Backpacking Abel Tasman

When I was first planning our road trip through New Zealand, hiking Abel Tasman wasn’t even on my list. I had read in other blogs that it took a long time to drive into the National Park and being from Southern California I figured I’ve seen enough beaches. Unless there’s surf, I’d rather stick to the mountains. But as the trip neared and more and more people I encountered told me that I had to go to Abel Tasman, I moved it onto my list of places to stop at.

Luckily, hurricane Gita had just rolled through when we passed Abel Tasman on our way down the South Island because I would have just day hiked it instead of backpacking Abel Tasman like we did instead on our way back to the North Island. 

The idea of backpacking came up when we were in Queenstown picking up our tickets for the Routeburn track that I was backpacking with my oldest three kids. Jiraiya, my fourth, felt left out and grabbed the brochure for Abel Tasman and showed an interest in backpacking, but the real surprise was when my youngest, 7 year old Tatiana, started to beg me to do it too. This is the same girl who often refuses to get out of the car for a 15 minute stroll and rarely hikes with us. 

I was excited at the opportunity to do a first backpacking adventure together as a family, however, I knew it could also be one big catastrophe if I didn’t plan it right. 

I have a tendency to overextend my family and push too hard, so as tempting as it was for me to try and squeeze in the entire 60 km track into three days, I knew it wasn’t going to leave much time for frolicking on the beach and swimming in the turquoise water that I saw in the brochure. I listened to my instincts and chose to start at Awaroa to avoid having to do any tidal crossings. If you hike past this spot (further north), you have to cross a large bay within two hours of low tide (see Abel Tasman tide chart here). That would’ve been easy enough, but I just kept picturing having to rush Tatiana along and knew that would be a recipe for a meltdown.  That’s why we started at Awaroa and I was very happy that we did.

Bark Bay, How to backpack Abel Tasman: 3-4 day Abel Tasman Backpacking Itinerary
Bark Bay from the water taxi

Looking at the coastline from the water taxi as we pulled into Awaroa Bay, I thought the beaches past Awaroa looked very similar to the ones we had already passed on the boat ride up and felt satisfied that we were going to get a great taste of Abel Tasman’s diversity in the 32 km section we were doing

Since this was a last minute decision, I was nervous about getting a water taxi in Marahau since we hadn’t booked it ahead of time. Luckily, when we arrived to hike Abel Tasman it was noon on a Sunday and I had no problem getting tickets for the 1:30 pm water taxi.

I was very impressed with their service. They provided a free area to park our car for the three nights we’d be on the trail and the boat driver was extremely nice and helpful. The boat ride up was a huge highlight for the kids (along with our mountain biking adventure in Rotorua).

The boat driver took us to see Split Apple Rock and seals at Tonga Island on our way up and the kids just loved how fast the boat went in the open water.

Tonga Island, How to backpack Abel Tasman: 3-4 day Abel Tasman Backpacking Itinerary
Seeing Tonga Island on Marahau water taxis.

Remember to pack a jacket for the boat ride and if you have younger kids, you may want to sit towards the front where you won’t get wet. 

Backpacking Abel Tasman Day 1: Awaroa to Onetahuti

Total distance and time: 3 km, 1 hour

We started at Awaroa and followed the signs pointing us to Awaroa lodge that took us left.

Awaroa, How to backpack Abel Tasman: 3-4 day Abel Tasman Backpacking Itinerary
Water taxi drop off in Awaroa

If you are staying at the Awaroa lodge or campsite, you’ll want to go right when you get off the boat. If heading south to one of the other DOC campsites, head left and take the non-DOC shortcut.  It took about fifteen minutes to get to the entrance to the lodge. This is where we turned right and followed another well marked but non-DOC trail for another half hour until it joins the DOC track. 

Awaroa, How to backpack Abel Tasman: 3-4 day Abel Tasman Backpacking Itinerary
Walking on the Non DOC shortcut toward Onetahuti.

Important: at the junction for the trail and lodge, there is a really cool restaurant that sells pizza and beer. If I had known, I may have saved some weight we were carrying for dinner and just pulled up a beanbag and let the kids play a game of giant chess.

Awaroa, How to backpack Abel Tasman: 3-4 day Abel Tasman Backpacking Itinerary
Awesome restaurant next to Awaroa lodge.

But since we had a campsite at Onetehuti, which may be the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen, I was glad we were lugging our GSI Bugaboo camp cookware set, coconut cream, rice, and meat to throw together a delicious meal of curry at the beach. (Did I mention I also packed a box of wine? Its actually genius by the way.)

Once you reach the DOC track, you go left and it’s another 30-40 minutes (all downhill at least) to arrive at the Onetehuti Bay and another 15 minutes to walk on the sand to the other side of the bay where the campground is. 

Onetahuti Beach, How to backpack Abel Tasman: 3-4 day Abel Tasman Backpacking Itinerary
Onetahuti Beach
Onetahuti Beach, How to backpack Abel Tasman: 3-4 day Abel Tasman Backpacking Itinerary
Downhill done, about to reach the sandy section of hiking

New Zealand can be very expensive and I was worried about what the campground would be like since it was so affordable. My jaw dropped when I saw the great shelter it has with sinks with running water and large counters to use to prepare meals. There were even flushing toilets!  

Backpacking Abel Tasman Day 2: Onetahuti to Bark Bay 

Distance and time: 5.5 km, 1 hour 50 minutes

We started this day by watching a beautiful sunrise at Onetahuti from our campsite.

Onetahuti Beach, How to backpack Abel Tasman: 3-4 day Abel Tasman Backpacking Itinerary
Sunrise in Onetahuti

Before we started hiking, we enjoyed swimming in the beautiful turquoise sea.  It’s especially nice to swim here because the views of the rainforesty cove are fantastic from in the water.

Onetahuti Beach, How to backpack Abel Tasman: 3-4 day Abel Tasman Backpacking Itinerary
Swimming in Onetahuti
Onetahuti is a fantastic swimming beach
Onetahuti is a fantastic swimming beach
Onetahuti Beach, How to backpack Abel Tasman: 3-4 day Abel Tasman Backpacking Itinerary
Kids making huts on Onetahuti
Onetahuti Beach, How to backpack Abel Tasman: 3-4 day Abel Tasman Backpacking Itinerary
Great campsites!

Since we didn’t want to overdo the hiking with Tatiana, we chose to only hike 2 hours to Bark Bay.

Onetahuti Beach, How to backpack Abel Tasman: 3-4 day Abel Tasman Backpacking Itinerary
Tati pushing through today’s short hike to Bark Bay

In retrospect, I wish we had just stopped in Barks Bay for lunch and then hiked on to Torrent Bay. Bark is nice because it has a shelter and filtered water and the ocean water is nice to swim in if the sun is out.

Note: When hiking to Barks, you don’t need to worry about timing the low tide. The path around the estuary is only 20 minutes and goes past two little waterfalls. Although, if you’ve seen as many waterfalls as we have, you may want to just take the shortcut across the bay if the tide is low. (Considering how heavy our backpacks were, we should’ve cut across.)

Bark Bay, How to backpack Abel Tasman: 3-4 day Abel Tasman Backpacking Itinerary
Bark Bay Sunrise
Bark Bay, How to backpack Abel Tasman: 3-4 day Abel Tasman Backpacking Itinerary
Bark Bay Campground

Bark Bay does have a terrible sandfly problem, which kind of ruined our stay here, but maybe it was just the day.  

Another thing to keep in mind when booking your campsite is that Barks Bay is a much larger campground which means more people and more noise. Personally, I loved Oneatahuti much more and wished we had just stayed there for two nights. 

Backpacking Abel Tasman Day 3: Bark Bay to Observation Beach 

Distance and time: 10 km (via low tide crossing) or 14.5 km (via high tide trail), 3:30 or 4:40

Bark Bay, How to backpack Abel Tasman: 3-4 day Abel Tasman Backpacking Itinerary
Family bathing sunrise at Bark Bay Bark Bay, How to backpack Abel Tasman: 3-4 day Abel Tasman Backpacking Itinerary
Bark Bay, How to backpack Abel Tasman: 3-4 day Abel Tasman Backpacking Itinerary
Dawn at Bark Bay
Bark Bay, How to backpack Abel Tasman: 3-4 day Abel Tasman Backpacking Itinerary
Dawn at Bark Bay

This was a longer day of hiking than the previous 2 but if I had to plan it again,

I would have combined day two and day three and just broke up the five hours of hiking with lunch at Bark Bay, followed by another rest at Torrent Bay or Anchorage.

Swimming at Torrent Bay before low tide crossing, How to backpack Abel Tasman: 3-4 day Abel Tasman Backpacking Itinerary
Swimming at Torrent Bay before low tide crossing

We hiked straight from Bark to Torrent Bay and took some time eating a snack and splashing in the water before hiking across Anchorage Bay at low tide. It saves you an hour if you can get there within two hours of the low tide and it is really fun walking barefoot in the mud and on the shells.

Anchorage Estaury crossing, How to backpack Abel Tasman: 3-4 day Abel Tasman Backpacking Itinerary
Anchorage Estuary low tide crossing

When you finish the low tide crossing and walk uphill, there is a fork to go right and continue towards Observation campground and Marahau or continue straight to get to Anchorage. We had time to kill so we went to Anchorage. It’s a gorgeous bay but it is busy with a lot of tour boats coming and going to pick up and drop off tourists. One nice thing about stopping here is that the campground at Anchorage, like Bark’s, has filtered water. I also liked that the water is deeper to swim in.

However, if I’d known how gorgeous Observation Beach was going to be and that we’d have it practically to ourselves, I would’ve skipped Anchorage just to keep the hike shorter for the little ones and to avoid the steep climb out of Anchorage (it’s a super steep uphill). 

It’s also a steep downhill for half a kilometer to get to Observation Beach from the main DOC trail but you are rewarded with an extremely picturesque beach setting that I think is worth the effort it will take to leave the next morning. This campground has a pit toilet, one picnic table, and water that should be treated or boiled before drinking. There are only six campsites (so book campsites early) but kayakers do use this beach during the day. It was great that we had the whole place to ourselves for about an hour!

Observation Beach, How to backpack Abel Tasman: 3-4 day Abel Tasman Backpacking Itinerary
Practically a private beach at Observation Beach

Backpacking Abel Tasman Day 4: Observation Beach to Marahau

Distance and time: 9 km, 3 hours

Observation Beach, How to backpack Abel Tasman: 3-4 day Abel Tasman Backpacking Itinerary
Sunrise at Observation Beach
Observation Beach, How to backpack Abel Tasman: 3-4 day Abel Tasman Backpacking Itinerary
Sunrise at Observation Beach

This was definitely the hardest day of hiking. Everyone was a little tired especially after the steep hike out from the campground. While it was still beautiful, there was no new wow factor and the closer you get to the entrance, the more crowded the trail becomes with day hikers. I was very glad we chose to hike it the direction we did.

Views toward Marahau, How to backpack Abel Tasman: 3-4 day Abel Tasman Backpacking Itinerary
Views toward Marahau,

The only thing I would’ve done differently was to skip Bark Bay and make it a 2-night trip. It would’ve required a long day of hiking to go from Onetehuti to Observation but totally doable if you time the tides right and stop to take thirty minute rests at Barks, Torrent village, and possibly Anchorage. 

Other Recommendations when planning:

  • Try to catch an early ferry on day 1 so you have time to enjoy Onetehuti. It was my favorite campsite (maybe even my favorite campsite of all time!) I wish we had stayed here two nights! Click here to see their ferry schedule and prices.
  • You have to carry out all your trash so think through what type of packaging you have for food and bring ziplock bags to keep your trash separated from your clothes and sleeping bag. We brought many canned foods and having to lug the empty cans with us wasn’t fun. 
  • Bring good bug spray. There are a lot of sand flies.  A LOT!!! Note that sandflies don’t bite through clothing so layers are good for this reason only.
  • While the hiking doesn’t have that much elevation change, the parts that do are steep for young kids (bring hiking sticks if you have bad knees).
  • From the finish of the trail back to the car park adds about 30 minutes
  • You can book your campsites/huts through the DOC here.
  • You can also check the tides at this website but tide charts are posted at many campsites including Onetahuti, Bark Bay, and Anchorage.
  • Make time to do this. We’ve done A LOT of adventures in our travels and this was one of the best!
  • The weather can be very warm or quite cold, pack clothes for both and pack a rain jacket. Click here to see our pack list for camping abroad which covers pretty everything you’ll need on this track.

Got questions about backpacking Abel Tasman? Let us know in the comments below!

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Backpacking Abel Tasman
Backpacking Abel Tasman