Ever thought about what it’d be like to travel New Zealand in a campervan?
The answer is somewhat complicated because although it was an incredible trip, that #vanlife isn’t as peachy as Instagram would have you believe. …Especially if it’s winter. Maybe don’t do this in the winter. That’s my biggest tip, you don’t even need to read the rest of the article.
But in case you wanted to, here are my top 5 tips for how to travel New Zealand in a campervan:
1. Pick the right time of year
I’m not joking, weather can seriously mess up your trip. The thing about the south island of New Zealand, though, is that the weather is largely unpredictable. How nice.
For all my northern hemisphere friends, remember that New Zealand is in the southern hemisphere, which means their seasons are backward compared to ours. January is summer, June is winter. You’ll get the best weather in the summer, although it can get quite hot, and I was serious about the south island: you may get rain anyway. High season (summer) is also the most expensive though. Flights, van rentals, campsites… June is, conversely, the cheapest, but the weather is also the most daunting.
Our solution was to visit during what’s called the “shoulder season.” I love traveling this way: the weather is still pretty good, there are way fewer tourists, and the prices are much more reasonable. Disclaimer: we traveled in late September/early October, and it did not feel like spring. The west coast was gorgeous, but on the other side of the mountains? Still very much a winter vibe. Bundle up.
2. Pick the right van
Picking the right van can come down to several different factors, like size, budget, and travel style. How many people are going to be traveling in the van? Do you absolutely need to be able to stand up inside, or is a smaller van going to be ok? Can you afford a nicer van? What amenities do you need?
We went with Mad Campers and their “Mad2” van. (They also have a 1-person van, which is adorable, and I don’t mean that in a sarcastic way.) It had a fold-down bed big enough for two, a propane stove, a sink, grey water tank (we’ll get back to this), and it was pretty small. We didn’t want to lumber about the countryside in an oversized RV. The Mad2 was also in the budget–there are nicer vans out there, and there are…less nice vans. When you’re calculating what you can afford, bear in mind that petrol in New Zealand is very expensive, usually more than $6 USD PER GALLON.
Don’t feel so miserable about the local prices now, do you U.S. friends?
Also while we’re talking about vans and while I’m thinking of it: they drive on the left in New Zealand. That’s important info for you to have. It wasn’t a big deal for Duncan and me because both have experience with left-sided driving, but it’s actually pretty easy to get used to, and there are “reminder” signs all over the place. …You might get into the wrong side of the van every once and a while.
3. Learn about camping in New Zealand
Camping is camping, right? Of course it isn’t.
In New Zealand, in order to keep the islands beautiful, there are some rules you need to follow when camping. Tourism is on the rise, and tourists are often badly behaved; don’t be one of those people. Learn about Leave No Trace principles, follow the rules, and just…don’t give us all a bad reputation by being a jackass, ok?
There are three types of campsites in New Zealand:
- Freedom campsites: as basic as they come, but free. Some don’t even have a public toilet. These are designated areas where you can park overnight; you can’t just park wherever you like on the side of the road, all willy nilly. Per my jackass statement above, which has (rightfully) annoyed the locals, you aren’t allowed to camp wherever you please. You can’t be trusted. In order to freedom camp, you need to have both a grey water tank and a toilet on board. (We had both, but we never actually used the toilet. We just made sure that every campsite we picked had a public toilet available.) Your van needs to have a “self-contained” sticker on it, which proves that you have the grey water tank and the toilet. (scroll down to see what this looks like)
- DOC (Department of Conservation) Campsites: These are a cheap-ish camping option and usually have toilets and a covered cooking area on site. Most of them require cash payment in a drop box (no change), so keep that in mind.
- Holiday parks: Similar to “RV parks” in the States. These are the most expensive of the lot, but they have indoor kitchens, hot showers, and laundry facilities. We stayed at holiday parks every 3 days or so to shower, or if the weather was going to be too gross to cook out of the back of the van.
There are a few random places that fall under the general “campsite” header, but these are the three main categories. A mix of all 3 worked out really well for us! It’s not always glamourous, but you’re really just sleeping there and then moving on. We even spent one night in a car park in the middle of a small town (designated freedom camping site). Luxury!
4. Embrace the suck
Remember what I said about #vanlife not being perfect? It isn’t. And if you’re going to travel New Zealand in a campervan, you need to be fully prepared for that or you’ll be miserable. It’s all about your attitude. There are some less pleasant things about campervan travel: the bed needs to be folded out and back every day, you have to cook outside and hope the wind doesn’t blow out the cooking flame, getting up to pee at 3 am is a nightmare, the grey water tank needs to be dumped, and showering regularly isn’t going to happen.
But it’s so freaking worth it. We got to drive wherever we felt like going without worrying about finding a big enough town for a hotel. We could stop at a scenic overlook and make lunch because everything was always with us (and as someone who eats 6+ times/day, this was a delight). We could change clothes in the middle of the day if we needed to, see things we wouldn’t have been able to see if we were traveling a more traditional way, and change up our plans on the fly with no repercussions.
As with anything in life, remind yourself ahead of time (and throughout) that it’s not going to be perfect, and while you’re cuddling up to a hot water bottle wondering if you’ll survive the night at that lakeside campground near the snowline that you picked with no prior research, think about the upsides.
That same lake? Very sparsely populated with other campers. Alpine glow on the mountains in the morning. A sunrise you’d have to see to believe. Worth it.
5. Download these two things before you go:
I’m going to make a bold claim: you cannot travel New Zealand in a campervan without these two things. And by that I mean you can, but it’s going to be difficult and miserable and cost you a lot of time and money so just do it, ok?
- Google maps. Did you know that you can download sections of google maps and then use them offline? You’ll be able to see everything on the map, including where you are and turn-by-turn directions, and you won’t have to rely on cell service to do it. Because here’s another tip you didn’t ask for: the wifi in New Zealand is tragic. No, really, look it up: the wifi is painfully slow (where you can get it), and the cell service is intermittent. For your own sanity, just download the maps ahead of time. You’re welcome.
- Rankers Camping App: This app was hands-down one of the most important things we brought with us. It also has an offline map (although much less detailed than google), and it shows all of the campsites in New Zealand. It has their location, the cost, ratings from other travelers, helpful info (like whether there’s a toilet), etc. Priceless!! Especially if you’re like me and only planned out where you’d stay in a very vague sort of way.
6. Bonus tip: watch out for the Kea
I was vaguely aware of Kea before we left on our trip, but I had no idea we’d be seeing so many of them!
Kea are mountain parrots, basically, and they’re ridiculous. They’re big, they’re way too used to humans, and they’re endangered. You’ll see some signs around that say “Don’t feed the Kea.” RESPECT THOSE SIGNS. Duncan snapped this photo of me with my hand out toward one of them, glaring at it; I was saying, “Give me that cigarette butt! This is why you’re endangered.”
I bring this up because the Kea were always way more interested in our van than any other vehicles around us. They frequently hopped up on top of it and tried to eat the rubber seals. Maybe because the van is bright yellow…? I don’t know.
We’d often come back from a hike to find people gathered around our van with cameras, staring at the birds perched on top of the van. I’d shoo the Kea away, which made some people upset, but I think it was for the best. These birds shouldn’t be comfortable enough to perch on vans and beg for food. Snap a photo, sure, but then send them gently on their way.
Basically, whichever animals you encounter, leave them be. They’re (meant to be) wild animals, they shouldn’t have such a familiarity with humans, and they’re better off not eating out of our hands.
And there we go, those are my top tips for how to travel New Zealand in a campervan! If you have any more tips (or questions), let me know in a comment down below–I’d love to hear them. I’m learning as I go here too.
Want to elope in NZ…? Please tell me all about it.