Campervanning New Zealand seems to be the most popular way to travel through the country. Most of the people I know who have been there did in fact travel New Zealand by campervan. Because let’s face it: a New Zealand road trip is truly a memorable experience. We were no exception and opted for the New Zealand van life ourselves. But, winter lovers at heart as we are, we travelled in the winter, the least popular campervan season. And we went for the non self-contained and unpowered option!
We visited New Zealand in the middle of August, which is the end of winter in the South Island. While the North Island has warmer temperatures, the South Island does experience a proper winter as I know it. August is not the coldest month, as that is when winter turns into spring. Yet temperatures in the day were around 10-12°C, dropping to 4-5°C in the night. In Queenstown we experienced one night in minus temperatures with a strong wind that made it feel even colder, but that was a one-off.
If the idea of campervanning New Zealand in such cold temperatures is already making you shiver, wait for it. For our NZ road trip we decided to rent a non self-contained van and stayed at unpowered campsites. Yup, you read it right: no toilet onboard and no electric heating in the van. In refrigerator-worthy temperatures. And now I’m here to tell you that we had an amazing time and that it actually was not as terrible as it may seem. You just need to plan things wisely and bring the right equipment. And I mean, we come from Sweden, so…
How to survive New Zealand winter in a non self-contained van
What is a non self-contained van?
Common campervans generally have a tank for grey water and sewage, which also means a toilet system inside the vehicle. Such campervans are labelled “self-contained” and in New Zealand must by law carry a sticker that identifies them as such. This grants them access to certain campsites only accessible to self-contained vehicles. Lack of such an identification sticker will translate as non self-contained, which may mean being fined is staying at the wrong types of campgrounds.
So what is a non self-contained van then? A non self-contained campervan is basically a car that converts into a bed/night area, might be equipped with some kitchen facilities including a small freshwater tank, but does not feature a grey water tank and sewage system. We rented a Dream Sleeper Mini from Spaceships Rentals, which is a Toyota Estima whose back seat converts into a bed and that features a small kitchen in the trunk.
How to survive single-digit temperatures campervanning New Zealand in winter? Read on for my few pieces of advice after our memorable winter adventure in the South Island.
Be equipped for cold nights
Spaceships campervans are obviously rented year round, and there are special accessories that can be added to your booking according to the season. If choosing to go with this company, I strongly recommend to add the “Winter Warmer Pack”. For an additional 50 NZD we got:
- 2 hot water bottles
- an extra duvet
- 1 thermos for hot beverages or soup
- 3 extra gas canisters
While the 2 hot water bottles and the extra duvet were essential for our comfort, we never used the thermos and left the 3 extra gas canisters untouched. Staying mostly at paid campsites, we did not use our campervan kitchen that often, so we were good with one gas canister and had no need for those extra ones. As for the thermos, we just didn’t happen to need it. Even when we made coffee in the van kitchen we just drank it from the fabulous mugs that came with the van.
The campervan was unbelievably well insulated from the cold. In my opinion the best accessory were the curtains, that not only did grant darkness and privacy, but acted as an extra insulation layer between the inside of the van and the car windows, which get notably very cold. The temperature inside the van obviously dropped during the night, but the double duvet and 2 hot water bottles at our feet kept our bodies warm. When properly tucked in, I actually sleep much better in cooler temperatures.
Have the right clothes
As an old Scandinavian proverb goes, there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes. In fact, 90% of success in any winter adventure is to have the right clothes on. Campervanning New Zealand in winter is no exception to this rule. You will be out exploring the beauty of that amazing country and you want to make the most of your time outside. Back in your campervan you want to make sure you are comfortable and warm both while driving and when parked for the night. If your van is non self-contained you need to also make sure you won’t freeze on your trips to the toilet. And if you cannot connect your van to a power station you absolutely need to have clothes that will keep you warm through the night. Think regular tent-camping.
My tip? Wear wool. Stock up on wool underwear and wool socks. Besides keeping you warm, wool is wonderfully breathable and tends to smell a lot less even when sweating, which is also a plus when travelling light and not planning to do laundry. For the night we were sleeping in merino wool base layers, those you would use under ski clothes. In order to stay both warm and comfortable during the day drives I also had fleece-lined tracksuit pants and soft woolen sweaters. Wool socks and waterproof hiking shoes kept my feet warm and dry while out exploring.
Since the only part of your body that will stick out of the double-duvet-and-hot-water-bottle-bubble is your head, make sure to bring also a wool hat. Keeping your head covered will help to avoid dispersion of your own body warmth. I had to buy a merino wool hat in Queenstown because my synthetic hat just did not deliver. I cannot recommend wool enough as base layer, definitely the best fabric to wear directly over your skin in such a situation.
Power cord or no power cord?
Being basically a car that converts into a bed, our campervan did not have a mains plug and interior sockets. That means that you could not connect it onto a powered campsite and plug in electronics or operate a small heater. Our Dream Sleeper Mini did have USB ports both in the front of the vehicle and in the back, but no regular power outlets. We were able to charge our phones using a USB cable; to charge my camera battery I had to plug my charger while eating in the common kitchen at one of the campsites we stayed. Our Spaceship had a smart battery system that allowed for the fridge to run overnight, while also charging our 2 phones, without draining the car’s main battery.
On top of the “Winter warmer pack”, Spaceships rentals offers also a “Heater pack”. It consists of a 240V mains plug and a small oil heater. It is to be used at powered campsites, where you can connect to the campground’s electricity and heat up your campervan with the electric heater. According to the rental company, the “Winter Warmer Pack” is all you need for New Zealand winter, but they obviously have an extra option for those who seek more comfort. I can definitely confirm that a double duvet and hot water bottles, combined with our wool clothes, was more than enough.
Renting a campervan was the most affordable way to travel New Zealand in winter. Especially choosing a non self-contained van without a mains plug, which is the cheapest option for campervans you can get. Of course you need to consider the expense of campsites on top of that, but unpowered sites are cheaper than powered. Sure you may not be able to do total free camping, but there are freedom camping sites that allow non self-contained vehicles for a small fee, as well as low cost campgrounds. Paid campsites also range in price, so if money’s an important factor, you just need to pick your next night stop according to your budget. There are several apps that work offline that let you check campgrounds locations.
Tips for campervanning New Zealand in winter
Road trips are a very convenient way of travelling, as long as you feel comfortable driving in another country. The freedom to choose your own routes and times is priceless. A road trip in a campervan brings in even more advantages, as it can help keep the costs of accommodation and food low. New Zealand is possibly one of the best places for a campervan road trip: it is safe, there are plenty of campsites (both free and paid) and if that was not enough, the scenery is one of the best you could ask for.
New Zealand in winter in a van: the awesome things
While summertime NZ campervanning is a classic, a New Zealand winter road trip has its own pluses, too.
Wintertime is cheaper. With the obvious exception of skiing areas and winter sports destinations, winter in New Zealand is considered low season. Accommodation and car rental expenses come for a fraction of their summertime pricetags. Campervans are particularly cheap during this time of the year because let’s face it, sleeping in a car in the winter might not be everybody’s idea of a dream holiday. Yet this is really doable, and if you choose a non self-contained van like we did, you will be paying it for the same price as a regular car. With the advantage of being able to sleep in it, without having to pay for hotels.
Less people around. Certain areas of New Zealand are wonderfully remote and can be the perfect destination when you need to get away from the crowds. Still, high season definitely sees more people around. During the winter, hardly any campsite has reached its full capacity, so you can just spontaneously check in to any campsite along the road without worrying to book in advance. This is not recommended in the summer, when there are more people travelling. Not having booked overnight stays keeps your winter road trip more flexible and more enjoyable.
Whatever the weather. I will never stress enough that even in winter you can still get to enjoy some of the camper life perks like getting to cook a meal or a coffee whenever, wherever. On a sunny day we stopped at a designated rest area, opened up the trunk of our van and prepared lunch en plein air. Most campervans come with basic kitchen utensils, plates, pots and pans. Ours even had a kettle, a chef’s knife and cutting board and a can opener. I loved whipping up some sausage meatballs with mushrooms and spinach in the middle of nowhere.
New Zealand in winter in a van: the not so good things
Winter driving. While the temperature rarely drops below 0°C, mountain roads can get icy. The alpine region of the South Island has mountain passes and narrow steep roads that can be a challenging drive in icy conditions. Snow chains are recommended and you may face warning signs about manadatory snow chains onboard in order to drive a mountain pass. Check if snow chains are included in your rental agreement. The company we rented from has snow chains as an accessory we did not purchase. We were not aware that a portion of our itinerary might have required them onboard. We eventually purchased a set of snow chains at a gas station to be on the safe side. I would definitely recommend to spend those extra dollars and rent snow chains together with your vehicle. You never know if you’re gonna need to use them and buying them will cost you the same money.
Weather disruptions. Bad weather might be an inconvenience also in the summer, but during the winter you clearly have higher chances. Twice did we have to change our itinerary due to chances of snow and that sadly meant we had to cut Milford Sound off our itinerary. That’s right, I’ve been to the South Island of New Zealand and missed its most iconic attraction. There is only one road to Milford and back, and on our itinerary that excursion was a detour. Not so favourable weather conditions made us cancel the boat tour and skip the detour altogether. A few days later we also decided to spend one day less on the West Coast and drive the Arthur’s Pass in favourable weather conditions, as snow was forecast on the day we had planned on driving that mountain pass.
Fewer visiting times at tourist attractions. The boat services at Milford or the helicopter tours over the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers have fewer time slots during the winter months. That is just to name a couple of attractions that obviously have larger capacity in high season. During a winter road trip you may be more flexible when it comes to unbooked night stops, but you may have to tightly fit excursions at the only times of the day when they are offered.
Would you campervan New Zealand in winter?
Sure it may get cold. Sure you have to have that extra layer of clothes. Sure the snow may disrupt your plans (Milford Sound, I will come back!). And sure if you’re coming from the northern hemisphere it will mean exchanging some summer for winter. But New Zealand in winter is awesome and experiencing it in a campervan was a fantastic way to enjoy this beautiful country to the fullest.
Campervanning New Zealand non self-contained at unpowered sites was less comfortable than driving around the country stopping at hotels for the night. But this helped us save a lot of money. Going non self-contained feels much more like tent camping rather than campervanning per se, but it just added that little extra bit of adventure to our travels. As for the fact that it was winter, I’ll just say that the cold never bothered me anyway (cit.). And come on, how cool is it that I can say I have skied in August??
If you are also planning to visit New Zealand and are considering renting a van, I can but recommend it. Go for it! Experiencing New Zealand on the road is fantastic. Visiting New Zealand in winter? Don’t let that discourage you from giving the #vanlife a try. Sure winter may be a little bit more challenging than summer, but we did it and we had a blast! We went non self-contained and stayed at unpowered campsites. An unusual choice in the winter months, but this helped us save tons on our New Zealand South Island road trip.