Travelling around New Zealand in a campervan is the perfect way to see everything that this amazing country has to offer.
New Zealand is packed with natural wonders and jaw-dropping scenery as well as diverse geological and cultural attractions.
There is a limited public transport network so a self-drive road trip is the best way to explore Aotearoa, the ‘land of the long white cloud.’
New Zealand in a campervan
North Island or South Island?
If you have the time, visit both islands.
Some people planning to visit New Zealand think that the two islands are similar so it is not necessary to visit both islands.
But the North and South Island are very different with each offering unique New Zealand experiences.
The North Island (the worlds’ 14th largest island!)
The busier, more populated North Island has cultural attractions such as Waitangi in the Bay Of Islands and the world-class Te Papa museum in Wellington. City lovers flock to cosmopolitan Auckland.
The lush, tropical far north contrasts with the volcanic, bubbling mud landscapes of central Rotorua and the volcanoes of Ruapehu and Tongariro.
Enjoy hikes ranging from dense forests dominated by towering kauri trees to the never-ending sands of Ninety Mile Beach.
The South Island
The quieter, sparsely populated South Island offers the world-famous landscapes of Milford Sound, the dramatic Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers and the incredible scenery of the Southern Alps around Mt. Cook.
Wildlife spotting opportunities abound from observing Royal Albatross on the Otago Peninsula to swimming with dolphins in Kaikoura.
Wine lovers will be spoilt for choice in the vineyards around Nelson and Marlborough.
New Zealand may be bigger than you think it is – it is almost 1000 miles long!
So to minimize your driving, arrive and depart from different New Zealand cities – Auckland and Christchurch are the main entry hubs. This also avoids having to pay twice for the expensive Inter-Island ferry.
When is the best time to go to New Zealand?
Touring New Zealand during the peak school holiday season (December to early February) will mean greater competition and increased prices for campervan rentals, campsites and accommodation. Sites and attractions will be busy.
Winter can be challenging especially in the South Island if you are driving and camping in the Southern Alps and around the popular winter sports centre of Queenstown.
Spring and Autumn will be quieter and cooler but expect rain – and lots of it!
I have enjoyed two road trips in New Zealand. My first road trip in 1997 was two months long driving in a very old, crumbling Chrysler Avenger.
My second road trip was also two months-long but over twenty years later with three kids and a husband in tow! We opted for a campervan for more comfort!
Buying or hiring a campervan in New Zealand
Deciding whether to hire or buy a campervan in New Zealand depends on your budget, your confidence in buying a second-hand vehicle and the duration of your trip.
Buying a campervan in New Zealand
Buying a campervan or motorhome can be an investment – you may be able to recoup some of your costs by selling your campervan at the end of your trip.
There is excellent supply and demand for smaller camping vehicles with Auckland and Christchurch offering good buying and selling opportunities.
Campervans owned by backpackers are generally sold with all the bedding, crockery and cutlery you will need.
You need to know what you are doing. If you have never bought a second-hand vehicle before, now is not the time to start!
You risk losing your invested money if you have an accident or your campervan breaks down beyond repair.
You will only have roadside assistance if you pay for it.
There will be additional costs of tax and insurance.
It can be difficult to estimate your overall outlay as your campervan may need repairs during your trip.
You need to allocate time in your trip in order to purchase and resell a campervan plus you will have to make contingency plans should you run out of time.
There is limited supply and demand for larger campervans or motorhomes so families or groups may find it difficult to buy and sell a campervan.
Hiring a campervan in New Zealand.
Hiring a campervan in New Zealand ensures that your vehicle is roadworthy.
Roadside assistance and camping equipment are generally included in rental agreements.
You can collect and drop off vehicles as and when you need to.
Hiring a campervan in New Zealand is expensive. In peak season demand – and prices- increase.
Some companies will not hire to drivers under 21 years old.
Campervan relocation deals in New Zealand.
If you can be flexible with your trip, consider relocation deals as a cost-effective way to explore New Zealand in a campervan.
A relocation deal is driving a campervan or motorhome from one hire company location to another location within a given timeframe.
Relocation deals are a fantastic budget-friendly method of travel!
Depending on the route, relocation deals usually offer several free days and subsequent days at $5 per day. There is often the option to extend your trip by purchasing extra days for $75 per day.
You can complete a road trip around New Zealand in sections using different relocation deals.
As with a rental agreement, basic camping equipment, bedding and roadside assistance are included.
Relocation deals require travelling to a schedule so you will not be able to spend as long as you might like exploring different places.
If you tour New Zealand using different relocation deals, you will have to pack/unpack each time you change to a new campervan or motorhome.
Pick up and drop off points are in city locations so there is no avoiding city driving.
You will know the specifications of the campervan you are collecting (number of beds, seat belts etc) but not the exact model or brand. The campervan you collect may not be what you would have chosen for yourself.
There may not always be a campervan or motorhome available when you want one especially if you are a group or a family.
Alternatively, contact companies directly.
Our experience of using relocation campervans in New Zealand
We visited New Zealand in late Autumn. We expected a quieter shoulder season but had not anticipated that May and June is a good time to travel for people from the Northern Hemisphere. New Zealand was busy!
As a result, we could not secure a relocation deal each time we wanted one. The majority of campervans on offer were too small for our family.
Flying into Christchurch, we used a relocation car to explore the east and south coast of the South Island staying in campground lodges and Book a Bach accommodation.
After, a week in Queenstown, we picked up a relocation campervan and drove it for eight days around the Southern Alps, up the west coast and across Arthurs Pass into Christchurch.
After an unplanned month-long stay in Christchurch we were unable to find a relocation deal that would bring us into the North Island so we ended up hiring a campervan for the remainder of our trip.
Touring New Zealand in a campervan
To choose which type of campervan or motorhome to hire or buy to travel around New Zealand, you need to work out your requirements.
What is your budget? How many seat belts do you need? How many beds would you like? And what level of comfort do you require to enjoy your trip!
Converted cars are basic campers designed for two people. A bed is in the rear of the car and all cooking will be done outside.
These vehicles are small, cramped but cost-effective.
Most cars are sold or hired with the necessary camping and cooking equipment included.
Converted cars are quick and easy to pack up each day, are manoeuvrable in cities and do not require extra-large parking bays!
Mid-sized campervans sleep between 2 to 4/5 people. They vary in style from a converted van to a hi-top or a small motorhome.
There is limited space inside for cooking or living but they usually have a collapsible table area and seats which convert into beds.
Depending on their design they can be cramped or comfortable. (We didn’t like hi-top campervans!)
Smaller campervans may have their additional seating right at the back of the vehicle which is not ideal for safety.
Larger motorhomes which sleep 5 to 8 people provide much-needed space and comfort for families and groups.
Cooking and washing can take place inside and most large campervans are self-contained (have a toilet).
It can be challenging to drive large motorhomes in built-up areas and there may be limited parking available for larger vehicles.
If you are planning to freedom camp, you must hire or buy a self-contained motorhome.
A self-contained campervan or motorhome
A self-contained campervan or motorhome is a vehicle that has a toilet.
A toilet gives you the freedom to explore and stay where you want to and entitles you to camp where freedom camping is permitted.
Self-contained campervans are the most expensive type of campervan to hire or buy but on an extended trip, money can be recouped in freedom camping.
If you are travelling with children, having your own toilet is well worth the extra money to avoid getting up multiple times a night to take your children outside to go to the toilet!
Think about your safety before securing a campervan.
Do you have the seat belts you need? Are the seat belts secured to the vehicle frame (the safest option) or the interior cladding?
Do the seat belts enable you to sit forwards or rear-facing? If the seats with seat belts surround a table, can the table be dismantled for driving? Avoid using side facing seatbelts.
Check that cupboards and drawers are lockable. These units should be locked in transit to prevent items flying around in the event of a crash.
Is there ample storage in the campervan to securely pack away loose items before driving?
Travelling around New Zealand in a campervan with kids
Travelling around New Zealand with kids in a campervan is another level of safety checks!
Check you are adhering to current New Zealand child restraint laws. Does your campervan meet the requirements?
If you have brought a car seat to New Zealand from your own country make sure it meets car seat regulations in New Zealand.
Check all window fastenings and door locks; how easy are they to open?
Where will your child sleep? Is a high bed fitted with a safety rail or net?
Motorhomes and campervans vary in safety standards around the world so think about what you need and ask the right questions.
Tips for driving around New Zealand in a campervan
Do your research
Research New Zealand driving rules and road regulations before you embark on your road trip.
All drivers must carry their licence in the vehicle at all times. If the licence is not in English. you must carry a full English translation of it.
Check the weather forecast before setting off and allow extra time for your journeys. New Zealand does not have a lot of highways and journeys will take longer than you think!
Plan your route before setting off. Use Google maps for offline use.
Know what to do and who to call in the event of a crash or breakdown.
On the road
Get to know your campervan before you start your road trip.
Know how to use, stow and secure gas canisters, how (and where) to dump your waste properly and how to secure doors, windows and drawers for travel.
Learn the stopping distances for your campervan and avoid embarrassing and potentially dangerous situations by knowing how high and wide your van is!
New Zealand roads are in great condition with good signposting but they can be narrow and winding. Adhere to speed limits.
Carry enough food, water and fuel particularly if you plan to freedom camp. Use dumping stations when you see them.!
Do not go off-roading unless your campervan can handle it. Few can!
Keep essentials items accessible
Avoid searching for your torch in the dark or tipping out every drawer looking for the roadside assistance number by keeping essential items to hand. (We have done both by the way!)
Obvious, but don’t drive tired or under the influence of drink or drugs.
Do not leave valuables unattended or on display when you leave your vehicle. Close your blinds (but remember to pull them up before driving off).
Try to camp – or park – with other campervans or motorhomes. There is safety in numbers.
Trust your instincts; if a camping spot doesn’t feel right, it isn’t.
Paying extra for a self-contained campervan means you do not have to go out at night alone to use a toilet.
We never felt unsafe when freedom camping or camping though we tried to camp with other campervans if possible.
However, one evening someone tried to break into our campervan when it was parked on its own when we went for a walk to see glowworms. We were alerted to trouble by a passing lorry driver repeatedly blasting his/her horn. We returned to the car park to see the culprit jumping into a car which had swung in to pick him up. We did not camp in the nearby area that night.
Tips for camping in New Zealand
Freedom camping in New Zealand
Freedom camping is a generous New Zealand tourist initiative which is taken advantage of by international and domestic campers alike.
Freedom camping sites rely on the continued goodwill of the local authorities and residents. Access will only continue as long as travellers respect the rules.
Only freedom camp in designated freedom camping spots; if a sign says no overnight camping allowed, don’t do it. You will be moved on or fined if you are caught.
Most (but not all) freedom camping sites only allow self-contained campervans.
Freedom camping sites operate on an unreserved, ‘first come first served’ basis. Arrive early especially in peak season. Sites have a one or two-night maximum stay.
Remove all litter and observe all signs regarding open fires or barbecues.
Be considerate to your fellow campers by avoiding late night or early morning noise.
The brilliant Campermate app shows you the free and cheap campsites throughout New Zealand. Don’t set off without it!!!!!
We love freedom camping in New Zealand. Sites range from a large car park on the edge of Wellington, a rural car park near the Fox Glacier to remote seafront spots near Picton. Most sites were spacious and quiet and we never felt unsafe.
Camping in Department of Conservation sites (DOC sites)
Camping in DOC sites is a great option for anyone who is not self-contained.
DOC sites are usually rural, scenic locations and – like the freedom camping sites – are unreserved, first come first served. There will either be an honesty box for payment or a ranger will tour the ground collecting payment. Most sites have water taps and a basic drop toilet.
We found DOC sites pretty but cramped. Campervans of all shapes and sizes packed in together. As a result, some sites were noisy at night or in the early morning.
Furthermore, as you have to pay per person, we did not find DOC sites economical for our family of five.
Camping at hostels in New Zealand
Pay a nominal fee and park for the night in a hostel car park. You can use all the hostel facilities and get some much-needed relaxation space.
Hostels may advertise camping on their websites or use the Campermate app.
New Zealand campsites
New Zealand campsites vary from rural family-run sites to large urban sites which are part of a national chain such as the Top Ten Holiday Parks.
Campgrounds provide washrooms, laundry facilities and sometimes a restaurant or bar.
If you are going to choose this option every time you camp, it may be worth signing up to a loyalty program for one of the big chains.
Costs vary according to the facilities on offer and the season.
We only used campsites when we wanted a hot shower or to wash our clothes. We used campground lodges when touring in a car.
Wherever you camp, be aware of any signs regarding wildlife. Do not leave food scraps and or litter outside at night.
Always shake clothing, washing and shoes and boots before bringing them inside the campervan.
If you are cooking inside, make sure you properly ventilate the campervan.
Use roadside or beach barbecue spots as they are easy to cook on and involve less cleaning up!
Do not cook on a disposable barbecue inside a campervan or bring it inside after cooking on it outside. Disposable barbecues emit toxic carbon monoxide fumes.
There is limited storage space inside a campervan and fridges are tiny. Be prepared to shop little and often.
Try to be tidy!
Give everything a home and keep everything in its place. It makes life in a van much easier and less stressful!
Live with minimal items
Unpack a limited number of clothes and belongings from your large luggage and then stow the large bags away.
Soft bags are easier to store than hard suitcases.
We loved touring New Zealand in a campervan and would love to return one day! From cosmopolitan cities such as Auckland to the breathtaking landscapes of Fiordland, there is something in New Zealand for everyone.
Have you travelled New Zealand in a campervan? What tips can you give us?