Everything You Need to Know About Cycling and Mountain Biking in New Zealand
Seeing New Zealand‘s epic landscapes is one thing but experiencing the adrenaline-pumping terrain or having a cruisy ride along a historic rail trail is another. Exploring New Zealand on two wheels is an increasingly popular way to discover the landscapes, history and terrain of the country. In this complete guide to cycling and mountain biking in New Zealand, we’ll go through every practical tip and thing you need to know to prepare for some epic riding in Aotearoa.
Thanks to the Nga Haerenga: The New Zealand Cycle Trail there are more than 20 “NZ Great Rides” covering 2,500km (1,553 miles) of trails across New Zealand. On top of that, you have dedicated MTB parks to pure backcountry wilderness trails – there’s no need for road cycling here. This practical guide to cycling and mountain biking in New Zealand covers how to organise bike hire, shuttles, travelling with a bike, the best bike trails and more.
New Zealand Trail Grades Guide
Almost all New Zealand bike trails are given a grade to help riders understand the difficulty of the trail. There are trails for beginners to hardcore extreme riders (so there’s literally something for everyone)! When researching New Zealand bike trails, be sure to choose something that suits your riding abilities. If you’re a newbie to mountain biking or unsure what to go for, consider sticking to Grades 1-3 for your first few trails.
Bike Trail Grade Guide
- Grade 1 – Easiest track with a smooth, flat surface.
- Grade 2 – Easy with some gentle climbs and avoidable obstacles like rocks.
- Grade 3 – Intermediate with steep hills and some avoidable obstacles.
- Grade 4 – Advanced level track with long steep sections, narrow tracks and obstacles you might have to ride (or carry your bike) over.
- Grade 5 – Expert is technically and physically challenging.
- Grade 6 – Extreme level is for people who know their stuff. Possible manmade or natural jumps.
Downhill Mountain Biking Grades
When at a New Zealand mountain bike park (sometimes seen as “MTB park”), the grades are the same as what is described above. However, to make mountain bike park maps simple, there are usually colour-coded as follows:
- Green – Grade 1-2
- Blue & White (white square with a blue cyclist icon) – Grade 3
- Blue (blue square with a white cyclist icon) – Grade 4
- Black Diamond – Grade 5
- Double Black Diamond – Grade 6.
What Time of Year is the Best for Cycling and Mountain Biking in New Zealand?
Thanks to the different micro-climates in New Zealand, mountain biking can be enjoyed year-round.
Although the summer season (December to February) is the most popular time to cycle in New Zealand, the warmer weather can make it too uncomfortable for some riders, so you might at least want to bike in the southern South Island where temperatures are a little cooler.
Whatever time of year you decide to mountain bike in New Zealand, be prepared for frequently changeable weather. It is also best to check the weather forecast before setting off and be prepared for a change in the weather.
Where to Hire a Bike From
Where can you not hire a bike in New Zealand?
New Zealand Bike Rental Stores
Where there’s a major bike trail, you can bet there is a place to hire a bike for it. Budget mountain bikes, e-mountain bikes and top-of-the-range mountain bikes: there is a huge offering in New Zealand. When visiting a new town with cycle trails nearby (perhaps some of The Best Mountain Biking Regions in New Zealand), a quick search online will likely reveal several dedicated bike rental shops and outdoor stores with cycle hire.
Long-Term Cycle Hire in New Zealand
Long-term bike hire is available in major cities like Auckland, Christchurch and Queenstown, while other bike shops may offer a buy-back scheme where they will refund you half the price if the bike is returned in good condition. Otherwise, you can buy a bike at the beginning of your trip and sell it towards the end of your trip on platforms such as TradeMe.com and Facebook Marketplace, for example.
New Zealand Tours with Bike Hire
What Should Be Included in Your Bike Hire
- A good-condition bike with working breaks, gears and suspension (duh!)
- Bike helmet
- Safety features like reflective panels and lights
- Tyre pump and puncture repair kit
- Reflective over-vest (optional)
- Saddlebags (optional).
Be aware that New Zealand bikes have the rear brake on the left!
How to Bring Your Own Bike to New Zealand From Overseas
We get it, nothing feels quite the same as your own bike. With the right packaging and organisation with your airline carrier, bringing your own bike to New Zealand doesn’t have to be a painful process.
Check the Airline Regulations
Before considering bringing your own bike, you need to check what the regulations are for transporting bikes with the airline you plan on using. Most airlines require bikes to be packed in a bike box or bike bag. This means you will need to dismantle your bike to fit; there is no way around it.
Check if there are any additional charges for checking in a bike, as some airlines charge around NZ$200 to check in bikes.
Finally, there may be a weight or size limit to your bike packaging so be sure to check that information too. (Usually, it’s around 2m/6.5ft long and 23kg/50lbs limit).
Packing Your Bike
As mentioned above, soft bike bags or cardboard bike boxes are the easiest packing option, as you can either fold up the bike bag to travel with once in New Zealand or discard the bike box and simply buy a new one in New Zealand before your flight home. Bike bags or boxes are usually available at bike stores and bike boxes are sometimes sold at airports.
Insurance for Your Bike
Remember that you may want to add your bike as an extra personal item to your travel insurance, which is usually much cheaper than buying stand-alone insurance for it. Learn more about getting good travel insurance for New Zealand in How to Choose the BEST Travel Insurance for New Zealand.
For more airport advice, be sure to check out our guide, Arriving in New Zealand: Airport Customs, Biosecurity & the Arrival Process.
Travelling Around New Zealand with a Bike
Unless you are a biking machine and are literally using your bike to get around New Zealand, you are going to want to know how to transport a bike from trail to trail. An easy way to solve this issue is to simply hire a bike at each location you plan on cycling. However, if you want to use your own bike or the same bike all around the country, then here are your options:
Hire a Car or Campervan with a Bike Rack
If you are in New Zealand for less than a month, then consider hiring a car or campervan with a bike rack. A bike rack is likely to come at an extra cost with any car or campervan rental. Bike racks are more standard on campervans than they are with cars. Learn more about renting vehicles in New Zealand with our huge page dedicated to rentals in New Zealand.
Buy a Bike Rack for Your Car
For those of you doing an extended trip or working holiday in New Zealand, buying your own vehicle is much more cost-effective than renting. If you have not already, check out the ins and outs of buying a vehicle in Buying a Car or Campervan in New Zealand: A Step by Step Guide. Bike racks can be bought at any major bike store in New Zealand such as Torpedo7 or Bike Barn.
Taking Bikes on National Coaches
You can travel on the national coaches like InterCity with a bike, but under the following conditions:
- The bike must be collapsed down (both wheels removed from the frame), the handlebars turned, pedals removed and the chain covered to be counted as one of your two checked-in luggage entitlements, or
- If your bike is not collapsed down, an NZ$10 charge is payable to the driver.
Once you have reached a major town close to popular bike trails, there are highly likely to be bike shuttles transporting you and your bike (or hired bike) to one end of the trail and picking you up from the other end. These shuttle services are readily available, especially for the “NZ Great Rides” and more!
Bikes on Trains
The national train service is very limited in New Zealand, acting more as a scenic rail journey rather than getting from A to B. However, trains and bikes tend to go very well together. For example, bikes are welcome on all KiwiRail services for a NZ$10 fee. You must store bikes in the baggage carriage. Other train networks, like the Bay of Islands Vintage Steam Railway and Dunedin Railways, connect cyclists to major bike trails, so bikes are welcome on board.
Mountain Biking Tours Around New Zealand
Because New Zealand is such an awesome mountain biking country, there are mountain biking bus tours that take keen cyclists all over the country catering to all riding abilities. Not only is this an easy way to get to all the bike trails, but transportation for your bike (and yourself) is sorted.
The tour company will provide you with a bike and transport it with you on the bus, either by specially designed trailers or on a bike rack. Check out Haka Tours, Flying Kiwi, Active Adventures and Intrepid Travel, which are awesome examples of tours for mountain bikers and off-road cyclists.
Accommodation On or Near Bike Trails
Accommodation in Mountain Biking Towns
Towns located close to popular bike trails in New Zealand often provide a good selection of accommodations from campsites to hostels to hotels. Most cyclists prefer to make use of holiday parks, campsites and hostels, as these accommodation options are affordable and often have somewhere to store bikes or hook you up with local bike hire companies. Also, look out for accommodations with bike repair and washing stations. Browse our Accommodation category to get a sense of what the lodgings are like in New Zealand.
Accommodation on the Bike Trails
On multi-day bike trails, you will find a mix of backcountry huts with limited facilities and lodges, depending on which multi-day trail you do. Trails like the Queen Charlotte Track and the Timber Trail are known for their accommodation experiences as well as the ride.
Camping in New Zealand
Be aware that you cannot simply camp anywhere in New Zealand. In order to keep New Zealand beautiful, you can only camp in designated locations like campsites and holiday parks. Certified self-contained campervans and motorhomes can camp on most council-run or Department of Conservation land where there are no restrictions. Find out more about freedom camping in What it’s Really Like to Freedom Camp in New Zealand.
Food and Services Near Bike Trails
Popular bike trails such as the “NZ Great Rides” are often located near or pass through towns with at least a convenience store, cafe and public toilets. In fact, they are designed that way partly so you can enjoy the local cuisines and wines of New Zealand. Some trails may even have coffee stands or food trucks during the busy summer season. Nevertheless, you should always pack at least some snacks to sustain you for the ride or in case the ride takes longer than planned.
Some bike trails in New Zealand are in the backcountry with no food or services whatsoever. You will need to fully sustain yourself. However, these backcountry trails are likely to have huts or public toilets. Find out more about backcountry huts in New Zealand Hut to Hut Hiking: What is it Like to Stay in a Hut?
There are plenty of mountain bike trail descriptions on NZPocketGuide.com, on the Department of Conservation website, leaflets, information centres and more so you can plan the food and supplies to take with you.
Learn more about self-catering in our guide to Food Shopping in New Zealand.
The Best App for Mountain Biking in New Zealand
Free and made in NZ, the NZ Great Rides App is specially designed for the “NZ Great Rides” – i.e. that’s most of the major bike trails in New Zealand! Once you download a trail, the app works fully offline and is GPS-enabled to help you orientate yourself along the trails. It includes all the official NZ Great Rides plus a few extra tracks. The app is also regularly updated to include new trails such as the Paparoa Track and even some hiking tracks such as the Heaphy Great Walk. Additionally, check out its companion app, the Great Hikes App, for New Zealand’s hiking trails.
Great Rides App FREE Download:
The Best Cycle Trails on the North Island
Right about now you are probably wondering what bike trails are worth checking out in New Zealand.
To paint you a picture of what to expect from bike trails in New Zealand, here are some of the highlights from the North Island. Of course, if you want more details on a specific region, be sure to head on over to our Biking category.
- Twin Coast Cycle Trail (2 days, 87km/54 miles, Grades 1-2). In the winterless Bay of Islands, cycle from coast to coast through old railway tunnels, forest lakes and farmland.
- Hauraki Rail Trail (1-4 days, 160km/99 miles, Grade 1). Ride through the Waikato region on this trail following an old railway corridor through Karangahake Gorge, across the grand Arapuni swing bridge and to the historic town of Waihi.
- Motu Trails (1-3 Days, 10-121km/6-75 miles, Grades 3-5). Three trails make up the Motu Trails in the Bay of Plenty. Choose one or a mix of the three trails taking you through sand dunes, dense native forest and isolated roads to waterfalls.
- Timber Trail (2 Days, 85km/53 miles, Grade 3). Prepare to be wowed by the wilderness of the Timber Trail deep in the forests of the Pureora Forest Park where all you will hear are your wheels spinning and the birds.
- Mountains to Sea (3-6 Days, 231km/144 miles, Grades 3-4). Bike from the edge of New Zealand’s largest volcano to the coast of Wanganui encompassing forest, mountains and the culturally significant Whanganui River.
For more rides, head on over to 10 Best Bike Trails on the North Island.
The Best Cycle Trails on the South Island
For a mix of Southern Alps scenery and coastal and heritage trails, consider choosing some trails from the South Island. There are so many to choose from but we’ll list just a few here to give you an idea of the offerings.
Here are the mountain biking and cycling trails to look out for on the South Island:
- Queen Charlotte Track (2-3 Days, 70km/43 miles, Grades 3-4). Ride through a mix of forest and stunning coastal views of the Queen Charlotte Track with a whole range of accommodations to choose from.
- Old Ghost Road (2-4 Days, 85km/53 miles, Grade 4). Revel in the wild West Coast views of the South Island on this historic mining trail called the Old Ghost Road.
- Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail (6 Days, 306km/190 miles, Grades 2-3). Starting in the heart of the Southern Alps, journey past glacial lakes and far-stretching views throughout the ride.
- Otago Central Rail Trail (1-5 Days, 152km/94 miles, Grade 1). Hop from town to town on this old railway trail delving into the Kiwi culture on this easy multi-day cycle trail.
- Clutha Gold Trail (2 Days, 73km/45 miles, Grade 1-2). Ride through stunning river gorges which link up with the Otago Central Rail Trail connecting classic Kiwi towns.
For more South Island inspiration, check out 10 Best Bike Trails on the South Island.
Cycling on New Zealand Roads
Although the vast majority of New Zealand bike trails are off-road, there may be sections where you are cycling on the road. Cycling infrastructure in and around New Zealand is still a developing asset, so both Kiwi and international drivers may not be expecting to see cyclists on the road. For your safety, you need to make sure that you are as visible on the road as possible. Here are a few tips:
- In New Zealand, it is compulsory to wear a helmet when cycling. Not doing so could incur an instant fine
- Help to be seen by having lights on your bike and wearing bright or reflective clothing. Good bike hire companies in New Zealand will provide you with such, so consider this feature when looking for bikes to hire
- Cyclists must also follow the New Zealand road rules
- Use hand signals to indicate when turning or stopping
- Ride in single file no more than two abreast, especially on narrow roads and where there is traffic
- If you have a tail of cars behind you, pull over and let them pass.
You can find a lot more advice for cycling on New Zealand’s roads, and especially in towns and cities, in our guide to City Cycling Rules in New Zealand.
Mountain Bikers’ Code
The Mountain Bike Association of New Zealand has developed a mountain bikers’ code which you will see often displayed at the beginning of any major cycle trail in New Zealand. It acts as a code of biking etiquette in New Zealand, which every cyclist and mountain biker should follow. As well as following the rules of New Zealand roads, which are described more in detail in the section above, you should also be aware of the following:
- Stay in control so you can safely avoid other trail users (and keep yourself safe)
- Give way to walkers
- Use a bell or a friendly greeting when approaching other trail users to let them know you are there
- Ride on shared-use tracks in small groups (less than eight riders)
- Be patient with slower riders and pull over where safe to let faster riders pass
- Only ride where bikes are permitted
- Leave gates as you find them (open or closed)
- Be prepared with the appropriate clothing and food (including for change in weather, getting lost or in an accident)
- Don’t skid, cut corners or veer off the main trail
- Clean your bike regularly to avoid the spread of weeds.
Frequently Asked Questions About Cycling and Mountain Biking in New Zealand
We’ve covered all of the essential information about cycling and mountain biking in this guide, but here are a few more popular questions about cycling in New Zealand answered!
Is New Zealand Good for Cycling?
Yes, New Zealand is very good for cycling, especially as there are plenty of off-road cycle trails for a range of fitnesses and levels of adventure. New Zealand is not particularly good for road cycling due to local and many international drivers not being educated in driving with cyclists on the road.
How Popular is Cycling in NZ?
According to the Ministry of Transport Household Travel Survey (2018), 31% of New Zealanders aged 15 and over ride bikes. Cycling is much more popular for recreational purposes than for commuting purposes.
How Long Does it Take to Cycle the Length of New Zealand?
It takes approximately 30-35 days to cycle the length of New Zealand following the 3,000km (1,864 mi) route of the NZ Great Rides and their connections, also known as “Tour Aotearoa”.
Is it Illegal to Bike on the Footpath in New Zealand?
Note that it is illegal for cyclists to ride on footpaths in New Zealand. However, some footpaths are multi-use, so keep an eye out for these in various towns and cities.
Where Can You Go Mountain Biking in New Zealand?
You can go mountain biking in New Zealand across all regions! In fact, we have The Best Mountain Biking Regions in New Zealand to inspire you on where to go.
Is it the Law to Wear a Bike Helmet in New Zealand?
Yes, according to the Land Transport (Road User) Rule 2004, “A person must not ride, or be carried on, a bicycle on a road unless the person is wearing a safety helmet of an approved standard that is securely fastened.”
More About Cycling and Mountain Biking in New Zealand
That’s it for our guide on cycling and mountain biking in New Zealand. For more cycling advice, take a look at these guides:
- 10 Best Bike Trails on the North Island
- 10 Best Bike Trails on the South Island
- The Best Mountain Biking Regions in New Zealand
Plus, for more ways to experience New Zealand, see the 101 Things to Do in New Zealand: The Ultimate List.