A Guide to Backpacking New Zealand as a First Time Traveller
New Zealand is one of my favourite countries in the World. Not only is it crammed full of incredible things to see and do, but it is also safe, well travelled and easy to get around, making it the ideal place for a first time traveller. Here’s a guide for anyone backpacking New Zealand as their first foray in travel.
New Zealand is usually high up there on the list of places aspiring travellers want to visit.
And if it isn’t, I highly recommend shoving it up a few places!
The country is simply awesome. The natural beauty and abundance of mind blowing things to see and do, coupled with its safety and ease of travel, make it something of a traveller’s dream.
Especially if you’ve never travelled before.
Seriously, if you’re considering backpacking New Zealand as your first foray into international travel, it won’t let you down.
Here’s a guide to help you on your way.
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Know before you go
Aotearoa (‘Land of the Long White Cloud’)
English and Te Reo Maori
New Zealand Dollars (NZD)
£1 = $2 NZD (roughly)
€1 = $1.7 NZD (roughly)
$1 USD = $1.4 NZD (roughly)
Generally the summer months between November and February.
Fun fact: New Zealand has a population of only 4 million (and 3 million of them are on the North Island).
Noteworthy Recent History of New Zealand
I’m no historian and definitely not an expert on this, but it is always useful to know a bit about a country’s background before visiting.
So, I’ll give a very brief rundown of some historic points of note that are helpful to know about for people visiting the country.
Of course, the following is merely a snapshot summary of a very brief period in NZ history, aimed to shed light on relevant contemporary social and political points that may be useful to someone visiting NZ for the first time.
In no way do I mean to limit NZ history to the time from when Europeans settled.
The native people of Aotearoa are the Maori. White Europeans who settled there 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.
As the European 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 prolonged and debilitating period of land confiscation against the Maori.
However, though some underlying tension remains, many of these issues are in the past and the NZ government is now beginning to publicly recognise some of the injustices committed against the Maori, returning land rights from Pakeha to native communities.
For more on NZ’s history over the last 250 years or so, check out this highly informative article.
Why New Zealand is Perfect for First Time Travel & How to Do It
It is safe
NZ has a fantastic reputation for being an incredibly safe place to travel around. People flock to its shores every year and reports of issues are, as far as I know, amazingly rare.
For this reason, hitch hiking, which is usually frowned upon and discouraged all over the world, is a common form of transport for travellers.
My own experience of NZ only confirmed this reputation:
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 to ensure your well-being while travelling.
But it is true that the risks are nowhere near as pronounced in this beautiful country as they are in others.
It is well travelled
NZ is incredibly well travelled.
Essentially, people from all over the World have cottoned on to the fact that it is insane place to travel around, and go in droves every year.
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, where you’d love to enjoy itit can feel over crowded
Having said that, there’s plenty of space in NZ, especially on South Island (where a lot of the magic happens) - remember its population of 1 million people? In NZ, more than many other well-travelled destinations, it is easy to find some space for yourself.
Furthermore, the high number of travellers is actually one reason the country is so good for a first timer.
Equally, given the numbers of travellers in NZ and the well-trodden route around the country that I mentioned above, the infrastructure that’s developed makes travel incredibly straightforward.
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.
NZ is a country that caters exceptionally well for travellers.
As a quick aside, for people in Europe (and most other places, really), NZ 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.
It is easy to get around
Like I mentioned above, the travel infrastructure that’s in place in NZ makes it incredibly easy to get around.
Almost everywhere is well connected by main roads, which are covered by cheap bus routes. There are also car and campervan hire companies, which are a popular form of transport among NZ travellers (Jucy vans/cars are insanely common).
It also means that hitch hiking is a great option for cheap travel; position yourself in the right place and most NZ destinations are easy to get to and often on people’s way.
(I'll be writing more about budget travel in NZ in due course, where I'll detail more about cheap transport options! Keep an eye out!)
There is a huge amount to do
You don’t have to travel far to find the next mind-boggling thing to see and/or do in NZ.
Compared to say Australia, 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.
Whatever you like doing, there will be something for you to get your teeth stuck into.
NZ is renowned for its stunning natural environments, with single and multi day hikes around every corner, as well as the extreme sports on offer in many towns.
There are natural hot pools scattered all over 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; in winter, mountains to ski down.
Must see places in New Zealand
For an in depth look at each place I recommend hitting on your travels around NZ, the two pieces on North and South Island must dos are a good place to start.
However, here’s a much less detailed list of (a selection of) the must see places:
- 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 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)
Where to Stay in New Zealand
You’re spoiled for choice when it comes to accommodation in NZ.
Guesthouses, hostels and hotels abound wherever you are in the country, as do campsites. However, as a backpacker I’m guessing budget options will be a priority, and staying in these sorts of places can get expensive quite quickly.
Again, I'll be going into this in more detail in a coming NZ budget travel guide I'm writing soon, but for now, here’s an abbreviated look at some of the options.
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.
Usually limited to a certain amount of people at one time (lots of people want to do it!) and for a particular time commitment (eg 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:
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 (sleep bag etc) and don’t mind roughing it a bit!
This is technically illegal in New Zealand, but people do it...a lot (read about one night we decided to risk it on the Abel Tasman Great Walk).
There’s so much open space in NZ that it’s usually possible to find somewhere out of sight to pitch up for the night.
And that brings to an end my guide to backpacking New Zealand for the first time.
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!
And remember, any questions about travelling or New Zealand, you can always get in touch here or by joining the Coddiwomp Community!