a campervan in New Zealand and take to the open road. It’s by far the most flexible, comfortable, and enjoyable ways to take in the natural beauty of New Zealand and find areas to try a bit of glacier hiking.
Best Time of Year for Glacier Hiking in New Zealand
Late spring to early autumn (November to April) is the most popular time for glacier hiking, although this means that it is also considered peak tourist season and you can expect more crowds. Weather conditions are generally milder during this period, making hiking on the ice more comfortable.
Choosing to hike during late winter to early spring (July to September) will result in far quieter experiences due to the thinning of crowds. It can also prove more economical. While the weather may be colder, this off-season can provide more dramatic scenery for photography such as snow-covered landscapes.
Understand that glacier hiking is a weather-dependent activity. Poor weather conditions, including rain or heavy fog, can impact visibility and the overall experience. Guided tours may also be cancelled in extreme weather. Always dress appropriately for glacier hiking, regardless of the season, as hiking on the glaciers can be cold and icy.
New Zealand’s Most Popular Glaciers Hikes
Most of New Zealand’s popular glacier hikes are found on the South Island and while you can self-drive to a number of them to view them, most actual glacier hiking is done by booking tours with experienced guides who are knowledgeable about the ever-changing terrain and safety protocols.
The duration of a glacier hike can vary greatly, from a few hours to full-day excursions. Some longer treks may even involve actually camping on the glacier. And while you can walk up to the base of a number of glaciers quite easily, actually setting foot on a glacier will likely require a scenic helicopter ride followed by exploring the glacier with a guide as stated before.
Let’s take a look at some of the notable glaciers worth checking out if you’re not content simply settling for views from vantage points and actually want to experience a bit of glacier hiking yourself.
Franz Josef Glacier
Franz Josef Glacier is arguably New Zealand’s most famous glacier, partly due to the fact it is quite accessible. It’s found on the South Island’s West Coast within Westland Tai Poutini National Park and you can hike the Franz Josef Glacier walk to get up to the base of the glacier without a guide.
The nearest township is Franz Josef Village, which serves as a base for tourists visiting the glacier, and where you can book glacier hikes from licensed tour operators.
Franz Josef Glacier is unique in that it is one of only a handful of glaciers in the world that extends into lush rainforest, creating a striking contrast between the ice and surrounding greenery. The glacier sports impressive crevasses in the ice, towering ice pinnacles, and a number of ice caves.
Like many glaciers worldwide, Franz Josef Glacier is experiencing the effects of climate change, resulting in overall retreat which has lead to the need for conservation efforts in an attempt to protect and preserve the glacier.
Fox Glacier is also situated within Westland Tai Poutini National Park, just south of Franz Josef Glacier. It offers guided tours out onto the ice similar to those offered at Franz Josef Glacier. Also like Franz Josef Glacier, Fox Glacier is a dynamic, rapidly moving glacier which flows from the high peaks of the Southern Alps down to lower altitudes.
To be honest, because the two glaciers are so close to each other, there are not extreme differences between them. Fox Glacier is slightly smaller in size and farther from Franz Josef town but is still conveniently accessible enough for visitors, although neither can be accessed for glacier hiking from the valley floor.
The Tasman Glacier is the largest glacier in New Zealand and the main feature of Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park. The glacier stretches an impressive 27 kilometres in length and covers over 100 square kilometres.
At the glacier’s terminal face, it spills into the Tasman Lake, which was formed as a result of the glacier’s retreat. The lake is often filled with icebergs that have broken off, or calved as they say, from the glacier.
Glacier hiking is less common on Tasman Glacier than on Fox or Franz Joseph but it is still possible. Heli-hiking tours leave from Mount Cook Airport. You can also opt for a guided boat trip on Tasman Lake instead, allowing you to get up close to the icebergs and experience a glacier from a different angle.
Rob Roy Glacier
Located near the town of Wanaka in the Otago region, Rob Roy Glacier sits within the heritage-listed Mount Aspiring National Park near the headwaters of the West Matukituki River. At around 10 kilometres in length, it is one of the shorter ones on our list.
Access to Rob Roy Glacier is via the Rob Roy hiking track trailhead, which is requires a 50km scenic drive from Wanaka. Once on the self-guided or tour-guided trail, you’ll be rewarded with views of the Matukituki Valley, West Matukituki River, beech forests, and several waterfalls. There are a number of viewing points where you can listen for avalanches and possibly witness glacier calving during the spring.
We should mention that the 10km round-trip Rob Roy Glacier Track is temporarily closed due to potential damage to the bridge that crosses the West Matukituki River. Construction works are underway and are scheduled to be completed during the 2023/2024 summer season, with sadly no current detours or alternative routes in place.
We also want to inform you that a section of the road to the track is unpaved and therefore may not be allowed by rental companies when renting a campervan, so be sure to research what the terms and conditions are of your rental agreement.
It is not common or safe for visitors to walk directly on Rob Roy Glacier itself. There are no guided tours or companies that offer glacier hiking experiences, and therefore Rob Roy Glacier is typically viewed from a distance via the viewpoints.
Recommended Gear for Glacier Hiking
While glacier hiking doesn’t require any prior experience or training in mountaineering, there is a selection of specialised gear that you’ll utilise which you normally wouldn’t with traditional hiking.
Thankfully, nearly all guided glacier hikes with reputable companies will provide the bulk of recommended gear needed for glacier hiking so you won’t have to go out an buy a bunch of expensive gear or find a way to pack it all without paying excess baggage fees.
While glacier hiking is generally safe and can be enjoyed by people of nearly all fitness levels, it can be physically demanding and potentially hazardous due to the ever-changing ice conditions and crevasses. Being properly prepared and equipped will better ensure your experience is a pleasant and safe one.
Your guides should give the group a safety briefing and then issue everyone with specialised glacier hiking equipment.
Provided Equipment You Shouldn’t Have to Bring Yourself
- waterproof jacket and trousers
- trekking poles
- small pack for carrying gear
- hat and gloves
- ice axe
Essential Items You Should Pack and Bring Yourself
- long comfortable non-restrictive pants (don’t wear jeans)
- dress in layers with a breathable, yet warm base layer
- lip balm
It’s always a good idea to communicate with your tour company to see what gear will be provided for you. For example, some may or may not provide boots. You’ll want to have waterproof mountaineering boots that are compatible with crampons. Crampons are essential for providing traction on icy surfaces. Ensure they fit securely on your boots and have anti-balling plates to prevent snow build-up.
A helmet will protect your head from falling ice or rock debris, a harness and ropes may be used for glacier travel and crevasse rescue, trekking poles can aid with stability when traversing uneven glacier terrain, and avalanche safety gear may also be issued such as a beacon, probe, and shovel in case one should occur.
Glacier hiking often involves intense sunlight and glare from the snow. Therefore, high-quality sunglasses with UV protection and glacier goggles are important for eye protection. This is also why sunscreen and SPF lip balm are important because despite what the temperature may be, you can get sunburn while glacier hiking due to the reflection of the sun off snow and ice.
Regulations & Safety
Glacier hiking involves walking on uneven, icy surfaces, which requires a reasonable level of physical fitness. The level of difficulty can vary, from relatively easy glacier walks suitable for beginners to more challenging ascents for experienced hikers.
Glacier hiking in New Zealand is again typically conducted through guided tours offered by licensed operators. These tours are regulated by the Department of Conservation (DOC) to ensure safety and environmental protection. Visitors are expected to book guided tours with reputable companies, and these tours often include equipment rental, safety briefings, and experienced guides.
Before planning a glacier hiking trip in New Zealand, it’s essential to check the most up-to-date information on regulations, permits, and requirements from the Department of Conservation (DOC) or the specific tour operators in the area. Regulations can change in response to environmental factors, safety concerns, or other factors, so it’s crucial to stay informed and follow any guidelines provided by the relevant authorities and tour operators.
Factors That May Prevent You from Glacier Hiking
- Some tours may not allow pregnant women to hike for safety reasons
- Some tours may have a weight restriction for safety reasons.
- There may be a minimum age requirement to join a tour
- Certain pre-existing medical conditions may exclude you such as having certain heart conditions or ankle, knee, and back injuries.
Talk with your doctor and the tour company before booking to make sure you are fit to partake in glacier hiking. In addition to keeping yourself safe, it’s also important to ensure the preservation of these fragile environments.
Reputable companies and their guides will emphasise the importance sustainable eco-tourism. You will be encouraged to leave no trace and respect the natural environment by minimising your impact. Some guides may really push eco-focused tours that educate guests about the glacier’s history, formation, and the impact of climate change on these ice formations.
Seek Out Testimonials Before You Book
We recommend you go online a research testimonials and reviews from people who have done glacier hiking in New Zealand to see if it is right for you and to ensure you book with a reputable company. Testimonials are typically found on travel websites, tour operator websites, social media platforms, or forums where travellers share their experiences.
Many glacier hiking tour operators in New Zealand feature customer reviews and testimonials on their websites. These can provide valuable insights into the experiences of past participants, but keep in mind that they may only display positive reviews and omit bad experiences from guests.
Travel bloggers like myself often provide a more realistic account of travel destinations and activities, so they can offer a wealth of information that is useful for everyday travellers. Likewise, travel forums and social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube often have travel enthusiasts who document and share their glacier hiking adventures through photos and videos. You can search for relevant hashtags or join travel-related groups to read about their real-life experiences.
When reading testimonials and reviews, it’s a good practice to consider multiple sources to get a well-rounded understanding of the experiences and gather insights into what you can expect during your own glacier hiking adventure in New Zealand.