Exploring New Zealand by Campervan

campsite view, Akaroa, harbour

After more than five years of life aboard a sailboat, Brian and I are accustomed to living in a confined space. That’s probably why we adjusted pretty quickly to van life. We had fun exploring New Zealand by campervan. If you’re keen to do the same, read on for some tips and highlights.

Toyota Hiace campervan parked at beach campsite
Our van parked at the Kina Beach campsite on The Tasman

Buying a Campervan

It is remarkably easy to buy a campervan in New Zealand. Registering it was simple too – the seller gave us a couple of pieces of paper to take to the post office, we filled them out and got our new registration. Easy. Insurance isn’t even required here because they have limited liabilities. We got it just in case. Guess you can’t take the North Americans out of us even after five years away.

Exploring New Zealand by Campervan Benefits

We spent nearly eight weeks exploring New Zealand by campervan, the longest road trip I’ve ever done. We were so lucky to have all that time. New Zealand may be small, but it is packed with beautiful destinations and adventures.

The flexibility and freedom to roam are the benefits of this kind of travel, and we appreciated and took advantage of both. It’s also nice to have your vehicle and accommodation in one. We especially appreciated the campervan when we visited very popular towns during high season and all the hotels and motels posted “No vacancy” signs.

Sleeping in the Van

Our bed in the Hiace is surprisingly comfortable. Also, with the coolness of New Zealand summer, the temperature is usually good. We had a cold and sleety morning in Nelson where we needed more than our sleeping bags, and one 3 degree morning in the glacier, and maybe two nights where it got warm enough to open a window. Otherwise, we mostly had ideal temperatures for sleeping in a campervan.

Another “only in New Zealand” benefit which makes sleeping in the van easy, even in mid-town parking lots, is how quiet everyone is. If we were in Colombia, we’d hear loud music at all hours. Not in New Zealand. Most people go to bed early and we rarely hear music, talking, or any noise really, at any hour. Sleeping is one of the easy parts of New Zealand van life.

Driving A Campervan in New Zealand

Brian did most of the driving, and the hardest part is how winding and hilly many of the roads are. Most New Zealand roads are in good shape, it’s just slow going sometimes with the twists and turns around the mountains. When google maps says it’s going to take two hours to get 60km, believe it! Plus, we always want to stop for the viewpoints, along with all the other tourists.

The biggest issue with driving is impatient Kiwis. New Zealanders are very nice, but not always when they’re behind the wheel. A couple of times, cars sped past us on the right when we were signalling to turn right into a viewpoint. This was not common, however, and most of our experience on the road was good.

Finding Campsites

Campervans are like coffee shops in New Zealand: Ubiquitous. Camping is a big part of the culture. Many Kiwis own campervans or caravans, and tourists rent them too. We had a choice of different kinds of campsites, depending on where we were and the local rules. We tried to use “freedom camping” sites when feasible. They are designated places where campervans are allowed to camp.

Campground sign
Camping sign

At first I was anxious about getting to a campsite in time to find a space. But it worked out most of the time. A few times all the freedom camping spots were full, or didn’t have a toilet nearby, so we went to a paid site.

In the South Island more than the North, some towns were strict about camping, or didn’t allow freedom camping at all. Even still, we could usually find room at a paid campsite, and when we knew where we were heading, we could book in advance.

Paid options include DOC (Department of Conservation) campsites, Top 10 Holiday Parks, and privately owned campgrounds, where fees started at $10 pp. In the South Island, we found Top 10s so convenient that we became members for the discount.

Altogether, we stayed at some lovely free and paid campsites in our travels. It was good to do a mix, because the paid sites had showers and washing machines.

exploring New Zealand by campervan in Akaroa view
Our campervan view in Akaroa South island of New Zealand

Top Tips for Exploring New Zealand by Campervan

Obviously we had the luxury of lots of time for our road trip, but my tips apply to most people who plan to campervan in New Zealand.

Don’t overplan. If you have bucket list must do items that may get booked up, like a Fjordland cruise or similar, absolutely plan for that. If you can, however, try to give yourself some freedom to decide as you go.

Give yourself some time. Some of the best days we had on our road trip were the ones where we gave ourselves lots of hours to get a short distance. We then had time to stop at random roadside attractions, have a picnic at a viewpoint, or take a hike to a waterfall. In New Zealand, there’s something beautiful, quirky, or delicious around almost every twist of the road, or so it seems.

Tree shaped like a dinosaur, New Zealand
One of the best parts was stopping at quirky sites like this dinosaur tree!

Stop at the roadside attractions, pie shops, breweries, et al. We had some yummy food, saw some funny statues, and really enjoyed the Kiwi humor and hospitality at mom and pop cafés and small towns. We even stopped to take photos of very wooly sheep and rams.

Wooly ram
We loved stopping to look at the sheep and rams

Have a backup plan, or two. During peak seasons, freedom campgrounds can fill up. So be prepared for the lot to be full and have a backup plan of where else you can camp, whether it’s a freedom camp in another town or a paid campsite. Being prepared means less chance of disappointment.

Exploring New Zealand by Campervan: Must Haves

We brought some items from the boat and bought a few things on the way. On top of basics like bedding and kitchenware, which you need anytime you’re camping, these items were the essentials that made our trip easier and more comfortable.

  • Camping chairs: we brought the chairs we’ve had since Bonaire, and they were great for relaxing at campsites
  • Camp table: We didn’t have one of these so bought one here in New Zealand
  • Battery charger: for charging all the devices
  • Reusable shopping bags: Grocery stores in New Zealand do not provide paper or plastic bags so these are a must. If you forget to bring, all the stores sell their own branded bags.
  • Reusable water bottle: We saw so many people on hikes carrying single use plastic bottles. Don’t be those wasteful people. Water bottles are so easy to fill in New Zealand. Parks and campsites have drinking water fountains, and you can also fill them in bars and restaurants.
Dinner at camp
Dinner at camp with our table and chairs
  • Clothes: Raingear, long pants, and warm layers. We were surprised by summer in New Zealand. Apparently, this year was unseasonably cold. I don’t know what’s normal here, but it was definitely cold to me. We had overnight lows of 3C and the warmest temperature I remember was 26C. So we brought too many shorts and swimsuits that stayed in their box in the van. Our hoodies were invaluable. I wore one every single day, or at least at night. So pack warm clothes, unless you’re from somewhere colder than New Zealand.

must have apps

We used a combination of apps for the phone while exploring New Zealand by campervan. While we were connected in almost every town and campground, there were a lot of drives where the internet would be out for minutes or even an hour (usually in valleys). So if you get lost easily, download maps before you go. These were invaluable apps for us in our travels around the islands.

  • Google Maps, which we use not just for getting from Point A to Point B but for finding breweries, coffee shops, waterfalls, viewpoints, bike shops, and more.
  • Campermate: We found Campermate lacking in information on free campsites, so needed Google maps and Rankers for the full picture. Google showed campsites that weren’t even on Campermate. Where Campermate was invaluable was for finding public toilets, which are common and clean in New Zealand.
  • Gaspy is a great app for finding the cheapest priced fuel in your area, whatever type of fuel your vehicle uses
  • Paymypark is how you pay for street parking remotely, and Parkmate does the same for private lots. These were useful when we stayed in airbnbs in cities like Wellington and Christchurch.

Thanks for reading! Have you been to New Zealand and how did you travel the country? Have you traveled by campervan before? Would you? Share in the comments.

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Author: Mel

Living aboard a sailboat, blogging about the places we visit and the adventures we have. Love hiking, cycling, scuba, animals and adventure.

3 thoughts on “Exploring New Zealand by Campervan”

  1. Looks like an awesome adventure where you can go where/when you please. The apps are useful and if I ever get the chance to try van life, I’ll keep these tips in mind

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