This is a big topic on which much is already written, many opinions held, and where personal preferences reign. So here’s my two cents worth, but what works for me may not for you.
First of all, consider weight. On a regular hiking trip you will probably be walking less time each day, and for only a few days, so you don’t have to put up a heavy pack for long. That’s not the case here. Pare weight back as much as you can. Check out lightweight hiking websites. Think about the stuff you really need vs the simply nice-to-have. Do you really need a book? Liquid shampoo? A sheath knife? An inflatable pillow? More than one cooking container? Get some scales and weigh every single item so you see how much each contributes to the total. A 100g T-shirt, cellphone, or whatever doesn’t seem like much on its own, but they quickly add up.
Before getting into discussing some specific items, I’m going to put my gear list out there, but as I say, personal preference does come into it a lot. My pack base weight was 7.4 kg (16.3 lb). In practice I was carrying about 10.2 kg on my back including food and water at the start of each section, though I did often start off sections with some heavy fresh food, so maybe it was a bit more than that. I think this is quite light, and due in part to a light tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, cooking gear and, once I’d eaten the freshies, food. But let me say that the tent wouldn’t have stood up to a storm, I was freezing in my sleeping bag on several nights, and the sleeping mat wasn’t as comfortable as inflatable ones. So 11.5 kg would see you a lot more comfortable. Still, there are people who go lighter than my 10.2 kg. I could have left out the book, water filter (only used it a few times), and maybe gaiters, and got an alcohol burner that could cope with wind so as not to be bothered with gas.
So you can download my gear list as a spreadsheet and use it to add in your own gear.
Tents and Sleeping Bags
Tents: You can get away with not camping very often on the South Island TA, so there is no point carrying a large, heavy tent for the whole trip when you might use it only 7 or 8 times. In fact, with careful planning you might be able to avoid taking a tent entirely in the South Island. Issues to consider are full huts at peak time, when having an option of camping outside is useful, and full cabins in some camping grounds such as the one at Arrowtown and at some backpackers. You can get round these issues by going off-peak and booking well ahead. Then there are specific spots where camping is difficult to avoid: in Canterbury, Lake Middleton (stay at expensive Ohau Lodge or sleep under the stars?); Harper Village (no easy alternative, unless you choose not to walk from Lake Coleridge Village to Harper and catch a ride instead, or sleep out); and in Marlborough-Nelson at Pelorus River (sleep out or hitch/bus to Havelock to stay and hitch/bus back next day).
Consider tarpaulin tent types which use walking poles for support, as tent poles are a large part of the weight of a tent. However, note that NZ conditions are often windy, so a tarp tent can be breezy and not as dry and warm as a tub floor tent. And it offers no protection against sandflies. I made a very cheap and light tarp style tent out of Tyvek weighing about 250g (plus pegs, plus tyvek groundsheet = 535g total). That’s using a lighter weight variety than the Tyvek used by the building industry for wall lining.
Home-made Tyvek tent
Sleeping bag: Go for lighter and compensate for lack of warmth on occasion by wearing some clothes to bed. Down bags are lighter than synthetic in terms of weight for warmth and, just as important, crush down much smaller in your pack.
Kiwi trampers are gradually adopting these, often carrying one pole, but a pair of poles is essential for long distance walking like the TA. They allow you to go faster, they give you more stability on uneven ground, stabilise you on slippery patches and reduce the impact on your joints when going downhill. They can even be used to fend off hostile trampers. The twist-to-lock method of adjusting length is said to be less secure than the lever sort, but tends to result in a lighter pole. Carbon fibre sounds good in theory, but these poles are often heavier than the aluminium ones, and can break, whereas aluminium just bends and can be hammered back straight with a rock or hut axe. You don’t have to buy one of the expensive brands, though some of these do come with cork handles, which is apparently very nice to hold. One of Kathmandu’s Fizan models comes in at 158g, which is very hard to beat for weight, and it survived my South Island trek OK. When choosing a pole make sure it is the right length: bend your arms at right angles at the elbow and your hand should then grip the handle. That’s the length to set it up each day too. And when using them, rest your wrist on the strap. Google ‘using walking poles’ for more on effective technique.
Packs – Saving Weight Starts Here
Most regular packs are heavy but the good news is that manufacturers are making them lighter all the time. Probably the lightest weight one in NZ is the Osprey Talon 44 at 1050-1090g for 42 to 44 L. The women’s version (the Tempest) is a bit smaller at 38 to 40L and correspondingly lighter. 44 litres is small by Kiwi tramping standards, but you are supposed to be cutting back on carrying all that stuff you don’t really need, remember. I found the Talon 44 fine for size myself, and it wore well, but on the longest leg where I had to carry about 9 days worth of food it was full to bursting point. If you need 50 L (and it is carrying a tent that may push you in this direction) then Kathmandu’s Altai is 1.38g. I believe it comes with a women’s harness as an option. Macpac now have a lightweight pack, the Tasman 45 (45 L) at a claimed 1.1kg. (Note that manufacturer’s claims for capacity can vary considerably from testing when using a consistent methodology. The Tasman 45 looks a lot smaller than the Osprey Talon 44 for example. Part of it may depend on whether external pockets are included in the capacity measurement or not.) Packs lighter than the Osprey can be found via lightweight hiking sites in the USA and elsewhere. See the ultralight backpacking section of SectionHiker for example, and ultralight packs at Backcountry Gear or Hyperlite Mountain Gear. But while you may be able to save 200 or so grams, there will probably be a trade-off in comfort and functionality, not to mention price. There is a review of ultralight backpacks on Outdoor Gear Lab. The packs here average around 40 to 55 L, with weights around 850g. The top rated and exceptionally light Z-Pack Arc Blast 52 (50 L measured) weighs just 603g but costs NZ $470 list, plus shipping (vs around $200 – $300, or less than $200 on sale, for the above packs available in NZ).
Stoves – Gas or Alcohol?
Most TA hikers have some sort of gas stove. They are quick to set up and get going and burn with a hot, strong flame. The lightest and most compact way to go is to get one of the small screw-in burner heads. Both Kathmandu and Macpac have a titanium one that weighs about 50g. Your weight then is just the additional weight of the gas and the bottle. Make sure you unscrew the stove burner after use, as the tap can be knocked on in your pack and drain the cylinder (it happened to me!) A problem with gas is knowing how much gas you need, and at any given point, how much is left. With some previous experience you can work out how many burns you can get out of a given size bottle to boil your usual quantity of water. Then, as you go, scratch a mark each time you burn the stove so you know how much you have to go before you need a new bottle. This is an inexact business however, and you can easily get caught out. Then there is the question of where you can get a new bottle. Invercargill, Te Anau, Queenstown, Wanaka and maybe Twizel are certain sources, but it’s hard to guarantee there will be a bottle in stock of the size you want in places like Arthur’s Pass or St Arnaud. So you may have to carry much more than you really need.
Another option is an alcohol stove. These are lightweight, you can see exactly much fuel you have left, are cheap to run, and you can buy the fuel almost anywhere there is a store or petrol station. In NZ you want methylated spirits, also known as meths (but you are unlikely to get much joy if you ask the storekeeper for meth, singular, as that’s something else in NZ). It is coloured purple to identify it and has a foul tasting additive to prevent you drinking it. Make sure you keep your meths stove in a plastic bag when it’s in your pack, as any slight seepage of residual fluid into your cookware or food will make it taste truly horrible. Methylated spirits usually comes in a one l litre container, more than you want to carry, so you will have to put it into something smaller and throw the rest away (or better, carry it all to the first hut and leave the surplus for someone else). But again, make sure none seeps out in your pack (in another out-of-fuel mishap I lost a whole lot of fuel this way when an insecurely screwed bottle went upside down in my pack – maybe two small bottles are an insurance against this).
Alcohol stoves are not commonly available in stores in NZ. The only one I am aware of is the Esbit brass stove at Bivouac but it weighs 92g, and you still need a pot support. But you can make your own. I was astounded to meet a TA walker who had fabricated one by simply slicing slits with a knife all the way round the top of a tuna can. I made one myself and found it worked like a charm, though it was trickier to use than gas, and it had an issue of being unstable with a pot-full of water on top. I suffered the embarrassment in a crowded hut of the contraption falling over and flaming meths sweeping across the bench top along with my dinner. Fortunately burning meths is easily extinguished with water and my dinner mostly achieved that. Still, the stove itself only weighed 7g and used about 25ml (20g) of meths to boil 600mls of water.¹ You can make a more professional and probably effective version by drilling the holes. Start with the smallest tuna or cat food tin you can buy. New World supermarkets have the Pams brand of tuna cans, which are perfect. They are made of thin aluminium, which has advantages of weight and heat conductivity.
A drawback with alcohol stoves is that they need a wind shelter outdoors because their flame is not strong.
Another stove option is solid fuel tablets such as Esbit, useful in an emergency, and with the same advantage of alcohol that you know exactly how much fuel you have. But you need a pot stand and something to burn the tablets on, and the only source I am aware of in NZ are the Bivouac shops in the four main cities, though you might get them at hunting and fishing stores. And finally amongst alternatives to gas stoves are wood chip burners. A bit heavy and bulky perhaps but you don’t need to carry fuel (though remember that New Zealand bush is not described as rain forest for nothing, so you could struggle to find dry wood). You can make wood chip burners yourself too.
Lightweight Pots – You Heard it Here First!
If you follow my practice and only use a pot to heat water (or food in that water) to a boil, then one pot is all you need, and in fact you may as well use it to do double duty as a mug. Now, you could buy a titanium mug, but here is an ultra money-saving idea: cheap stainless steel kitchenware of the sort sold in Asian stores is sometimes made of such thin metal that its weight is the same as the sort of titanium mug/pot sold in tramping stores. Don’t believe me? My 850ml stainless steel mug that I’ve used for years and which has no dents or deformation weighs 120g. It cost me less than $5. A Toaks 800mm mug/pot weighs 112g, and costs $68 (sale price, plus freight from Gearshop). Macpac’s 900ml titanium pot is 114g and costs $97 discounted. The only advantage of the titanium pots is that the handles fold away, making packing easier. I bought my mug at New Gum Sarn supermarket in Mercury Lane (off Karangahape Rd, in the same building as the Mercury Plaza food court) in Auckland, but as of late 2016 the building is slated for demolition, so get in quick.
Navigation – Helpful Gadgets?
GPS: Nice to have, but if you take paper maps, a compass, and have the topo maps functional with GPS on your cellphone you should be right. I mainly used the GPS on my cellphone to find out how far I was from the hut towards the end of a tiring day and never once got out my compass, though that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t carry one. If the weather is murky and you can’t see the marker poles, and the ground trail is not well-defined (common in many open country sections), you will be wishing you had a GPS. And when it’s cold, wet and windy, you might find that fiddling about with a cellphone to get a position fix is just too hard.
Cellphone: a smartphone is pretty useful for its ability to carry back-up maps, downloaded documents like the guides on this site, a GPS, web access for checking weather forecasts and booking accommodation, taking photos, and oh, making calls. However, GPS and photography in particular really drain your battery. You can maximise battery life by only turning them on when needed, keeping your phone in flight mode when out of range, and maybe using a battery saving app. Many people these days use rechargable battery backup packs, but these weigh about as much as a cellphone. Much lighter and sometimes cheaper is simply a spare battery. Solar charging is yet to be fully practicable in terms of weight. Cellphone reception is, of course, mostly non-existent in backcountry areas. The Spark network is much better in these places than Vodafone however. Spark also carries the cheaper Skinny, and Vodafone the 2degrees service.
Personal Locator Beacons: If you are on your own and you fall down a bank, or worse, who is going to find you? PLBs are expensive, but then, what is your life worth? There are important differences in the types of beacons. The popular and cheaper SPOT device is essentially an activity tracker and needs a relatively clear horizon to transmit a message to a satellite. According to one commentator, the satellites it uses orbit closer to the horizon in NZ, so there is less chance of a signal being received. Other types work by transmitting an emergency signal only when you activate them, and work with higher orbiting satellites. Mapworld has a brief summary of what is available in NZ. And Outdoor Gear Lab explains the differences and makes some recommendations, though you would have to be sure these will operate in NZ.
Zip-lock bags are handy for food items and other uses, but the ‘free’ ones you use to buy nuts and dried fruit at supermarkets are not very robust. The zips tend to fail and the bags get holes in them with repeated use. Better to pay the money and buy better quality bags. Even better, buy double zip bags. BUT, these are not available in NZ! You can buy Hercules resealable bags with twin zips in Woolworths supermarkets in Australia though. Good for putting your electronics in, as well as critical clothes, books, maps, first aid, etc.
Another thing you can’t buy in NZ is Glacéau Smartwater. The bottles are ideal for backpacking in my view as they come in long, slim bottles, making them easy to slip down the side of your pack. So far as I can see you can only get the 700ml size in Australia, but they come in larger sizes in the USA and UK.
Suppliers in New Zealand include the Australasian outdoor chain stores Kathmandu and Macpac, with branches in many cities and their own branded gear, plus Torpedo 7, Bivouac, Earth Sea Sky and the mail order Gearshop. Many smaller towns also have hunting and fishing stores which carry hiking gear, but it tends to be the heavier variety. And the Rebel Sports chain sell trail runners.
There is always the well-respected US Outdoor Gear Lab for reviews of clothing and equipment, though you will have to put up with the obsolete measures of pounds, ounces, feet and inches, and reading about gear you can’t buy in NZ stores. However, if you are living in the USA, that’s the haven for ultralight gear and you would be best to do your shopping there. Even fairly regular gear will be a fair bit more expensive in New Zealand.
1. My tests with the alcohol stoves pictured above show 20g of fuel (25ml) is required to boil 600ml of water at a starting temperature of about 20 degrees C. The gas stove described with a screw-on burner uses just 10g of gas. But for the smallest type of gas canister (110g gas), you are also carrying about 150g of metal canister and burner. You get about 10 boils out of this. So average weight per boil over time for the two types of stove is actually about the same. Except that with the alcohol stove the weight you are carrying decreases proportionately as you use fuel (since the weight of the stove itself is negligible), but with gas you are still carrying 150g even when you’ve run out of gas. Also, the alcohol stoves pictured are primitive, and probably not very efficient compared to some better models that are likely to use less fuel per boil.