Big Little Guides

How to get more from your Kiwi campervan roadtrip

A huge thanks to close family friend and seasoned Vanlifer Josie Gibbs, who wrote this guide for us. Josie has lived in her campervan along with Birkenstock her rabbit for the last few seasons. Here, she imparts some considerable experience and wisdom about campervan travel in New Zealand.

May 6, 2024

Why you should explore New Zealand in a rental campervan

New Zealand, with its dusky mountain-tops, native trees with vines strong enough to capture the sun, forests spanning beautifully diverse terrain, lazy beach towns, natural hot pools, and a forgotten surf highway, is the perfect destination for a campervan holiday. The nature of New Zealand's beauty has a way of making you feel wonderfully and humbly insignificant and significant all at once. The sheer freedom of travelling in a campervan means you can access and often camp at the foot of such natural wonders.

Here are just a few enticing reasons why the freedom of travelling in a campervan allows for an immersive experience. Waking up to the sunlight filtering through your campervan curtains tempting you to skinny-dip in the shore break right outside your camping spot. Staying awake later than the last rays of sun to see the pristine night skies and the Milky Way (visible from over 96% of the land area). A campervan also encourages the art of slowing down, mixing your laughter with the quirky campervan noises, the flexibility to explore the country at your own pace, and having a safe place to retreat to: a home within a land of many heavens.

Top tip: Get to know the locals

Before I dive into the nitty gritty of planning your upcoming New Zealand adventure, let me first share with you my one piece of golden travel wisdom.

Some travellers stumble upon it, some wanderers recognise it from their own globe-trotting experiences, some holidaymakers have it explained to them, and others have it gifted to them. You won’t read about it in most travel blogs, have it advised to you on TripAdvisor, or find it in your campervan welcome pack.

In Te Reo Māori (the language of New Zealand's indigenous people) there’s a saying, “Māku e kii atu, he tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata. What is the most important thing in the world? Well, let me tell you, it is people, it is people, it is people.”

After spending a year travelling this land in my forget-me-not blue campervan with Birkenstock the rabbit, this is my first piece of wisdom: get to know the locals. And for all you introverts out there, get to know just one. They are your gateway to the coveted spots, the hidden waterfalls, and the backyard BBQs. The magic places you don't post on social media, the places of which you get a photo printed and stick it on your fridge, along with the address of your new friends. You may be thinking, ‘this is no secret, everyone knows this’. Yes people do, but in the next few sentences I am going to tell you how, as you zoom along your way in your dream adventure wagon, you can easily achieve this.

Websites like HelpX and WWOOF, have been, in my year-long experience, the best way to meet locals, learn about the land, and have adventure-filled experiences in New Zealand. Park up for a day, or two, or a week and in exchange for a few hours of mahi (work) you will often be gifted with food and local advice. That, my fellow travellers, is the best piece of travel wisdom I can give you.

Now, onto the practical stuff: apps, websites and planning your ultimate trip

The two apps that are absolutely essential are Google Maps and Campermate. I have found Google Maps the most cohesive and accurate way of recording destination suggestions. Open the website or app and start a new list (found under ‘your lists’). By saving companies and place suggestions on a visual platform like Google Maps you create an easy-to-navigate travel itinerary. You can also create different layers within the maps such as ‘photo locations’, ‘recommended cafés’, or ‘local suggestions’.

Campermate is an essential app for you and your campervan on your New Zealand adventure. The app offers detailed maps to help you navigate every type of camping and campervanning resource. All the campgrounds, freedom camping, advice, reviews, and recommendations that your adventure-seeking heart desires can be found here. As you’ll no doubt be venturing into New Zealand's untouched wilderness, we recommend downloading the maps beforehand so they’re accessible without mobile reception. Keep in mind that the invaluable wisdom of other users, up-to-date comments, and recommendations can only be viewed while online.

It is also worth mentioning, especially for the influencers, travel bloggers, and photographers out there, that searching locations on Instagram will reveal some pretty stellar, photogenic landscape subjects.

Choosing the right campervan

Choosing your abode on wheels, your trusty steed, your Lance Vanstrong, shouldn't be overwhelming. It is, however, likely your biggest expense. Things you need to ponder are budget, comfort expectations, how many people you’re top n tailing with, what you’re comfortable driving, which accessories the vehicle comes with, and whether it’s self-contained.

Self-contained campervans in New Zealand have the almighty blue sticker of liberty (well kind of). It means your gypsy wagon is equipped to responsibly dispose of any waste. The quantity of freedom camping spots differs by district, as does the quality. If you're on a shoestring budget and want the most out of your trip, I’d highly recommend this option. It’s by far the cheapest (free) option.

However, my compromise, and only slightly more expensive suggestion, is to stay at the many DOC (Department of Conservation) campsites scattered all around the South and North islands. These are generally out of the city rather than some carpark on the outskirts of town. The easiest way to find these and freedom camping spots is to download the NZ Topo Maps or Campermate app and filter by either of those options. These apps tend to be more accurate and region specific than Google Maps.


Choosing the right size of vehicle to meet your needs is critical. Consider your stature – are you 6’5’’ and hoping to squeeze in to a Mazda Bongo, or are you a couple of friends looking for separate bunks? Big Little Campers offers The Little One, perfect for travelling couples and friends who are happy to sleep cosily. But if you’re looking for extra space or standing room, consider The Big One.


New Zealand’s roads can be steep, winding, and slow at times, consider the model and age of vehicle you are looking to hire. Some smaller campervans can feel a little underpowered, particularly when taking on some of New Zealand’s iconic passes. If you’re looking for that bit of extra power, then I’d suggest choosing a newer Toyota Hiace or Nissan NV350.


The key thing is whether you want to be able to stand up and cook inside, or if you’re happy to stand out the back (typically under a raised tailgate) and use a pull-out kitchen. During summer, pull-out kitchens are great, you avoid heating up an already warm camper with cooking, but you might have a few mosquitos join you for dinner, depending on where you’re camping. In the cooler months, the internal stand-up kitchen is a great option, it keeps you out of harsh weather, and warms the camper nicely in the morning as you make your coffee.

In wrapping up this exploration of New Zealand in a rental campervan, the country's diverse wonders, from mountaintops to lazy beach towns, create an enchanting backdrop. The freedom of a campervan journey – whether surf-break skinny-dipping, or Milky Way stargazing – is an immersive experience encouraging a slower pace and a connection with diverse landscapes and nature found nowhere else on earth.

May your campervan adventure in New Zealand be a harmonious blend of nature, local connections, and practical wisdom. Happy travels!

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