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The Dirtbag's Guide to Hunting New Zealand: Planning an Unguided Trip to the South Island

Posted by Ford Van Fossan on
P1050068 The Tasman Glacier in Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park.

New Zealand is an incredible hunting destination: spectacular mountain scenery, endless public land and a pantheon of exotic species to hunt all without tags, licenses, trophy fees or the necessity of hiring a guide. If you can get down there and have the gear and experience to strike out in the backcountry you can go on the DIY hunt of a lifetime. With careful planning, the whole endeavor can be pulled off for a couple thousand dollars, a lump of cash to be sure but far less than one would pay for nearly any other international hunt and many in North America. Beyond being one of the few places one can hunt without an outfitter, New Zealand is also one of the few foreign destinations where you can bring home game meat. All in all, hunting the country represents a unique and fantastic opportunity for reasonably priced, self-driven, adventure. That said, pulling off this sort of trip without the help of an outfitter requires substantial planning. Below we try and comprehensively lay out the the logistics of hunting in New Zealand based on our own trip so that others might enjoy this spectacular opportunity.



-Buying tickets
-Apply for NZ visitor’s firearm license
-Check varying airline regulations, both domestic and international
-Notify airline of intention to bring firearm if necessary
-Fill our US Customs form 4457 for firearm
-Find a place to hunt
-Clean backcountry gear beforehand for NZ customs’ biosecurity checks

In New Zealand 

-Rent a car
-Pick up NZ visitor’s firearm permit at airport from NZPD before customs
-Pick up Department of Conservation (DOC) public land hunting permit
-Stock up on (readily available) supplies
-Find an official “homekill” butcher with vacuum sealer

Getting Home

 -Bring butcher’s receipt
-Obtain Certificate to Export (trophies and meat) from DOC central office
-Prepare trophies and package meat professionally
-Fill out US Fish and Wildlife Service Form 13-77, “Importing Fish and Wildlife” online
-Call USFWS at airport to which you will be arriving to notify them
-Clean gear

P1050125 Laundry and logistics between hunts.

Planning Your Trip

When To Go

The first question to ask when planning a DIY hunt to New Zealand is the simplest: when should we go? You can hunt almost any big game animal at any time of year. We chose to go in March before the weather got too chilly and before the “roar.”

The roar is the red stag rut and seemed to be one of the more popular times to hunt in New Zealand. It’s perhaps roughly equivalent to general rifle deer season in the United States. The roar generally begins around the middle of March. Around then, the government actually cordons off some portions of popular public land as “roar blocks.” Though we didn’t really get the specifics of how these work, these blocks appear to limit access to reduce the number of hunters in certain areas. We chose to skip it altogether, though, and go before the 21st.

The second question of a DIY trip to New Zealand is more complicated: what kind of weather do I want to deal with? The first half of March in the Southern Alps seemed roughly analogous to September at higher elevations in the mountain west. The nights were cool -- one morning we woke up to frost -- and the afternoons warm (60s or 70s F). These conditions obviously vary with elevation and location on the island.

Airport-3 Airfare was more than half of the total cost of the trip but the experience was well worth the long flight.

Buy Tickets

Airline tickets to New Zealand aren’t cheap and accounted for more than half the trip’s total costs. We booked our tickets well in advance, though we’ve also heard buying close to departure can work since airlines are then desperate to sell the tickets. Ultimately, we used domestic carriers and airline points to get to Los Angles and then rechecked our gear there on to New Zealand Air. Some travel sites suggested flying to Australia but we decided against it. We had read that traveling through Australia can be difficult with firearms, so we chose an itinerary that went from the US to NZ directly. We also saw somewhere that it is illegal to fly with guns and change airlines internationally (e.g. in Sydney)  so we limited ourselves to trips with a single carrier. We flew with Air New Zealand (an awesome airline) from LA to Auckland and then on to Queenstown.

Apply for Visitors Firearm License

This process is really quite simple. You head over to the NZPD website and find they section pertaining to visitors and firearms. You can then apply online and will get a confirmation from officer who will meet you upon your arrival in New Zealand. Basically, you grab bags and then head over to the NZPD kiosk and phone the officer who issues you a permit. At this point you will need to prove you can legally carry a firearm in your home country. This is a little nebulous in the United States where we don’t have an explicit license to have a weapon. One of us brought an old Maryland hunting license, a current Idaho license and a hunter safety card while the other brought a Washington DC gun registration card and a hunter safety card. That said, the officers didn’t seem very concerned with the specifics of these documents. Additionally, there is a fee, which as of March 2016 was $25 NZ. This must be payed in cash. Check Varying Airline Regulations Read the fine print. Different airlines have different requirements when it comes to checking a firearm.

That’s especially true for international versus domestic flights. For example, United Airlines allowed us to fly with up to 11 pounds of ammunition, and we could keep it  in our hard-case alongside the gun. Air New Zealand, however, demanded that the ammunition be in a separate bag and in its original packaging.

While United Airlines let us fly with the bolt in the gun, Air New Zealand made us take it out. Be sure to check the firearm requirements of every airline that you fly, and keep in mind that different airline officials will enforce these rules to different degrees.

As a side note, many outdoors stores in New Zealand do carry common brands like Federal and Winchester, so consider leaving your ammo at home if you use a common round.

If you do fly AIr New Zealand, be sure to call them to let them know you plan to travel with a firearm. Even though the NZ Police will already have your application for a visitor’s firearm license, the airline still needs to call ahead to the airport in New Zealand to get approval for your gun.

Additionally, be sure to tell Air New Zealand that you’ll be taking your gun into the country and out. That may sound obvious, but the official we spoke with didn’t assume that and the airline needs to make preparations both ways. Have your booking reference number for both flights when you call them.

Do this at least two weeks before you take off, as it takes them a few days to complete this transaction. Be sure to follow up 4-5 days after your first phone call to confirm it went through.

Traveling Internationally with a Firearm

Just because you brought your gun out of the United States, don’t assume U.S. Customs will let you back in with it. They need proof that you didn’t just buy that guy while you were abroad.

To do so, fill out U.S. Customs Form 4457, which essentially assures customs that you left the United States with your rifle. We were repeatedly told this form could be filled out online. However, the instruction were far from clear and we read at times that the system was not yet up and running.

In the end, we discovered that Form 4457 could be filled out at the airport and ended up doing this at the Los Angeles Airport. Though we heard the process could take two to three hours, it took about ten minutes.

Clean Gear

New Zealand has an incredibly unique set of native ecosystems and an economy largely based in agriculture and tourism. As a result, the island nation is understandably concerned about invasive species entering its borders. Customs’ biosecurity will inspect and clean anything they think might harbor exotic hitchhikers. To shorten your time in customs, clean all your gear of dirt, seeds and anything else that might transport invasives before you travel to New Zealand.


Find a Place to Hunt

This element of the trip was somewhat daunting. Luckily, we had contacts in the country that pointed us toward places to go. They also linked us up with a helicopter pilot who flew us into the backcountry.

DSC01667 Though not exactly dirt baggy, helicopters are relatively inexpensive in New Zealand and pilots may be able to put you in a spot that holds game, an important plus when hunting a foreign place without a guide.

A helicopter is a great way for the overseas hunter to find a place to hunt. The pilot chose the valley he dropped us in based on a couple stags he had seen flying over several days before. Chartering a whirlybird, therefore, seem to provide that little bit of local knowledge on where game might be without actually hiring a guide.

As an aside, we do want to mention the distinction between helicopter access and helicopter hunting. Many outfitters do use them to locate an animal and then put clients down not far off to shoot them. This is not what we were interested in. We still put in plenty of miles and vertical, spiking out and hunting drainages away from our put-in spot. However, we did have the distinct advantage of starting out right in country we wanted to hunt.

Another option for finding specific hunting location might include asking around at DOC offices in the region you want to hunt. DOC employees were consistently helpful and one might even let you in on a spot, or put you in contact with someone.

Rent a Car

New Zealand’s South Island is a relatively small and sparsely populated place. Cars are by far the easiest way to get around and are not super expensive to rent if you can figure out how to drive on the wrong side of the road. We rented a 4 door Hundai sudan, which fit all our gear comfortable and got us everywhere we needed to go. As a note if you do plan on driving to trailheads you may want to consider renting 4WD vehicle. As in the US, some access roads are less than well maintained. 

P1050085 Aoraki/Mt. Cook, the tallest peak in New Zealand through the side window of the trusty Hyundai. Rental cars are by far the easiest way to get around the South Island.


Bringing Meat Home - Documentation

If you want to bring your meat home, get ready for some paperwork. In a nutshell, you’ll want to get as much documentation as possible to prove to officials from both New Zealand and the United States that you killed your meat legally and butchered it safely.

To satisfy these requirements, we used three things:

1) a butcher’s receipt

2) a New Zealand Department of Conservation certificate to export meat and trophies

3) U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services Form 3-177

We don’t claim that this list is exhaustive -- there may be more or fewer items that can help you successfully bring meat back. But after hours of combing the websites of various U.S. and New Zealand government agencies, we found these items worked.

Most importantly, though, be sure to call the US FIsh and Wildlife Office at the airport you’re flying into. The agency needs to have an official ready to inspect your baggage when you fly in. This will save you time.

1) Butchers Receipt  

Here’s what not to do: wrap poorly cut meat in newspaper and write “chamois” on the outside.

Essentially, you’re trying to get the U.S. government to believe you when you say “I legally killed an Alpine Chamois in the backcountry of New Zealand and not a white rhino in Zimbabwe.” The best way to do that is through a trustworthy messenger: a butcher.

First, you’ll need to find one. Not all butchers can legally process game -- or what the Kiwis call “homekill” -- so you’ll have to ask around. Once you find one, tell them what kind of meat you want and that you plan to bring this meat back to the United States. You’ll want them to vacuum seal the meat and, if possible, label each pieces of meat with the price, weight, and kind of meat. These labels make the finished product look very official. Most importantly, be sure to keep the final receipt from the butcher of the whole order.

The butcher we spoke with let us keep the meat in his freezer until the day we left for the States. We then swung by his shop, grabbed the meat, placed it into small coolers that we then stuffed inside our checked luggage.

P1050022 We got something. Actually, a couple somethings. The ability to hunt without a guide, tags or a license for awesome critters in spectacular country makes New Zealand  a unique hunting destination.

2) New Zealand Department of Conservation certificate to export

Several New Zealand officials told us that this form wasn’t necessary to get meat out of New Zealand but was necessary to get it into the United States. Confusingly, some U.S. officials we spoke with said the exact opposite: that the form was necessary for leaving NZ but not entering the United States.

In any event, we got the certificate to be on the safe side. It bears the official seal of the New Zealand Department of Conservation, thereby confirming again the origin and kind of our meat to U.S. officials.

You’ll need to email to request the form. Check out this site for more information.

The paperwork can take a few days to process, and you then have to go to the DOC office in Christchurch to pick it up. However, you can pay an extra $40 NZ for the certificate to be delivered to wherever you are. This was immensely helpful for us as Christchurch would have been a full day’s trip.

IMG_3289 Being able to bring home game is another unique part of hunting in New Zealand. Though ultimately our meat was never inspected closely upon our return to the U.S., getting game professionally butchered, vaccum sealed and labelled seemed like a good strategy.

3) U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Form 3-177, “Importing Fish and Wildlife”

How to complete this form was perhaps the hardest lesson learned from our trip.

 You want to fill out 3-177 online before you arrive in the States. By filling out this form online ahead of time, U.S. Fish and Wildlife can green light your meat and trophies without even having to look at them. You can then submit your “supporting documentation” -- aka proof that this meat was purchased legally -- online late.

The USFW recognizes that a chamois, for example, is not an endangered animal listed by CITES -- the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species -- and therefore doesn’t need to be inspected.

NZcamp Campgrounds and hostels are all over the place in tourist towns like Queenstown and Wanaka and are generally inexpensive.

We failed to fill out this form online, however, and instead completed the form on paper. Since we weren’t yet in the system, the USFS office at LAX flagged us in the Customs’ system. We then had to go to a separate staging area and take out the trophies and meat for inspection. An USFW officer said that  if we had done this online, we wouldn’t have been flagged.

A final note: we flew into Los Angeles on a Saturday, and it turns out that the USFW does not work on the weekends. So we had to pay a $150 overtime fee for the USFW official to inspect our meat and trophies. Had we flown in on a Friday, the process would have been free.

A Note on Skulls

Be sure to also clean your skulls professionally. We boiled and bleached them ourselves in New Zealand (on a grill) but grease smudges unerved the US Custom and USFW officials at Los Angeles Airport. They then made us send them to a USFW-approved taxidermist, who charged us $250 a head. Given this additional cost and difficulty of pulling together a proper boiling setup, we’ll probably consider simply having a Kiwi taxidermist do skulls and send them back to the US.

DSC01521 Doug looks out over the high country of the Southern Alps.


Hunting in New Zealand is the trip of a lifetime. The Kiwis were amazingly kind, the landscape was jaw-dropping, and the hunts were unforgettable. This country is truly a hunter’s paradise.

Doug Stuart and Ford Van Fossan are old high school buddies that hunted on the South Island for two weeks in March. Doug is a freelance writer. Ford is the Consumer Sales and Content Manager at FLHQ . Both are planning on returning to New Zealand as soon as possible. 

Packs Heavy: Highlights from Expedition NZ by Doug Stuart

Posted by Ford Van Fossan on
DSC01537_600_451 "USA." The author and First Lite's Ford Van Fossan showing off their patriotism in New Zealand's backcountry.

Go hunting in New Zealand and you’ll have the trip of a lifetime. You’ll also have far less cash when it’s over. Between the flights, the rental car, the food, the helicopter rides, and the hostels, the costs add up quickly.

Which begs the question: as a hunter, how do you justify such a trip?

 For the first few days, Ford and I each felt the pressure of this question. One answer was  obvious: shoot something. Yet obviously, there is more to hunting than killing.  Ford mentioned at one point that hunting was really just a way to experience New Zealand’s rugged high country. But I still caught myself mentally rehearsing how I would explain to friends without hunting backgrounds that I didn’t bag anything. I planned to go with the classic it’s-called-hunting-not-shooting line.

In the end, we wouldn’t need to do any explaining. We were lucky enough to each bag a chamois. And those successes freed us up to realize a simple truth about this country. Whether you’re shooting a chammy or just taking the guns for a walk, New Zealand does not disappoint.


*    *    *

 “Are you the hunters?”

A friendly-looking man with a mustache, short shorts, and crocs asks us this question as he approaches our car. We’ve just driven two and a half hours to the tiny town of Makarora deep in the Southern Alps of the South Island to meet up with someone named Harvey, a helicopter pilot who will fly us into the backcountry. After driving with nothing more than a handwritten map from a friend and instructions to “ask for Harvey,” we can’t believe our luck -- our how small New Zealand can sometimes feel amidst these millions of acres of wilderness. This guy is our pilot.

DSC01648_600_451 "The chammy are thick in this valley." Ford and "Helicopter" Harvey Hutton, of Backcountry Helicopters, in the Airbus Squirrel.

We load the gear into a small, blue helicopter -- the same one First Lite’s founders Scott Robinson and Kenton Carruth used on their trip to NZ -- and we take off toward the nearest mountain top.

If there had been a soundtrack playing at that moment, it would have been the theme song to Jurassic Park. As we crest the top of the mountain, we come into a gorgeous valley bound by jagged peaks and with a glacial river snaking below. New Zealand has not disappointed.

P1040850_600_451 "Be here Monday at 10 am." The author stays low as the helicopter lifts off.

We fly around a few more bends until we land at a public hut where we’ll be staying for the next few days. “Be here Monday at 10 am,” Harvey says in a way that is at once supremely casual and deadly serious. Then he lifts off and flies away. Good thing Ford has a watch.

Over the next few days, we hunt hard. On the first morning, Ford spots a beautiful 4x4  stag bedded down on a the mountainside. But after a long stalk, we spook him and the stag melts away into the bush. It’s disappointing, especially since we did not connect with a stag on our hunt the previous week despite spotting several hinds and a dandy 5X5. I again think about what I’ll tell my friends back home if I return with nothing.

P1040858_600_451 "Backcountry Lux." Public huts are scattered throughout New Zealand's remote high county.

The next day we decide to make for a hanging valley we flew over on the flight in -- the one where the next sequel to Jurassic Park will be filmed. However, to get there will require us to climb up a steep gorge through thick jungle.

After an hour of hiking up the right side of the river, New Zealand defeats us. The brush is too thick, and we’re forced to turn back. Painfully, we retrace our steps and eventually find a spot on the river that can be crossed. We drop our packs, and I hop over the stream onto a high rock and hoist myself up. Ford hands me the packs and the guns, and then follows.

We then do some scouting and finally find a path outside the stream -- that leads into large bushes that are almost, but not quite, too thick to pass through. We throw ourselves at the small openings between the bushes and slowly gain ground against the mountain. It feels like we’re football players tackling practice dummies.

Finally, after another couple hours and a few hotspots, we can see the steep glacial fans Harvey said would hold chammy. We sit down to rest, eat a quick lunch, and start glassing.

Within minutes, we spot the first alpine chamois either of us has ever laid eyes on. On the very top of the high chute in front of us, we spot three of them. After closer inspection with the spotting scope, we revise that number to five. Then one of us notices that two chutes over, there are 3 chammy grazing quietly. And there’s a buck in the chute in between them.

P1040947_600_451 "Chammy valley." Harvey was not wrong about the numbers of chamois in this hanging valley.

Did we mention that New Zealand doesn’t disappoint?

 We plan our attack. At this point, the two groups have more or less merged into the chute on the left. We decide to move up the spine of the hill below the chammy as this will offer us plenty of cover until we get close enough for a shot. After crossing to the base of the hillside, we drop everything we don’t need. The light packs feel good, and more than anything, we’re ready to do this. It’s maybe 3 pm, we have plenty of daylight left, and we’re downwind from the chammy. Perfect.

We climb quickly in our excitement, doing our best to stay out of sight but also continually checking that the chammy haven’t moved away. Finally, we get within range and chamber a round. We creep closer. Ford is in front of me, and we’re about to get up and move again when suddenly a buck appears on the horizon, looking in our direction.

We freeze. Ford slowly sets down his gun on its tripod and takes aim. Behind Ford, I don’t move as I don’t want to scare away the bull. Ford pulls the trigger, and -- despite boxes of rounds at the range over the past months -- misses completely.

 All hell breaks loose. It’s like Big Buck Hunter. Chamois in the distance run up and over the top of the mountain. The buck bolts away but a doe comes into view.  She runs down the hill along the ridge line and stops. Ford fires again and finds redemption. She’s down.

P1040963_600_451 "We did it." The alpine chamois.

We’ve done it. Though we had already philosophically justified a no-kill hunt to ourselves, I don’t think either of us had truly gotten rid of our fear of failure.  A 168 grain bullet banishes the we’ve-come-all-this-way sentiment in an instant. Though it shouldn’t have mattered, the joy of our accomplishment was undeniable.

After some less than brief celebrations, some self-congratulatory comments (“and they said we needed a guide”), and more than a few photos for First Lite, we get to work quartering the critter. Then, with heavy packs and both trekking poles finally in hand, we descend the slope to make camp.

That night, we put aside our packets of dehydrated food and reach instead for fresh meat. We start with the tenderloin and take a minute to spice the meat before cooking it. Being the proud Marylander that he is, Ford has brought Old Bay Seasoning all the way to New Zealand. And it pays off tonight. We rub the meat with salt and pepper, pour some oil in our pan, and sear it over the WhisperLite.

DSC01577_600_455 "Salt, pepper and Old Bay Season." After days of dehydrating meals, seared chamois was a welcome change.

The tenderloin is a little gamey but the backstrap is out of this world. We hang the quarters under a rocky overhang next to our tent (No predators in New Zealand) and retire for a hard sleep.

The next morning, we wake up feeling victorious. And why wouldn’t we? We came to New Zealand on a hunting trip, and we’ve just harvested an animal  successfully. Our trip is validated. But I realize that while our trip is justified, my personal trip is not.

I live in Washington, D.C. -- no one’s picture of mountain country.  Most of my friends have never fired a gun before, let alone hunted. To many, this trip sounded pretty lavish, and so I felt even more pressure to make good on my reasons for flying all the way to New Zealand. To top it off, I don’t have nearly as much experience hunting as Ford does. Coming back empty-handed would make the whole trip look foolish. Why did I think I could step up into the big leagues so soon?

So now that Ford’s bagged a chammy, I’m itching to do the same. The next morning we eat neck meat for breakfast and get to glassing   And eventually, we spot chammy in the same chute they were in the day before. However, we don’t have a ton of time left since we’ll need to head back to the hut today -- a 4-5 hour hike out with at least one chammy on our backs. And it’s already about 11:00 am.

DSC01500_600_451 "The view." New Zealand's scenery never failed to impress.

Our plan of attack is essentially the same as yesterday’s. We climb the mountain quickly, and I’m already planning just how I’ll hold the chammy in my grip-and-grin photo. We should get the valley in the background, I think.

 Finally, we’re in range of a chammy. Ford sights her in at 177 yards. She’s standing on the spine of a hill, broadside. I couldn’t ask for a better chance. I can practically already taste the meat. I lay my gun on my pack, and prep the shot. I pull the trigger. It’s a clean shot -- into the air above her.

If you’re ever looking to have a soul-searching moment, spend months training for a costly trip to a country halfway around the world and fail at your main goal. Everything I had been working toward was summarized in that one shot. A search for blood confirms that I’ve missed her completely.

It’s noon now. We’re running out of time. Even if I had gotten the doe, we’d be rushing to quarter her, get back to camp, pack up our tent and gear, and then make the 4-5 hour back to our hut before nightfall. We hike back down to the valley floor and talk about what to do. The sensible thing would be to pack out now and have a leisurely walk back. But Ford, I think, senses how bummed I am, and we agree to see if we can find another chammy and give ourselves -- or rather me -- one more chance.

Once again, New Zealand delivers. We find three chammy up high in a chute on the other side of the valley. They’re feeding almost up against where the grass ends and the rock of the mountain face begins.

So we get going. We move up quickly until we’re about 300 yards below them. Then we start to creep up. But we failed to realize from the valley floor that there are folds in the hillside. So we keep peeking above a fold expecting to see the chammy, and see nothing.

Finally, we’re about to hit the end of the chute. We’re starting to think that maybe the chammy moved on while we were hiking up. We crawl up over this last bend when Ford becomes motionless. He’s spotted the bedded chammy about 60 yards away, and it’s looking right at us. We hold our positions for several minutes. Then I  hand Ford my pack, and he rests it on the ground in front him. Slowly, I pull up beside him and rest the gun on the pack. I take a moment to zoom out my scope and get the doe in my crosshairs.

I pull the trigger. As I move the scope away from my face, my heart sinks. I see a chammy moving on the left. She’s running quickly over to another doe, and then they both effortlessly hop over the mountainside. There’s no way we can follow them.

I’m crushed. In the same day,  I’ve somehow missed two good chances to bag a chammy, the last one at 60 yards. We get up without talking and go look for blood. All the while, I begin to think about how I should probably just give up hunting -- or at least stick to the white tail deer of the east coast for the foreseeable future.

But as we walk up, we realize that we glassed three chammy from the valley floor but only saw two get up and leave. Sure enough, we then see the chammy. She’s down! It’s a clean shot through the boiler room. Celebrations ensue.

DSC01609_600_451 "The winning team." The author, his chammy and Ford pose for the self timer.

So we pack out happy and heavy, each with a chammy on his back. Our excitement is momentarily diminished over the next few hours by one of the most gruelling hikes that either of us has ever experienced. In an attempt to find a better route back to the hut, we take a chance and keep to the left of the river going down to the valley floor. It’s a big mistake, and we pay for it. The terrain is thick with trees, brush, and steep drop offs. For the last 200 yards, we slide down the forest floor with our packs above us, letting gravity pull us down.

Finally, we stumble out onto the valley floor. It’s about 7 pm, and although it’s starting to get cool, we are sweating too much to care. We hoist our packs back on, resume our internal celebrations, and head back to the hut. We collapse into bed, and in the morning, Harvey comes to get us in his helicopter. It’s been a good hunt.

DSC01638_600_451 "Ticket home." Doug and the chammy quarters wait for the Squirrel.

Now, we’re back home, each with a whole chammy in the freezer, waiting to be eaten. We already know we’ll be back to New Zealand sometime soon. But for now, we’re savoring the meat and the experience, and the truth that New Zealand does not disappoint.

Doug Stuart is an old high school buddy of First Lite's Ford Van Fossan. He lives in Washington D.C. but is currently plotting his return to the Mountain West.