We slide open the camper door and step barefoot onto dewy grass. It’s early but the sun is already slicing through the tree canopy, mottling the ground beneath us in light and shadow. We pick our way carefully along the overgrown path to the empty riverbank. Steam rises from the water and hangs in white fluffy clouds, illuminated in the hazy morning light. It looks like a witches cauldron. Eagerly we step into the warm water, comforting in the crisp morning air. As we settle in, neck deep, beside a small sun dappled waterfall a solitary tramp emerges from the steam, towel and soap in hand and offers a friendly wave before disappearing into the trees. This is the weirdest and most magical bath time I’ve ever experienced!
Back in England, if someone had asked me to sleep in a campervan for three weeks and bathe in the river with a tramp I’d have laughed in their face! But this is New Zealand where the rivers are geothermal hot pools rich in healing minerals, tramps are as nice as pie and campervans are the way to travel! What other mode of transport allows you to slip out of your bed and straight into a hot spring in the wilderness?
Having never set foot in a campervan before arriving in New Zealand we initially found the whole experience rather bewildering. We finally picked a campervan after hours of research and dozens of Google searches to translate mysterious campervan lingo, only then to be faced with several bed assembly disasters, strange smells and midnight hunts for campsites!
Was it challenging? Yes. Was it the best time of our lives? Yes! When you’re driving through some of the most beautiful scenery that exists in this world with your house on your back, camping under the stars and eating breakfast while dolphins frolic in the waves before you, you’ll forget all about yesterday’s battle with the waste disposal pipe.
We’ve compiled our hard learned lessons, blood, sweat and tears into a handy little guide for other clueless first-time campers with everything you need to know about hiring a campervan in New Zealand.
Choosing your campervan
Campervans are big business in New Zealand so there are plenty of companies to choose from. One of the cheaper options is Wicked Campers who offer brightly painted, no frills vans aimed primarily at backpackers. At the other end of the scale is Maui whose all singing, all dancing, gadget filled motorhomes have every comfort you could imagine along with a hefty price tag! We opted for Mighty who sit in the middle along with Britz and seemed to offer the best cost to comfort ratio.
When you’re picking your campervan, one very important question to ask yourself is: how well do you know your campmate? As, spoiler alert, campervans are small. Like really small! Our model, the Double Down 4YX, was actually designed for 4 people. I have no idea how 4 people could have squeezed into our camper unless they were a couple travelling with very VERY small children. The price difference between a 2 berth and 4 berth camper wasn’t huge so we decided to give ourselves more space which turned out to be a good decision as our camper was the perfect size for a couple.
The Double Down also had an elevated roof so you could stand up inside and came equipped with everything we needed including a two ring gas stove, microwave oven, fridge and a surprisingly comfortable bed!
Where to stay on your New Zealand roadtrip
Before embarking on our campervan adventure we naively thought we could just park up anywhere with a view. We couldn’t have been more wrong! Firstly, if your campervan has a fridge, lights or anything electric you’ll need to stay in a ‘powered campsite’ every 2-3 days to charge it up. This means paying between £18- £30 per night! Secondly, ‘freedom camping’ i.e. parking up anywhere you like, is illegal in New Zealand and carries an instant £100 fine if caught. Thirdly, unless you’ve splashed out on a fancy pants campervan with a shower and toilet on board, you’re going to need somewhere with facilities. Suddenly that budget-friendly campervan holiday is starting to look a little pricey! But don’t panic, we have some tricks and tips to share.
There’s an app for that
There are several good quality apps to help you locate budget friendly campsites in New Zealand. CamperMate was our favourite as it displays all available campsites in a particular area on an easy-to-use colour-coded map so you can see immediately how many sites are available, how much they cost and which are free or DOC run (see below). It also tells you what facilities they have and will direct you there via sat nav. You can also use the app to find petrol stations, supermarkets and toilets.
Find a DOC campsite
Once you have your handy campsite app, you can use it to find DOC campsites which are owned by the Department of Conservation and are cheaper than commercially run ones. They also tend to be located in more scenic areas and are unmanned with an honesty box provided for payment. All sites are unpowered (so no electrical hook up) but some do have showers and kitchens. Costs range from free to £10 per night. We stayed in some absolutely beautiful DOC campsites in New Zealand. You can find a full list of DOC campsites here
There are a limited number of completely free campsites however these are usually restricted to ‘self contained’ vehicles which means campers with toilets on board. If you don’t have a certified self contained sticker on your window you might be turfed off as these sites are often patrolled. We didn’t know about this rule and were merrily tucking into dinner one evening when we had a knock on the door, sparking a midnight drive to find alternative digs. Free campsites located away from towns and cities tend to be less rigorously patrolled.
Speaking (ahem) hypothetically, if you do want to take the risk and freedom camp then arrive late and leave early, as patrols tend to happen first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Aim for quiet country roads or laybys and leave nothing behind. Bike parks often have $2 showers and natural hotsprings make for a refreshing dip!
Getting around in your campervan
The scenery in New Zealand is utterly breath-taking, particularly on the South Island, so we really enjoyed the driving element of the trip. We had a month to cover both islands which was just about do-able and allowed us to see the key highlights and spend a couple of nights in each place.
We wanted to have time to explore each destination properly and not spend our entire trip behind the wheel. We planned a route with destinations around 2-4 hours apart, so we’d have at least one full day in each place. We did have a couple of longer driving days on the South Island but there are no shortage of stunning lakes and mountain views to break up the journey.
Here’s the route we took on our New Zealand roadtrip:
Auckland – Coromandel Peninsula (2 hours)
Coromandel Peninsula – Rotorua (3 hours)
Rotorua – Tongariro National Park (2.5 hours)
Tongariro National Park – Wellington (3.5 hours)
Ferry crossing from Wellington – Picton (3 hours)
Picton – Abel Tasman National Park (3 hours)
Abel Tasman National Park – (6 hours)
Kaikoura – Mt Cook National Park (6 hours)
Mt Cook National Park – Queenstown (3 hours)
When to go
We travelled around New Zealand in the Autumn from mid April to early May, so it was still warm in the North but starting to get chilly on the South Island, particularly at night. Our campervan came equipped with a portable heater but it functioned only when the van was hooked up to an electricity supply on a powered site to prevent the battery from being drained. So there were a few mornings when we woke up to see our breath hanging in the air!
If you’re planning to travel around New Zealand in a campervan at this time of year we’d recommend stretching the budget to powered sites so you can use the portable heater or visit during the summer between December and Febrary.
Campervan housekeeping tips
You will have to empty your waste tank periodically which, for a no frills campervan without a toilet, is thankfully just used sink water. You can do this at most serviced campsites in a special waste disposal area. It’s illegal to dump waste in an open environment (not to mention irresponsible and antisocial) and can result in fines of up to $500,000! So get to know your dump sites!
Most basic campervans will only send power to internal plug sockets when hooked up to a powered site or when the vehicle is moving. So remember to charge phones and cameras on the move.
What to eat
New Zealand discount supermarket chain ‘Countdown’ has stores scattered across both islands in most towns and cities and was our go-to for budget friendly campervan meals.
Our New Zealand campervan roadtrip costs (based on two sharing)
- Campervan hire for 17 days including one-way fee, camping equipment and sat nav – £1,442
- Fuel for approximately 2200 miles at 70p a litre – £170
- Campsites – £160
- Food (mostly cooking for ourselves) – £150
- Ferry to south island – £140
- Activities (including spade hire at hot water beach, mountain bike hire in Whakarewarewa Forest, entry to Whakarewarewa Thermal Village, kayak hire in Abel Tasman National Park, mountain bike hire and lift pass for Queenstown bike park, jet boat ride) – £330 Read more about our activities in New Zealand
Total trip costs: £2392
So there it is: a beginner’s guide to travelling around New Zealand in a campervan! If you have any tips or stories to share from your own New Zealand road trip we’d love to hear from you! Just post a comment below or drop us an email! Happy camping everyone!