About 70,000 campervans are hired in New Zealand every year, which is a phenomenal number for a country of its size. There are, however, strict rules and regulations regarding camping and campervan overnights in New Zealand, and it pays to know these before you go. So, read on to find out everything you need to know about traveling around NZ safely in a campervan.
So, is it safe to campervan in New Zealand? It is safe to travel around New Zealand in a campervan, and as you will see, it is actually encouraged to do so. New Zealand has consistently been voted among the safest countries on the planet. No wild animals are going to eat you in New Zealand, unlike across ‘the ditch’ in Australia, and the whole country is set up as a haven for campervans. Travelers will find an array of options for overnight parking. These range from free council RV sites, small-fee or donations-encouraged Department of Conservation (DOC) sites, as well as hundreds of well-equipped and luxurious holiday parks spanning the length of the country.
Can you sleep anywhere in a campervan in New Zealand?
No, you cannot park your campervan anywhere you like in New Zealand. There are many, many options to choose from, but if you decide to “freedom camp” (as it is known in NZ, or dispersed camping), then you can expect a knock on the window in the middle of the night, followed swiftly by a NZ $200 fine (US $125).
The best thing to do is plan ahead, know where the free council sites are, or the DOC small-fee sites, and plan your day around where you will be sleeping each night.
Rules and regulations:
In New Zealand a campervan is either self-contained or not. This will affect where you can and cannot stay every night. If a camp site is for self-contained vehicles only, then your campervan must have a self-contained certification.
This basically means that the site does not have any toilet facilities, so in order to prevent human waste from being spread all over the countryside, the self-contained campervans come with their own internal toilets.
Most campervans in New Zealand come with a self-contained certification. If you are renting from a larger, well-known company (more information later), then your vehicle will definitely come with the right paperwork. If, however, you rent from a (ahem) less reputable company, then I would implore you to ask for the certification before you drive off.
Do not settle for the sticker on the window. In order to fully enjoy the country, make sure your vehicle is certified as self-contained to give you more overnight accommodation options.
Tips for first-time campervan tourists to New Zealand
We have already looked at the big two. Do not park your vehicle anywhere you want, and make sure it is certified as self-contained. There are astronomical fines for dumping of your toilet waste in non-designated sites, so do not even go there.
If you are a tech-savvy person then download the free Rankers Camping NZ app for your phone or tablet. I used this unbelievable source of information on a daily basis while traveling around New Zealand in a campervan.
It breaks down your camping options into holiday parks, self-contained sites, non-self-contained sites, DOC campsites, free campsites and tent-only camping, and then displays all this information for you on a large, navigable and interactive map of the country. It could not be easier.
You will also find where all the dump stations are located, if you are allowed to take your pet with you, as well as providing outstanding information on various hikes, where you can fill up with fuel and LPG, and many other tourism-related activities in the country.
They are expanding their information database every day, so now even things like top-ranked playgrounds will pop up on your map, if that is what you are looking for. It is a fantastic tool for parents traveling with small children. Children that have a lot of energy to burn.
What are the dangers to campervan tourists in New Zealand?
Despite being a relatively safe country, visitors are encouraged to remain vigilant in regards to their safety. The crime-rate is wonderfully low, but as with everywhere else, do not encourage crime by leaving your vehicles unlocked, or displaying your valuables for the whole world to see. As they sometimes say: the opportunity makes the thief.
You are heading into a region of seismic activity. This means that, although rare and unlikely, there is a chance that certain regions could be affected by earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions. When visiting low-lying coastal communities, pay attention to tsunami evacuation routes and procedures.
Read some information on what to do in case of an earthquake. Store it in the back of your mind somewhere, and then do not worry about it.
If you are heading into a volcanic region (which you will want to do, because they are absolutely stunning. See my account and some photos of the Tongariro Crossing here, then read all the DOC warning signs beforehand. Talk to the rangers at the National Park visitors’ centers about the likelihood of eruptions, and where you should head to in case of a volcanic event.
Understand road etiquette:
New Zealand is such a beautiful place. You are going to want to slow down and take it all in. There are ample view-points dotted strategically around the country, so please use these instead of causing country-side traffic jams as you limp along the road. NZ roads are narrow and overtaking opportunities are few and far between. Truck drivers with schedules to keep are likely to be stuck behind you. Pull over and let them pass, or else you may be subject to their wrath.
There are many single-lane bridges in New Zealand, with signs indicating which side of the bridge has the right of way. Heed these at all times. Head on collisions are not pretty.
Oh yeah, and please stay on the left!
Popular campervan rental companies
It can be quite daunting when you type these three words into a Google search for the first time: “campervans New Zealand”. You are going to be inundated with ads and hundreds of companies, from the multinational to the local. You have probably heard of Britz and the Travellers Autobarn – and if you can afford to travel with either of these two, you are going to pay for peace of mind as well.
I have personal experience hiring from both Jucy Rentals and Spaceship Rentals, who target more the budget-friendly backpacking crowd, and I have had a positive experience renting from both of them. Another company that are well-reviewed are Mad Campers.
There are other options you may like to explore, such as hiring a campervan from a New Zealand local, which I have done only once but ended up saving a lot of money. The site that I found this particular deal on was: yourdrive.co.nz
Pricing to expect:
This is going to vary a huge amount, depending on the size of the campervan and what time of year you choose to go. The roads in New Zealand during the summer months of December to February become exceptionally busy, and with it comes the sky-rocketing prices.
In the middle of January, for instance, you would be looking at between US $80 – $160 per day for a small to medium campervan for two people from a budget operator. For purposes of comparison, in the shoulder-to-off season, the same campervans can be rented for just US $15 – $25 per day.
Where to fly into:
The three largest cities in New Zealand are Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, and the best deals for campervan rentals can be found in these places. Auckland is by far the country’s largest city, and therefore more competitively-priced campervans can be sourced from here.
Both the North and South Islands of New Zealand are beautiful places and worthy of exploration. A popular route is to collect your campervan in Auckland, before driving down to visit Rotorua, Taupo and Tongariro National Park. Continue to head south to the famously windy capital city of Wellington.
The South Island of New Zealand is home to the Southern Alps and therefore most of the mountainous and spectacular terrain naturally occurs here. You can put your campervan on a ferry at the terminal in Wellington and make the roughly 3-hour crossing to the quaint port town of Picton, surrounded by the stunning Marlborough Sounds. The two companies are Bluebridge and Interislander.
The suggested route would be to head south down the west coast of the country, taking in views of the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers, Aoraki/ Mount Cook (NZ’s highest peak at 12,218 feet) and then onto the eye-popping scenic route to the ski/ adventure town of Queenstown.
From there, many people head to the star gazing reserve around Twizel and Lake Tekapo, before bee-lining for the east coast where you can return your vehicle at Christchurch.
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As a travel writer and photographer, Gordon spent the better part of 2018 visiting 13 different countries as far apart as Chile, Morocco and Vietnam. He is in New Zealand in 2019, writing a third travel book, while exploring pretty much anything that forms a bump on the Earth’s surface.
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