After 2 months road-tripping and camping around New Zealand, I’ve become a bit of an expert at both.

Many people who come to New Zealand quickly learn they must hit the road with a car and tent or campervan in order to see the native forests, craggy volcanoes, rolling farmlands and gorgeous beaches.

Making this happen in the most economically sound way possible can be a bit daunting. To help out the next traveler, I’ve decided to provide some tips and information about the best ways to obtain a car and camp around New Zealand. Basically, I’m sharing what worked best for me!

Buying a car or campervan

Try some of the websites I browsed for cars and campervans when I was still deciding whether or not to buy one:

Trademe.co.nz – Great advanced search to find specific car specs and spend range
Kiwiads.co.nz – Less common than trademe but still useful
Turners.co.nz – An auction site which shows a report on the condition of all cars allowing you to make a more reliable and informed decision
Backpackboards.co.nz – Backpackers try to sell their cars quick through this site (usually listed under Notices) but its difficult to determine the condition without car knowledge and a test run
Gumtree.co.nz – Similar to backpacker boards
Craigslist.org – Rarely used here in New Zealand, but you may get lucky
Backpack-car.com – I didn’t use this one too much, but it’s worth a shot

Check out other bloggers (e.g., Backpacking Matt) who have written detailed information about buying a campervan, like checking New Zealand’s Warranty of Fitness (WoF) and Registration policies.

In general, I had the time needed to research cars online and meet with owners to test-drive their vehicles. I found newer, more reliable, cars with under 150,000 kms to cost over $5000 NZD.

If you know a thing or two about cars, you certainly can test drive a few older ones, bring one to a mechanic to have it looked over (worth the $100-200 it’ll cost for a piece of mind), and get a pretty good deal without it nickel and diming you.

Renting a car or campervan

I opted not to buy a car or campervan because I found and began traveling with Harald, a German who bought a car when he arrived in New Zealand. Then I had friends visiting me here in NZ for periods of time with whom I could share the cost of a rental.

I decided I wasn’t ready to get tied down to a car even though it’s fairly easy to sell here in New Zealand. Travelers want cars. But long-term car rentals turned out to be more economically efficient for me.

There are tons of options for renting cars and campervans in New Zealand. Some cost less than others. The least expensive car I rented was through Rent-A-Dent.

Rent-A-Dent provides a reliable 4-8 year old car (mine was a 2010) with a bit more km and a few more dings on it than you’d get from more popular car dealers (e.g., Budget, Avis, etc.). Who needs a fancy car when you just want to see the countryside and go camping, anyway?

If you’re traveling New Zealand for long term, any car from Rent-A-Dent for over 30 days will set you back only about $20 or less per day! Share that cost with a friend and you’re all set for a road-trip adventure at minimal expense. The option I went with was a hatchback—small and a little difficult to get up some of New Zealand’s steep hills, but it was great on gas!

Getting from Point A to B for FREE

If you just need to get from Point A to B quickly or short term in New Zealand, then there is a super cheap, even FREE, option you must exploit. The website to go to is: Transfercar.co.nz (Also try rentalcarrelocation.co.nz - thanks to Jack for the tip!).

This website lists rental cars needing to be relocated from one city to another. For example, if you just need to get from Auckland airport to Wellington so you can take the ferry to the South Island and start your road trip adventure from there, why not drive for free?

Get a car from Auckland to Wellington through Transfercars or go to individual car rental websites (e.g., Budget, GoRentals, A2B) look under Deals or find where they list “relocation” vehicles. Browse the options and you might get lucky to find a car they need relocated to the destination you're seeking.

This is a great option if you have no specific plan but just want to see some countryside. Many of these companies offer free first tank of fuel, car insurance coverage (usually basic), and cost of the vehicle to be transported on the ferry between islands. I’ve seen cars which need to be transported in 24 hours up to 5 days of free driving!

In other words, you could take a 5-day road trip for free for only the cost of the extra fuel you use! Just watch your odometer because most companies set restrictions on how many kms you can travel. But they are pretty lenient.

For instance, I took a fancy Holdon Malibu up the east coast from Christchurch to Picton for Budget. They covered 1 tank of gas, insurance, and allowed 900 km for the 337 km trip.

Before you go camping

New Zealand used to allow wild camping (camping anywhere unless it specifically said otherwise) in the recent past. When travelers started using their beautiful country as a toilet all over the place, they changed their laws.

Now, there are designated camping sites set up for travelers of all types. There are campsites for self-contained (with toilet) and non-self-contained vehicles. There are also campsites just for sleeper cars and people who want to pitch a tent.

If you want to camp in luxury, with access to showers, flush toilets, running water, kitchens, and other amenities, you’ll pay between $6 and $30 per person per night. Otherwise, there are free camping options. Free camping (no-cost) is allowed at certain sites all over New Zealand—you just have to know where to find them.

Apps for finding camp sites

There are two most commonly used apps to help find a campsite (also accessible online if you don’t have a smartphone).

Campermate (for Android and Apple devices)
Wikicamps (for Android, Apple, and Windows)

Most of the time, I was with someone who had an Apple device who used Campermate. But I found out Wikicamps can be used on Windows devices so I downloaded it for $1.50. I’m excited to see how it is (Update: It's great! And I prefer it to Campermate now!). Both are similar and provide the necessary information for finding the right campsite across the North and South Islands.

These apps were an absolute must for camping across New Zealand.

Wild camping

Camping in non-designated camping areas in New Zealand is generally not allowed. You will be fined up to $200 if caught wild camping—especially if you do not have access to public toilets. Some towns, like Nelson, allow you to sleep in your car anywhere in the city limits. But generally you must be at a campsite or carpark that allows pitching tents. To be absolutely certain, you can check with the Department of Conservation.

 
 

However, ask locals about places to camp if you're desperate to find somewhere for free. You may be able to break the rules a bit.

One time, a friend and I were desperate in Rotorua. Some locals told us a place we could go to camp near public toilets but not in a designated campsite location. It worked. But shhhhhhh! ;)

Camping gear list for less than $150

To save money, I went to The Warehouse to buy the major items for camping and to Salvation Army or second hand shops for the little stuff. Here’s what I bought for two people to camp comfortably:

From Warehouse:

  • 3-person tent ($50 NZD)
  • Bed rolls ($10 NZD each)
  • Portable gas cooker ($25 NZD)
  • 4-pack butane gas cans ($7 NZD)
  • 18-20L portable water bag ($10 NZD)

From Second-hand shops (all cost around $50 NZD):

  • Small pot
  • Small frying pan
  • Two bowls
  • Two Plates
  • Two cups/mugs
  • A few Tupperware containers
  • Cutlery
  • Cutting knife
  • Cutting board
  • Spatula
  • Stirring spoon
  • Can/bottle opener
  • Two hand towels (one for tent drying, one for dish drying)
  • Pillows
  • Sleeping bags
  • Beach blanket
  • Extra blanket
  • Frisbee!
  • CD, AUX cable, or cigarette charger for phone with bluetooth for music! ;)

This is the bare minimum of what I needed (and more) to camp very comfortably for weeks in New Zealand. It took a little while to find everything listed at the second hand shops. Some items I had to pick up after the road trip started.

When I was between locations house-sitting and no longer with a car, I held onto the essential, more expensive items: tent, sleeping bag, cooker, pot and pan. I didn't want to be weighed down with the extra luggage without a car to throw it into.

I donated the rest and then acquired it again for my next road trip. You have the option to sell it to other travelers, too. Everything I bought was bought together with another travel mate. So it should actually cost less than $75 to achieve what you need after splitting with a companion.

Follow the weather and break up your time

The best, final tip I can provide is to check metservice.co.nz, New Zealand's weather channel, like a phantom. Look ahead and know New Zealand's weather can change very quickly. I was lucky enough to only get caught in the rain once or twice while camping in these last 2 months.

Rainy days often meant I could take a break from camping with one-night stays at hostels or couchsurfing with friendly locals around the country. Breaks were important for everything from doing some laundry for free to learning from a local about an interesting cultural reference or destination not to be missed.

With a little planning it’s completely possible to road-trip and camp across New Zealand for a long period of time on a budget. With views from my tent like this, I can't imagine a better way to travel New Zealand no matter what budget you're on!