Your guide to traveling New Zealand in winter - things to know and things to do
New Zealand is a fantastic destination year round, also in winter. The truth is that NZ winter isn't even that cold! With the summer crowds gone the high season prices get cut down considerably and the landscapes take on a new, emptier and wilder feel. The mountains get covered in a white snowy blanket and the wildlife is at its best.
When is winter in New Zealand
Winter in New Zealand starts at the end of June and lasts till the end of September, making July, August and September the official New Zealand winter months.
Winter weather in New Zealand
We always say that in New Zealand you'll get four seasons in a day. Because New Zealand is a relatively small island in the middle of a massive ocean, the wind will bring all sorts of weather from all sides. This means that snow is no stranger in December and you can get warm sunny days in July. New Zealand weather is unpredictable.
That being said, most of New Zealand is coastal meaning mild weather year round but the temperatures quickly decrease as you travel south. You'll find the most snow in the mountainous areas, like the Central Plateau on the north island, and the Southern Alps on the south island. The snow line is lower in Otago and Canterbury but it rarely falls in the valleys.
June is the month with the shortest days and it often sees the most rainfall. The ski fields usually often towards the end of the month.
July is generally the coldest month in New Zealand. Because the school holidays usually fall in July, this month sees an increase in domestic travel.
August is when the temperatures start rising, you can start seeing clear signs of spring towards the end of August.
September is the last month of winter but in many places around New Zealand it already feels like spring. Most ski fields will still be open but in the valleys it’s getting warmer.
Why visit New Zealand in winter
There are a number of reasons for visiting New Zealand in winter:
You are craving skiing and snowboarding in the peak of Northern hemispheres summer. If that's the case, head over to Queenstown for a winter holiday.
You want to avoid the summer crowds. Outside of Queenstown, New Zealand sees a lot less tourism in winter which means no crowds as you travel around the country.
You are travelling on a budget. New Zealand isn't a cheap country and the prices of accommodation and rentals in summer can often go through the roof. Travelling in winter will allow you to save considerably.
You want to see the wildlife.
You are into astro photography and/or want to see the Southern Lights.
Driving in New Zealand in Winter
For the most part, driving in New Zealand in winter is no different to driving in any other season. It can actually be a lot more pleasant and safer since there are less tourists on the roads.
Care should be taken in some places where the roads are prone to ice and snow, or at night in regions where temperatures go bellow freezing level. In some parts of the South Island you will be required to carry snow chains, for example to drive the Crown Range or the road to Milford Sound.
In the rare case of extreme weather some roads might be temporarily closed. You can check for road closures here.
Best things to do in New Zealand in winter
For the most part, travelling New Zealand in winter is the same as in summer. While you might not want to go for a cold swim, almost all the popular activities are available year round. But there are some things that you can only do in winter - like snowboarding, spotting humpback whales or seeing the southern lights.
If you're travelling New Zealand in winter follow our North Island and South Island itineraries, and when in Queenstown, Kaikoura, Canterbury, Rotorua and Northland pay special attention to the activities bellow.
1. Hit the slopes
New Zealand is a fantastic destination for a ski or snowboard holiday and in June all the snow bums make their way to this little corner of the world looking for some fresh pow.
There are many ski fields in New Zealnad to choose from. Queenstown is by far the most popular winter destination with easy access to several ski resorts, Wanaka is a strong contender too. In the Canterbury region you'll find Mt. Hutt and the clubbies and then there's Ruapehu up on the North island.
2. Check out the Club ski fields
Club ski fields, as the name suggests, are ski fields run by ski clubs. Since the clubs have a limited budget these ski fields are small and the infrastructure is outdated but the vibes make up for it and they're an awesome experience.
Forget about gondolas and chairlifts! In most cases you'll need a harness and a nutcracker to hook up to the tow rope, it's like skiing in the good old days!
3. See the Aurora Australis
In winter, when the days are short and the nights are long, New Zealand offers the perfect conditions to see the Aurora Australis which can sometimes be seen as far north as Wellington. However, you'll need a significant solar wind activity to see it from that far North.
You'll need a Kp of 6 or 8 to see the Aurora from the bottom of the South Island, at a Kp of 8 you should be able to see it from Christchurch and it takes a Kp of 9 to see it from Wellington. You can check the aurora forecast here.
4. Apres ski & nightlife in Queenstown
Winter in Queenstown is wild. Every night, after the slopes close, the town comes alive with snow bums rushing to the pubs for a serious apres ski session.
Rhino's Ski Shack takes the crown and here you'll find all the hard core skiers and snowboarders. If you're still in your ski gear head over to 1876 for a cheap jug on the terrace. World bar is a fabulous pub with great food, tea pot style cocktails and the perfect ratio of posh and chill. Then dance your night away at Loco, Searle Lane or the Bungalow.
5. Go heli skiing
Don't feel like sharing the slopes and waiting in line for the chair lift? Then heli skiing is for you! Hop on a helicopter, land on a mountain peak and carve your own lines down the powdery slopes for the ultimate New Zealand winter experience!
This fun adventure is no joke though, you'll need to be a pretty good skier or snowboarder and be in decent shape.
6. Celebrate Maori New Year - Matariki
Matariki is the Māori name for the cluster of stars also known as the Pleiades and it also refers to the season when they first rise on the southern sky, usually in late June or early July.
Its appearance announces the end of a year, and the beginning of a new one. Matariki is celebrated by remembering the year that has been, and letting it go.
7. Warm up in the hot pools
Soaking in hot pools is by far my favourite activity during New Zealand Winter. Due to the geothermal activity there are plenty of natural hot springs across the country.
The most famous and most active area is Rotorua where you can find plenty of natural hot streams which you can visit for free.
Then there's the spas and commercial hot pools that leverage the hot springs to fill up their pools, the Polynesian spa in Rotorua and Hamner Springs on the South Island.
And lastly, there's the artificially heated pools like the insta famous Onsen Pools and Omanawa pools.
8. Go whale watching
Kaikoura is a wll known whale watching destination. Here you can see the sperm whale year round, but in winter it gets even better! As the humpback whales make their way up north in search of warmer waters for their calfs.
The humpbacks are at the peak of their migration through Kaikoura in July and that's the perfect time to see these playful creatures jumping out of the water.
9. Enjoy the tourist free country
When you visit New Zealand in winter you'll get to enjoy it all to yourself! Outside of the ski resorts tourists are few and far apart. You'll get to enjoy the hotspots like Milford Sound and Cathedral Cove without the usual crowds, at a fraction of the price!
Accommodation costs and rental prices are considerably lower in the winter months so if you don't mind a little bit of cold, visiting New Zealand in winter is a great way to avoid the crowds and save some money.
10. Do some winter hikes
The mountains are especially beautiful in winter and some of the popular hikes that get extremely busy in summer, are practically empty during the winter months. The great walks have plenty of availability in their otherwise booked out huts and other popular tracks, like the Tongariro Alpine crossing, are just waiting for you to explore them.
However hiking in winter comes with its own challenges. There is a risk of avalanche and paths are often hidden under the fresh snow so a mountain guide is recommended.
11. Visit Rotorua
It's not just the hot springs that make Rotorua the perfect winter destination, it's the whole geothermal shazam and then some! Rotorua is fantastic year round, but in winter there's special charm about it with hot steam forming clouds in the cold air and the pleasant warmth seeping out of the geothermal cracks as you walk past.
Winter is the perfect time for visiting Wai-o-tapu. You'll be able to avoid the crowds and and the heat coming from the lakes and mud baths will keep you pleasantly warm.
12. Try snow kiting
What do you do when you have countless kilometres of snowy clearings and an abundance of wind? You go snow kiting, obviously!
There are countless locations around across New Zealand where you can take your kite up. The Crown Range between Wanaka and Queenstown offers some fabulous opportunities for snow kiting and the hills in Cantebury are arguably even better.
13. Explore Northland
The northernmost part of New Zealand has its own subtropical micro climate and it is much warmer in winter than the rest of New Zealand.
The further North you go, the warmer it gets and here you'll get temperatures of up to 16C (61F)! While this might not be enough to make you wanna go for a swim, the many beaches and bays are a fabulous sight and perfect for a walk down the shore.
Make sure to check out Cape Reinga, take the scenic Mataury bay road, check out Rainbow falls in Kerikeri and go sailing around the bay of islands.
14. Wine tasting
Why not enjoy a glass of kiwi wine in front of the fire place? There are 10 major wine regions in New Zealaland and hundreds of wine estates for you to choose from.
The most popular wines in New Zealand are Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. You'll get the best sav in Marlborough and the best Pinot Noir in Central Otago. Hawkes Bay is known for the red blends and here you'll find a fantastic Syrah and Cabernet.