How to Travel New Zealand By Car and Live Your Best Life

My home for a month in December, 2016: The ever reliable Bertha.

The idea New Zealand holiday for many is a road trip of epic proportions, and with roads that snake around mountain passes, tower over gorges, and along lakes so large that they feel like the ocean, there's no doubt that New Zealand is best enjoyed on the road.

In December of 2016, I decided to embark on my own adventure across New Zealand, and in true budget backpacker style, I opted to sleep across the back of a Mazda 3 instead of a more comfortable and roomy van. It goes without saying that a regular car isn't equipped with the same sort of amenities that a van specifically designed for living and driving in might posses. Gone is the luxury of having a kitchen, toilet or shower for use, good luck fitting a mattress into the boot of this tiny hatchback, and you better forget about power outlets entirely. 

You need to have a good sense of ingenuity, some fierce organisational skills and a tiny dose of creativity in order to survive turning a small car into a home for a month. So with that in mind, here are my essential tips to living your best life out of a car in New Zealand!

Setting up

Setting up your new home on wheels effectively is the most important thing when it comes to enjoying your time in the car. There is no rhyme or reason when it comes to living in a car. It’s all about what works best for you. However, I recommend setting up designated spaces for activities and items. This way things stay organised, you don’t want to find food in your bedding, or dirty panties next to your pantry, for example! 

My set up looked a little like this:

  • Back seat: Sleeping zone.

  • Car boot: Wardrobe. This is easily accessible by pulling down one of the backseats. Perfect for changing clothes in the morning! 

  • Passenger’s seat: Food pantry. I also stored my toiletry items in the little nook of the passenger’s seat door.

  • Driver’s seat: For driving and eating.

Sleeping in the car comfortably… if that’s a thing

If you’re like me, and you are just a tourist in New Zealand, you’re going to want to purchase some bedding ASAP. New Zealand can get cold at night, especially when you’re in an uninsulated car, and making sure that you have enough bedding to keep you warm and toasty is going to be very important for a pleasant stay. As I was touring through New Zealand during the summertime, I decided to opt for a light sleeping bag that I could zip up for some insulation, and a heavier duvet.

In the warmer parts of the country, I used the duvet as a sort of mattress that I was able to fold and spread across the back seat, and when I travelled further south, I was able to use it as a top layer to help keep me nice and warm at night. I still slept with long pants, a thermal layer and a beanie when I was around Milford Sound, however. I also purchased two pillows, but honestly you could use something like a jumper or jacket as a head cushion if you really want to rough it.

I went cheap and nasty for these items and purchased all of my bedding from Kmart. No point wasting precious money on duvet covers and pillow cases, either. All up I spent about $50NZD getting my bed set up. At the end of my trip, I donated all of these items to a charity shop in Christchurch instead of sending it to landfill. 

At night, I used my towel and various items of clothing to block out light coming through the windows. As a bonus, this also made me feel as though I had a little bit of privacy when it came to changing clothes in the car and sleeping. Nobody likes to fall asleep with the idea that someone could be watching you. 

Making the bed for me on a daily basis consisted of folding everything up and storing it behind the passenger’s seat on the floor. This left room for any hitchhikers I might give a lift to along the way, as well as making sure I had room to recline the driver’s seat should I need a power nap.

The first campsite I stayed at: Uretiti Beach.

Consider utilities you might need

While you’re at Kmart buying up the bedding department, make sure you grab any other supplies you might need for your voyage. I needed a towel as I couldn't fit one into my backpack (see previous tip and using towels as curtains for night time), and a fork, knife and spoon to eat with. 

If I had my time again, I would have also bought a camping chair (being able to sit outside rather than in the car is a real luxury), some mosquito repellent, and maybe a gas burner with a small pot for cooking.

Cooking, eating and storing food

Working out what you're going to eat will be the hardest decision you make and all comes down to your budget. If you can afford to eat out, you’ll be living like a queen, and if you’re a broke backpacker like myself, get ready to be creative.

You will have no refrigeration. I’m just going to start with that. So unless you’re going to eat something within two hours, make sure it’s from the non-perishable side of the supermarket. This means a lot canned food, such as tinned fish, beans, pasta sauce, and packets of nuts, crisps, and protein bars are going to be your new pantry staples. You don’t want food going bad and stinking up the car. Trust me on this.

If you didn't pick up a gas burner, you’re not going to be able to cook anything, which makes your life more difficult. I found that the easiest way to tackle this is to snack often rather than eat formal meals. I ate a tonne of fruit - particularly bananas, apples, mandarines and berries - muesli bars, juice boxes, and lots of chocolate, candy and cookies when I needed sugar hits.

If you’re smart and pick up a gas burner, you can enjoy luxurious foods like instant noodles and just-add-water meals. Yummy. For tea and coffee I generally found a McDonald’s or a cafe where I could use the free wifi to work. Once a week I would generally treat myself and go to a restaurant to eat and break up all the snacking in the car.

A DOC campsite near Milford Sound.

Finding places to sleep, shower and poop

The first thing you’re going to want to do is download the Campermate app. This app is a literal lifesaver and works in multiple countries including Australia and New Zealand. It is your answer to locating free and paid camping sites, public toilets, showers, gas stations and even places of interest. The app also links to Google Maps directly which makes it quick and easy to get directions while you’re driving. 

Finding campsites 

The most important thing is finding a place to sleep. The Department of Conservation offer a number of maintained and scenic camping grounds most with toilet and shower facilities for a small amount of money. Popular campsites will require a booking in advance, but I never had any issues with showing up last minute - often late at night - and finding a place to park my car.

These sites can cost anywhere from $6 - $20NZD depending on the size of your vehicle and the site. Because I’m a stingy bitch, I found that if I arrived after 10pm and left before 8am, I was often able to get away without paying.

The Campermate app catalogues all DOC campsites along with a few privately owned sites, and general public areas. It’s important to note that while freedom camping is generally accepted in New Zealand, littering and pooping in the great outdoors is not. If you choose to camp somewhere without facilities, make sure you take your trash with you and refrain from using the bathroom while you’re there.

Public restrooms

Speaking of poop, New Zealand is a very traveller friendly country, and there are many public toilets available. Most are free, but you can use something that’s called a Superloo for a small fee. I personally never used one of these, but my younger brother told me it was an experience. If in doubt, consult the Campermate app for a list of your closest public restrooms.

A guide to showering while living on the road

Showering is a little more difficult if you’re not staying in serviced camping grounds. Here is a short list of all the showers I used while I was travelling:

  • Public pools. There are some pools that offer showers you can access often for free. Be prepared for cold water, though.

  • Hostels. I paid to stay at a few hostels across my trip, but I also snuck into a few places to use the facilities. The best way to do this is to befriend another traveller (Often found lurking around places with free wifi) and literally asking them if they can get you into their hostel for shower. Works wonders.

  • Tinder. Yep, not even kidding about this one. I literally used a man for his free wifi and shower and I have no shame.

  • Gyms. If you have a gym membership to somewhere like Anytime Fitness, or feel like paying for a casual visit to a gym, there will always be showers you will be able to use.

  • Lakes, rivers, and any fresh bodies of water. When I was staying in Taupo my shower was literally the lake.

  • Rough it. Worst case scenario, drown your self in deodorant, slick your oily hair back and learn to embrace the backpacker life.

I would often leave early to avoid paying camping ground fees. This meant waking up to a lot of beautiful sunrises every morning!

Other things to note

It’s going to be challenging. Get ready to leave any and all dignity behind and really embrace the idea that you might flash your tits to a guy who happens to be walking his dog by your parking spot in the morning. People will often ask whether you’re homeless, which if you’re travelling in a foreign country and living out of a car, you technically are. The only difference is that you have a ticket home.

Make sure you buy sunscreen, hand sanitiser (you literally won’t be able to wash your hands), and baby wipes. If you’re heading down to the South Island, and especially Milford Sound, bathe in some coconut oil to keep the pesky sandflies at bay.

McDonald’s is the best and most reliable place to find free wifi and power to charge your devices. New Zealand also has a great public library system that is great if you’re in a smaller town during business hours. Many cafes also offer wifi, just make sure you always ask. Bring a battery pack if all else fails, and one of those in-car USB chargers.

A book (or several, if you’re a fast reader like me) is the best thing to have on you at all times, especially if you’re tackling the New Zealand roads by yourself.

Hitchhiking is common and generally accepted in New Zealand. If you have the opportunity and feel safe to do so, I HIGHLY recommend picking up hitchers and exchanging the drive for some food, or something else you might need. I met a lot of really great people by picking them up in my car, some of whom I still speak to very regularly.

And that's it! You're ready to go. Get ready for the unexpected, detours, a lot of podcast listening and a fantastic time. If you have any questions you can always as in the comments below - or if you have any other tips, feel free to share them as well!