Winter in New Zealand: tips for your chilly season travels
May 20, 2021 • Viktoria Steinhaus
9 min read
The days might be short, but that shouldn’t stop you from travelling around New Zealand in wintertime.
Snow-covered maungas, less people on the trails and countless sunny days are the reasons it’s one of my favourite times to explore both North and South Island. With the right preparation, advice and gear, getting outside during the colder season is still very possible. Thanks to my winter-obsessed partner, I have plenty of experience to share regarding New Zealand’s most underrated season.
Planning your winter adventure
While most of New Zealand is snow-free in the winter, the mountain regions are known to drop below freezing turning the incredible landscapes into glistening snowy wonders. In places like Mount Cook National Park, you’ll hear avalanches thunder throughout the day and night, which means some trails are off limits. The Department of Conservation is always available for advice if you are planning on hiking in the snow. Give them a call, stop in one of the many offices or check the website for alert levels. Always be safe, follow their advice and tell someone where you are going.
Thankfully New Zealand doesn’t experience extreme winters. Yes it will snow and yes it will drop below zero, but you won't experience metres of snowfall on the ground or crazy windchill that will keep you hiding inside all day and night (unless you’re right up in the mountains of course).
So where to go?
Well that depends on your type of adventure and how cold you are willing to get.
Head north if....
You are looking for a relaxing holiday with short, local walks, coastal views and plenty of hot springs to warm up in. Cruise the North Island's coastlines or to really get away from any sign of winter, drive up through Northland to the tippy top to experience Cape Reinga. Explore glow worm caves, sail around the Poor Knights Island or go wine tasting on Waiheke Island.
If you want a bit of snowy adventure, head to Taupo and pop over to Tongariro National Park. Try the Taranaki Falls track for a short trek to a beautiful waterfall tucked away in between the mountains. This region is also great if you want to ski or snowboard with a few options around. Then you can head back to Taupo and visit a paid hot springs or hang out at the free option, just look up Spa Thermal Park.
Rotorua is another great option with plenty to do and see including family friendly activities like hiking, biking and the thrilling skyline luge. For beach lovers, Coromandel is ideal during this time, especially when the kids are in school. This always tourist-filled region is a great spot to hit in wintertime and you can dig your own spa at the famous Hot Water Beach.
Fortunately, even on a sunny winter day, you can be comfortable in a t-shirt, especially during a good slog up the mountain.
Head south if...
You love to be surrounded in white-capped peaks. Queenstown is a winter hotspot with three nearby skiing options and even a Winter Festival held every year around winter solstice. You’ll find cosy restaurants with fireplaces and plenty of thrill-seeking activities. If you are looking to get into the mountains, head towards Glenorchy and Paradise to check out the Routeburn Track (a Great Walk), but be sure to check if it’s accessible during your stay via the Department of Conservation. If not, they can recommend hiking options in the area.
Mount Cook National Park is another dream world in winter. Hooker Valley Track and Tasman Glacier are great day walk options even in wintertime. If you’re keen to get high, hike up to the Red Tarns or Sealy Tarns for an expansive view of the region.
For stargazing and hot springs hanging, head to Tekapo. For penguin encounters head to Dundein or Invercargill, plus enjoy the offerings from each of these unique cities.
Choose how you'll travel
If by tent…
Now choosing to camp with a tent is definitely doable, but there are a few extras you may want to pack to ensure keeping warm.
- A decent tent. It seems obvious, but avoid any cheap quality tent. If you need help by choosing one, check out this tent guide. I’d recommend a four-season option.
- A sleeping mat and warm sleeping bag is another must. Make sure to check the temperature rating on yours before packing. Use a sleeping mat to stay off the cold ground.
- Add a tarp or emergency blanket beneath your mat for an extra layer of protection from the cold.
- Boil water before bed to warm the tent and fill up a hot water bottle to keep you warm through the night.
- Layer up, wear a hat to bed and bring extra warm socks for bed.
Head here for more tips on winter tent camping.
If by campervan…
I recommend spending some time researching campervan companies. More luxurious brands provide gas powered heaters that hook up to the propane while others must be connected to a power source when parked for the night. For those that have neither, ask to hire a heater. On our last winter trip, we did this and it kept the van toasty throughout the night.
You can use your Campermate app to find and book powered campervan sites if you intend to use heat all night. Otherwise bring or simply ask for extra duvets (doonas for you Aussies) to layer up at night. With three of us in the van, we stayed warm without power on a snowy night near Arthur’s Pass, but we preferred to plug in at campsites for most of the trip.
Another easy tip is to pack a hot water bottle to fill before bed or cook dinner inside the van before heading off to bed and try to limit going in and out of the van.
If by hut…
If you’re looking to do extreme mountain hiking up to certain huts, please check with the Department of Conservation. Mueller Hut is a great option as long as there is no avalanche risk, but be warned there is no fireplace.
For those looking to stay warm at night, check out huts that do include firewood and a fireplace like Pouakai Hut in Egmont National Park. Make sure to bring the essentials for hut hiking, including a working camp stove, gas, lighter, and a warm enough sleeping bag. If you want to do a Great Walk, make sure to book your huts in as these do still fill up in wintertime.
If you don’t want below zero temperatures, head north on the North Island or head to Abel Tasman National Park, a few hours from Nelson, to teleport to what looks like tropical Thai islands, although it’s known to be more wet during these months. All huts do have heaters.
Winter packing guide
As Scandinavian countries say, “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.” Packing the right gear is essential for enjoyable winter trips. If you’re too cold or too wet, nobody is having fun. Here are a few necessary items to make sure you bring along.
- A warm beanie, waterproof gloves and thick wool socks to keep your extremities nice and toasty.
- Layers made for the outdoors such as merino wool thermals and dry-fit tops.
- Waterproofs. Just like any other season in New Zealand, storms are common. You’ll need waterproof pants and a waterproof jacket in case of rain or snow.
- Torch for early mornings and late nights. Mid-winter sunrise is around 8am, while sunset is as early as 5pm.
- Camp stove and gas to cook warm meals and heat up water.
If you don’t want to buy an expensive winter coat, try layering with a merino base, fleece pullover, puffer jacket and don’t forget a waterproof outer layer.
Items to hire to ensure safety
Due to icy roads and unpredictable snowfall, it’s important to keep a few items to keep you safe on your winter adventure.
- A PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) - a device to use in case of an emergency. Available to hire from outdoor shops or through the DOC. More info here.
- Snow chains - Many mountain roads require these especially after a big snowfall. Hire them with your car rental or if you are using your own vehicle, try calling up car rental offices to see if it’s possible to hire a set.
- Crampons - Hiking in snow is hard. Hiking on icy surfaces is even harder. Stores such as Bivouac hire out gear like this. Make sure you find a set compatible with your hiking boots and learn how to put them on properly before setting out.
- Ice axe - If you’re heading up any steep mountain hikes, an ice axe on top of crampons is necessary. I do encourage all to do attend a proper mountaineering course to learn how to use an ice axe before scaling any steep, dangerous cliffside.
- Hiking poles will also help keep you stable on the uneven snowy surfaces and icy stairs.
For those needing warmer gear, check out outdoor shops that hire out coats, sleeping bags, tents and more like Pack Gear Go.
And there you have it! Your guide to exploring New Zealand in wintertime. If you’re planning any winter trips, please share in the comment section and as always reach out with any questions.