How to Prepare for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing
The forces of the earth can be seen working at the surface; this is what the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is all about, as well as one hell of a workout! You could almost be mistaken for walking on another planet as you hike across a landscape of craters, active volcanoes, scattered pumice, mountain springs, lava flows, scoria and mounds of volcanic rock weathered into statues. Then, you have a contrast of colours with the azure blue and emerald lakes to the fiery red crater… No wonder the Tongariro Crossing is often described as one of New Zealand’s best one-day hikes. The area is also famous for its run-in with Mt Ngauruhoe, or to the Lord of the Rings fans, Mt Doom of Mordor.
The 19.4km (12-mile) hike high into a volcanic alpine environment is a must-do in New Zealand but does require a bit of preparation, from packing the right equipment to booking your transport. You don’t have to be incredibly fit for this walk; just be prepared and determined!
The Complete Guide to the Tongariro Crossing on Video:
Not much of a reader? This guide exists in video form too!
Tongariro Crossing Checklist: What to Pack for the Tongariro Crossing
It is essential that you are prepared for all conditions, no matter what time of year you go.
- Food: prepare some lunch and snacks to keep you going.
- Plenty of water: 1.5-3 litres per person should be enough. Take about 3 litres if you are going to do side tracks and summits.
- Rain jacket: not only to protect you against the rain but will keep you warm from the wind.
- Layers: whether it be thermals, walking pants/leggings, overtrousers, etc. No matter the conditions before you start your hike, the weather could change in an instant in the mountains
- Hiking shoes or boots
- Hat in summer/beanie in spring, autumn and winter (see the section below for winter hiking)
- Personal first aid kit (including plasters for blisters and hand sanitiser for after using the toilet)
- Toilet paper (they’re usually empty on the track)
- Hiking poles (if you struggle with downhills – some shuttles provide them)
- Map (the track is easy to follow, but just in case)
- A phone (and the number of your shuttle company)
- In winter, you may need crampons and an ice axe (and know how to use them). It is safer to go with a guide in these conditions.
For more advice on being prepared for any hike in New Zealand, take a look at our guide, Outdoor Safety When Hiking in New Zealand.
What to Wear for the Tongariro Crossing
How should you dress to set out on the Tongariro Crossing? Here’s a clothing checklist:
- Layers, such as merino or polypropylene T-shirts and a long-sleeved layer (all season). Avoid cotton.
- Quick-dry hiking pants (all season). Leggings are acceptable for December, January and February. Avoid jeans.
- Warm jacket or overlayer (October, November, March, April and May).
- Rainjacket (all season. See recommendations in What is the Best Rain Jacket for New Zealand?)
- Wool or polypropylene socks. Avoid cotton.
- Gloves (October, April, May).
- Hiking shoes or boots, preferably waterproof.
Don’t have any hiking gear? Check out our guide on Where to Buy Camping and Hiking Gear in New Zealand? You’ll also find hiking gear rental shops in National Park Village.
Terrain and Track Description
How Long Does it Take to Do the Tongariro Crossing?
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a one-way 19.4km (12-mile) track. At a comfortable speed with plenty of stops for photos (or resting – we are not judging), it takes between 7-8 hours to complete. However, those who power through usually do it in around 5-6 hours, but we recommend taking your time and enjoying the view.
Where to Start the Tongariro Crossing
One end of the Tongariro Crossing is at the Mangatepopo car park on the west side of the mountains and the other end is at the Ketetahi car park, north of the mountains.
For less time hiking uphill, start from the Mangatepopo car park and end at Ketetahi. That’s why all of the Tongariro shuttles drop hikers off at the Mangatepopo car park (more on that in the “Transport to the Tongariro Crossing” section below).
For those wishing to park at Mangatepopo independently, note that between Labour Weekend in October and April 30, a four-hour time restriction is in place at the Mangatepopo car park. Get to the Mangatepopo car park by taking Mangatepopo Road off State Highway 47 for 7km (4 miles) to the car park.
What Time to Start Hiking the Tongariro Crossing
You should start walking the Tongariro Crossing between 8 am and 9 am. Shuttles generally offer passengers a choice of times to start the hike between 6.30 am and 10.30 am. For a “less crowded” trail, we recommend hiking as early as possible.
A Quick Description of the Tongariro Crossing Track
Now, begin the Tongariro Crossing! From the Mangatepopo car park follow the well-marked track of gravel and boardwalks up a steady gradient to the Soda Springs turn-off and some toilet facilities. Then prepare for the steepest climb of the hike, known as the Devil’s Staircase, up to the Mangatepopo Saddle. Continue across the flat on the Manatepopo Saddle between Mt Tongariro and Mt Ngauruhoe.
It’s another steep climb following the pole markers up the South Crater to the Crossing’s highest point, the Red Crater (1,886m/6,188ft). Descend past the Emerald Lakes and take another quick climb skirting Te Wai-Whakaata-o-te Rangihiroa (Blue Lake).
The rest is downhill from here to the Ketetahi Shelter a good place to stop for lunch (if you started super early) then the final descent is about two hours of walking through native forest to the Ketetahi car park.
Side Trips on the Tongariro Crossing
Extend your trip to the volcanic plateau!
Soda Springs (15 Minutes Return)
Find a dainty waterfall that emerges in a boggy area, perfect for moisture-loving vegetation! Start the 15-minute Soda Springs Track near the head of the Mangatepopo Valley before ascending up the Devil’s Staircase. The side track is well-signposted.
Mt Ngauruhoe Summit (Tapu Area)
Lord of the Rings fans and the super-fit will no doubt have Mt Doom on their bucket list. Although Mt Ngauruhoe is a popular climb that some still wish to bag, signs to the Mt Ngauruhoe sidetrack have been removed from the Tongariro Crossing to discourage hikers from climbing up to this tapu (sacred) area to the local people.
Mt Tongariro Summit (Tapu Area)
Also removed as an official side track of the Tongariro Crossing, the Mt Tongariro Summit is another tapu area. Respect the local customs by sticking to the trail.
Transport to the Tongariro Crossing
Because the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a one-way track (and the Mangatepopo car park at the beginning of the track has a four-hour time limit), you will need some sort of transport to either transport you from/to one of the nearby park ‘n ride car parks or transport you from/to your accommodation. Luckily, there are services to do just that!
Tongariro Transport Hub: Ketetahi Park n’ Ride for the Tongariro Crossing
The closest and only all-day secure car park for the Tongariro Crossing, the Tongariro Transport Hub (or as many know it, the Ketetahi Car Park, as it’s so close to the official one) is located at the end of the trail so you can walk straight back to your car. There’s no need to be at the end of the trail at a certain time to catch your return shuttle! Once you’re parked up at the Tongariro Transport Hub, the team will organise one of their shuttles to transport you to the start of the Tongariro Crossing. Easy! Book your parking spot and shuttle at tongarirocrossing.com.
Tongariro Crossing–Accommodation Shuttles
For those who would prefer to be picked up and dropped off at their accommodation, there are a number of Tongariro Alpine Crossing shuttle services operating from National Park Village, Whakapapa Village, Turangi, Ohakune, Taupo Taumarunui and, in some cases, even from Auckland or Wellington!
For more information about transport, see our Tongariro Crossing Accommodation and Transport: A Practical Guide. Otherwise, here are some of our top recommended shuttles for the Tongariro Crossing…
Backyard Tours: Door-to-Door Transport for the Tongariro Crossing
Offering affordable shuttle services from your accommodation in Turangi and from the Tongariro Transport Hub, Backyard Tours is definitely worth considering for your Tongariro transport. The small family-owned business provides an authentic introduction to the Tongariro Crossing with local knowledge shared along the journey and cultural blessings before you depart on your adventure. They’re also safety-conscious, with walking poles available for optional use, and they monitor the alpine conditions. Book your spot on the shuttle at backyardtours.com.
Tongariro Panda Shuttles: Transport to the Tongariro Crossing from Anywhere!
If you need an alternative option for the Tongariro Crossing, why not try Tongariro Panda Shuttles? The team has one of the most comprehensive lists of destinations to get you (and your minimum group of four) to and from the Tongariro Crossing. Local services include Turangi, Taupo, Taupo Airport, Ohakune, the Ruapehu district and the Tongariro Transport Hub – all for a very reasonable price. Should you be so inclined to do the Crossing from Auckland or Wellington then they can sort you out there too! (Needless to say, the latter service is a flat rate of over NZ$1,000.) Hit the team up on Facebook to book your spot!
National Park Shuttles: Ride with the Locals to the Tongariro Crossing
Ride with National Park Shuttles and hear about the magical tales of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing straight from the people of the homeland. Providing shuttles from National Park Village and the Tongariro Transport Hub car park, National Park Shuttles will keep you entertained the whole way. They’ll also make sure you’re safe from drop-off until the end of your trip, so you never get the feeling that you’re just another number on the bus. Book your trip to the Tongariro Crossing at nationalparkshuttles.com.
Again, for working out all of the logistics of accommodation and transport for the Tongariro Crossing, see our Tongariro Crossing Accommodation and Transport: A Practical Guide.
The Tongariro Crossing: Summer Vs. Winter
Never has a place looked so contrasting between seasons. You’ll get an array of colours created by volcanic activity during the summer months, then all this is blanketed in the snow like icing sugar on a 2,287m cake! All seasons can be extremely rewarding to hike the Tongariro Crossing as long as you keep safe. The weather can be brutal and what is going on in the car park at the start of the Crossing can be completely different from what is going on 1,000m/3,200ft higher.
The track is well marked with poles and signs to follow, as well as formed tracks. If the visibility gets too poor to see the next marker, stay where you are until you can see the next marker again.
The Best Time of Year to Do the Tongariro Crossing: Summer (November to April)
All the fiery red and orange of a volcanic plateau teamed with the Emerald and Blue Lakes are best seen in mid-spring and summer going into the first half of autumn (November-April). Summer is often the preferred time to tackle Tongariro, with the weather conditions more often being clearer and calmer. If you want to hike the Tongariro Crossing independently, aim for the months between November to April!
Winter on the Tongariro Crossing (June to September)
Winter in New Zealand runs from June to August (and often creeps into May in late autumn and October in early spring), which is a great time to see the Tongariro Crossing in a completely different way. The landscape is completely covered in snow, which particularly makes Mt Ngauruhoe look unreal. Saying that, winter is when the Crossing experiences its most extreme weather with snow and blistering winds. It’s best to wait for a calm and clear winter’s day to make the most of it. Even then, you’ll need specialist equipment like crampons and an ice axe and know how to use them. If you are not experienced at hiking in winter alpine conditions, hire a guide with Adrift Tongariro, for your own safety.
Spring Hiking on the Tongariro Crossing (October)
If you want to get a taste of that winter experience, look out for some shuttle companies operating during mid-spring (October) if it has been deemed safe enough to hike the trail independently. During October, some of the snow may still be lingering on the highest points like Mt Ngauruhoe, Mangatepopo Saddle and the outskirts of the Blue Lake, while the lakes may only just be visible from under the ice.
Facilities on the Tongariro Crossing
There are limited facilities on the Tongariro Crossing. That’s why it’s best to be fully prepared and self-sufficient for your hike and any changing weather that may come with it.
There are nine long drop toilets located along the Tongariro Alpine Crossing Track, including one at the Mangatepopo hut and car park and at the Ketetahi shelter and car park. Take your own toilet paper and hand sanitiser.
The huts are for overnight users (for those doing the Tongariro Circuit Great Walk). If you need to use them for shelter, leave wet boots and jackets outside.
Water (Take Your Own)
Make sure you take enough drinking water with you for the whole trip (1.5l to 3l per person). There is a water supply at the huts from rainwater, but this water should be treated before drinking. Do not drink water from the streams due to its high mineral content.
There are no rubbish bins along the trail, so take the rubbish out of the park with you, including cigarette butts.
For more details on the Tongariro Crossing’s facilities, check out the Department of Conservation website.
The Cost of the Tongariro Crossing
So, how much does it cost to do the Tongariro Crossing? Although the Tongariro Crossing is a free walking trail, expect to make a small budget for transport and perhaps accommodation.
Is There a Fee to Walk the Tongariro Crossing?
There is no admission fee to walk the trail. You will, however, need to budget for transport and likely accommodation.
The Cost of Transport for the Tongariro Crossing
The cost of transport for the Tongariro Crossing depends on where you are being transported from/to. Approximate costs per person include:
- Park n’ ride car parks + shuttle: NZ$40-$45
- National Park/Whakapapa return shuttle: NZ$45-$55
- Turangi return shuttle: NZ$50
- Ohakune/Ruapehu return shuttle: NZ$50-$65
- Taupo return shuttle: NZ$100.
Other costs to consider include accommodation in one of the towns and villages near the Tongariro Crossing. Accommodation is worth considering bearing in mind that you’ll need an early start to hike the Tongariro Crossing, preferably between 8 am to 9 am (or around 6-7 am if you want to try to avoid the crowds) but no later than 10.30 am. See our Tongariro Crossing Accommodation & Transport for advice on where to stay.
Frequently Asked Questions About the Tongariro Crossing
What are the most-asked questions about the Tongariro Crossing on the internet? We’ll answer them for you!
Can You Do the Tongariro Crossing in One Day?
Yes, you can do the Tongariro Crossing in one day. It takes approximately 6 to 8 hours to complete the Tongariro Crossing depending on your fitness and how fast you walk.
Can You Swim in the Lakes on the Tongariro Crossing?
You should not swim in the lakes on the Tongariro Crossing. The reason for avoiding having a dip in the Emerald Lakes is that they are highly acidic. Plus, there are thermal vents around the lakes, which have caused serious burns to hikers walking to the lakes’ shores, so avoid getting too close. The Blue Lake on the Tongariro Crossing is tapu (sacred), so respect the local customs by not swimming or even touching the water.
Can You Do the Tongariro Crossing in Sneakers or Trainers?
Boots and walking shoes with firm soles and good tread are recommended footwear for the Tongariro Crossing, especially as part of the trail in on loose rocks. If sneakers (trainers) are all you have, however, then they are Ok (just Ok) for summer conditions.
How Hard is it to Walk the Tongariro Crossing?
For many, the Tongariro Crossing is a very doable challenge. Those with average fitness and full mobility will be able to do the Tongariro Crossing, as long as they are fully prepared with sufficient water, food and clothing for an alpine environment (see guide above).
What is the Devil’s Staircase on Tongariro?
The Devil’s Staircase is a long section of steps after the Soda Springs that climbs up onto the Mangatepopo Saddle of the Tongariro Crossing. It was first named for an old poled route that was difficult to climb before the current steps were established. However, most would agree the name still applies…
More About the Tongariro Crossing
That’s it for our guide to the Tongariro Crossing! Check out these articles to see what else you could be doing in the Tongariro National Park:
- 15 BEST Things to Do in the Tongariro National Park
- 11 Epic Bike Trails Around Tongariro National Park
- 13 Walks Around National Park Village and Whakapapa Village
Finally, if there’s anything we’ve missed, you’re likely to find it in our Tongariro National Park destination category.