If you’ve spent even a couple of days in New Zealand, you’ve seen them. They buzz around like bees, zoom down highways, fill up parking lots, and somehow find their way into hidden nooks and crannies on the sides of remote dirt roads. They are mostly white and mostly dirty, but come in all shapes and sizes. Some look new and fresh out of the box, while others look like a giant hunk of rust.
These are the famous campervans of New Zealand. They are somewhat of a legend in the backpacker community. While visiting hostels around the globe, fellow travellers have told me how easy it is to get a van and live in it for months at a time while exploring New Zealand. It was always a remote idea, though; something that sounded romantic but just wasn’t feasible because of how far this country is from everywhere else in the world. But now, I’ve seen the light. After spending the last four months (on-and-off) living in a campervan and travelling New Zealand, I understand the allure of van life.
If you’re thinking of spending any time in these islands, you should give it a try. Here’s why:
It's a constant stream of new experiences
Van life is truly a choose-your-own-adventure novel—the more spontaneous you are, the more fun it becomes.
Van life is truly a choose-your-own-adventure novel—the more spontaneous you are, the more fun it becomes. One day you can wake up in the middle of a bustling city with modern buildings and old stone churches. The next morning you can drive two hours and end up at the top of an extinct volcano, or follow a winding road and end up on your own beach without another person in sight.
Kiwis want you to live van life
New Zealand’s laws make this kind of travel easy. They have the concept of "freedom camping" here: basically, you are able to camp on any public land that isn’t a recognized camping ground or holiday park.
There are different laws that vary based on region and district, but this essentially means that if you’re reasonable, respectful and do a bit of research, you can park in any spot that strikes your fancy. There are even apps that show the best freedom camping areas. Campermate and Camping NZ are two I’ve used. When in doubt, I’ve found that asking friendly locals is the best way to clear up any confusions, and a great way to find recommendations for secret local spots.
Also, in order to freedom camp, your van needs to be certified "self-contained." Basically this means that you need to prove you have all the necessary resources to live in your van for three days straight, including a fresh water supply, waste water tank, and toilet. For more information, check out this handy website made by the NZ government—or talk to any person hanging out next to their van in a supermarket parking lot.
It simplifies your life
Like most humans in a consumerist society, my girlfriend and I have the tendency to accumulate a lot of stuff. When we were living in Portland, I would often marvel at the amount of things we were able to fit into our apartment. But with van life, this just isn’t possible. The confines of your very limited home dictate what you are able to own. Minimalism becomes a necessity. I’ve found that having fewer possessions decreases the level of stress in my life, and opens up my energy to focus on things that truly matter.
You spend more time in nature
In a sense, the point of van life is to actually spend as little time in your van as possible. Often, we park for the night at trailheads or take stops during the day to tramp around the New Zealand bush. We also try to eat all of our meals outside—our dining room is two camping chairs and a cooler for a table, and it takes 30 seconds to set up. Lots of freedom camping spots don’t have cell phone coverage, so the temptation to get lost on the internet is gone. And, New Zealand is world-famous for stunning natural wonders—fjords and endless coastline, glaciers and rolling green hills—so wherever you spend the night, you’re likely to be surrounded by incredible scenery.
It's low-cost travel in a fairly high-cost country
My girlfriend and I bought an empty van and converted it into a home ourselves. If you don’t have a ton of time to do this, or aren’t keen on DIY, there are hundreds of used vans on the market. Here’s a handy Verge article with tips on buying a vehicle in New Zealand. To make this a budget travel adventure, all you have to do is invest a bit of money up front in buying your van, and then sell it for about the same price when you leave. You’re avoiding paying for hostels (which can be $30-$50 a night), and transportation around the islands. You can cook all your meals. Your biggest cost then becomes fuel, which can also be halved if you’re travelling with another person.
Of course, I’ve left out many of the struggles and challenges of van life. It can be an emotional roller coaster, going from euphoria to claustrophobia in a matter of minutes. Running water becomes a luxury, and the thought of a hot shower brings me an unreasonable amount of excitement. But at the end of it all, I know this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I now understand the allure of New Zealand van life, and having the open road as a home.Add this article to your reading list