Free exploring on our Fox Glacier hike

Franz Josef or Fox Glacier: Which Glacier Hike Is Better?

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Travellers to New Zealand’s South Island often visit at least one of either Fox Glacier or Franz Josef for guided walks, climbs or a combination of flights and hiking. Competition is fierce between the two guiding companies - so much that they won’t even speak each other’s names. If you don’t have time or money to visit both glaciers, you may be wondering which hike is right for you.

fox glacier or franz josef

The face of Franz Josef glacier

The face of Fox Glacier currently features a dramatic ice cave.

We did the Franz Josef Glacier Guides ‘Half Day Glacier Experience,’ followed by ‘The Nimble Fox’ all-day glacier walk with Fox Glacier Guiding three days later. Though we’re here in the summer, winter is the best time to visit the glaciers because it isn’t as rainy (glacier country is surrounded by rainforests).We arrived in Franz Josef to heavy rain and worried it would wreck our planned excursion. Apparently the guided glacier trips proceed in pretty much any weather, but we were thrilled to awaken the next morning to a beautiful sunny day for our half-day hike. For Fox Glacier we weren’t so lucky and steady rain fell on us pretty much the entire day.

Our group climbs the steps on Franz Josef glacier.

New Zealand’s glaciers flow almost to sea level and Franz Josef and Fox Glacier are accessible from the edge of the townships named for them. While visitors can walk almost right up to the faces of these giant frozen rivers on their own, a guided tour is a must for walking out onto the ice. Our Franz Josef guide told us that some very silly people have tried walking onto the glacier in jandals (thongs or flip-flops, if you like). And yes, people have died from falling on or off the glaciers, even on guided tours. This is completely avoidable if you stay with your guide on the path and follow his instructions exactly. We felt very safe during both our hikes.

Luckily, everyone in our group fit through this tight squeeze on Fox Glacier.

The types of trips offered by each company are very similar. We showed up to the offices at the prescribed time and were suited up with our gear: a rain jacket, overtrousers, socks, boots, crampons, gloves and hats. At Fox Glacier we were also offered fleece jumpers, backpacks and alpenstocks (walking sticks with a spike at one tip). The equipment is similar. I preferred the boots at Fox Glacier because they fit me better but the overtrousers at Franz Josef were much higher quality. Provided backpacks are handy so your own doesn’t get soaked in the rain. But after the full-boot crampons provided by Franz Josef, I couldn’t believe the little spikes we latched on to the middle of the soles of our boots at Fox. They were adequate but I much preferred the Franz Josef crampons. The disadvantage there is that we had to carry our crampons in huge waist packs that we continued to wear throughout the tour.

Climbing up through a tunnel on Franz Josef glacier.

We were then transferred to the glacial valley for a 30-60 minute (depending on the glacier) hike to the face. The difficulty of the hikes is probably about the same. At Franz Josef we walked through a forest, a valley and then climbed a tall hill to reach the ice. The pre-ice hike at Fox Glacier is pretty much just a walk through the valley with a climb up a hill at the end to reach the ice. The face of the Fox Glacier is much more beautiful than at Franz Josef at the moment, however, with the rushing river spilling out from a huge blue ice cave.

Free exploring on our Fox Glacier hike

The differences lie primarily in the glaciers themselves and how they are guided. Franz Josef extends 12 kilometres from the three glaciers that feed into it and the terminal face is 19 kilometres from the sea. Fox Glacier is fed by four glaciers and falls 2,600 metres from the base of the Southern Alps to the West Coast. It is longer than Franz Josef at 13 kilometres and the gradient is less steep to climb. If you’re doing a heli-hike, Fox Glacier offers you views of Mounts Cook and Tasman. The guided hike at Franz Josef is on a pre-cut, pre-determined path while the paths at Fox Glacier are set by the guide on the day. Depending on the conditions, the group and the guide, the tour may vary. The glacier experiences are quite different from one another for this reason.

We all took turns posing in a moulin on Fox Glacier.

Fox Glacier is slightly less expensive than Franz Josef, however, visitors on half- and full-day walks on Franz Josef are offered complimentary access to the Glacier Hot Pools, which are fed with water from the glacier. The township of Franz Josef also has more accommodation and facilities than that of Fox Glacier, though the latter is very nice and has plenty of good places to eat. Aside from the ice climbing experiences, Franz Josef walks and heli-hikes claim to be up to an hour longer than those on Fox Glacier. For us, the amount of time on Fox Glacier was plenty on our one-day trip as it gets quite cold on the glacier and a lot of energy is expended moving around.

A group of visitors and guides working on Franz Josef

So which hike is better? The answer depends on what each individual is looking for. If a person has never done any hiking over loose terrain (or much hiking at all), I would recommend Franz Josef. The Fox Glacier experience is completely safe and suitable for beginners, but even with all my hiking experience, I still felt unsure of foot in several parts. They baby you a lot more at Franz Josef. Our Fox tour moved very fast and felt like more of an adventure over rough terrain. While our guide constantly checked the track and made sure we were all safe and comfortable, he wasn’t always giving us specific instructions or slowing down the pace.
John and I thought both of our guides were excellent and we saw some really beautiful formations on both tours. But Fox Glacier Guiding hosts fewer people and we preferred the more free-style approach to the tour that this allows. It was a challenge and I really enjoyed that. The fitness levels required for both hikes are probably about the same and whichever hike you choose, you’ll have a great time.

This was as far as our guide could take us on Fox Glacier. It's huge and to safely go any higher a flight is required.


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Dress warm. You may be dissuaded from wearing too many layers or hats and gloves in the summer, but if you’re a person who gets cold, I recommend wearing a scarf and hat. I caught a nasty chill on my neck at Franz Josef and had sore neck muscles for days even though it was sunny. Dress in layers so you can peel these off if you get too hot.

Use their gear, especially if you’re travelling the next day and the weather is wet. If you wear your own clothes and carry your own backpack, you’ll have to worry about drying these out.

Shorts are fine. I can’t speak for the winter weather but it’s fine to wear shorts on the glacier in summer. You can put your overtrousers on top of the shorts once you get onto the ice if you‘re cold (recommended if it is raining). Do not wear jeans as you won’t be allowed onto the ice with them.

Don’t forget sunscreen. The sun is very hot in New Zealand and the glare is amplified by the reflections off the ice. Even on an overcast day, the intensity of the sun will burn you very quickly.

Stay on track and listen to your guide. He will teach you how to put on your crampons and give you instructions for walking on the ice, so pay attention and don’t talk during these demonstrations. A couple of visitors on our Fox tour kept going closer to crevasses for a better look and the guide had to caution them back. The glaciers can still be very dangerous even though you’re allowed to walk on them. Don’t be stupid and put your life at risk just to get what you think will be a better photo.

Glaciers exist all over the world. Have you visited any?

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  1. Craig 30 December, 2015 at 14:19 Reply

    This is one of the few activities I hated on my trip to NZ. Just had an awful time. It can be a lot of physical effort and a bit nerve-racking. Cool to look at, but I don’t think hiking on the thing is worth it at all.

    • Inspiring Travellers 1 January, 2016 at 10:06

      I guess it all depends on what you are looking for. Me personally, I like a bit of adventure and physical activity, so I love these kind of things, but if you’re not interested in exploring the ice and aren’t into heights, this isn’t the thing for you indeed 😉

  2. Carmen 13 October, 2014 at 04:35 Reply

    Thanks for the information!
    I am planning to go in Dec and was wondering what the difference was.
    So you guys didn’t do the helihike? which hike did you do with Franz Josef?

    • inspiringtravellers 13 October, 2014 at 12:07

      December is summer so it should be nice. No, we did a hike that appears to not be available anymore. It seems that both glaciers are now offering only heli-hike options…please contact the companies to see what is available.

  3. Audrey 13 August, 2014 at 11:44 Reply

    This is really great! Thanks for the information!
    My family is visiting NZ in October and we’re planning to attempt the guided hike for Fox Glacier. May I ask how long does the hike usually take? Also, I’m worried that my stamina may not be up for this hike. Any recommendations on what I can do to prepare myself? Thank you in advance!

    • inspiringtravellers 13 August, 2014 at 13:03

      Hi Audrey, I went to their website and it appears that they are doing heli-hikes only now there…you may want to call and confirm this as I’m not seeing the trek we did on their website anymore. They can give you all the latest details on trips available. As for training, I don’t think you need much more than just general exercise and decent fitness. Again, I think calling over there or emailing is the best bet as the options may have changed. Enjoy!

  4. Liz Beem 27 July, 2013 at 22:30 Reply

    Like most everyone else we are on a tight budget and timeframe. Have you heard if it is truly worth the extra expense of the heli-hike tours? I know you can get further up the glacier…but just wondering if that changes the experience much. Thanks for any recommendations! Your info is already really helpful!

    • inspiringtravellers 28 July, 2013 at 09:54

      I have actually never heard anything about the heli-hike tours. We didn’t think that sounded worth the extra money but not having done it, that’s difficult to comment on. I’d say if you’re really into glaciers and dying for an aerial view, or if it’s a special occasion, they would probably be amazing. Otherwise, I’d save my money for more activities. The hikes on the glaciers themselves from below are pretty awesome one their own.

  5. Matthew Gray 8 July, 2013 at 08:06 Reply

    Thanks Andrea and John for the post. Really useful information. I live in the UK and have been wanting to go to New Zealand for many years. I’m doing a bus tour next year November 2014 with Flying Kiwi. One of the stops is Fox Glacier so reading this blog has got me very excited! Thanks. Great pictures.

  6. Nelli 16 May, 2013 at 03:52 Reply

    Thanks for the great blog Andrea!
    We’re visiting NZ now and are desperately trying to fit everything in (but failing) and would love some advice! We’re travelling with our 18mth old (and a baby backpack carrier!) and have been on a few hikes on the north island – though nothing exceeding 3hrs – and we are hoping to get to one of these glaciers for a look (but not on the ice obviously)
    Weather permitting, would you recommend Fox or Franz?

    • inspiringtravellers 16 May, 2013 at 06:56

      Again, this is a tough choice. The town at Franz is much larger than at Fox and you can enjoy other activities like the nature center and the hot pools. Fox is a little more back country – not much going on in the little township there. But you have some great non-ice tramping activities around Fox: Lake Matheson (1 1/2 hours around the lake), Gillespies Beach hike (11 km) and other walks like Moraine, Chalet Lookout (for a view of the glacier), Mount Fox Track and Copland Track (supposed to be hot pools there too). So if it’s lots of hiking you want, Fox is your place. Just be prepared for sleepy evenings with not much going on. Enjoy! =)

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  8. Chris 29 March, 2013 at 07:00 Reply

    cheers for the great advice – I’m heading there in a few days and was debating which one to hit up…seems I can’t really go wrong with either :)

    • inspiringtravellers 2 March, 2013 at 13:16

      Hi Steve – I’m not sure that you definitely need to book in advance; the summer season is probably the busiest. Perhaps not booking ahead would mean that you didn’t get the time slot you want. My rule is that if I don’t have a lot of time in a location to be flexible, then I always book ahead if the activity is something that I “must do.” Good luck and hope you enjoy it!

  9. Kamrul Arifin 10 January, 2013 at 08:20 Reply

    very good and informative review :) thumbs up for both of you
    i’m looking forward to the trip on september 2013. and we have to choose only one between fox and hanz josef. your article definitely helps up made our mind!


  10. Erin De Santiago 20 March, 2011 at 22:48 Reply

    Such awesome photos! Absolutely dying to do this now! The only glaciers I’ve seen were up in Juneau, Alaska. I did a day trip to through Tracy Arm Fjord and Sawyer Glaciers (you couldn’t climb), but absolutely incredible nonetheless. I’m not the most coordinated so it will be interesting to see how badly I do (Brett will not be allowed to video me that’s for sure!)

    • Geert @ Inspiring Travellers 21 March, 2011 at 15:26

      Thanks =) I’m not the most coordinated either, so don’t worry about that. Franz is probably that little bit better if you’re feeling unsure on your feet because they have better crampons. It’s definitely an experience to try at least once in your life, I reckon!

  11. Rease Kirchner 20 February, 2011 at 20:16 Reply

    I’ve only seen a small glacier in Alaska from a distance, no hiking or guides there. These look amazing and beautiful!

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  13. Ordinary Traveler 5 February, 2011 at 00:10 Reply

    I love your matching jackets! :) That’s really good to know that they offer you all that gear for the hike. How is it for taking a camera? Does everything inside your backpack tend to get wet?

    • Geert @ Inspiring Travellers 6 February, 2011 at 01:09

      It was okay but if it rains everything does get soaked. We had to dry out our camera in front of the heater afterwards. I had it out constantly and it got pretty wet…the lens was completely fogged. All good now, though!

  14. backpackingmatt 4 February, 2011 at 20:40 Reply

    Fantastic photos! I love the Franz Josef Glacier, though I spent three months living in Franz so I’m arguably a bit biased! Both are definite must sees on a trip to New Zealand! It’s not budget friendly, but a helicopter flight gives you a completely different view of the Southern Alps and glaciers – out of this world experience.

  15. Krista 2 February, 2011 at 13:55 Reply

    Thank you SO much for visiting my blog while I was gone in Australia. I survived the flooding and am now home safe and sound, slowly but surely getting caught up on everything. :-) I’m delighted to find your blog! Your photos are absolutely stunning. :-)

  16. leslie (downtown traveler) 2 February, 2011 at 09:37 Reply

    Amazing photos! Your comment about the flip flops reminds me of our glacier walk in Alaska. We were all geared up with crampons and helmets, and then we came across a guy in shorts and running shoes with a bicycle– on the top of the glacier!

  17. Jimshu 1 February, 2011 at 16:22 Reply

    Loved this, and more so as I love reading of other people’s impressions of our country. And Andrea, I really would like a copy of that photo of John and you posing in that ice cave. Great shot.

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  19. Amanda Williams 31 January, 2011 at 21:50 Reply

    Awesome post! I like that you tried out both treks and compared the two. I’ve always been curious as to how they differed. I’m hoping to do at least one of these the next time I’m in New Zealand.

    The only glacier I’ve seen up close is the Mendenhall Glacier outside of Juneau, Alaska. I didn’t get the chance to hike out onto, it, though, but it was still a fun experience to hike out to a nearby waterfall and take some photos.

    • Geert @ Inspiring Travellers 1 February, 2011 at 18:01

      We wondered too and couldn’t find much specific info…only that Fox offers a “different” glacier experience. That’s the great thing about having a travel blog, you can answer questions people haven’t yet online.

      I’ve always wanted to see Alaska. I think it would be good to check out any glaciers, even if just the face. We plan to visit Perito Moreno in Argentina next…apparently that one crashes into the water all the time. We won’t walk on it but can’t wait to hear that sound!

  20. Cathy Sweeney 31 January, 2011 at 21:34 Reply

    Wow – what a hike and awesome experience. I would love to do this, but a little concerned about that tunnel. Hopefully, it’s not too long (a little claustrophobic here). Great photos, too.

    • Geert @ Inspiring Travellers 1 February, 2011 at 18:03

      I bumped my head in the tunnel…ouch! John is a bit claustrophobic as well, you’re not in it very long. The one on Fox was a tighter squeeze…we had to really duck down there and shimmy through. Good fun, though.

  21. Jade 31 January, 2011 at 21:32 Reply

    Wow- this looks awesome! We are always up for hiking especially if in a cool location… and tight squeezes mean extra danger! ha :) And Sunscreen is such a great tip- I always forget when it’s cold and i’m bundled up that my face is going to burn!

    • Geert @ Inspiring Travellers 1 February, 2011 at 18:06

      We weren’t sure about that tight squeeze, haha. The guide spent 15 minutes “filling in” the floor before we went through. The ice was quite loose…so not sure what was underneath :/ Only annoying part was the people in front of us stopped to take a photo and then were looking through their shots as well while the rest of us were literally stuck waiting for several minutes. Try to go first, haha.

  22. Cam & Nicole 31 January, 2011 at 20:35 Reply

    Very cool! We’re still kicking ourselves that we didn’t hike the actual glacier. We were short on funds at the time and made the fiscally responsible decision to skip the hike and just hike around the parks. Looks like it was a fun day

    • Geert @ Inspiring Travellers 1 February, 2011 at 18:08

      They were quite expensive. We chose these over other activities like swimming with dolphins. Who knows what is the better experience…hate that travel often means tough financial choices…oh well… The hikes around Franz Josef sounded really good, actually. We got rained out the next couple of days for those.

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