When two friends and myself were considering options on how to travel around the South Island of New Zealand we had the choice of buying a van or trying to piece together a trip via bus, train, and hitching. The choice was easy: we wanted the freedom of having our on vehicle as a home and transportation. It was as if New Zealand was made for travelers like us. There is free camping everywhere and almost every town has an information site, called an i-site, staffed with folks who have intimate knowledge of the land surrounding their town to help you with campsites and activities.

All photos by the author.


Freedom to go anywhere

Without the constraints of bus or train routes you’ll have the opportunity to explore much more of the country. Some of the greatest sightseeing and hiking opportunities — like the Moria Gate Arch (pictured here), which is 12km down a narrow forest road from the more popular west coast highway — are off main highways.


No time constraints

Don’t want to get up for that 5am bus? Then don’t. Make your own schedule and travel when you want. Some events are time sensitive like the yellow-eye penguins coming ashore during dusk at Curio Bay. Without a van events like this would be tough to fit in with most buses leaving early in the morning or mid afternoon and arriving late in the evening.


Great campsites

Most campsites are far off main roads and there is no other way to get there than by driving your own vehicle. Each district has its own camping rules regarding where you can camp with a van or RV. Apps like CamperMate help you to find free camping and other necessities like gas, grocery stores, and wifi.


Wildlife encounters

Inevitably, you will become a birder in New Zealand. In some mountain areas Keas, an alpine parrot, will hang around your camp waiting for you to leave food unattended. And most other places Wekas, a flightless chicken-like bird, will do the same.


Wharariki at sunrise (or sunset).

Set in the far northwest corner of Golden Bay, Wharariki Beach is worth the drive and early wakeup to experience at sunrise and low tide. There isn’t a way to get directly to the beach without having your own vehicle or hitchhiking. The nearby campground allows you to crawl out of your sleeping bag and head straight to be beach for sunrise.


Cooking your own food

If not already built into your van, with a quick trip to the store you can outfit yourself with a sweet kitchen setup with a gas stove and a foldable camp table. Add a cooler, known as a chilly bin, and you’ll be totally self sufficient for cooking.


Carry more comforts of home with you

You don’t have to leave all your favorite toys at home because planning your life out of a van is way easier than trying to fit everything into a backpack. Extra space means more camp games and room for camp chairs — or even a slackline.


Rocks of Narnia

Pull off between Christchurch and Arthur’s pass to explore this maze of boulders with plenty of hiking and rock climbing. This isn’t a normal bus stop for the few buses between Greymouth and Christchurch, so you need your own transportation.


Low speed limits allow you to safely enjoy the scenery.

Just remember you’re supposed to be on the left side of the road. Every highway in New Zealand seems to take the steepest and windiest route. But the roads have plenty of pullouts for photos and picnic spots.


Don’t have to spend time on cramped buses

With a van you have the freedom to control your travel instead of leaving logistics to others. During the busy summer months I’ve had buses sell out or increase in price within hours of initially checking fares and trying to make travel plans.


Helps with logistics on thru-hikes

Many of the amazing hiking trails in New Zealand are thru-hikes. We left our van at the end of the 78km long Heaphy Track so after four days on the trail it was great to hop into the van and drive straight into town for showers, beer and a giant burger.


Stop at the Mussell Inn

Stop by for fresh mussels, their own brewed beer and live music in the Golden Bay area. Tucked back from the highway the bar/restaurant/brewery/music venue is small and welcoming, but easy to miss unless you’re on the lookout for the small sign and parking lot.


Be a part of the travel culture

Chances are you’ll buy your van from someone who just spent the last few months to a year living in it and you’ll sell it to someone who will do the same. While you own it and explore New Zealand, you share this experience with others from around the world doing the exact same thing. The best way to get tips on campsites or routes or things to see is from others doing New Zealand “the right way.”