A detailed guide for hiking the Kepler Track in 3 Days on a budget. Get the most out of this incredible hike without paying hundreds in hut fees!
The Kepler Track in South Island’s Fjordlands is known as one of the best Great Walks in all of New Zealand! However, as you probably already know, the cost per night for staying in the huts goes well over $100 per night!
If you do have the means to pay these fees, then it is worthwhile, since the money is going directly to the DOC, who do a fantastic job in protecting New Zealand’s biodiversity and maintaining all of the park tracks and routes.
However, I don’t believe that budget travelers should have to miss out on the Great Walks simply because the pricing structure is aimed at “big-spender” travelers.
In this guide, I’ll outline how to hike the entire Kepler for $20 for Kiwis, and for $40 for foreigners. The outline will follow a 3-day itinerary. However, if you’re planning in completing it in 4 days, you’ll still find this useful.
Book Your Trip To New Zealand
Book Cheap Flights
Still in the planning stage of your trip? The best and easiest way to find cheap flights is to use an airfare search engine like Momondo and Skyscanner. Between the two, you’ll be guaranteed to always find the cheapest flight, anywhere in the world.
TIP: If you’re flexible on dates, search for “Whole Month” to see a calendar result with the cheapest days to fly.
Book Your Accommodation
Whether you’re looking for hostels, hotels, guest houses, or resorts between Booking.com and Agoda, you’ll always get the best deals. I always search using the map feature to find accommodation in the best locations. Sometimes, if I want to stay in a place a little longer, I’ll use Airbnb.
TIP: For the best hostels, I usually compare reviews on Hostelworld, then check other booking sites to compare prices and deals.
Book Experiences and Tours
New Zealand is all about adventure and adrenaline. For the best deals on tours, adrenaline sports and experiences you’ll need to book online. I always use Klook, Viator and Get Your Guide. Booking in advance is the best way to get the best possible deals on Bungee, Milford Sound Trips and more!
Don’t Forget Adventure Travel Insurance
If you’re reading this blog then you’re more likely to be seeking adventures over poolside sips. By far, my two favorite companies for the most comprehensive adventure travel insurance is World Nomads and SafetyWing. If you’re on the fence, you can read the comparison article.
TIP: If you’re looking for a budget, reliable camper, Spaceships is a good bet. Also, make sure to download the Spaceships App, WikiCamps App, and Campermate App to find free campsites and facilities.
Everything You Need to Know About the Kepler Track
The Kepler Track is considered one of New Zealand’s “Great Walks”. The track is located in the incredible Te Wāhipounamu – South West New Zealand World Heritage Area. The track leads through beautiful beech forest along Lake Te Anau before climbing alpine vistas above 1400 meters with incredible views of Lakes Te Anau and Manapouri.
Although it’s a fairly long hike, it’s not at all technical in the Great Walks Season. However, you’ll need alpine/avalanche experience and equipment in the winter months.
Hiking Clockwise or Anti-Clockwise?
For the purpose of this guide, I will be detailing a 3-day itinerary in an anti-clockwise direction.
While it’s possible to do it both ways, I’d highly recommend doing it anti-clockwise since that way, you’ll have the biggest climbs on the first day, as well as ensuring that you’ll have the epic views on day two in front of you!
PREFER TO DO A KEPLER TRACK DAY HIKE? READ THIS GUIDE
Where to Start the Hike: Kepler Track Car Park and Control Gates
The start point for the Kepler Track loop is at the control gates, located near the township of Te Anau.
There is a large carpark here where you can leave your car or camper for the duration of the hike, free of charge.
If you don’t have a car or transport, you could try to hitchhike or walk to the control gates from the visitor center in Te Anau. This will add 1 hour to your hike, following the edge of Lake Te Anau before arriving at the control gate car park.
Kepler Track Transport
Kepler Track Cost
Since the Kepler track is considered a “Great Walk” the hut passes and campsite bookings are much more expensive. Below a rundown of the costs.
|During Great Walks Season (29 October 2019 – 30 April 2020)||Hut Pass Per Night||Campsite Per Night|
|New Zealand resident||$65||$20|
|Outside the Great Walks season (1 May 2020 – 26 October 2020):|
|New Zealand resident||$5||N/A|
To book campsites and huts in the Great Walks season, visit the DOC website. I’d recommend doing this well in advance to secure a spot. During winter, there is no need to book. However, you’ll need to purchase a backcountry hut and campsite tickets.
Hiking the Kepler for $20 or $40
It’s possible to hike the entire Kepler track for $20 for New Zealanders and $40 for foreigners. This is possible for both 3 day and 4 day itineraries.
The reason for this is that it’s possible to freedom camp near the Luxmore Hut and near the Shallow Bay Hut. However, you won’t be able freedom camp anywhere near the middle section of the hike (Iris Burn Hut) because it’s simply too dense with no flat clearings to pitch a tent.
Therefore, the only necessary campsite fee is for the Iris Burn Campsite.
In regards to freedom camping laws in New Zealand, you are able to pitch a tent anywhere in New Zealand’s parks, as long as you are 500 metres away from the Great Walks track.
For more information on where to camp at the Luxmore Hut, you can read my full guide with GPS coordinates here.
Kepler Track Map
Below is an approximate map of the Kepler track route. During Great Walks season, you will have no trouble finding your way.
This is because there are usually many other hikers and the track is always well-maintained and marked.
Kepler Track GPX Map
Here is the GPX map of the Kepler track that I recorded on my Garmin watch. If you want to, you can download it using the link below to use on your GPS watch or your phone.
Hiking the Kepler Track in 3 Days
Originally, I had packed and plan to hike the Kepler in four days. However, after overestimating the legnth, we decided to push on and finish the hike in three.
This outline will follow the generally-recommended and most popular hike itinerary for the first two days, while essentially finishing the hike by combining the last two days into one.
The reason for this is that from the Iris Burn Hut back to the control gates, it is very flat, with little to no incline. So, if you’re generally fit, you should have no trouble finishing this section in a single day.
However, if you’d like to finish the hike in 4 days instead, then I’d recommend just camping near the Shallow Bay Hut (see map). You are able to freedom camp here for free! Some blogs and sources online mention that you still have to pay the hut fee. However, after speaking to the DOC, this isn’t the case for campers at the Shallow Bay Hut.
Control Gates to Luxmore Hut
Flat, lakeside beech forest to a long but gradual incline to breach the treeline. Freedom camping near Luxmore Hut or staying at the Hut.
Luxmore Hut to Iris Burn Hut
Most scenic day: Track follows tussock plains and steep ridgelines before descending into the forest of the Iris Burn.
Iris Burn Hut to Control Gates
Long but easy day. Mostly flat terrain through native forests following the Waiau River back to the control gates.
Alternative: Kepler Heli-Hike Experience
Day 1: Kepler Track Carpark to Luxmore Hut
The track starts at the Kepler control gates marked in the map above. From here, there is an information shed and toilets as well as a freshwater tank to fill up your bottles.
The track follows the shore of Lake Te Anau for several kilometers. This section is pleasant and is a good warmup for the upcoming climb. After just over an hour, you should reach the Brod Bay campsite.
From here, the track begins to climb gradually through beautiful beech forest. This area is known for its large native bird population, so keep an ear out for their calls.
The climb from Brod Bay campsite to the Luxmore Hut is gradual and not too steep. However, you will gain over 800 metres of elevation before finally breaking out through the treeline.
It’s a great feeling as you enter the rolling tussock plains. Here you’ll get to witness the first views of Lake Te Anau from above, as well as Mt Luxmore and the rest of the Kepler Track as it winds its way along the rolling ridges.
The Luxmore Hut is roughly 30-40 minutes from the treeline.
The Luxmore Caves is a short side-trip from the Luxmore Hut that only takes about twenty minutes return.
It’s definitely worthwhile checking out if it hasn’t been raining too much. The limestone cave system burrows deep under the tussock plains, with several small tunnels and a small running stream.
Camping Near the Luxmore Hut
Camping near the Luxmore Hut is one of the most popular ways to avoid having to pay the expensive hut fees and lower the overall cost of the hike.
Of course, if you have the funds, staying at Luxmore Hut is a great experience. It’s one of the most scenic huts on the South Island and a great place to catch up with other hikers.
However, if you’d prefer to hike self-sufficiently and on a budget, it is possible to camp near the Luxmore Hut.
This is due to an old and confusing New Zealand law that allows freedom camping for anybody, as long as they are 200 metres from a regular track or 500 metres from a Great Walks Track.
The best best for freedom camping near the Luxmore Hut is to walk to the Luxmore Caves, and continue on 500 metres aruond the bluff, out of sight from the main trail.
You can find an entire article about how and where to camp near the Luxmore Hut, including GPS coordinates for where I camped here.
Day 2: Luxmore Hut to Iris Burn Hut
Day 2 offers by far the best views for the entire Kepler Track. Following on from the Luxmore Hut, the Kepler Track works its way around the bluffs and climbs close to the summit of Mt Luxmore. The track here offers views of small alpine tarns scattered along the vista.
Summiting Mt Luxmore
You’d be crazy not to make the short 5-10 minute ascent up to Mt Luxmore! The Kepler track is literally right below the peak and if you’re lucky enough to get good weather, the views are spectacular.
Views on Views
The views of Lake Te Anau and surrounding mountains get better as the day progresses. Soon after Mt Luxmore, you’ll see the track atop the jagged ridgeline beyond.
Keep your fingers crossed for good weather and enjoy the views! Make sure to stop and take it all in.
Descending to the Iris Burn Hut
After a few hours of climbing and descending the ridges, the track steeply descends back down into the bushline and into the Iris Burn forest.
This section is very scenic, with flowing rivers and small cascading waterfalls along the track. There are also several bridges with impressive views. Warm your knees up for the 800-metre descent back down to the Iris Burn campsite.
Remember, this area is the only place where you won’t have a choice in the matter of paying for a site. You’ll soon realise why. The surrounding forest is thick and lacks any viable clearings to pitch a tent.
Iris Burn Falls
After pitching our tent, it was time to go check out Iris Burn Falls. We braved the sandflies and pushed on for a freezing but refreshing swim at the deep pool underneath the waterfall.
The waterfall is roughly 15m in height and cascades in a “horsetail” shape. In high season, most people staying at the hut come here to wash off the sweat and dirt and relax after having completed the two most difficult days of the trek.
TIP: Don’t leave any food in your tent. The Iris Burn campsite is known to have dozens of mischievous Kea birds that come at sunset to wreak havoc. One of the hikers had his whole brand new tent chewed to bits while he was at the falls. There is a resident DOC staff member at the Iris Burn Hut.
Day 3: Iris Burn Hut to Control Gates
We considered ourselves lucky as we woke up with no tent holes from mice or kea. However, the weather had turned on us on the 3rd day. With rain forecasted for the rest of the day, we quickly packed up our soggy tent and cooked breakfast underneath the undercover cooking area.
Again, this final day of the Kepler track is long but flat, with only small sections of incline. Besides the incredible podocarp and beech forests, there is also little that warrants a stop.
After a few hours, you’ll reach Lake Manapouri. There are several trails that lead to beachside access where you can relax and enjoy lunch.
From the Moturau Hut, the track continues on to follow the Waiau River, past the Rainbow Beach Bridge and finally arriving back at the control gates.
Of course, this day is going to be the longest. However, since it’s so flat, it’s definitely possible to complete this section in a single day. At any time you can make the call to camp at the Shallow Bay Hut for free. You could also check if there is space at the Moturau Hut, however, you usually need to book in advance.
Optional: Stay at Shallow Bay Hut
To stay in the Shallow Bay Hut, you will need a $5 unserviced hut pass. You can purchase these from the DOC visitor centre in Te Anau.
This hut is definitely not up to the standard of the regular with mosquitos and sandflies being a big problem. However, it does offer shelter from the elements if you need it.
I’d prefer to camp next to the hut for free, where there are a few cleared areas, since that way you can block out the mosquitos. Of course, this will only apply for those looking to do this hike in four days, not following this Kepler track 3 day itinerary.
Optional: End at Rainbow Beach Bridge
If you want to finish early, you can also call it quits at the Rainbow Beach Bridge. This cuts off over an hour of the hike back to the control gates.
In saying that, you’ll need to either leave a car here or organize transport from the bridge back to Te Anau or the control gates regardless.
More Kepler Track Photos
Here are some more photos that I snapped along the way on the Kepler Track New Zealand. Hopefully they inspire you to take this incredible hike!
More New Zealand Travel Guides and Hikes
If you have any up-to-date information for completing the Kepler track in 3 days, help other travelers out by leaving a comment below. If you have any other questions, feel free to contact me personally or leave a comment.
For now, if you’re looking for more South Island travel guides and blogs, you’ll find them in the list below.