Some people like the journey to be a complete surprise - they avoid pictures, and read as little as possible about it beforehand. If this is you, you may want to stop reading and just start walking.
This is also not meant to be a trail guide. There are several other good resources out there (mostly on the Facebook TA group), and I don't want to repeat the info that's already there.
Rather, I'm trying to relay my overall impressions of the trail, which will hopefully help you decide if it's something you want to do.
First of all, hiking the TA was the best thing I've ever done. If you are considering doing it, and have spent enough time poking around that you've ended up on this page, you should probably just do it. That said...
Can I do the Te Araroa?
I have to imagine that everyone asks themselves this question. If you are mentally committed to hiking the trail, reasonably fit (or willing to become reasonably fit), and willing to venture just a bit into the unknown, the answer is yes.
One important thing to consider is that thru hiking is not just a physical challenge, it is also (more so) a mental challenge. During the first few weeks on the trail, you'll be focused on sore feet, knees, legs, and backs. Before you know it though, you'll be in great shape, no matter how out of shape you were when you started. Walking every day will still be challenging physically, but the mental aspect will start to loom larger.
At some point, it will be raining, all your gear will be wet, you will be tired, and you'll be walking through a town. You will ask yourself why you are making yourself miserable... why can't you just stop, stay in a real bed, dry out, enjoy running water and flushing toilets, and never see another sandfly ever again? Pushing through these low points, and continuing on, is a huge challenge... but oh so worth it in the end.
Starting out being totally committed to finishing the trail is really important though - it gives you something to fall back on when you start questioning yourself. It's ok to be nervous, to wonder if you will make it all the way... but if your heart doesn't beat a little bit faster when you contemplate taking on a challenge like this, you might want to step back and question whether this is the right thing.
Do I need previous backcountry experience?
We met several people on the trail that hadn't done any real backpacking before the TA, and many (but not all) finished the trail.
If you walk the trail north to south, you have a long way - probably 1,000 km - before you hit any reasonably remote sections. By then you'll already have way more hiking experience than the average overnight hiker. There will be plenty of adjustment, soreness, figuring out your rhythm, and learning to keep yourself comfortable when you start, but if you exercise good judgement and common sense, you will have a hard time getting into any real trouble for the first two months.
That isn't to say you can't get yourself into trouble. I don't want to give the impression that you can get away without preparation and proper gear (and knowing how to use it). A bit of rain on a cold, windy day is all it takes for an ill-prepared hiker to get hypothermia. My point is just that you can do this trail without being a backcountry expert when you start.
If you've never been on an overnight trip before, you should plan to get out for a few weekend trips and at least one 4-5 day trip, preferably with some less than perfect weather, before you head off to NZ. This is less for fitness, and more to make sure that you actually enjoy living out of a backpack. Thru hiking is not for everyone, so doing a few test runs before you drop thousands of dollars on a plane ticket is a good idea. It is also critical to test and learn your gear before you fly to NZ and start walking. Some gear seems like a great idea when you're shopping, but ends up being useless once you are actually out there.
* If you are only hiking the south island, I would recommend having at least a few 4+ day trips under your belt before starting, and trying to be in decent shape when you start the trail. The south island trail is more remote, the elevations are generally higher, the weather tends to be a bit more extreme, and the distances between resupplies are greater (meaning you need to move faster and/or carry more food). It's easier to get yourself into real trouble down there, and you probably don't want your first 5+ day trip into the wilderness to be the Richmond Alpine Route.
One of the things that attracted us to the TA was the huge variation in terrain and environment that the trail traverses. The TA is not like the long trails in the US. It is not a pure wilderness experience. You will walk on beach, through forests, over mountains, through endless tussocks, down river valleys, and through bogs. But you will also spend plenty of time walking on roads, and through towns and cities. More on road walking later, but if you walk the entire trail, you will have the chance to really connect with the NZ culture. This is not something you will find on many other long trails.
The trail itself can be rough at times. If you are looking for 3,000 km of easy cruising, this is not the trail for you. I can't compare directly, but I understand that the trail tread on the TA is considered to be worse overall than on the AT, PCT, and CDT. Trust me though, it's worth it.
Many of the forest sections are steep, rough, rooty, and muddy. Sometimes they can be a bit of a slog. There are other sections where there is no ground trail at all - just poles to show the direction - which can be slow going. There were days where we were thrilled to make 2km/hour. There are also plenty of sections with great trail, but these are almost the exception. However, there is nothing that requires any special experience, mountaineering or otherwise. The most technical trail tread you will encounter is some boulder hopping and scrambling.
Road walking. Well, you've probably heard about the road walking already. There's a good bit of it on the north island, and hardly any on the south island. Many people complain bitterly about it. At first, we didn't find it to be that bad. The majority of the walking is on rural roads with very light traffic, and the scenery is great. There are a few busier roads to walk, but not too many. However, we hit a point toward the end of the north island where our patience for road walking just ran out. It got to be tedious, boring, and very hard on our feet. Luckily, by that point, we were past most of the roads.
I would not say that the road walking is a reason to avoid the TA, just that you should be aware of it and mentally prepared for it. If you are violently opposed to road walking, consider skipping the north island entirely, or plan to hitch as much of the road as possible. Be careful though - hitching is a slippery slope, and once you skip part of the trail, it's really easy to start skipping everything that sounds unpleasant.
The north island and south island are very different, as far as the trail is concerned. The north island, for us, was more of a cultural experience than a wilderness backpacking trip. There were some very beautiful areas, especially the coasts, and some highlights like the Tararuas, Whanganui, and Tongariro, but, for me, the people and culture defined this part of our trip.
Most of the north island trail is close to civilization, and it is rare that you go more than a day without crossing a road. One bit of trivia really highlights this for me: I think we went through less than one roll of our own toilet paper on the entire north island. But we also met a lot of locals, ate dinner with them, camped on their lawns, heard about local issues, and were overwhelmed with the generosity we encountered.
The trail can transform itself very quickly in the north. There are days where you'll be in the forest in the morning, on the road through a town for lunch, taking an afternoon stroll on the beach, and then walking down a river to find a campsite.
Some people dislike the north island portion of the trail. In my opinion, this is all a matter of expectations. Some see "thru-hike" and expect a non-stop, continuous wilderness experience like you get on long trails in the US. The north island is not that. If you only want that, don't do the north island. But don't dismiss it out of hand just because it is different - we made the most meaningful, interesting personal connections on the north island, and felt way more in touch with NZ as a country because of our time there.
The south island, on the other hand, is wild. There are very remote sections, and while none of the sections are technical enough that you need any specialized gear or experience (winter aside), there are some difficult parts, and you need to be self sufficient for up to 8 or 9 days at a time. But the scenery is breathtaking and amazing. I can't possibly put it into words, so I won't try too hard, but you will be bowled over with beauty day in and day out.
On average, you'll spend 4+ days away from civilization at a time. Several of the "towns" you go through are just wide spots in the road with a lodge and a restaurant. Most people mail food packages to one or more of these towns along the way, although some people don't like planning ahead like that and just hitchhike out to a bigger town for resupply.
The trail here is a mix of popular, well travelled routes, and places that practically no one except TAers go. It generally becomes less challenging as you get further south, although there are exceptions.
Huts... NZ has a fantastic backcountry hut system. I think there are something like 900 public huts managed by the Department of Conservation (DoC). Two thirds (or more) of our nights on the south island were spent in huts. They range from basic (4 walls, a roof, dirt floor, and bunks w/ mattresses) to super flash (rain barrels, indoor water taps, wood stoves, separate bunk rooms, even flushing toilets in one!), and were one of our favorite parts of the trail. They are a great place to meet other like minded people, stay dry (and sometimes warm), and have a real mattress to sleep on. Not having to set up camp and break it down every day made everything seem so much more relaxed. Best of all, the 6-month hut pass for $90 covers you in almost every hut along the way - deal of the century!
If you are considering only hiking the south island, I would recommend going from south to north. In my opinion, this provides a better progression in terms of trail difficulty and beauty.
Overall we enjoyed the south island more. However, I am glad we did both islands, and would definitely recommend that anyone looking for a varied adventure do both.
NZ has a temperate, island climate. The temperatures are generally very moderate. Overall, it is a relatively wet country, and you should expect it to rain at least a little bit for days in a row, multiple times on your trip. Even when it isn't raining, many areas are very humid, which means clothes don't dry overnight, and tents are soaked with condensation in the mornings. You will be wet or damp often, especially your feet.
At the extremes, we had both daytime snow and extremely dry, hot weather (not on the same day) on our trip. In the Tararuas, we got stuck in a hut for a day and a half due to severe wind and rain. At one point, severe thunderstorms swept across the south island, and trapped people in huts for 3+ days (we missed this, thankfully). An early starter (Kiwiscout shout out!) had to skip the Whanganui River journey due to heavy rains, flooding, and debris in the river.
However, the norm was good weather. Cool nights... warm, but not hot, days... some precipitation, but usually short showers as opposed to steady rain. We had a 20°F (-6°C) sleeping quilt, and it was too warm most nights (editor's note: my wife disagrees, and was glad to have a 20° bag, but she is always cold). We rarely needed our winter hats or gloves, and when we did it was almost always in higher, exposed alpine areas.
The nicest thing about the NZ climate is how wide the weather window for the trail is. Southbounders start as early as August, and as late as January. Most try to finish up by the end of April. After April, the weather can still be good, but there is a much higher chance of real storms rolling through.
I haven't done any of the US long trails, so I can't directly compare, but I think the TA has the least threatening weather of the 4, and certainly has the longest hiking season. This gives you a lot of wiggle room, and keeps you from needing to rush or put in huge miles to finish on a short schedule. If you can afford it, relax... take a day off in a remote hut and enjoy the mountains, spend a day at the random house you were invited to, relax in a natural hot pool somewhere. Those will be the experiences that really stick with you.
Kiwis are probably the friendliest people on the planet. I think we met one unfriendly kiwi on the entire trip. Some went beyond friendly, feeding us dinner and inviting us to stay in their homes within 5 minutes of meeting us.
Aside from civilization, we didn't see many people on the trail. I think we met maybe a dozen or so other TAers in person, and only spent significant time with 4 of them. This trail is not that well known or popular yet, and start dates vary widely, so it can be pretty lonely out there. I was lucky enough to have my wife along for the ride, but if you are hiking solo you should be prepared to stay solo for long stretches. However, hiker numbers have increased significantly every year since the official opening in 2011, so maybe this will change.
Like I said, go hike the TA. It's amazing. If you really want to, you can do it, and it will be a defining adventure in your life. We had a hard time deciding to put our lives on hold and head off into the wild. We went back and forth for months on whether or not we should go. In the end, I realized that, if I had the desire and the chance to do something like this, and didn't take that chance, that I would look back on it for the rest of my life as a missed opportunity.
Every day since then, I have been thankful that I made the correct decision, and didn't get distracted by things that don't really matter. Don't let life's formula, as laid out by someone else, keep you from adventure!