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The Pros & Cons Of Using A Camper Van In New Zealand’s South Island In Winter

Posted by on 27 March 2012

This is the first of a mini-series on our camper van experience in New Zealand’s South Island in June 2011. I originally thought of writing one long post covering everything but as I started with the first draft, I realised that there are so many facets to the camper van experience that demand posts of their own. That, plus the fact that my schedule has been quite unforgiving lately, thereby preventing me from writing one long comprehensive post. Hence, my decision to do a series of short posts instead on the subject.

When our family managed to bag unbelievably cheap tickets to Christchurch, New Zealand, the task of finding appropriate accommodations for our family fell on my shoulders. The trip was in June 2011, technically winter in the southern hemisphere, so it was not without trepidation that I finally decided on camper vans.

After doing extensive online research, I finally decided on contacting Wilderness Motorhomes. Their service was excellent right from the start, giving me very detailed information on the types of camper vans available, the costs involved, and the minutest details on what was included and what was not (something that some companies can be very sneaky about!). They always answered my emails promptly and in exhaustive detail, and were even available for chats over Skype. Unfortunately, for the type of camper vans that we wanted — two 6-berth units — they didn’t have such camper vans available for the dates of our trip. Thus, even though we booked with Wilderness Motorhomes, we ended up using camper van units from Kea Campers (whose services were also excellent!) at rates which were 5% cheaper than if we would have booked directly with Kea at the time.

My main concern was the heating, given that it was winter — would it be sufficient? But no matter who I asked, the reply was about the same — it would all depend on the weather and on our own capacity to withstand the cold. But just to be on the safe side, Wilderness Campers threw in extra duvets in addition to the sleeping bags which were included in the package. The vans also had standalone electric-powered heater fans but they could only be operated if the camper vans are plugged in at a proper camp site, i.e. not when we’re free camping somewhere.

In retrospect, I can now sum up the pros and cons of using a camper van in New Zealand’s South Island in winter as below.

- Ultimate flexibility. You can stop anytime, anywhere. The camper van culture is so deeply entrenched in New Zealand that you easily find a suitable place to park your camper van for the night. If you have a self-sustaining camper van unit, you can even free camp almost anywhere. The best part: no need to worry when to check in and check out as you move around. Imagine waking up in a camp site as glorious as this at White Horse Hill Camping Grounds at Mount Cook National Park:-

White Horse Hill camping ground at Mt Cook Park, New Zealand
- In-house toilet. This is a boon for families with children. When you need to go, you just go!
- Savings and flexibility on food. Having a camper van means freedom to cook your own meals which can mean significant savings as compared to dining outside all the time. For people with dietary restrictions due to health or religious reasons, this can be a real boon.
- Excellent bonding experience. The children absolutely LOVED the entire camper van experience. It’s all the twins can talk about until today. And to quote MyEldest, “the camper van was an adventure on its own”.

- Camping is not for everyone. Bear in mind that a camper van involves two things: CAMPing and VAN (i.e. driving). The camping part means you’ll have to cook, take out the trash, clean up your mess (including cleaning the toilet cartridge daily, a topic that I definitely will write about in a future post). The van part means someone needs to do the driving, which may not be everyone’s definition of a holiday, especially since most camper vans use manual transmission (preferable, given their size). The van part also means being prepared with all the possibilities that can happen whenever a motor vehicle is involved — accidents, flat tires, breakdowns, heating/air conditioning issues, and the like.
- ‘Claustrophobia.’ Being cooped up in a small space with the same people for a prolonged period of time may not a good idea for some. You might end up getting on each other’s nerves, especially when some members of your travel party don’t help out as they should.
- Lack of privacy. The toilet is very small so getting dressed inside the camper van is a challenge. For adults traveling with children, intimacy (or lack thereof) might be an issue.
- Camper vans can be costly. Summer is, understandably, the peak season for camper vans and that’s when rental costs can be sky-high. Luckily for us, very few people use camper vans in winter, hence the rates were about 50% cheaper at the time. Whatever the case, the cost of diesel and LPG (needed for heating) in New Zealand is not as cheap as in Malaysia, thus, every trip to the petrol station was very painful on the wallet. You must also discuss in painstaking detail what’s included in your package price because some camper van companies charge separately for little extras like picnic chairs, child safety seats (everyone must wear a seat belt while on the move!), towels, and kitchen utensils. Many camper van companies also charge the dubious-sounding ‘Diesel Recovery Tax’ fees (which Wilderness did NOT charge us) which some people say are bogus. Furthermore, at some point, you need to stay in a proper camp site and the fees per head can be quite costly, too.
- You may not be able to cover as much ground as you would on a car. New Zealand is very strict on speed limits. And besides, the 6-berth camper vans were HUGE. In terms of driving and maneuvering, the 6-berth camper van felt like any other big van (the closest Asian example that I can think of is a manual transmission Kia Pregio) but handling-wise, it felt like a lorry, thus I was extra careful when cornering and decelerating. Furthermore, it was winter and that meant sunrise at something like 7.45 am and sunset at around 5 pm, thus less daylight for safer driving conditions. So we never managed to cover the entire 5-day Christchurch-Queenstown-Christchurch driving trip that we originally planned due to unforeseen circumstances like the heater breaking down and a hike in Hooker Valley at Mount Cook National Park that took three times longer than what the brochures stated.

So how did we fare in New Zealand’s winter in the camper vans especially at night? Surprisingly well, mainly because it was the beginning of winter and it was quite a warm winter, i.e. some 15°C in the daytime and between 5-10°C at night. Everyday, I checked weather reports for snowfall but there was nothing except in the southern-most tip of South Island and we did not have enough time to go there. As an extra precaution, we also all wore thermal underwear all the time, especially the children, who were experiencing winter for the very first time, and we layered on clothes as and when we felt it necessary. Upon nightfall, we minimised closing and opening the door and also used a towel to cover the bottom of the door, where there was a noticeable draft at night. The standalone heater fans worked well when we were plugged in at camp sites. And when the heating system of one of our camper vans broke down at Mount Cook National Park (where there was no access to a service centre), part of our group just slept in a nearby hostel.

Cost-wise, given the size of our group and the timing of our trip, it ended up cheaper for us to take the camper vans instead of hotels and car rentals. So you have to do really extensive planning (where to stay when) in order to get a more detailed costing for your own trip. Food-wise, we felt we saved a lot by shopping for groceries and cooking our own meals. The kids had a fantastic time with the menu I prepared  for them — stuff like pizza (our camper van had a grill!), Spaghetti Aglio e Olio, pancakes with real maple syrup, fish and chips, and even pan-grilled salmon (thanks to a quick side trip to Mount Cook Alpine Salmon Farm). Of course, Malaysians never go anywhere without Maggi instant noodles and we had some, too, during our stay there ;)

Other Installments of The Camper Van Mini-Series:

Photo Tour Of A Kea 6-Berth Camper Van

28 Responses to The Pros & Cons Of Using A Camper Van In New Zealand’s South Island In Winter

  1. sheng

    I want to go into one of these kinds of adventures soon, where oh where in Pinas will that be, that is the question.

  2. Mimi

    Sheng: The camper van system in New Zealand is so highly advanced, you can practically dump your waste most everywhere, even in Shell stations. They also offer free water, something which I don’t recall ever seeing anywhere in the Philippines. Plus you have to take into account the safety part. Would you dare camp in the middle of some forest in the Philippines in a nice and shiny camper van with your family??

  3. BlogusVox

    Mimi, nag kasya kayo (you, hubby and 5 kids) in that van? Or the van is much bigger than I perceived in the picture.

    The first three “cons” are negligible if it’s a family camping (unless there’s a sibling rivalry). Sana meron ding ganyan sa Pinas. I’m always dreaming of touring the whole Luzon, from Ilocos to Bicol with my family. Hindi lang adventurous, educational pa para sa aking anak.

  4. Mimi

    BlogusVox: We were with a few other people and everyone had to be strapped in (seat belt, child safety seat and all) that’s why we rented two 6-berth units.

    The first 3 cons were negligible for us, too. The experience far outweighed everything else. I’d gladly do it again with my family!

    Ya… *dreamy look* How it wish it were possible in the Philippines. I remember taking the bus from Pasay to Davao for 48 hours and the sights I saw were truly unforgettable — Mayon Volcano, San Juanico bridge, countless ethereal beaches esp one particular beach that I saw when I woke up in the middle of the night somewhere in Samar/Leyte…

  5. docgelo

    wow, i enjoyed reading this post. i am imagining my own family in a camper van too! i don’t think we’ll survive like you do. hahaha! :)

    the best ang line na, “Of course, Malaysians never go anywhere without Maggi instant noodles..” ano pong flavor? laksa, curry or original? hehe

  6. Mimi

    Oh it’s absolutely THE best experience ever!!!

    LOL re Maggi. The kids love curry; I like asam laksa ;)

  7. Cathj

    I am thinking of going for the van camper if we visiting nz again.. But not on winter hihi.. Thank you for this post.. :)

    And take care..

  8. Mimi

    Cathj: Go for it! :D

  9. a-moms-diary

    We went with hostels and car rental the last time – I somewhat regretted not taking the camper van, but admittedly I didn’t do as much research before we went so I wasn’t sure how easy it was to get a decent campsite. Will definitely use camper van if I ever visit NZ again.

  10. Mimi

    Depends on the number of days of your trip also because most camper vans have a minimum number of rental days. But I sure hope you get to try it one day. It’s so much fun!

  11. dayah

    hi . .bump into your blog after google about lesson swimming @consist.
    thanks for your helps. how i wish easily can go to to NZ :)

  12. Lee Chun Seong

    Hi there.. bumped into your website while searching for info on campervans. I am planning to travel to NZ in July and plan to do it campervans style too. I would like to ask if you happens to know if campervans have any difficulties traveling around the island during winter due to snowy condition of roads and accesses to so tourist spot might not be in very good condition. Please advise. Thank you….


  13. Mimi

    It would depend on your route and the weather. If it’s snowing and you are going through a mountain pass, you might need to use snow chains for your tyres. Your camper van rental company SHOULD teach you how to use them. But if the weather is really bad, they will probably advise you not to go to certain areas at all.

    This site is a great place for planning your driving itinerary: Be warned that your actual journey might take longer than what’s stated in that site if you plan to stop a lot and/or have kids along with you.

  14. christina

    hi there! thanks for the informative post! i found it very useful as im planning a trip for 1.5 weeks in the south island in a campervan!
    im sure it’ll be lovely. but one thing im concerned is running out of battery in the middle of nowhere.
    are there sufficient parks around the driving routes in the south islands for us to recharge?

    thanks for any advise and happy new year!

  15. Mimi

    Hi Christina! You better ask the camper van rental company about that part. But if you plan on going to places like Mount Cook National Park, be warned that the nearest service station may not be that near and their services might be limited. So I think it’s best to go with the well-known companies, i.e. those who get good reviews and/or are market leaders.

  16. shiva

    Hi Mimi,
    Thanks for a good write up.
    I was doing research on Camper van in winter.
    After reading your experience, I feel more confident. I will go for it.
    Hope It will be a memorable experience.

  17. Liss

    Hi Mimi, found your great blog! very useful indeed.
    Could you please let me know if you hired full insurance in wilderness? They want to charge me $48 per day which I found expensive. Did you pay full insurance? Do you is necesary when driving in NZ?
    Many Thanks

  18. Mimi

    Even though I contacted Wilderness, in the end, we dealt with Kea and we took some insurance. I think it was $44/day because I paid in advance ($48/day if paid during pickup). My husband and I did some calculation and thought it better to invest in the insurance *just in case* something happens. I mean, it’s a huge piece of ‘equipment’ and being in a foreign country and all, we thought it best to have the insurance.

  19. Emma

    Hi, Mimi, you blog is the inspiration for our 14 day South Island trip in july( we are leaving next week). You mentioned that you have stayed at the white horse mt cook campsite. Will that be freezing in the night? My campervan heater need to be plugged into a power site, so is this a powered site? Can you kindly suggest some scenic campsites in the South Island ? I will stop at Christchurch, lake tekapo, queenstown, and Dunedin. May I also ask if the drive to mt cook campsite is in tough drive in view of the cold weather in July.
    Thank you very much for your help.

  20. Mimi

    Hi Emma! How did your trip go?

  21. Katie

    Absolutely loved reading this post, thank you thank you! Like you we are planning a winter campervan trip, a long one in our case for 3 months or so around the whole of NZ (it will be our 3rd trip but the first with children and the first in a camper). I wanted to ask how old your children are? Ours will be 3 and a half and nearly 2. If you can manage it with SIX then I have every hope we can handle nappies and meal planning, haha :) You are inspirational. But also like you we live in a very hot climate (the UAE in our case, so not as humid as KL) so our children have literally never had a winter, they get a bit chilly if the AC is less than 22. Really great to hear about the detailed planning (clothing etc). Would you have any specific tips for us going with small children for a longer trip of 3 months (April into July)? Thank you and also wanted to say how well you write, lovely to read….. Best, Katie

  22. Mimi

    Gosh, Katie — 3 months?! How nice :D My kids at that time were 13, 12, 10, 5 and 5. For any trips involving kids, plan LOTS of stops. If you find nice restrooms along the way, USE them! If you see fields and playgrounds, let the kids run around. Plan your trip well enough so that you reach your intended camp site on time but not too rigidly that you’d feel stressed when you don’t hit your targets. April to July should be nice — autumn to winter — but may start getting chilly in the evenings. Just keep layering clothes — better safe than sorry! Pack your stuff in backpacks or duffel bags, not in rigid box-type luggage so that you can easily stash them in any available space inside the camper van (tip: pack each kid’s stuff in a separate bag). VERY IMPORTANT: keep coins for washing machines and dryers in camp sites!

  23. Katie

    That’s brilliant, thank you so much! Also like you we have been doing masses of research for rental companies and Wilderness is looking far and away the best level of service / quality though not the cheapest… I’ve had more of a read of your blog now, it’s great! Love the recipes too. Thank you again!

  24. marinela

    loved the post~ty

    My husband and I are planning our NZ adventure for mid-May-early June,
    and then heading to Tahiti to defrost :) We too are looking to campervan traveling in S. Island and do hotels/rent car and visit w/ friends in N. Island.

    My main concerns are weather and driving in vehicles w/ reversed mechanisms~
    but your post helped to reassure me!

    We have rv’ed w/ our 3 kids for 3 wks. in the states
    when they were young and it was wonderful.

  25. Mimi

    Hi, Marinela! I’m glad you find the post helpful. I did a lot of online research before our trip but I could not find anything specific to traveling in a camper van in New Zealand in winter…with kids! Hence, this post. Good luck, have fun, and let me know how your trip turns out :)

  26. Evgenia


    I plan to go to NZ with my boyfriend from mid May to Mid June and we already hired a campervan. We start in Christchurch and end our journey in Auckland. Due to winter, are there any “adventures” that are still open, like rafting? (I want to do this BlackWater Rafting in the Waitomo Caves.) I am really afraid of getting too cold and too wet because of the rain, but I hope that we can flee to the North Island where I hope, the weather is warmer.


  27. Lynn

    Hi, saw your website..thanks for sharing…hmm, for 2 person, would it be less costly if we hire a car and stay at backpackers hostel instead…only 7 days for south island…

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