VW Bus on the road | Photo by Rudy and Peter Skitterians on Pixabay

Important basics for a safe road trip around New Zealand

Sandra ROSENAUFirst Published: Last Updated: New Zealand, Travel safely

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You are keen to explore New Zealand independently but don’t know where to start? Well good news: you’ve come to the right place. We answer the most frequently asked questions and provide some handy advice to help you have a fun and safe trip.

Where and when should I go?

Before you even start thinking about how to, find out

If you’re in search for itinerary ideas have a look at this Ultimate New Zealand Road Trip Itinerary.

With seasons opposite to the Northern Hemisphere, most people come to New Zealand between December and March. Now, add to that the thousands of New Zealand families that take time off during the school holidays between mid-December and early February. Does this sound too crowded? Well, it is. So, my advice: travel in the off-season. Not only is it less crowded but cheaper.

But what about the weather? you might ask. True, New Zealand summers can be gorgeous. The country is surrounded by water though, and the weather can (and does) change quickly. So, rather than letting (unpredictable) weather dictate when you visit, just make sure you pack for any weather.

How can I get around?

We traveled in our own campervan, but campervanning is of course not the only way to explore Aotearoa independently: you can hitchhike reasonably safely (in most areas), ride one of its many cycle trails, hire a car or take a bus.

Having your own vehicle (especially one you can cook, sleep and do your private business in), gives you the greatest flexibility though.

Campervan under trees on Banks Peninsula
Travelling by campervan is a great way to explore beautiful New Zealand

What is it like to drive in New Zealand?

Driving on the wrong side

Many of you will be used to driving on the right and are wondering how easy it is to adapt to driving on the left. Let me tell you: it’s easier than you think.

I did my driver’s licence in Germany, lived in the UK and Australia for almost two decades, and visit countries where people drive on the right regularly. So, I keep swapping between the two all the time. My advice – Be easy on yourself:

  • If this is your first left-hand driving experience get an automatic, even if you usually drive with a gear shift. It’s just one thing less to worry about.
  • Don’t drive too far on your first day and avoid rush hour city traffic. So, if your plane lands in the afternoon stay near the airport and collect your vehicle the next morning.
  • Drive slower than you would at home, especially the first 24 hours until you feel comfortable driving on the wrong side.
  • If in doubt (always tricky when you turn and there is no car waiting in the opposite lane) use the centre line as your orientation point: it needs to be next to your window.
Windy New Zealand mountain road | Photo by 377053 on Pixabay
Windy New Zealand mountain road | Photo by 377053 on Pixabay

Don’t underestimate the distances

New Zealand may not be a huge country (unlike Australia or the US) but don’t get fooled by how close things look on the map. Driving 300 kilometers might take you 2 hours on a motorway in Germany. In New Zealand, 300 kilometers can easily take a whole day, thanks to the country’s topography and road infrastructure.

Make sure you stop frequently along the way, especially when you cover longer distances – not just to have a break from the driving but also to appreciate the scenery.

Slow down

Just because a road is called State Highway (SH) doesn’t mean it has multiple lanes like your most important roads back home. The majority of New Zealand’s roads have a single lane in either direction.

Many of New Zealand’s roads are windy, especially those State Highways with a higher number as well as many secondary roads. In fact, many secondary roads are gravel roads (even some that lead to tourist attractions). So, do yourself, your vehicle and other road users a favor: Slow down!

Before coming to New Zealand I had never experienced one lane bridges. There are heaps of them all over the country, even on some State Highways. Slow down and pay attention as you approach the bridge. Even if you have right of way (a white arrow on the road sign), if an oncoming vehicle is already accessing the bridge let them continue. There is not enough space for two vehicles (and usually no passing lane) on the bridge.

One Lane Bridge, New Zealand | Photo by Makalu on Pixabay
One Lane Bridge | Photo by Makalu on Pixabay

Make it easy for others to overtake

While slowing down is important, just because you have time to explore the country doesn’t mean others have. Passing lanes are there for a reason. So, stick to the left as you approach the passing lane to let others overtake you.

Likewise, if you have accumulated a number of followers behind your vehicle it’s not because you’re popular. Pull over at a safe spot and let them go past.

I want to experience Van Life: Should I hire or buy?

Apart from the airfare, a campervan is likely to be the most expensive part of your New Zealand trip. However, it would cover a huge chunk of your transport, accommodation and dining costs.

If you stay for a month or less hiring a campervan is probably the most sensible option. During the summer months/high season (mid-November to mid-March), budget NZD200-250 per day to hire a campervan with a wet room (50% less for a campervan with toilet only). During winter (June to August), you can almost half that.

If you stay longer, especially 3+ months, you may find it more financially viable to buy a campervan (and sell it again when you leave the country). TradeMe is the equivalent of eBay or craigslist in New Zealand and would be your best bet to buy and sell a campervan.

Do your homework though, so that you don’t end up having to pay for costly repairs like we did. Even better, get the vehicle checked out by the Automobile Association (AA) or Vehicle Testing New Zealand (VTNZ) before you hand over the cash.

Sunrise at Papamoa Beach, New Zealand
Sunrise at Papamoa Beach

Where can I camp?

Contrary to what some may believe, you can’t camp wherever you want in New Zealand. If you camp outside of areas that have been specifically designated for camping you risk being woken up in the middle of the night, fined NZD200 and forced to move.

The same applies if you overnight on a self-contained only campsite in a van without self-containment certificate. To get or renew your self-containment certificate, you not only need to have a toilet on board, but the toilet also needs to be accessible when the bed is in use.

Our campervan had its own wet room (that is, a separate cupboard-sized room with an inbuilt shower and toilet). With around 90 litres of fresh water, we had enough on board to last us three days.

Our solar panels generated enough power that we (theoretically) never had to plug into mains power. This allowed us to stay in free or cheap campsites during the summer. Sometimes, these sites were just simple parking lots. At other times, we pinched ourselves as we woke up to gorgeous sea, lake or mountain views.

We found these campsites through the CamperMate, WikiCamps and Rankers Camping NZ apps.

Freedom Camping Site Ohope Beach, New Zealand
Freedom Camping Site at Ohope Beach

Sadly, the truly free campsites are becoming fewer and fewer as many councils clamp down on freedom camping, responding to complaints from locals who are sick of people abusing the system by

  • not using the public toilets provided or their own porta-potty,
  • not disposing of their rubbish appropriately,
  • soaping themselves and/or their gear in ecologically sensitive rivers and lakes, etc.

So, please make sure you adhere to the number one rule of responsible travel: Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints!

What else is important?

As a self-contained vehicle driver, you will have to stock up on clean drinking water (and dump your grey water) regularly.

Do not, I repeat, do not fill up your clean drinking water tank using the tap above the hole you dump your grey and/or black water in. Seems logical, but how many times did we see people do just that (including washing their dishes… yikes). The tap above the dump is not of drinkable quality!

The last thing you want is to come all this way and then get sick. If there is drinking water available at a dump station it is usually a few meters away from the dump hole and has a sign that says Potable Water. Refill your fresh water tank (or wash your hands and dishes) there.

Hands under running water | Photo by Tibor Janosi Mozes on Pixabay
Hands under running water | Photo by Tibor Janosi Mozes on Pixabay

How much money will I need?

Good question. The short answer is: It depends on your lifestyle on the road.

Check out our Van Life NZ: Set-up Costs and Van Life NZ: Travel Costs, where we share what it cost us to get started and our daily average for food, accommodation, transport and the like.

Do you have any other questions? Please leave a comment below. We’ll try our best to answer them.

Feature photo by Rudy and Peter Skitterians on Pixabay

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Important basics for a safe road trip around New Zealand
Important basics for a safe road trip around New Zealand
Important basics for a safe road trip around New Zealand
Important basics for a safe road trip around New Zealand