New Zealand Trail Running

[Below is the first article in a series that will profile trail running in various countries around the world. We’ve […]

By on January 4, 2010 | Comments

[Below is the first article in a series that will profile trail running in various countries around the world. We’ve recruited local experts for each of the posts. Please get in touch if you are interested in having your country profiled.]

Trail Running in New Zealand
by Paul Charteris, RD of the Tarawera Ultramarathon

Jez Bragg and myself camped with Bryon Powell at Yosemite in June, a week before we ran Western States. As you can imagine we talked about trail running non-stop. It was one of those wonderful international experiences where we shared our passion for long distance trail running in the UK, USA, and New Zealand. As part of that continuing conversation, here is a brief description of the New Zealand trail running scene.

The Scene
With a population of only four million, a land area identical to Colorado and a coastline longer than that of the continental United States, New Zealand has a huge variety of places to explore in a relatively small area. No matter where you are, you are never far from the coast, are often close to the mountains and always have forests, streams and rivers to go explore. Running around gnarled roots of Pohutukawa on the coast, traversing active volcanic cones, climbing the Southern Alps or zipping over golden tussock lands, New Zealand is pretty much trail running heaven.

Mount Cook National ParkCrossing an alpine ravine in Mount Cook National Park.
(Photo courtesy of

Probably as a result of the terrain, we have an unusually strong history of exploration and adventure. The influence of explorers such as Edmund Hillary, Peter Blake, Rob Hall, Gary Hall, Graeme Dingle and Steve Gurney on the New Zealand psyche are undeniable. So, too, is the towering legacy of Arthur Lydiard to New Zealand running. Every Kiwi kid few up knowing about the great middle distance runners; Lovelock, Snell, Halberg, Walker. All were incredible athletes and a great source of pride for a small nation. Given our landscape, trails and running history you’d think everyone would be a trail runner.

trail running New ZealandRunners exploring the ocean near Aukland.
Photo courtesy of

Spoiled for Choice

The local endurance scene is dominated by multisport races, both adventure racing and triathlon. It’s not surprising. We have an abundance of lakes, rivers and coastline that lends itself very well to hosting triathlon and adventure events. Given the ease of access, superb areas to train and abundance of events, both triathlon and adventure racing will continue to remain popular in New Zealand for a long time yet. The most famous adventure races are the Coast to Coast, Motu Challenge and Lake to Lighthouse. These types of events have probably done more than anything else to get kiwis running in wild and rugged places.

The Trails
I live in the Eastern Bay of Plenty, which is on the east coast of the North Island. My part of Kiwi-land has many ancient forests (such as the Whirinaki Forest), beaches (such as Ohope Beach), volcanic lakes, hotpools, lakes and streams. It’s a trail runners’ utopia. It’s quite a luxury when you are able to run trails and jump into a steaming wilderness hotpool at the end of it.

Thirty percent of NZ is in national parks with many tracks (as trails are known) traversing wild areas. The Department of Conservation (DOC) has an extensive series of huts along these tracks where you can stop for a cup of tea or spend the night. This makes one-day and multi-day runs in to NZs backcountry very feasible and cheap. Just make sure you wear appropriate clothing before heading in to the hills since the weather can change suddenly and check-in with the local DOC office for free maps and advice. Many of our great walks (known in the States as long trails) would provide a truly world class trail running experience. Again, check in with the local DOC office for advice on the Great Walks.

Kepler Challenge forest runningRunning through the forest in the Kepler Challenge on the South Island.
(Photo courtesy of the Kepler Challenge)

In December 2010, the 3,000km Te Araroa Track will open. This will be the newest of the world’s long walks and without a doubt will be hugely attractive for trail ultra runners around the world. Here’s the info on the track to be:

There are well over a hundred organized trail running races in New Zealand. Most of them are clustered in the warmer months spanning October to April with every part of the country with a great variety of terrain, distances and difficulty.

I am the Race Director for the Tarawera Ultramarathon. These races, which take place in March, includes 100k, 80k and 55k point-to-point runs on bush tracks (trails) and forestry roads around lakes and along a river. It’s a really beautiful run through an area that is of great significance to the local Maori people.

Whirinaki Forest Paul CharterisTarawera Ultramarathon RD Paul Charteris running
the Whirinaki Forest near the Bay of Plenty.

Among my favorite local races are the Tois Challenge, the Great Kauri Run, The Goat and the Tussock Traverse. Well-supported trail run series include the Totalsport trail races in Auckland. At the top of the South Island, the Nelson Striders put on a large variety of trail runs, including the internationally known Croesus Crossing.

Sjors Corporaal The Goat ChallengeSjors Corporaal, 2-time winner of The Goat Challenge.
Sjors trains by running after wild boars in Te Urewera National Park.

Among the longer distance races, most are in the South Island, including the Kepler Challenge (60km) ranks as the most popular and has attracted world-class trail ultrarunners. The South Island High Country is also home to the Motatapu. The Routeburn Classic is another high profile alpine run and the Heaphy Five-O is an ultra on one of New Zealand’s Great walks.

Kepler Challenge alpine runnerIn the high country during the Kepler Challenge on the South Island.
(Photo courtesy of the Kepler Challenge)

Tips for New Zealand Trail Running Travel
Here are some hot tips for US trail runners planning a trip to New Zealand.

  1. Visit to get all sorts of resources for planning your travels. Travel guides like Lonely Planet are very useful, also.
  2. Accommodation is generally cheap. New Zealand has a network of Backpackers Hostels that are very affordable (you don’t have to be a “Backpacker” to stay in them). The DOC Hut system opens up some tremendous backcountry exploring options.
  3. The trails are generally superb. In general, there are more stairs and more mud or vegetation than smooth Californian trails. All the same, they are easily runnable and you’ll need no special shoes or equipment. If you need gels, bring your own as they tend to be costly in New Zealand.
  4. Bring clothing that will help you in changeable weather, like a merino shirt or light rain jacket in your running backpack.
  5. Make contact with local runners on forums, such as, to hook up with local trail enthusiasts and check out the comprehensive running calendar on for upcoming events. Kiwis are a pretty friendly lot and often will be very willing to show you the best places to run and explore. Come on down and run.


Paul Charteris

Anyone who has run in New Zealand, either as a local or as a visitor, please share your thoughts on trail running in New Zealand.

Likewise, if you’re considering taking a New Zealand trip that involves trail running, ask away. Hopefully, someone will be able to answer your questions.

Routeburn Classic Eveline CoombeA snowy trail at the Routeburn Classic.
(Photo courtesy of the Routeburn Classic)
Bryon Powell

Bryon Powell is the Founding Editor of iRunFar. He’s been writing about trail running, ultrarunning, and running gear for more than 15 years. Aside from iRunFar, he’s authored the books Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, been a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine, written for publications including Outside, Sierra, and Running Times, and coached ultrarunners of all abilities. Based in Silverton, Colorado, Bryon is an avid trail runner and ultrarunner who competes in events from the Hardrock 100 Mile just out his front door to races long and short around the world, that is, when he’s not fly fishing or tending to his garden.