Tips on booking the right campervan, what to pack, planning your route, and staying sane on the road.
You’ll never have a boring day on the road in New Zealand. From endless rolling, sheep-filled hills to coastal cliffs, snow-capped mountains and more, the best way to travel this country is by campervan. For those travelling with kids or any other family members, it’s an incredible way to explore the great outdoors together.
Before my daughter was born, my partner and I were backpacking addicts. We chose New Zealand as a new adventure in 2015 and it didn’t take long to purchase our first converted minivan, Ronda. Our time cruising across the country was timeless and ignited our passion for travelling in a new way. Our daughter, Lia arrived a few years later and still to this day it’s our favourite way to adventure around New Zealand.
From trips in our small campervan called Betty and bigger hires on the South Island, we’ve learned a few things to make it work with less stress and more fun.
Choosing the right size for your family
If you’re not driving your own van, you’re in luck, this country is teeming with rental options. First things first, decide if you want a campervan or an RV, this of course depends on your family size. From personal experience, four adults is a tight squeeze in a campervan with little storage room, but doable if you’re on a budget. The bigger the van, the more space and storage, however, the daily rate and petrol cost will increase. Also, it may be challenging to drive a larger vehicle. Drive what you’ll feel comfortable in.
Another tip is to make sure to choose a self-contained vehicle. Self-contained vehicles have unique certifications that allow them to park in many free spots across both islands. These vehicles must include a toilet and space for grey water. Some camping sites only allow self-contained vehicles, which is easy to check on your Campermate app.
Obviously you need enough seats per passenger, however, some campervans are a bit trickier with car seats. Before booking, double check with rental company to make sure your kid’s seat will fit. During our latest adventure, our daughter’s car seat could fit on the back captain seats or between us in the front. We chose the latter as it was colder in the back part of the van and she was out of arm’s reach, which if you have a toddler you know is key on long road trips.
One big factor that will help you choose the right vehicle is price. Just like rental cars, there are budget campervan companies and luxurious, modern brands. Be realistic about your budget and what you can afford. Petrol adds up quickly from the constant windy, hilly highways and the price hits over $2 per litre. Search the web for discounts, often common during the off-season. Some campervan rentals require a minimum booking period, often around one week. Longer hires may also give bigger daily rate discounts.
One big piece of advice for those travelling during New Zealand’s summer (December to February), book your vehicle well in advance. These months are the busiest for all campervan and RV rentals and often sell out. We chose to plan a last minute road trip over the New Year with family one year and our only option was an old beat-up van that I’m pretty sure belonged to a random person in Christchurch. Don’t be like us, snag the rental you want.
If you’re hiring a campervan, check their website to see what’s included in the rental. It’s typically all cooking and kitchen equipment, towels, sheets, pillows and duvets. If you’re worried about being cold, I’d recommend hiring a heater and parking up at campsites with electricity. Here are our go-to packing items for van trips.
- Essential cooking items: oil, salt/pepper, garlic, spices, spreads
- Activity bag: filled with cards, games, activity books, colouring (we love the mess-free crayola markers), puzzles, etc.
- Snack bag: all Mum, Dad and bubs favourites
- Electronic bag with chargers, batteries, torches
- Two-port USB plug-in to maximise charging while driving
- Bring a set of battery-operated fairy lights for nice light at night, plus the kiddos love them.
These items are on top of your suitcase items. I recommend trying to pack less clothing, more layers and use packing cubes to keep your clothes organized throughout the holiday. For our family we each have our own packing cube with our items of clothing, which makes it easy to grab when one of us is changing clothes. We also pack a white noise machine, an extra blanket for outdoor picnics and reusable food containers for leftovers.
Regardless of the time of the year, New Zealand can throw all four seasons at you in one day. Pack a rain/wind shell, a beanie and warm layers in case.
While being on the open road with nothing but scenic views sounds like a dream, challenges will arise on your trip. Rainy days in a cramped campervan aren’t always that fun, but there are a few ways to defuse these situations. Start organised and continue to tidy up after every meal and stop. Clutter accumulates quickly in a van, and with a toddler it can take mere minutes to destroy your entire home. Bring toys, games, colouring and download a few movies or shows on your tablet for down times.
Work as a team
My partner Ryan is the chef in our family. While he cooks, I’ll clean up, entertain our little one, set up the bed for after dinner, etc. When we take turns driving, the other will help with directions and planning the next stop. If you both love cooking, take turns as there is only space for one in these tiny kitchens. If you’re staying at a campground, there is a good chance a fully-equipped kitchen is available. We’ll always use this over the van kitchen for the extra space and easy post-dinner clean up. Many holiday parks also have playgrounds, trampolines and toys for the kids to enjoy while parents cook and relax.
Make a few rules
Spending a lot of time in a small amount of space will test your limits. What are your biggest annoyances? Muddy floors, dirty dishes, unfriendly smells? Partake in a no shoes inside agreement, bringing a pair of jandals or slippers for inside while having designated spots for your dirty, outdoor shoes.
Clean as you cook. Try using less utensils or if they’re old enough give the kids chores like cleaning the dishes and collecting trash and recyclables. Avoid more trash by using keep cups and cooking fresh produce from the supermarkets. Use the dumpsters at the holiday parks to unload trash and separate your recyclables. Many also include a grey water dump station on-site, however, if not, your Campermate app will tell you where to find one.
Take time apart
Living on top of each other can feel… suffocating at times. It’s good to plan solo time on the calendar whether that be Mum going for a run while Dad and bub go for a walk. While nap time is a bit harder on the road, sometimes one of us will stay with our little girl while the other explores town, exercises or tries to get work done. Even a quick 10-20 minute break can make all the difference if emotions are tense.
There will be hard times on the road, you’ll be frustrated. Whether it’s your kids asking “why” a million times over or your partner not keeping the vehicle clean, it’s good to give yourself a breather. Step outside, fully inhale and exhale while taking in the outstanding views of New Zealand. You’ll soon forget about the little frustrations and only remember the good times on the road.
Your trip will all depend on your length of time on the road, the time of the year and what you want to see/do on your holiday. Map out a rough guide with extra room for unexpected delays and last minute changes. We typically plan a type of circle route allowing us to see the most on a given trip. If you don’t want to spend heaps of hours driving, plan a shorter route with longer stays at each place.
Download the Campermate app to plan your campsites on the road. Many self-contained sites are free around the country, however, they might have limited space. Find free, low-cost spots as well as holiday parks with cabins, kitchens, laundry and more. The app also gives info on the campsite, plus comments from other visitors. Use the app to find toilets, bbqs, showers and so much more. Ever since arriving in New Zealand, we’ve used this app on the road.
My biggest piece of advice for planning is to stay at a paid campground every few days. Catch up on laundry, take advantage of the big kitchens, playgrounds for the kids and get a real shower in. We love spending time at these holiday parks as parents. Our daughter can run around safely, make friends with other kids, jump on the trampoline, we’ve even stayed at ones with pools and spas. For around $40 per night with electricity, it’s worth it.
Enjoy the long, slow days
Easily one of the best things about travelling in a campervan is embracing the long, slow days. Waking up next to an alpine lake, warming up with a cuppa while oatmeal’s on the stove is one of the many joys of life on the road. Pull over for a playground and let the little ones stretch their legs on a long driving day. Enjoy a long picnic at a rest stop, soaking up some sunshine and time with a good book while the kids colour, read or throw stones into a lake.
Campervan travel is a unique way to see a country, allowing you to experience the places often skipped when you travel by air. Take your time, don’t sweat the small stuff (like spilled breakfast or muddy shoes) and savour the incredible moments on the road.
If you have any questions or want to share your family campervan stories, please leave a comment below.
I hope my guide has not only helped, but inspired you to travel New Zealand in the best way possible.