One of the most popular ways to travel in New Zealand is with your own wheels, camping in the abundance of campsites across the country.
It’s easy to see why. New Zealand is home to some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, so it’s no wonder that heaps of nature- and outdoors-lovers flock here year after year. Before James and I came to New Zealand, the most camping I had done was a few days at a time – on my Duke of Edinburgh expeditions while I was at school, or in a drunken haze at music festivals in the UK. But when we were planning our trip, we decided (without ever really discussing it) that we would travel New Zealand by camping. And after four months of travelling both the North and South Islands in our campervan, I’ve definitely learnt a lot about camping, about NZ, and about myself! Here’s a few things I’ve learnt…
Camping in New Zealand is perfect for EVERYONE
… And everyone loves it! No matter how long you decide to spend camping as you travel around the country, I guarantee you’ll LOVE camping. Sure, you’ll miss home comforts and it gets a bit crappy when it’s raining, but I guarantee you won’t want it to end.
We’ve seen just about every type of person camping whilst on our travels. There’s the energy-fuelled backpackers who play their music a little too loud and drink beer until the early hours. There’s the entire families who pour out of their RVs. There’s the young parents, travelling with their baby, one with a rucksack and the other with the baby on their back. There’s the trio of young girls who pile into a single van, giggling until they fall asleep. There’s the retired couple in their huge converted bus. There’s the kiwi families who flood to the coast during the holidays. There’s the glam girls who put on make-up in their passenger mirror everyday, and there’s the men who simply HAVE to use the BBQ, even if it’s raining.
There’s people of all ages, from Germany, France, Mexico, Malaysia, New Zealand – all over the world – who all share the same desire: to see what this beautiful country has to offer.
The meaning of the terms ‘powered site’ & ‘unpowered site’, and ‘self-contained’ & ‘non self-contained’
When we first started camping, I genuinely thought a ‘powered site’ was just a campsite with plug sockets, and thought, ‘Great! I can charge my camera!’… A bit embarrassing…
A powered site is used by anyone who can plug in the power cable to their vehicle (vans, RVs, motorhomes). They charge their vehicle up with power which will allow them to keep use electric appliances in their vehicle whilst the engine is turned off, without wasting the car’s battery. These fortunate souls can have an onboard fridge, turn on their interior lights and charge their laptops up using their plug sockets on board. These vehicles are always self contained, too. These sites cost more than unpowered sites.
An unpowered site doesn’t have a power socket, and is used by people with tents or vehicles that can’t be charged up, like our Honda. Since we don’t use electricity, we have battery-powered fairy lights in our car, and rely on using the library to charge my camera (we can charge USB compatible devices through the cigarette lighter adapter when the engine’s running). I also have a very handy Anker Solar Panel to USB charger – handy for sunny mornings to give our phones a boost!
Self-contained vehicles are those which adhere to certain regulations meaning that they “meet the ablutionary and sanitary needs of the occupants […] for a minimum of three days without requiring any external services or discharging any waste^“; they must have an onboard toilet, sink, fresh water and holding tank (plus others, see source). Basically, they’re a house on wheels.
Non self-contained vehicles are those which do not have the above… like our car! We have about 15 litres of drinking water in various plastic bottles (which we refill at drinking fountains etc) but we have no onboard tank for dirty water, and of course, we rely on using public toilets.
The issue of power really doesn’t bother me. Although it’s a bit annoying, I can put up with having to find a plug socket to charge my camera every few days. But I admit, I have wished we had a self contained vehicle – only once!! We were at a campsite on the West Coast, trying to make dinner in the pouring rain, surrounded by evil sandflies from Hell… We ended up having a tin of baked beans for dinner… But more on that later!
We couldn’t have done it without these apps…
I didn’t even know about these apps before I came to NZ and I don’t think we would have survived camping around the country without them! (Well, we would have had to visit a lot more tourist/ info centres rather than quickly tapping a few things on my phone!)
Here Maps (Nokia)
This is a GPS Sat-Nav that works offline – all you need to do is download the map for the country you’re travelling while you’re connected to the Internet. New Zealand is very easy to navigate; when you’re on the highway you don’t need a map at all, but it’s a handy app to have when you are looking for a particular address or driving in the city. It’s great for planning journeys and for viewing a detailed map of NZ, as Google Maps doesn’t work offline. I use it to find supermarkets, libraries, campsites – and I even use it when we’re on foot!
This is the most popular camping app in NZ because it’s free. I like it because the colour-coordinated icons allow you to easily see which campsites are free (green), low cost (blue) or more expensive (purple). You can also search for things like wifi, supermarkets, petrol stations, drinking water, public toilets and even ‘things to do’ – points of interests that other travellers have added to the app. I always search for ALL campgrounds, not exclusively those for non self-contained vehicles, because occasionally the app gets it wrong and we would miss out on finding a site.
This is another popular app which shows campsites as well as other general attractions and facilities. The reviews on Wikicamps are instant and we have found many more campsites, particularly on the South Island, on Wikicamps than on Campermate. Additionally there are loads more points of interest, and the addresses of sites are more precise and up-to-date. Unfortunately the icons aren’t as easily distinguishable and it costs around $2.69.
Camping saves you so much money
You’ve probably already been told that New Zealand is expensive – compared to somewhere like South East Asia, it definitely is! I’ve found that some things (like petrol) are cheaper than back home, but other things (like food) are more expensive. Accommodation in particular can set you back quite a bit. A dorm bed in a budget hostel will cost around $25 per night, rising to around $30 in touristy areas. In comparison, campsites are often low cost – or even free!
My only experience of camping has been in our non self-contained vehicle. We’ve found that many regional councils offer cheap or free campsites (but they are sometimes only for self-contained vehicles – make sure you check!) Most DOC campsites cost $6pp per night, with the ‘scenic’ ones costing $10pp per night. A motor camp usually costs around $10-$20pp per night whilst higher-end holiday parks normally start at $20pp. Powered sites cost more.
The weather is a huge factor when you’re camping
Whilst we’re not hardcore campers (to those who are tenting, I salute you!), we also aren’t self-contained. Our car isn’t very big, meaning we have to cook, wash up, go to the loo, and even get clean clothes (which are under the bedframe), by going outside of the car. I won’t lie: if it’s raining, it’s a bit shit.
When you’re outside a lot you soon realise the pros and cons of the weather. Arriving at a campsite – if it’s raining, there’s not much else to do but sit in the car. If it’s windy, it’s really difficult to cook because the stove goes out. If it’s super hot and sunny, it’s difficult to sleep. You quickly learn how to deal with each type of weather; we’ve mastered the arts of cooking under the boot and of using the doors as windshields. And although bad weather can be annoying, it’s never stopped us from doing what we want to do (apart from when we went to Fox Glacier and it was closed because of the storms.) The mornings when you can sit in the sun enjoying your breakfast while gazing at the mountains, and the evenings when you can sit outside stargazing for hours, all make the rainy days worthwhile. The memories you make while you’re on the road – the funny times, the awe-inspiring times, even the grumpy times – all make the camping experience an unforgettable adventure!
The sandflies on the West Coast are evil little sh*ts
Sandflies are my number 1 hate about camping in New Zealand. They’re small, they travel in packs, and unlike mosquitoes, they don’t buzz, meaning you don’t notice there’s one on you until you get bitten! If there’s just a few of these evil bugs flying around, a good insect repellent and keeping your skin covered up really helps. However, when sandflies are buzzing around your face and landing in your food, they can get a teeny little bit frustrating.
Sandflies can usually be found in mild weather; we have found that if it’s really hot or really cold they seem to disappear. They also dislike strong winds and heavy rain. They linger in the bushes by water sources, but parking further away from water and bushes doesn’t seem to help; it’s almost as if they can smell your blood and are drawn to you like tiny, evil vampires.
From our experience, there are waaayy less sandflies on the North Island than the South Island. The sandflies on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island are the worst I’ve experienced; their bites seem to itch a lot more, and for a lot longer! They also manage to really make you bleed, whereas in other areas they tend to only leave a small mark. Covering up doesn’t deter them; I’ve been bitten through my socks! Insect repellent barely works either, unless you apply so much that their legs get sticky and they drown in it…
It’s amazing what you can cook on a camping stove
It’s also amazing what you can cook on a budget. When we first started camping I thought we would be living off pasta and baked beans for months! I admit that our meals aren’t overly varied; without access to an oven, we’re limited to boiling or frying our food. However, we still get our 5-a-day (probably more than 5) and I think we eat quite well compared to the staple camping diet of instant noodles!
I can’t really take the credit for this one though, since James is definitely the head chef of the two of us: he’s made us egg fried rice, chillis, lots of pasta dishes, chickpea and bean based soups, curries, toast with eggs and spinach, cous cous, salads… We’ve mastered the art of making a decent meal on only one hob (the stove).
“But you don’t have a fridge!” I hear you say. True, we don’t have a fridge, we only have a ‘cool bag’ which is no cooler than any other bag really. Perishable items like butter and vegetables keep for a while, though not for as lon