Last Updated on March 17, 2021 by Natasha Amar
Text by Guest Contributor Danny Newman
The natural beauty of its dramatic landscapes, possibilities for adventure, and abundance of amazing things to see and do in New Zealand, coupled with its safety and ease of travel, make it something of a traveller’s dream. New Zealand is usually high up there on the list of places nature-loving travellers want to visit. If it isn’t, then I highly recommend taking it up a few places! The best part? Backpacking in New Zealand is very easy.
Even if you’re a first timer and new at this.
New Zealand is an amazing country for someone completely new to travelling. Not only for how much awe it fills you with when you’re roadtripping, but also because it’s so easy to get around. Everyone speaks English, the tourism infrastructure is excellent, and the people are kind, friendly and helpful. Here’s a guide for anyone backpacking New Zealand as a first time traveller.
Know Before You Go Backpacking in New Zealand
Maori name: Aotearoa (‘Land of the Long White Cloud’)
Language: English and Te Reo Maori
Currency: New Zealand Dollars (NZD)
Peak Season: Generally the summer months between November and February.
Fun fact: New Zealand has a population of 4.79 million
New Zealand Recent History
I’m no historian and definitely not an expert, but here’s a bit of history you might find interesting if you’re visiting New Zealand.
The indigenous people of Aotearoa are the Maori. White Europeans are known as Pakeha. Abel Tasman was the first European to come to Aotearoa’s shores in 1643, but it was the arrival of James Cook in 1769 that really sparked European settlement here.
Over a period of 60 years or so, the European population boomed in NZ, threatening the Maori way of life and presenting challenges to land rights and the country’s sovereignty.
In 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand’s founding document, was signed by Settlers and Maori chiefs, making NZ a colony in its own right. Issues with the Treaty are debated in court to this day.
Essentially, differing English and Maori written translations created great debate over land rights, which caused ever increasing friction between Maori-settler relations.
As the settler population grew, so did the pressure to settle on the land, at the same time as Maori communities were becoming less willing to sell it.
Tension and animosity grew, leading to unfair, discriminatory treatment of the Maori, which hindered their political power to affect change.
The issues created through the Treaty of Waitangi culminated in The New Zealand wars, which stretched in phases from 1845 to the early 1870s. The government eventually won and there followed a period of land confiscation against the Maori.
However, thankfully, many of these issues are in the past and the NZ government is now beginning to publicly recognize some of the injustices committed against the Maori, returning land rights from Pakeha to native communities.
Why NZ is Perfect for First Time Travel & Travel Tips for Backpacking New Zealand
Here are all the reasons backpacking in New Zealand is easy if you’re new to the road.
New Zealand is Safe But Use Your Common Sense
New Zealand has a fantastic reputation for being an incredibly safe place to travel around. Tourist facilities are well developed and reports of issues and crimes against tourists are few.
My own experience of New Zealand only confirmed its reputation as being immensely safe: I hitchhiked, stayed in strangers’ houses, worked in farms and generally put myself in situations that would usually be discouraged, and had no trouble at all.
That isn’t to say you’ll be completely safe, all of the time and regardless of what you do. Obviously, bad things happen to people in NZ, as they do all over the world, and so a level of care and attention is always required.
While staying in hostels, make sure your valuables are locked away in your personal locker, secure your backpack, and don’t carry too much cash on your person. If you’re renting a car, don’t leave valuables in it and leave it parked in an isolated spot. If you’re going away on long hikes or multi-day hikes, follow the trail and let someone know of your plans.
But the risks are nowhere near as pronounced in this beautiful country as they are in others. Take the right (ultralight) backpacking gear, make sensible decisions, keep your wits about you, and you’ll be fine.
New Zealand is Well-Travelled So You’ll Never Be Lonely
Saying New Zealand is well-travelled is something of an understatement.
Essentially, people like us have cottoned on to the fact that it’s an insane place to travel around! They go in their droves as a result every year and it’s very popular with nature-loving and active backpacker types. There are cons to this, but for a first time traveller I’d say the pros far outweigh them.
The cons include the sheer number of other travellers there, who tend to follow a similar route around the country. In some towns/locations that you’d love to have to yourself, it can feel over crowded. But these sights such as the Waitomo Glowworm Caves or Hobbiton for example, are as famous as they are for a good reason, and in any other country, they’d be even more packed full of tourists.
Having said that, when you head to lesser-known spots or even more famous ones on the South Island, there are plenty of times when you see few other tourists on trails, viewpoints, beaches, and on coastal walks.
Furthermore, the high number of travellers is actually one reason the country is so good for a first timer. Having so many other, often like-minded, individuals to meet on the road is a fantastic way of finding travel companions, alleviating loneliness, and learning tips that will help you travel better in the future.
Travel in New Zealand is straightforward, and even remote places and natural sights are very accessible, thanks to the good tourism infrastructure. There are buses that take you all over the country, accommodation wherever you need it, information centres in every town (big or small), as well as a huge number of resources online about travelling here; there are car and van hire companies, jobs aplenty that makes working in the country (given the right visa) easy and so on.
New Zealand is a Long Way Away But That’s a Good Thing
For people in Europe (and most other places, really), New Zealand might seem an annoyingly long way away. And it is!
However, I think this is actually a blessing in disguise.
Given the number of people who visit NZ already, if it were any closer it would be overrun by foreigners (like us) wanting to experience its magnificence.
Too many tourists, though beneficial to an economy, tend to dominate and discolour the local culture and attractions. NZ is already well-travelled; if it were any closer in terms of location, I reckon it would be overly travelled.
New Zealand is Easy to Get Around Even on a Budget
Like I mentioned above, the travel infrastructure that’s in place in New Zealand makes it incredibly easy to travel around it.
Well-connected by main roads make for easy driving, which are covered by relatively cheap bus routes too. There are also car and campervan hire companies, which are a popular form of transport among NZ travellers.
It also means that hitchhiking is a great option for cheap travel; position yourself in the right place in good weather and most New Zealand destinations are easy to get to.
New Zealand Offers Many Activities & Adventures, So You’ll Never Be Bored
You don’t have to travel far to find the next mind-boggling thing to see and/or do in NZ and you’re never short on adventure in New Zealand, which makes backpacking here fun, even if you’re staying for a long time and traveling slowly.
Compared to Australia, for example, where a 10 hour drive between locations makes air travel the most viable way of getting from A to B, everything’s a relative stone’s throw away in NZ.
NZ is renowned for its stunning natural environments, with single and multi-day hikes around every corner, they’re called the Great Walks of New Zealand. Packing the best tent possible will help you enjoy it all, and on a budget! Likewise, there are all the extreme sports such as rafting, bungee jumping, paragliding and more on offer in many towns too (Queenstown is always a good bet for these).
There are natural hot pools in spots like Rotorua for you to laze in, seas for you to surf, mountains to climb, volcanic landscapes for you to gawp at, glacial lakes for you to swim in, and in winter, mountains to ski down. You’re never short of something awesome to do in NZ.
New Zealand is Best Traveled Slow, So Don’t Rush
New Zealand is one of those countries you simply do not want to rush through. Who ever wants to rush to leave an epic viewpoint or a beautiful remote beach or a trail that you have all to yourself? It’s the kind of place where you will make frequent stops while road-tripping, because it’s just so damn beautiful. You’ll want to stay longer in some towns (like Wanaka perhaps) that feel like they offer the right vibe.
Plus if you’re backpacking in New Zealand on a budget, traveling slowly usually tends to be cheaper. You can make use of the excellent public transportation system, take InterCity backpacker buses that travel long-distance, or team up with other travelers to rent a car. If you plan on spending a long time backpacking in New Zealand, check if you’re eligible for the New Zealand Working Holiday Visa.
In New Zealand, the Outdoors is Where It’s At
New Zealand is insanely beautiful and few other places on the planet boast the kind of nature New Zealand has- where else can you think of that you can visit waterfalls and glaciers, hike up volcanoes and kayak to seal colonies, see underground caves lit up by the lights from millions of glowworms, go whale-watching in, and experience every kind of adventure sport you can think of, and more?
If you’re not the outdoorsy type, then New Zealand will change you. You’ll fall in love with landscapes and the entire experience of being one with nature because I assure you, you won’t be staying indoors or in city life for too long in New Zealand.
Bring and Dress in Layers To Enjoy New Zealand
Since you’re going to spend a lot of your time outdoors, come prepared by bringing and dressing in layers while backpacking in New Zealand. The weather can change quickly, specially in the mountains. You could be starting a hike when it’s sunny and warm and a couple of hours in, find yourself in windy conditions. Bring layers that you can take on and off to suit the weather, and always carry a wind and waterproof jacket that’s weather appropriate.
Don’t forget a day pack, a good water bottle, protective sunglasses, a hat and good hiking shoes (that are likely going to be your new best friend in New Zealand.
Must-See Places for Your New Zealand Itinerary
Here’s a quick and easy snapshot of some of the must see places while you’re backpacking in New Zealand (and what’s there).
If you’re after a more detailed itinerary, check out this two week New Zealand itinerary.
Bay of Islands (natural beauty, dolphin and whale watching, kayaking, beaches, night life…)
Cape Reinga (most northerly accessible point of NZ with panoramic views over the horizon)
90 Mile Beach (56 miles of sand and sea and sand and sea; Te Puka Sand dunes)
Taupo (giant lake, hot pools, sky dives, night life…)
Tongariro Alpine Crossing (incredible day hike passed Mount Doom and across other worldly terrain)
Auckland (largest NZ city, tonnes of cool stuff to do and good night life)
Rotorua (volcanic land, sulphurous smells, geysers, hot pools…)
Coromandel Peninsula (Cathedral Cove, Hot Water Beach, chilled vibes…)
Abel Tasman National Park (stunning hikes, golden sands, lush forest, kayaking, wildlife, chilled vibes…)
Glacier country (ancient glaciers such as Fox Glacier rapidly receding due to global warming- see them while you still can)
Mount Cook (highest peak in NZ, hikes, turquoise lakes, mind blowing natural beauty)
Wanaka and Queenstown (glaciers, lakes, night life, hikes, extreme sports, chilled vibes, traveller central)
Lake Tekapo (turquoise waters, star gazing, beautiful lake)
West Coast (the wild west, pancake rocks, small coastal towns, Hokitika Gorge)
Arthur’s Pass (hikes, quiet, chilled vibes, stunning nature)
Milford & Doubtful Sound (Immense natural beauty, giant cliffs meet water, waterfalls, wildlife, solitude, rain, hiking)
How to Stay in New Zealand On a Budget
You’re spoiled for choice when it comes to accommodation in New Zealand and there are options for every budget.
Guesthouses, motels, B&Bs, hostels and hotels abound wherever you are in the country, as do campsites- that’s good news for backpacking in New Zealand.
Here’s a brief look at some other budget options while backpacking in New Zealand.
Hostels are widely available in New Zealand everywhere you go. They’re safe, generally good quality and an excellent way to meet other backpackers that you can team up with for car rental or to split tour costs. Look for hostels in New Zealand.
Work for Accommodation
Work for a set amount of time every day to help out around wherever you happen to be staying, in exchange for a free bed. Hostels in need of seasonal staff may offer to enter into such an arrangement if you’re at the right place at the right time.
Usually limited to a certain amount of people at one time (lots of people want to do it!) and for a particular time commitment (for example at least one week).
‘World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms’ is like working for accommodation but on a farm. Here’s the definition from the wwoofing website:
‘WWOOF is a worldwide movement linking volunteers with organic farmers and growers to promote cultural and educational experiences based on trust and non-monetary exchange, thereby helping to build a sustainable, global community.’
There are plenty of jobs available in summer in both tourism and horticulture. Under such an arrangement, you could find yourself working in a vineyard, fruit picking or on a farm, or working as a tour guide, managing a hostel or working in a cafe. In winter, you might find work as a ski-instructor in towns such as Queenstown.
There are hundreds of huts that line the walking tracks in New Zealand. These usually require booking, for a cost, at Department of Conservation (DOC) sites, but you can sometimes wangle your way in for free.
They could be worth considering as a place to stay, especially if you have your own sleeping stuff (sleeping bag etc) and don’t mind roughing it a bit!
That brings us to an end to this guide to backpacking in New Zealand for the first time. You can check out this New Zealand page for more general information and NZ posts.
If you’re planning on heading there for your travels, know that whatever you do and however you do it, you won’t be disappointed! Happy travelling!
Feel free to drop any questions or comments below!
Bio: Danny Newman is currently writing and travelling his way around the world in a bid to figure out exactly what he’s doing with his life. He’d love you to follow along with his journey over at What’s Danny Doing.