Everything you need to know about backpacking New Zealand

Rachel Mills

written by
Rachel Mills

updated 31.01.2019

New Zealand’s craggy coastline and beautiful national parks beg to be explored. The scenery gets more spectacular around every corner, with beaches, vineyards, glaciers, snow-capped mountains, raging rivers and vast lakes all jostling for attention.

Add to the mix some cool, laidback cities, a thriving Maori culture and generous, warm-hearted people and you have New Zealand (Aotearoa in Maori): a backpackers dream. If you’re travelling through New Zealand anytime soon, you’ll need to read these tips before you go:

1. Buy a car or van

If you’re backpacking New Zealand for more than a couple of months, buying a vehicle often works out cheaper than renting as there’s high demand for budget cars and vans.

Check hostel notice boards and online sites like Trade Me, and if you’re in Auckland, get yourself to Travel Cars NZ. Oh and save your pennies on the Sat Nav – it’s nigh on impossible to get lost.

Planning your dream trip? Don't miss our guide to the best things to do in New Zealand.

a campervan in new zealand

© Pixabay

2. Park up or pitch a tent

There is no more perfect a country for sleeping under the stars. Options include holiday parks with high-end facilities, gorgeous out-of-the-way DOC managed sites (from very basic free campsites without water to serviced sites that might cost NZ$15) and freedom camping – generally for self-contained (ie with a toilet) vans only.

Freedom camping is tougher than it once was, as “no camping” signs have sprung up and fines are enforced, but the online map at Rankers of Aotearoa is a brilliant resource for forward planning.

Wild camping in the mountains

© Pixabay

3. Learn some local lingo

Just like the Aussies, Kiwis – the people, as opposed to the native flightless bird – have their own way of saying things. Nowhere else in the world will you hear “bro” or “sweet as” said without a touch of irony.

Useful terms include “togs” (swimming costumes), “dairy” (corner shop or convenience store), “chilly bin” (cool box), “tramping” (hiking) and “jandals” (sandals). Oh and you’ll be saying “eh?” at the end of every sentence in no time, eh.

Lake, New Zealand

© Pixabay

4. Prepare for all weather

New Zealand might not be huge, but it can be noticeably colder on the south island compared to the north. Outside of summer it can get chilly everywhere, and all year-round the weather is changeable.

If you’re tramping the Tongariro Crossing, camping or just pottering about Christchurch, be prepared for sudden drops in temperature and downpours.

Layers are key, a rain jacket essential, and quick drying clothing a godsend. All that said, UV rays here are harsh, so in the sun wear a hat and a high factor cream.

5. Work hard, play hard

You somehow have to pay for the all the delicious coffee (and Sauvignon Blanc) you’ll be drinking, so if the idea of milking cows in Waikato or picking grapes in Marlborough appeals, it’s a great way to extend your stay.

Do some online research into grassroots schemes where you receive food or accommodation in exchange for hard work (WWOOF, FHiNZ, Help Exchange) or pick up some casual work for pay.

You’ll need to apply for a work visa; those aged 18–30 (or up to 35 for Canadians) can take part in the Working Holiday Scheme (WHS) and live, work and travel anywhere in the country for up to 23 months (if you’re from the UK or Canada – from the USA it’ll only be 12 months).


© Shutterstock

6. Invest in a travel pass

To explore from Cape Reinga on the very northern tip to Stewart Island in the far south is best done by road or rail – with the odd scenic ferry crossing thrown in. Investing in a travel pass will save you cash.

InterCity/Newmans operate a hop-on-hop-off service and you can get a FlexiPass loaded with hours that, crucially, can be sold to another traveller if you have any left over.

There’s also the cheap, cheerful and never boring backpacker buses (Flying Kiwi Adventure Tours, Haka Tours, Stray and the classic original, Kiwi Experience are recommended).

For the train, invest in a fixed or freedom pass with KiwiRail.

7. Book ahead in high season

Campsites, B&Bs, hotels and hostels get super busy from December to March, when it can feel like all of New Zealand is on holiday.

Don’t forget that towns and cities such as Queenstown, Wanaka and Christchurch are gateways to nearby ski resorts and have another high season from July to September – particularly at weekends.

The same goes for organized outdoor activities, which can be booked solid in peak season. If you’ve got limited time, book ahead.

8. Get covered

Getting decent travel insurance for a trip to New Zealand is essential. The country is one big outdoor playground and you might find yourself being more adventurous than you imagine back home.

While thrill-seekers are probably aware that bungee jumping from Kawarau Bridge, sky diving over Lake Taupo and whitewater rafting on the Shotover aren’t covered by standard policies, travellers often don’t realise that other “hazardous activities” could include trekking, canoeing and sailing.

Check the small print and compare individual policies carefully – it’s worth printing out the exclusions to keep with you on your trip.

Wellington, New Zealand © Tom Zahnas/Shutterstock

Wellington, New Zealand © Tom Zahnas/Shutterstock

9. It's all about Wellington, not Auckland

Not everyone is in the know about Wellington, the windy city nestled against the waterfront and surrounded by rolling hills.

New Zealand’s capital deserves more of your time than a few photographs taken in Hobbiton Woods and the Gardens of Isengard (Welly takes its “Middle-of-Middle-Earth” label very seriously).

Before making the short hop across the Cook Strait to the south island, savour the cultural vibe and the craft beers, food trucks and flat whites on and around Cuba Street. And don’t miss the striking Te Papa: Museum of New Zealand.

10. Travel light

Remember: a small bag means you can’t over pack. Choose quality lightweight clothing that folds up small and is quick drying – and invest in a good quality GORE-TEX jacket.

Don’t forget you can buy cheap toiletries there and that after a few weeks on the road you’ll find yourself making do with just a bar of soap.

Choosing a tiny one-man tent means you can hop off the bus and hike to backcountry campsites. Travelling light means freedom.

Top image: © Shutterstock

Explore more of New Zealand with The Rough Guide to New Zealand. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Rachel Mills

written by
Rachel Mills

updated 31.01.2019

Rachel Mills is a freelance writer, editor and broadcaster based by the sea in Kent. She is a co-author for Rough Guides to New Zealand, India, Canada, Ireland and Great Britain a contributor to Telegraph Travel, the Independent, AFAR, DK Eyewitness and loveEXPLORING.com and an expert in sustainable, responsible tourism. Follow her @rachmillstravel on Twitter and Instagram and listen to her show Over Here on ramsgateradio.com.

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