How to Live in Your Car in New Zealand

It seems like there are tons of articles out there about van dwelling or #vanlife, but what about living out of a car that's not outfitted with a bed? Emmett and I did exactly that in New Zealand for a little over a month - two and a half weeks at the end of summer, and two and a half weeks in early Winter. Our trusty station wagon, Poot Poot, not only got us around but also helped us save on accommodation by a lot. Because we decided to sleep in the back of the wagon last winter, we were able to afford unforgettable expensive excursions like heli-hiking on a glacier and cruising Doubtful Sound.

 A home and transportation all wrapped up in one inexpensive, well-loved hunk of metal.

A home and transportation all wrapped up in one inexpensive, well-loved hunk of metal.

1. Download These Two Apps

There are a couple of apps that are INCREDIBLY helpful if you're living out of your car and free camping in New Zealand. They will tell you not only where to park without getting fined but most importantly the nearest toilets and showers. Yes, exactly. Every car-dweller's biggest concern. And if it's not, it should be. Don't be one of those bozos who poops in a bag and leaves it in the parking lot where you illegally spent the night. Or even worse, loose on a hiking trail nearby.

A. Campermate

Campermate (click link to download) is a really helpful GPS-based app that details everything from toilets & showers to free Wi-Fi access to drinking water sources to camping spots to grocery stores. I liked to use it to find showers & toilets or Wi-Fi nearby but it was not the best source for free camping sites. That honor belongs to...

B. WikiCamps NZ

WikiCamps was without a doubt, hands down the best source for finding free campsites nearby.  It is also GPS-based and we used it a handful of times on both the North and South Islands to figure out where to spend the night without getting fined. Best of all, we usually were able to find free camp sites that also had toilets! Those are basically the holy grail of car camping in NZ. I cannot recommend this app more. One of it's best features is user-submitted reviews and photos. Sometimes a free camp site is taken away at a moment's notice, so it's good to check recent reviews to find out if you can still stay there overnight.

2. Prepare to Really "Rough It."

Here's a fun anecdotal example of what I mean by "roughing it." When Emmett and I first moved to Motueka, we lived in our car for two and a half weeks while job hunting. We spent our free time hanging out at the park near the Saltwater Baths. Not only was it a scenic seaside park but there were free toilet facilities, a big sink basin, and a free public shower. Yeah, that's right: just one free public shower. You know when you go to the beach and there's a shower to wash yourself off after swimming? That's the way it was at the Saltwater Baths. It was out in the open, literally in sight of the parking lot. You turned it on by putting your foot down on a pedal, so the COLD water wasn't even a continuous flow. (Although eventually, another like-minded cheapo like us found a big rock that you could roll onto the pedal when you needed to shower). So: to shower, I just stripped down to my underwear and showered in the sea breeze while locals walked their dogs past or other campers washed their dishes in the adjacent sink basin. It was pretty humbling to try and get fully clean out in public without exposing myself. Not only that, but I became a master at speed showering to avoid the slight embarrassment of it all.

 This view was just around the corner from the public shower.

This view was just around the corner from the public shower.

3. Stock Up on Supplies

These are some items that we had when living in our station wagon that made life WAY easier:

1. Sun visors.
These are great for three reasons: (1) keeping your car cool during the day, (2) privacy when you're in there sleeping, and (3) keeping the car insulated during chilly nights. Put one in the front window and one in the back.

2. Curtains
Like the sun visors, curtains are great for regulating temperature but most importantly to me, for privacy from people outside. Taking a nap on a side street in the middle of the day? Close those curtains and you don't have to worry about anyone seeing you drool! How to do curtains in a station wagon? We bought some old flannel fabric from a secondhand shop, cut holes in it along the top and strung it through camp cord which we attached from the visor in the front seat to the plastic seatbelt holder in the back... You might kind of see what I mean in a picture later in this post.

living in your car new zealand

3. Window squeegee
Something that I learned pretty quickly about car sleeping: all of your breath collects in the car and causes condensation on the windows. If you wake up and want to drive somewhere ASAP (aka a public toilet), you first have to squeegee all that condensation off of at least the front windshield. Make sure you have a towel or something else on hand because you're going to need to squeegee that water onto something other than your dashboard.

4. Food that's easy to keep un-refrigerated
If you don't have a portable gas stove (we did not), sandwiches will be your best friend. Eat up that peanut butter, or have some avocado, greens, & onion. You can have plenty of fruits and veggies while living in your car, just don't keep them too long. When we were really desperate to fill up quick for dinner, we had room temp instant mashed potatoes using water and potato "flakes." (I know, right? How gourmet can you get?) Carrots and hummus were our favorite go-to snack. Salsa and corn chips is great too. For breakfast, we bought individual boxes of shelf milk to go with our cereal. Another budget-friendly option for when you get tired of all that room-temp food: buy something from the prepared food warmer at Countdown or New World.

 Car living dinner in Picton, NZ: bread + oil, & salted avocado. Not exactly healthy but definitely tasty.

Car living dinner in Picton, NZ: bread + oil, & salted avocado. Not exactly healthy but definitely tasty.

5. A container for your mobile kitchen
You need to have containers for everything in your car or it WILL be like an explosion of junk every time you open it. A kitchen box is the number one thing to have. Reign in any camp mugs, plates, utensils, spices, and - of course - actual food. (If you didn't come to NZ with any camp meal kits/utensil sets: go to a secondhand shop and buy one mug, bowl, plate, fork, knife & spoon to keep). Something we didn't have but that you might want: a gas powered camp stove/cooker. Perfect for heating up a good old can of Wattie's spaghetti.

6. A sleeping bag (or two) - one to sleep on top of for padding, one to sleep in.
At a minimum, this is what you need to feel comfortable. We did it with only one sleeping bag for a while and the back pain was too real.

 Emmett looking startled in the back of the car first thing in the morning. Note our DIY curtains and the big purple sleeping bag.

Emmett looking startled in the back of the car first thing in the morning. Note our DIY curtains and the big purple sleeping bag.

7. Baby Wipes
Even with the help of Campermate, you never know when your next shower will be  -especially if you're in a new place every night. You'll probably want to invest in a big pack of baby wipes just in case you have to go a while without showering. Gotta get clean(ish) somehow.

8. A lantern. 
When it's dark but you don't want to sleep but you do want to stay away from sandflies - you retreat into your car with a book or a downloaded movie. For the book, or anything else you want to see, you are definitely going to need a lantern. Flashlights will do but it's definitely easier to set up a light that's hands-free. We have this awesome lantern from home but just a simple camp lantern should suffice. Don't kill your car battery by using the overhead light built into the back seat, c'mon!

 This little lantern made  all  the difference at night in the hatchback.

This little lantern made all the difference at night in the hatchback.

4. Be Ready to Move Your Stuff Around... All of the Time

Time to set up for the night? Ok, cool. Take your kitchen box and your backpacks and whatever else is rolling around back there... and put them in the front seat, artfully arranged to fit in without falling all over the place. 
Time to get going to a new place in the morning? Open up your doors, squeegee all condensation, and then move all your junk back into the trunk/backseat all over again. You'll get used to doing this all the time - rain or shine, broad daylight or at the mercy of a dim flashlight.

5. Get Creative with Your Laundry

If you're a budget backpacker, you're probably already familiar with the old "wash your clothes in the bathroom sink and hang them from your bunk" routine. However, you have to get creative when you live in a car. Yeah, you can probably find a sink at some public toilets. But when you're parking somewhere new every night, where are you going to hang stuff to dry? Well. If you find a sunny park you can be as super not-classy as we were and hang some of your clothes in the branches of a nearby tree for a few hours. Or if it's raining out, use some camp cord to hang it up in your car (or hang it from your curtain string which was camp cord for us). When it's winter, you can just shower as infrequently as possible and thus have less laundry by wearing the same outfit every day. Whatever works for you, nasty budget traveler. And I mean that with love because I myself am a nasty budget traveler from time to time.

 Gotta dry those undies somehow.

Gotta dry those undies somehow.

6. Know that Cold Nights are Inevitable

New Zealand weather is alllllll over the place. Super hot days with straight up chilly nights are not unheard of throughout the South Island. And when you're at higher altitudes? It's going to be cold at night without a doubt. The best way to keep yourself from being miserably cold while sleeping is to essentially build yourself a clothes/blanket/sleeping bag nest. Here's how:
+ I was not kidding about that sleeping bag. I recommend having both a sleeping bag and a liner. If you do sleep somewhere warm, the liner will be enough. If you sleep somewhere cold, the liner inside the sleeping bag will be perfect.
+ Stuff your jackets/sweaters/clothes/backpack down around the gaps in the back doors. Cold air will come in through the gaps. On some really windy nights last winter in NZ, we could feel that wind coming in.
+ Buy an old wool blanket from a thrift shop to sleep on. The trunk of a hatchback in particular is not well insulated or comfortable. Add a big thick wool blanket or two and sleep on top of it for a more comfortable night's rest.
+ Wear your thermals/long underwear to sleep in. If it's really really cold, wear a knit hat too.

 It was hella cold and windy at our free camp site outside of Cromwell, NZ. Note those snowy peaks in the background.

It was hella cold and windy at our free camp site outside of Cromwell, NZ. Note those snowy peaks in the background.

7. Make Sure You're Not Parking Somewhere Illegal

Use Wikicamps for more information, or ask any locals/campers nearby if the place is ok to sleep at overnight. Never ever tempt fate by parking somewhere that already has a "no overnight parking" sign nearby. That's really just asking to be fined $200. Make sure you check before you spend the night - sometimes these signs aren't always in a very visible place.

 Don't do it!!!

Don't do it!!!

8. But If You Are Going to Camp Illegally...

....Use discretion and be respectful. Again, don't poop on the loose or leave garbage everywhere. Pick up after yourself and keep a low profile. Park somewhere after dark and leave before sunrise, it's one of the only ways to avoid notice. Even then, it's not foolproof. Just remember that you can be fined $200 NZD for your illegal parking.


Alrighty then, I hope you leave this article feeling a little more prepared for all of the dirty down-lows on camping out of your car in New Zealand. Would you ever try it?

Also as always, feel free to leave any questions or comments you might have in the comments below. I'll do my best to get back to you ASAP.

 I hope that you enjoy car camping as much as we did!

I hope that you enjoy car camping as much as we did!