After driving more than 15,000 miles around New Zealand in campervan, here's what I learned along the way.
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Packed camper at Cobb River Camping in Kahurangi National Park
Credit: Courtesy of Petrina Darrah

Before buying a campervan, I couldn't drive. But when New Zealand's borders slammed shut in March 2020, and my travel options shrank to the limits of the country, I made the leap — after many white-knuckled driving lessons. Having my own campervan gave me a new sense of freedom and impetus to explore my own country.

And I now believe New Zealand is truly best seen by campervan. The scenery is gorgeous, the campsites are plentiful, the weather is mostly mild, and the country is relatively compact. Traveling in a bed on wheels means you can get closer to the glorious outdoors that Aotearoa is famous for — I've woken up feet from the Pacific Ocean, surrounded by dense rain forest, and on mountain plateaus.

View of Oke Bay in Northland
Credit: Courtesy of Petrina Darrah

To date, I've clocked in more than 15,000 miles on New Zealand's roads, traveling alone and camping in my van. Here's what you should know if you're considering doing the same.

It's easier to drive a nimble, single-sized van.

The beauty of traveling solo is that you can opt for a smaller campervan that's easier to maneuver around New Zealand's narrow roads — ideal if you're a novice driver, like me. All you need is a bed, storage space, and a kitchenette. Trust me when I say you don't need a table or couch. (I haven't set my table up in nearly two years of owning my van.) I leave my bed set up, and if I need to hunker down to wait out the rain, I simply stretch out on it.

If you're visiting New Zealand for a few weeks, you can choose from campervan rental companies like Epic Campers or Mad Campers. If you have more time, it may be more cost-effective to buy one kitted out with camping gear, and resell it at the end of your trip. There's a thriving trade on Facebook Marketplace, and campers change hands regularly.

It's more important to be practical than aesthetic.

When I first hit the road, I installed small potted plants in my camper kitchen and bought pure linen sheets. In short order, the plants died and the sheets accrued some unidentifiable stains.

Don't let filtered photos fool you into believing van travel is like living in a boho apartment on wheels. Most of the time, I'm piling things into any available space and doing my best to stop sand from getting into every crevice.

Gillespies Beach Campsite, A beach campsite from where you can see Fox Glacier coming out of the mountains
Credit: Courtesy of Petrina Darrah

Pack light and be practical.

Items that I've found to be useful are a pocket knife, a five-liter container for drinking water, a solid chopping board, and a fast-drying microfiber towel. On the flip side, things that aren't that practical include a full set of cutlery, wine glasses, and plates in different sizes. I use one bowl, spoon, and drinking bottle, despite my well-stocked kitchen.

Mix up your campsites to get the best of everything.

Camping is a way of life in New Zealand, so campsites are abundant. Use the Rankers camping app to find the closest place to stay.

If you're driving a self-contained campervan, you can spend the night for free in a freedom camp. These are often car parks with designated overnight parking and a public toilet nearby. They're a mixed bag — sometimes in a prime location on the beachfront, other times on the outskirts of town. I read the reviews on Rankers and avoid any that mention unfriendly locals or a weird vibe.

The road to French Pass Campsite
Credit: Courtesy of Petrina Darrah

I alternate between freedom camps and Department of Conservation (DOC) campsites, which sit on public conservation land and are beautifully scenic. They're also budget-friendly, ranging from $5 to $20 NZD, depending on the facilities. Water and compost toilets are usually available, and some even cold showers. Considering my longest stretch without a shower was around two weeks during the hottest part of January, even a cold shower feel like a luxury.

If you want a hot shower and cooking facilities, book a holiday park, but note that these tend to be aimed at young families or retirees with massive motor homes. They're also the most expensive at $20 NZD a night.

Take care while driving.

In all my time traveling alone in my van, I've never felt unsafe at campgrounds. Of course, I lock my doors at night and don't leave belongings outside. I also keep friends and family updated on where I'm going. I typically tuck myself into bed before dark, which means summer travel is easier when there's light until 9 p.m. In the gloomier winter months, I make sure tp have reading material and podcasts downloaded for the evenings.

A view of Angelus Hut in Nelson Lakes National Park
Credit: Courtesy of Petrina Darrah

The biggest safety issue is not being able to share the driving. Be gentle with yourself and only tackle realistic distances each day. Roads in New Zealand can be narrow, steep, winding, and sometimes unsealed. Plus, other drivers can be aggressive when they get stuck behind a plodding campervan. Drive carefully, and if you have people behind you, save yourself the stress, pull over, and let them pass.

You'll need to enjoy your own company.

Solo van travel in New Zealand can be solitary. While people are friendly and you can expect smiles and waves when arriving at a campground, other travelers tend to keep to themselves. I didn't find the camaraderie I hoped for on the road. In fact, I carried a bottle of wine for about a year, hoping I'd find someone to share it with, but I never did, and finally drank it alone.

On the whole, traveling New Zealand alone in a campervan isn't always glamorous, but it is liberating, thrilling, and unforgettable.