How to Get Started with Living in a Campervan
We might be a little biased, but New Zealand is the ultimate vanlife country! With beautiful tracts of forest, long stretching beaches, volcanoes and mountain ranges, New Zealand offers a smorgasbord of scenery for vanlifers to make the most of. What’s more, the country is pretty small yet hugely varied, so there’s no such thing as a boring road trip here. If you’ve decided to take the plunge and enjoy a more minimalistic life while embracing the outdoors, then this complete guide to vanlife in New Zealand will give you all the essential advice to get you started.
The Pros and Cons of Living in a Campervan in New Zealand
There are a ton of amazing vanlife posts across the internet outlining the general pros and cons of living in a van. But what about living in a van specifically in New Zealand? Here are the pros and cons…
- PRO: New Zealand offers some of the world’s most stunning scenery. With that, there are plenty of beautiful camping spots that are a joy to wake up to. This pro is worth ten times some of the cons on this list!
- PRO: You’ll meet all sorts of amazing vanlifers, from 18+ international backpackers to 60+ Kiwi retirees living the good life.
- CON: The campsite anxiety is real in New Zealand, especially as you can’t just park up and sleep where you want. You need to do a bit of planning to enjoy the vanlife in New Zealand.
- CON: Driving a van, motorhome or caravan is much more hassle than driving a car. You’ll get used to it eventually, but parking, driving slowly and manoeuvring New Zealand’s winding roads can be a pain.
- CON: New Zealand has plenty of sandflies, especially in summer, which leave itchy bites and are not something you’ll want in your van so you’ll need to get insect screens or leave your doors closed.
- CON: The New Zealand weather is very erratic. When it’s good, it’s great. But when it’s raining, you’ll find that you spend quite a significant time in your cramped van.
We realise that we have listed more pros than cons, but sometimes it’s just best to be aware of even the minor cons just in case this is a game-changer for you. In our opinion, the pros far outweigh the cons.
To Buy or Rent a Van?
One of the preparation steps for vanlife in New Zealand is to decide whether you should rent a campervan, perhaps for a taste of vanlife, or take the plunge and buy a vehicle.
For many, the main factor that determines whether you should buy or rent a campervan in New Zealand is time. How much time do you have in New Zealand? Although buying a campervan works out to be the most cost-effective solution in the long term, if you are on a short-term trip, you will waste a lot of your limited time on the buying and selling process.
When to Rent a Campervan
For those planning to be in New Zealand for less than a month, then renting a campervan will get you on the road as quickly as possible. Renting a campervan is also a good way to test out a type of vehicle before making the big decision to convert to vanlife.
When to Buy a Campervan
For those of you with more time in New Zealand, for instance by being on a working holiday or living in the country, buying your own campervan in New Zealand will be the best value for money considering it is likely that you can sell the vehicle when (and if) you decide that your life in a van should come to an end.
If your time living in a campervan in New Zealand falls somewhere between the two instances mentioned above, for example, perhaps if you’re staying for three months but don’t want to waste time buying and selling a van nor want to spend too much renting, buyback schemes offer a good alternative solution. Some campervan rental companies offer to buy back the vehicle they have sold you at a prearranged date and price – think of it as a long-term rental. Find out more about buybacks in How to Find Used Cars for Sale in New Zealand.
Check out more pros and cons between renting and buying a campervan in our complete guide, Should You Rent or Buy a Vehicle to Travel New Zealand?
What Type of Van to Get
Now you need to decide what type of campervan to live in. There are so many options from small campercars to large motorhomes that it’s really worth thinking about this thoroughly.
The most popular type of campervan available to buy at a cheap price in New Zealand is usually an SUV or people-mover with the back seats removed and fitted with a bed and other accessories. These are also the types of camping vehicles that you can rent without an age restriction as they are the easiest to drive. On the downside, expect it to get quite cramped once your luggage is inside and to have limited amenities. These types of vehicles are not likely to be certified self-contained, so you can only camp in campsites, holiday parks and hostels.
The second and most popular camping vehicle to buy is a campervan – simply a small van or minibus that has been converted into a camping vehicle. Although more expensive to buy and rent than campercars, they offer more room for amenities, perhaps even water storage, wastewater storage and a toilet which would allow you to have a self-contained sticker – something you will need if you want to be able to freedom camp. More on that below.
The most spacious camping vehicle that you can legally drive with a normal driving license in New Zealand is a motorhome. They range from two to six-berth (i.e. sleeping two to six people) and usually have the full-works in terms of amenities: bedding, dining area, kitchen, shower, toilet and more. However, these are the most expensive camping vehicles to rent, not to mention buying a motorhome is a pretty large investment taking you into the tens of thousands of dollars. Plus, buying and selling a motorhome is much more likely to be a lengthier process than with a smaller and more affordable camper.
The major advantage of motorhomes is that they are almost guaranteed to be self-contained meaning you can camp anywhere except where there are camping restrictions. For tips on travelling in a motorhome, check out Step-by-Step Guide to Renting Your First Motorhome.
Where to Get a Campervan
Once you have an idea of the best type of camping vehicle for vanlife in New Zealand, it’s time to start putting the wheels in motion; it’s time to get a campervan!
How to Rent a Campervan in New Zealand
When renting a campervan you need to compare the campervan rental companies out there and see which one suits your needs. This is pretty straightforward, as once you have found the right type of vehicle, you just need to book directly with the company. Start your car rental comparison with The Best Campervan Rental Companies in New Zealand!
Private Campervan Rental
You don’t have to go with a campervan rental company at all! You can also hire a campervan privately by using website platforms similar to Airbnb (but, ya know, for camping vehicles). Find out more about hiring a private campervan in Private Campervan Rental: Should You Rent a Peer-to-Peer Motorhome?
How to Buy a Campervan in New Zealand
While there are plenty of campervans on the market, you need to follow the necessary steps to avoid buying a lemon. Find campervans for sale on backpacker Facebook Groups, the New Zealand auction site TradeMe, hostel notice boards, car markets and more. Get ideas from Where to Buy a Backpacker Vehicle in New Zealand.
Always inspect campervans in person before buying. Arrange a viewing with the seller and inspect the vehicle for any faults, including all the amenities inside the campervan, if you’re buying a fully kitted out one. Does everything fold up correctly? Does the fridge/toilet/wastewater all work, for example? You will also want to make sure that the vehicle has all the necessary certificates like a WOF (Warrant of Fitness), electrical certificates and self-containment certificates if your van has power and a toilet.
Once you are ready to go through with the sale, complete the change of ownership form with the seller. There’s a lot to go through but don’t worry, we go through it all in Buying a Car in New Zealand Step by Step with tips that also apply to campervans.
Self-Contained Campervans: How to Convert Your Van into a Campervan
If you’ve bought yourself an empty (or partially empty) shell of a van with the intention of converting it into a living space, then there’s one very important thing you need to keep in mind for vanlife in New Zealand: a Self-Containment Certification.
What is a Self-Contained Campervan?
A self-contained vehicle is a vehicle that is able to store at least three days’ worth of fresh water and wastewater and has a toilet on board. These must meet a particular standard to be given a Self-Containment NZS 5465 Certification. A vehicle that is self-contained must display the blue self-contained sticker in order to freedom camp. Only self-contained campervans can park up somewhere for free and stay the night in New Zealand, except for zones that don’t allow camping. Find out more from our guide about Self-Contained Campervans in New Zealand.
Requirements for a Self-Contained Campervan
Your van needs to meet the following requirements set by the Self-Containment Standard NZS 5465:
- Freshwater tanks 12L per person for three days
- A sink via a smell trap/water trap connected to a watertight sealed waste water tank
- Grey/black wastewater tank 12L per person for three days, vented and monitored if capacity is less than the fresh water tank
- Evacuation hose (3m for fitted tanks) or long enough to connect to a sealed portable tank
- A rubbish bin with a lid
- Toilet (portable or fixed) needs to have a minimum of 3L per person for three days and be able to be used inside the campervan with the bed made up (for all vehicles certified/renewed after 31 May 2017).
For advice on how to install these features, check out How to Convert Your Van into a Self-Contained Campervan.
DIY or Pay for the Installation?
If you have the skills, these modifications can be done yourself. Water tanks, sinks, pipes, etc. can be purchased in hardware stores like Mitre 10 and Bunnings Warehouse. Items like a cassette toilet can be purchased from specialised motorhome/RV stores. Otherwise, we suggest employing a plumber, gasfitter or drainlayer that is registered as a self-containment certification issuing authority and/or a self-containment testing officer to install compliant systems for you. That way, they will install your water tanks and sinks to the correct requirements and you can hire them for issuing your Self-Containment Certification.
How to Get the Self-Containment Certification
As briefly mentioned, Self-Containment Certifications can be issued by self-containment certification issuing authorities and self-containment testing officers. The most well-known issuing authorities are All Points Camping New Zealand and the New Zealand Motor Caravan Association (NZMCA). However, any plumber, gasfitter or drainlayer can also be registered as an issuing authority, so be sure to consider all of your options as they all charge various fees.
A qualified self-containment testing officer is a member of an issuing authority and can inspect vehicles for self-containment warrants. For a vehicle being tested for self-containment for the first time, it will need to be inspected by two testing officers, unless a testing officer has inspected more than 20 vehicles and tested at least 10 vehicles per year, then the vehicle can be inspected once by that officer.
Find out more about issuing authorities and testing officers in our complete guide, How to Get Your Campervan Certified Self-Contained.
How to Get Electricity in Your Campervan
Another important consideration if you are converting a van for camping is to have an electricity source. You’ll need it to power any appliances, such as a fridge, electric barbeque or oven, for charging your devices or even to power a heater on those chilly New Zealand nights.
Portable Power Stations
The most versatile electricity source for vanlife in New Zealand, portable power stations are basically large power banks with multiple outlets to use for all sorts of appliances. One of our favourites is the Bluetti EB200P with a huge 2,200W of power and 2,048Wh of battery capacity. The power station has dual charging; solar panels and AC inputs, as well as several output options, including four AC outlets, four USB-A, a USB-C, an RV port, a cigarette lighter port and a DC 5521 output. Bluetti also has power stations for more or less power, as follows…
The Best Power Stations for Vanlife
While Bluetti is one of the market leaders for power stations, it can be overwhelming to choose a power station that will fit your needs. Let’s go over some of the most popular lifestyles when on the road and match them with the right power station:
- “I am mostly camping out of a small van/campercar”: In this case, you’ll want to get a Bluetti EB200P. It will cover all your needs and more in a compact form. It’s a reliable option without the bulk.
- “I am kitting out a semi-large van to get on the road”: You may be travelling in a slightly larger camper but space is still a little bit of an issue. In this case, you can splurge on a larger Bluetti EP500 Pro that will provide you with a whopping 3,000W / 5,100Wh and can easily be paired up with a set of solar panels.
- “I will be hitting the road in a large RV”: If space is not even a consideration, then you have quite a few options. We love the Bluetti AC300 as it has the flexibility to be paired with extra storage (Bluetti B300) to fit your exact needs.
Motorhome / RV Battery
Another consideration is a motorhome battery, also known as an RV battery. Motorhomes have 12-volt batteries that are separate from the battery that powers the vehicle. They are typically 30 or 50 Ah systems that power basic appliances in the campervan, such as lights, vent fans and the water pump, for example. While these batteries are powerful enough for small electronics, they are not suitable for microwaves and air conditioning.
Motorhome batteries can be charged at campgrounds (see below). They can last for a few days with the aid of solar panels and/or a deep cycle marine battery.
Campground Powered Sites
Segueing from the point above, you can also get electricity by hooking up to a power supply in a campground. In New Zealand holiday parks and campgrounds, these are known as “powered sites”. Your vehicle will need a motorhome battery (see above), a power input and a cable to connect it to a powered site’s electrical supply. Being connected to a campground power supply means that you will also be able to power heavier appliances, such as a microwave, air conditioner, heater, etc.
For more advice on sourcing electricity, check out our guide, How to Get Electricity When Camping in New Zealand.
Other Vanlife Essentials: Vanlife Packing Checklist
If you’re renting a campervan, you’re going to have most of the essentials already included, while buying a campervan might mean that you’ll have to purchase some.
What’s Included in Your Campervan Rental
You will have the opportunity to choose some optional extras with your campervan rental, such as a GPS and picnic sets, however, you often have all you need already included in the rental from bedding to cooking utensils. Inclusions are often:
- Basic insurance
- Roadside assistance
- Kitchen amenities: gas stove/barbecue, fridge and sink
- Foam mattress and bedding
- Shower amenities (sometimes)
Consumables, like toilet paper and dishwashing liquid, aren’t usually included in your rental, but you can purchase these at New Zealand’s supermarkets, along with the food you’ll need for cooking meals in your campervan. By the way, check out The Best Camping Meals, Inc. Camping Food List for easy meals to cook.
Include These in Your Van Conversion
If you’re kitting out your own van, however, make sure you keep in mind the above list to equip your van with all of these living amenity essentials. Most of them are covered when following our guide, How to Convert Your Van into a Self-Contained Campervan, but you will also have to organise your own motorhome insurance, roadside assistance and any essential homeware you can’t live without. Remember, vanlife is living a more simplistic life, so stick to just the essentials or else your van will feel too cluttered. We have a minimalist packing list in our Camping Essentials Checklist for New Zealand.
What’s Not Included in Your Campervan Rental (and What You’ll Need to Pack)
Most of what you’ll need to pack are your personal items, such as clothing and toiletries. All of this we cover in our New Zealand Packing List: What to Pack for New Zealand.
If you’re travelling in winter, there are some extra things you’ll need to pack in order to keep warm, all of which we cover in How to Stay Warm When Camping in New Zealand, as well as in our Packing List for Winter in New Zealand.
For any extra camping gear you might want to consider, like extra sleeping bags or laundry lines, take a look at our Camping Essentials Checklist for New Zealand.
That just leaves a few miscellaneous essentials like a torch/flashlight, playing cards and perhaps WiFi! All of this and more we cover in the 12 Essentials to Pack for a New Zealand Campervan Trip and How to Get WiFi in Your Campervan in New Zealand.
Where to Camp in a Van
In order to keep New Zealand beautiful, there are some restrictions on where you can camp. Campervans can camp in designated campsites, holiday parks, park over properties and sometimes even hostel car parks.
To recharge the power in your camper, dump your waste, take a shower, do your laundry and get some quick comforts, you’re likely to use holiday parks often. Holiday parks have powered sites and non-powered sites to park up your vehicle and make use of their facilities, including dump stations, kitchens, laundry, showers and sometimes more. To see what a holiday park is like in New Zealand, take a look at our Accommodation Guide to Holiday Parks in New Zealand.
Campsites are a little more basic than holiday parks, offering much fewer facilities. For this reason, they are cheaper (sometimes even free) and have the bare essentials to keep the environment tidy. Most of the campsites are run by the Department of Conservation (DOC). Find out more in What is the Difference Between a Campsite and a Holiday Park?
Parking in a Park Over Property (POP)
Some landowners allow self-contained vehicles to stay on their property overnight for a small fee.
Freedom Camping (Parking Your Campervan for Free)
There are very few areas around New Zealand where you can camp for free without a self-contained vehicle. Otherwise, camping with a self-contained vehicle is usually permitted on public land where there are no restrictions. Each district council in New Zealand have their own laws on freedom camping, so make sure you research before arriving in an area – you can use Freedom Camping Rules in New Zealand: Region by Region which links to all of the regional council websites concerning freedom camping.
How to Find Campsites in New Zealand
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More About Vanlife in New Zealand
That’s it for our guide to vanlife in New Zealand. For more campervan living tips, check out the following guides:
- 10 Ways to Relax on a Road Trip
- How to Plan a Campervan Trip in New Zealand
- The Essential Guide to Renting a Campervan in New Zealand
Finally, plan everything you need to know about travelling New Zealand with The Best Travel Guide to New Zealand.