Why a campervan is the best way to travel New Zealand
Whenever you hear people talk about travelling in New Zealand or read an article about travelling in New Zealand, a campervan is almost certainly mentioned. This is because a campervan is the best way to travel New Zealand. But why? We can hear you asking. Well, we’ll explain why a campervan is the best way to travel New Zealand in this blog post.
There are many reasons why a campervan is the best way to travel New Zealand, and we’ll go over all of them. But the most compelling reason, and one that we can confirm from personal experience, is that van life in New Zealand is the adventure of a lifetime!
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Reasons to travel New Zealand by campervan
This probably goes without saying, but with a campervan, you always have your own transportation allowing you to go where you want, whenever you want. Done with a location? Pack up and go to the next. Bad weather? Simply drive towards the sunshine. Something awesome happening on the other side of the island? Just drive there and you can experience it. With a campervan, stuff like this usually is just that simple. Now if that ain't freedom?!
Wake up in the most beautiful locations
With a campervan you can camp in the most beautiful locations, and wake up to breathtaking sceneries right at your doorstep. Imagine seeing the sun rise over the insanely beautiful Milford Sound out of your back window, in the comfort of your own warm and cosy bed. Or camping a stones throw away from the incredibly picturesque Castlepoint Lighthouse. We’ve done exactly that and can tell you that it's an amazing feeling.
Get off the beaten path
There are quite a few off the beaten path locations in New Zealand that are really worth seeing, but take a lot of time to get to. This often only makes it viable to see those locations if you have the option of spending the night there, which is where your campervan comes in!
Having a campervan allows you to camp near the start of hikes or near popular tourists spots. This saves you the time of having to drive there first and allows you to start before the crowds arrive, which saves you even more time. And more time means the possibility to see even more. It is kinda like an upward spiral of freeing up more and more time, kinda…
Travelling in a campervan is so much simpler than staying in hotels or hostels. In New Zealand you don’t have to reserve your spots in campsites, so you can just rock up and find a spot. When you’re hungry, you don’t have to look for a place to eat, you just make a meal in your own campervan kitchen. Campervan travel requires so much less planning than conventional travel, and makes life so much simpler.
Easily take all your stuff with you
Everyone who has ever gone backpacking knows the struggle of choosing what to take with you and what to leave behind. With a backpack you always have very limited carrying space, but with a campervan this is way less of a problem. And as a added bonus, you don’t have to carry your stuff yourself either. While you shouldn’t go too crazy, you can fit a LOT in a campervan. Though in saying that we do have to admit that we actually did go a bit crazy with the amount of space we had and filled it to the brim. At one point we were carrying about 60 kg of clothes, two paddleboards, kitesurfing gear, climbing gear, a guitar, a camping table and chairs, and a whole DIY tool set to make repairs/improvements in the van, and a whole bunch of other items that we thought could come in handy.
No packing/unpacking all the time
When you’re travelling with a suitcase or backpack, you have to unpack every time you get to your a new location for the night, and pack up again every time you leave. If you have a campervan there is no packing/unpacking involved as your bedroom is just in the back of the van. Whenever you feel like going to your next destination, you simply slam the door shut and drive away.
Cheaper than the alternative
New Zealand is quite an expensive country, and renting a campervan isn’t cheap, but unless you go very very budget, a campervan is cheaper than the alternatives. Calculated per night, renting a campervan or paying for accommodation costs about the same. But with a campervan you don’t have to pay for transportation on top of that, and you can cook your meals in your own kitchen, which makes a big difference over time.
You have your home with you in bad weather
Imagine this, you’ve rented a car instead of a campervan and are really excited for a particular activity, like hiking the Hooker Valley Track under Mount Cook for example. But when you arrive to the start of the track, the weather suddenly turns (as it often does in New Zealand) and you’re caught in the middle of a storm with heavy rain and gale. Now if you’re sitting in your little rental car, a scenario like this is pure misery, but if you have a campervan, this is no big deal. In a campervan you can just wait out the storm in comfort. Make some lunch, read a book, play a boardgame, have a nap, whatever. Then when the sun comes out again a few hours later, you just slide into your hiking shoes and you can immediately start hiking through some of the most incredible landscapes in the country. So much better right?!
New Zealand caters very well to campervan travellers
What makes New Zealand extra great to travel by campervan, is that the country recognises that travelling by campervan is a great way to explore the country. The Government’s Department of Conservation (DOC) alone already made over 250 campsites available throughout the country, a lot of them completely free! Quite a few district councils added a bunch of free campsites, often with great facilities to that, and then there are areas where it is allowed to freedom camp , but we’ll dive into that later. Safe to say, New Zealand makes travelling in a campervan as easy as possible.
you meet loads of people in campsites
With the country supporting campervan travel so much, it won’t surprise you that many travellers have adopted travelling New Zealand by campervan. While it is easy to isolate yourself if you don’t feel like seeing other people, if you do want to meet other people, you never have to be alone. In basically every campsite, especially in high season, you’ll find likeminded travellers who will love to exchange stories with you, or maybe even travel the same route with you for a while.
Cons of travelling in a campervan
Somehow, whenever people hear that we have travelled around New Zealand in a campervan, their first question isn’t “What was your favourite spot?” or “What was the most beautiful thing you have seen?”. No, instead their first question is “How do you go to the bathroom?”.
Well, in New Zealand this is a lot easier than you would expect. We already mentioned how well New Zealand caters to campervan travellers, so on top of free campsites, you’ll also find free public toilets and water stations everywhere, and sometimes even free (warm) showers. Depending on how luxurious you went with your campervan, you might have a chemical flush toilet on board, and if the need for a toilet becomes really urgent, there is always the woods. But don’t do your number two in the woods, that’s just nasty.
Of course there are some more downsides to travelling in a campervan, but when you list all the pros and cons, the pros far outweigh the cons.
Where can you camp for free in New Zealand?
The short answer is, in a lot of places. The long answer is that while there are loads of places where you can camp for free, availability depends on where you are in the country and on if your campervan is certified as self-contained. Basically there are two options; free campsites and freedom camping.
A certified self-contained campervan is a campervan that can sustain its occupants without outside resources for a minimum perion of three days. Some free campsites and most freedom camping areas require your campervan to be certified self-contained, and to be allowed to freedom camp outside of free campsites your vehicle needs to be certified self-contained as a rule. A certified self-contained vehicle needs to have the following features:
Freshwater tank capable of storing at least 12L per person for three day
Wastewater tank capable of storing at least 12L per person for three days and has a vent going out of the vehicle.
Sink with a smell trap connected to the wastewater tank.
An evacuation hose of at least 3m if your water tanks are fitted. This isn’t required if your water tanks are portable.
Rubbish bin with a lid
Chemical toilet with a minumum storage capacity of 3L per person for three days, that can be used inside the vehicle with the bed made up.
Free campsites are your best bet when you want to camp for free. The DOC owns a lot of these campsites and DOC campsites are typically in very nice locations around National Parks, although facilities are usually very basic. DOC campsite should always have at least toilet facilities and water stations, but often the toilets are (smelly) drop toilets and the water from the taps isn’t potable so you’ll have to boil it before you drink it.
Then there are free campsites that are owned by city/town or district councils. These can vary from very basic like most DOC campsites, to campsites with awesome free amenities like flush toilets that are cleaned every day, dishwashing stations, and sometimes even showers! If you’re in Southland, make sure to check out the free campsite in Lumsden, it is one of the best in the country!
Lastly, there are privately owned free campsites. Often these are owned by bars that generate extra income through the people that stay in these campsites and buy food and drinks at the bar. The facilities at these campsites are usually surprisingly good.
Freedom Camping is when you camp on public land that isn’t a camping ground or holiday park, and generally speaking freedom camping is allowed on DOC and council land in a certified self-contained vehicle. This sounds awesome, but the reality is that every district and council has their own rules and regulations, limiting where you freedom camping is allowed greatly. DOC has this up to date list of areas where limits on freedom camping apply. For council land there is this list that tells where freedom camping limits apply. If freedom camping is allowed in an area, adhere to the following rules:
Check for signs that indicate camping restrictions before you set up camp
Take rubbish with you
Use public toilets or your own toilet
Don’t camp on private land
Even though New Zealand embraces campervan travellers, they still need their hospitality sectors to generate income, so around the bigger cities and tourist hotspots you generally won’t find many (if any) options to camp for free. This means that if you’re in cities like Auckland, Rotorua and Queenstown, or in places Milford Sound and Mount Cook, you’ll either have to pay for accomodation, or drive a bit further out to find a free campsite. But don’t worry, there are still plenty of absolutely stunning places throughout the country where you can camp for free. During our time travelling New Zealand in a campervan we only stayed in campsites where we had to pay about 10% of the nights.
what to look for in a campervan
There are a LOT of campervan rental companies in New Zealand (we’ve encountered vans from more than 30 different rental companies during one day of driving) so we understand that the overabundance of choice can be a bit overwhelming. When picking your campervan there are multiple factors to consider, and all these factors affect the price of the campervan. These are the most important factors to keep in mind:
Size: How many people does it sleep? Keep in mind that a bigger vehicle is harder to drive and New Zealand roads can be unforgiving. The size also affects fuel efficiency.
Height: Do you want to be able to stand up inside the van? A higher van also means a less streamlined van, so again less fuel efficient.
Features: Does it come with a fridge? What is included in the kitchen? Does it have a house battery and how big is it? Does it have a toilet or maybe even a shower? Does it come with a solar panel? Are amenities like a camping table and camping chairs included?
Comfort: How luxurious and comfortable is the van?
Storage: How much stuff can you store in it?
Year and make: Older models are usually less reliable and less fuel efficient.
Self contained: Is the van certified self-contained, allowing you to stay in more places?
During high season rental prices are obviously the highest and you’d be looking at spending anything from 75 NZD per day for a very basic and rather small campervan, to 400 NZD per day for a big and luxurious campervan that can sleep four or more people. For a reasonably sized and decently equipped campervan that sleeps two people, count on spending about 150 NZD per day on rental during high season. During low season rental prices drop a lot and range from 30 NZD per day for a very basic van, to 150 NZD for something big and luxurious.
Keep in mind that often rental prices don’t include certain surcharges like insurance, relocation fees, young driver-, or extra driver fees. Pick-up and drop-off location can affect the price too, and when you drop the campervan off in a different location than where you picked it up, you can usually expect a relocation surcharge as well.
The relocating of campervans can be used as an opportinity too. Some rental companies are constantly looking for people that are willing to relocate their campervans from A to B. In return for relocating, you’re allowed to use the campervan for free, and they often give you one of two extra days before the campervan has to be delivered to its destination. Websites like Transfercar list cars and campervans that need to be relocated, but many rental companies offer their own relocation programs on their own websites too.
Buying a campervan in new zealand
So far we’ve only talked about renting a campervan, but buying a campervan is also an option, and one you should consider if you plan on spending more than three months in New Zealand. You’ve probably already calculated that campervan rental prices are on the expensive side, to put it mildly. If you stay in New Zealand for more than three months, you can often buy a campervan for the same amount of money that you would otherwise spend on renting one. When you’re done travelling, you can then sell your campervan again, saving you heaps of money compared to renting a campervan.
Keep in mind that the season hugely affects the going price of campervans for sale. The difference in price between high- and low season can be as big as 60%. This can be a massive advantage if you don’t mind travelling New Zealand in the colder off-season months. Buy your campervan at the beginning of low season when prices sink, and sell at the beginning of hight season when the prices skyrocket again and make a profit on your van! Think twice about doing it the other way arount though, because you’d most likely be looking at a hefty loss.
Is campervan travel in new zealand safe?
Yes. In fact, New Zealand is one of the safest countries in the world! This however doesn’t mean that crime doesn’t exist. Unfortunately one of the most common kinds of crime in New Zealand is theft from tourist vehicles. This usually occurs in the form of break-ins parked vehicles where thieves hope to find valuables inside. Always take basic precautions like hiding your valuables, taking important documents like passports with you, and don’t leave anything in plain sight.
Pin it or lose it!
So now that we’ve broken down why a campervan is the best way to travel New Zealand, we hope that we’ve convinced you to go on your own campervan adventure in New Zealand. Why should you trust what we’re saying? We built our own campervan and lived in it for a year, and before that, Zi lived in New Zealand for 4 years and travelled the country in all sorts of ways, so we’ve got enough of first-hand experience to be able to tell you what’s what. We also want you to know that we’re here to help. Please let us know if you have any questions. We’d love to answer them to help make you feel confident about travelling New Zealand in a campervan!
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