There are few experiences more exhilarating than being dropped on a remote mountain peak, from a helicopter, above miles of fresh powder to enjoy all to yourself. Yes, it can be mildly terrifying for first-timers, but as the chopper’s roar fades, leaving nothing but the hush of the mountains, the fear fades with it. At least, until you put your skis on.
For skiers and snowboarders looking for a backcountry trip of a lifetime and the freshest snow to put first (and probably only) tracks through, New Zealand offers some of the best heli skiing in the world.
With the South Island’s Southern Alps collecting snow all winter long, they’re just begging you to get bumped up for a few once-in-a-lifetime runs. The snow conditions (on a good day) are amazing, there’s a great range of terrain, the guides are excellent and the views are out of this world. Whether you find a special deal to get a group out for the morning, or relish in a private luxury lodge and helicopter experience, there’s an adventure for everyone.
It’s time to access the true backcountry. Let the powder search begin!
Where can you go heli skiing in NZ?
The South Island is a heliskiing mecca, from Wanaka and Queenstown in the Southern Lakes to Mt Cook and Canterbury further north. You’ll find the best snow at high altitude, so the Mt Cook area is truly the creme de la creme. There are a couple of heli skiing companies who offer access to the area, and if you really want to press send, they offer packages that combine classic heli skiing with a run down the Tasman Glacier.
Go chasing powder for the day (probably the best of your life), or stay a while in amongst it all at a luxury heli lodge. Places like Minaret Lodge, perched high in the mountains above Wanaka, offer a premier heli ski experience, with private guides and over 17 mountain ranges to yourself. Their packages will see you out cutting endless fresh turns, free from any other humans, before being whisked back to the lodge for a freshly prepared meal.
If you’re looking to keep costs down for a heliskiing trip, getting a group together is the best way go. If you travel solo, your heli guiding company can always put you with an existing group.
How dangerous is heli skiing?
In New Zealand, heliskiing and alpine guides are really competent and know their stuff when it comes to safety, but you’re still in the mountains and there is, of course, risk involved. There may be steep or narrow sections, it’s remote, and there is always avalanche danger – skiing or snowboarding in terrain like this always carries some inherent danger. Heliskiing companies are always risk averse, though, with experienced guides that prioritise safety above all else. Stay aware, read the weather and safety information and always follow instructions.
How good do you have to be to heli ski?
While you don’t have to be Bode Miller out there, you’ll want a skill level from strong intermediate to expert, whether you’re a skier or snowboarding. While mountain terrain often varies from big open bowls to steep chutes, it’s a whole different ball game to skiing in resort. It’s best to have at least a day or two of experience skiing in powder – although luckily, unlike Canada or Alaska, no tree skiing experience is necessary.
If you’re not sure where you sit (ie ski), give one of the heli skiing companies a call or an email, they’ll be happy to give you some sage advice. They will also generally try to group people according to ability, too, so you don’t have to worry about holding people up – or being held up.
Is heli skiing hard for beginners?
If you’ve never been on skis or a snowboard before, heli skiing’s not for you – yet. Go and get some turns in on the slopes of one of New Zealand’s many resorts – heck, spend a winter there, and start racking up some vertical metres before you hit the heli.
Fact: the Canadi-Austrian birth of heli skiing
In 1965, a young Austrian by the name of Hans Gmoser was living in Canada as a backcountry ski guide. Some of his guests floated the idea of taking a helicopter up to access the remote backcountry of British Columbia, and the concept of skiing, heli style was born. News spread, and these days, people travel all over the world to heli ski and snowboard – including down to New Zealand.
How do I prepare for heli skiing?
If you’re a competent skier or snowboarder and you’re confident skiing powder, you shouldn’t need to do much but start building the stoke for your adventure. If you’ve been a couch potato all winter, it might be a good idea to build your fitness up a bit – that way you’ll get more runs in, and you’ll actually enjoy them. Skiing or boarding when you’re in top shape is the best.
The ultimate way to warm up? Hit the slopes and do some laps in one of New Zealand’s epic ski resorts.
What should I bring to heli skiing?
As a vacay activity, alpine heli skiing absolutely crushes reading a book on the beach. However, that also means you’ll need a bit more gear; you’ll be standing on a mountain top, hitting fresh snow – and likely wanting to document the time of your life, too.
Good ski or snowboarding boots are absolutely essential – if you don’t have your own then make sure you spend some time on a search for some that fit. They can make or break a trip. Powder skis are also key, as are ski basics – goggles, gloves, helmet, poles and warm layers.
Avalanche safety gear is usually provided to skiers by their heliski company, and is a non-negotiable, no matter what kind of mountain terrain you’re hitting. If you’re staying at a heli ski lodge, bring your bathing suit – they do apres well, and often have a hot tub to soak your bones. If you want to capture your day heli skiing (and why wouldn’t you?), make sure to bring your GoPro, phone or camera of any kind – the guides are often nice enough to get some shots of you putting in fresh tracks.
Call or email your heliski guides ahead of time and check in if there’s anything you’re unsure about – they can often sort out whatever you might need to borrow, buy or rent.
How many days of heli skiing is enough?
None. That’s the catch – you’ll be hooked on heli skiing for life. Once you’ve had a taste for that fresh mountain air, the spectacular terrain and the untouched snow, you may never go back. You’ll just have to get good at finding the cheapest heli ski offers.
How much does heli skiing cost?
A standard heli skiing trip, which is usually including between 4 and 6 runs, will be between $800 and $1200 NZD. Depending how fast you ski, that’ll usually take half a day, and you pay more per extra run. The general rule is that the more you do, the less the cost per run – time to work on your ski legs!
Many heli skiing companies offer multi day packages, where you can be doing endless runs per day, for days on end.
How much do you tip a heli ski guide?
While it’s the helicopter that gets all the glory, it may be the guide that makes a heliski trip. They’re the ones who keep you safe, search out the pockets of fresh snow and are a free flowing source of mountain wisdom and knowledge. However, tipping isn’t common or expected in New Zealand, and though guides won’t turn it down, they are properly paid for their work.
Are you feet tingling yet? Winter’s calling. Get down here and feel it for yourself.