How to Backpack the Best Two Months in New Zealand

It's impossible to see the best of any country in just two months, but here's a breakdown of how we did it:

 

Car Camping

There are lots of ways to get around New Zealand, but we decided a rental car would be the best way for us to see some of the more remote attractions. Simply put: it's the easiest way to do it. We each had a 70L backpack to fill with out essentials. Check out their contents here!

Bringing trustworthy camping gear will take your trip to the next level. New Zealand is decked out with TONS of campgrounds in the most stunning landscapes you'll come across. It's well worth the extra few pounds to be able to pitch a tent at the base of Mount Cook.

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Best Things We Brought

Camping gear to sleep under the stars.

Small luggage locks to secure our belongings in hostel lockers - they provide the safes, but you'll have to rent a lock if you don't bring your own!

Tarp/sitting blanket for a quick picnic. Doubles as a groundcloth for your tent!

Rain jacket because rain.

Hiking boots so you can climb those peaks.

External battery pack for your electronics, especially while camping.

Solar lanterns for easy lighting anywhere!

Fixed wide angle lens for landscape photography - MJ's personal favorite.

Mini bluetooth speaker to broadcast your tunes in the hostel kitchens.

Navigation app (maps.me) to get around the country. You'll thank us later.

Camping app (CamperMate) to find the best campgrounds that fit your budget.

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Best Things to Do for Free

Hiking Nelson Lakes

Stargazing in the Makenzie Dark Sky Reserve

Swimming in the Blue Pools

Drive up to the Remarkables Ski Area

Coromandel's Hot Water Beach + Cathedral Cove

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Best Experiences to Splurge On

*Renting a car!!!!!!! (JUCY)

Marlborough Wine Tour

Banquet Tour at Hobbiton (for all those hungry hobbits out there)

Marine mammal tours in Kaikoura

Cruise in the Fiordland National Park

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Best Instagram-Worthy Spots

Ocean murals of Napier

East Coast Highway of the North Island

Castle Hill (a.k.a. Weathertop)

The Mermaid Pools in Matapouri

Wai-O-Tapu geothermal area

Key Summit Alpine Loops in the Fiordlands

#LoveTaupo

Paradise Road

Farmlands of Southern Waikato

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Best Cities to Hit

Queenstown

Wellington

Napier

Wanaka

Kaikoura

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Best Restaurants & Bars

Kaiaua Fisheries in Kaiaua

Emporium Bar & Eatery in Napier

Rata in Queenstown

Capital Nomads Bar in Wellington

Fitzpatrick’s Irish Pub in Wanaka

Lakefront pub place in Wanaka 

Cowboy’s in Queenstown

Surreal in Queenstown

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Best Hostels

Crash Palace in Rotorua

Bad Jelly Backpackers in Kaikoura

Tailor-Made Backpackers in Tekapo

BASE Hostels in Wanaka and Queenstown

On the Beach Backpackers in Hahei

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Things We Didn’t Get To, but Wish We Did

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Lake Wharakemoana

West Coast of the South Island

Abel Tasman Coastal Track

Routeburn Track (Key Summit Trail was a great substitute though!)

Another night in Wellington

Skydiving above the Remarkables

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Things to Remember in New Zealand

Drive on the left side of the road!!!!!

It’s not customary to tip, but 10% is appreciated for exceptional service.

Leave No Trace. Our wild lands are worth protecting.

You probably won't see a kiwi, but give it a shot!

Always ask DOC officers for recommendations, but take it with a grain of salt. KNOW YOUR OWN CAPABILITIES!!!!!!
Book huts and campsites way in advance during peak season - everyone else knows how beautiful it is too!!!!

Be prepared for weather that’s worse than you anticipate. Always.

 

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Key Summit Trail

Quality hiking in the Fiordlands.

 

Fiordland National Park is arguably one of the most untouched, wild places left on this earth. With more land than both Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks combined, the Fiordlands encompass rugged mountains, winding fiords, and mystical forests all across the southernmost lands of the South Island. The best way to see these magical landscapes is with a tour company on a cruise through one of the fiords. You can choose from Milford, Doubtful, or Dusky Sound. I previously took a trip to Milford Sound a few years ago, so this time we opted for Doubtful. Either way, any of the fiords is a life-changing experience.

A cruise only peaked our curiosity, so we chose to head back into the park for one more adventure - but this time, it would be on land. There are so many options for hiking in the Fiordlands, from multi-day Great Walks (Kepler, Routeburn, and Milford tracks), boardwalk picnic loops, or half/full day peak baggers. On our way in, we stopped at one of the boardwalk tracks called Mirror Lake. It’s right off SH 94 and it only takes about 10 minutes, but the scenery is spectacular. 

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We continued into the park to find our main adventure for the day. While we wanted to do one of the Great Walks while we’re in New Zealand, the technical details didn’t quite fit into our itinerary. Lucky for us, there’s an award-winning day hike on the first part of the Routeburn Track called the Key Summit Trail. The entire trail, to the top and back, only takes about three hours. Most people agree that if you only have a limited amount of time, this day hike is the only way to see the best of the Fiordlands. We even got lucky and saw the endemic alpine parrot in the parking lot, the mischievous Kea.

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The hike starts by climbing through the mossy forest and past a few trickling waterfalls. If you’re quiet, you can hear tons of birds on your way up.

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So I don’t know if this trail actually won an award, (in fact I’m almost certain that I made that up), but the views from the alpine zone at the top are out of this world. Everywhere you look, mosses and lichen are exploding with color. Mountaintop lakes are shimmering with reflections of the surrounding peaks. You walk on wooded boardwalks as if you’re gliding among giants.

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The Key Summit Trail is so strikingly beautiful that it feels like you’re cheating by only putting in a few hours of hiking. An absolute must-do for the Fiordlands.

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Mount Cook

and the winds of Aoraki.

 

Aotearoa, or New Zealand as many people know it, was created by a fisherman named Māui (yes, sort of like The Rock in Moana). The North Island was pulled out of the sea by Maui’s hook when he was out on a fishing trip with a few of his brothers. Unfortunately, they were caught in a relentless storm that flipped their waka, or war canoe. Luckily, Maui and his brothers climbed atop the overturned boat for safety. Unluckily, the chilly winds of the Pacific froze them to ice, eternalizing the brothers and their canoe into the mountains of the South Island. This is how the land of the long white cloud came to be.

Aoraki, the oldest and biggest brother, is what we know to be the tallest mountain of New Zealand: Mount Cook. The Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park lays just 2 hours north of Wanaka, and is easily accessible via one of the most beautiful roads in New Zealand. It may seem like I say this about every road in the country, but seriously this road is beautiful.

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We decided to backtrack to Mount Cook after having been rained out in Tekapo a few days before. Both destinations are located within the Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve, an area nominated to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its exceptional views of the night sky. But being that our night in Tekapo was unexpectedly cloudy, we saw it fit to come back to the region for a proper night under the stars.

As per usual, we headed straight for the DOC Visitor Centre to plan our short itinerary for 24 hours in the park. The DOC officer let us in on a little secret, “the best spots are past the third block of toilets,” he said. “Go as far as you can, and then all the way out into the field,” he said.

We plopped our party on the farthest patch of grass we could find, with a view of the mountain completely unobstructed by any of the nearby hills or vegetation. The perfect spot. 

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After relaxing in the sunshine for a bit, we headed down the Hooker Valley track, which begins right at the White Horse Hill Campground, only a few hundred feet from where we parked. Only 5 minutes after the trailhead, there’s a beautiful memorial for all the alpine explorers who lost their lives among the peaks of the park.

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The track is an easy, meandering walk through the Hooker Valley, crossing swing bridges over lively rivers, winding through lush grassland flora, and ending at the Tasman glacier. Most of the trail is either gravel or boardwalk, making it extremely accessible to most visitors, so expect crowds.

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At the end, after about one and a half to maybe two hours, you finally reach the Tasman glacier. Sadly, the glacier was just a couple of icy islands amidst a cloudy blue lake. Still, the scene is pretty legendary. 

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We made it back to our campsite just in time for sunset. We ate our dinner listening to the rumbling of avalanches as the snow-melting sun beat down on the far side of the mountain. We even decided to leave the rain fly off our tent for the night so we could watch the mountain beneath the stars.

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We spent some time satisfying our stargazing needs, but quickly snuggled into our sleeping bags to escape the cold. I tried to sleep, laying facedown with my eyes closed for maybe two hours. Come midnight, I decided to drag myself out of the tent and put the fly back on for a bit of extra warmth, as the wind was starting to pick up. Soon enough, the wind was shaking the sides of the tent so hard that it was impossible to sleep - if not for the loudness of it, the sides and ceiling of the tent were literally slapping us in the face. Neither of us slept, for our concern of our tent ripping open kept us awake all night. While we picked a good spot for views, we realized a little too late that we picked a place smack in the middle of a wind tunnel beneath the biggest mountain in New Zealand. Nice job Einsteins. Needless to say, we accepted complete and utter defeat once the rain came for the last few hours before sunrise. That morning was pretty wet and pretty miserable. 

Worth it though.

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Exploring Wanaka

Wanaka is that not-so-hidden “hidden gem” of the South Island. Similar to Queenstown, it’s full of fun-loving young folks hanging out by a beautiful lake. Unlike Queenstown though, it’s not nearly as big, which means it’s not nearly as crowded. Plus, there are plenty of opportunities to go adventuring around Wanaka.

We chose to start with an excursion to the Blue Pools. The rivers are fed by glacial melt, giving them that crisp, icy tint. After spending some time tip-toeing at the edges, we finally bit the bullet and took the plunge.

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Arguably though, the drive to and from the Haas Pass area was more breath-taking than dipping into the freezing cold water. The town of Wanaka is on the southern edge of (you guess it…) Lake Wanaka. Just to the east lays Lake Hawea, and at one very special place on SH 6, the isthmus between the lakes narrows to a point called (you guessed it again…) Isthmus Peak. 

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After 8 km of steep uphill switchbacks across grassy pastureland and around rocky outcrops, you reach the most stunning panorama possible at 1,385 meters high. Every direction lays glistening lake water rimmed by robust, white-frosted giants.

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Even the walk back down will get you giddy with awe. It’s like you’re tightrope walking a very wide (safe) line between sacred pools - almost like you’re not even supposed to be able to float that high above them. 

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The entire hike takes more or less a full day, summit snack included.

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It’s tiring, mostly from the steep decline going back down. Talk about a quad workout. Obviously we spent rest day lounging by the waterfront. It was absolutely lovely. The birds flutter in and out of the trees, and the entire park feels like it’s buzzing with energy. Everyone was out in the sunshine, playing at the waters edge. It’s not the warmest water, but there are docks that some bold souls were jumping off in the middle of the day. Otherwise, for those adverse to cold water, you can opt to stand up paddle board or pedal boat if you still want to get out there! 

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We didn't do nearly as much as Wanaka had to offer - but overall, we had a fantastic time! 

Kaikoura

Where the mountains meet the sea.

 

Kaikoura is a small coastal town just two hours north of Christchurch on New Zealand’s South Island. Just about any photo can attest to the remarkable beauty of its mountains pressed up against the sea.

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Unfortunately, Kaikoura recently suffered a detrimental 7.8 magnitude earthquake in November of 2016, whose destruction has limited driving access to just SH 76. However, Kaikoura’s beauty and magnificence remains true, and is still worthy of discovery on any trip to the South Island. 

What makes Kaikoura so special not only lies in the lofty peaks on the mountain horizon, but also beneath the surface of the sea. The Hikurangi Trench lays beside the Kaikoura Peninsula, creating unique oceanic conditions immediately offshore. Warm water upwellings in the trench creates the perfect conditions for plentiful amounts of planktons year round, which in turn creates a bountiful home for large marine mammals such as whales and dolphins. Peep the seals in the photo below (little brown blobs on the rocks near the left side and middle of the bottom of the frame)!

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Kaikoura has a ton of not-to-be-missed opportunities to get up close to these amazing creatures. From swimming with wild dolphins, to whale-watching cruises - even to aerial observation from planes or helicopters - there are tons of ways to explore the trench ecosystem. We opted for the third choice.

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The i-Site in town can give you loads of information on all your options, and maybe even hook you up with a deal or two. We booked with Wings Over Whales, which operates out of a small airfield just 10 minutes south of the main town center. They take you up in a 10-person propeller plane and fly over the open water for 30-50 minutes, spotting out whales or dolphins as you go. I was lucky enough to sit co-pilot, as long as I promised not to put any pressure on the pedals at my feet.

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Unfortunately, as is the case with any ecotourism excursion, there are no promises. We can’t control nature. Some days are better than others, and for us, it seemed that we flew at the wrong time. No whales were seen, but the flight was still spectacular. The mountains stood up to our teeny plane, unmoving as the sun slowly set behind their peaks. The views were worth the trip alone.

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There are plenty of other wonders in and around Kaikoura: hiking, swimming, or maybe sleuthing out the secret fur seal colony. Even just a few days in Kaikoura would be a dream.

North Island, New Zealand Road Trip

Highlighting alternative routes for the ultimate vehicle-based experience.

 

Why Road Trip?

It’s just fun. Plus, New Zealand’s tourism industry is modeled around the assumption that most tourists are getting around via car rental. Most attractions are pretty far apart, and buses don’t run very frequently. The country is too small (only 5 million people!) to invest in an extensive and inexpensive transportation system to connect two islands with insanely varying terrain. As such, car rentals are the most reasonable and reliable method of transport. 

New Zealand is world renowned for its breath-taking landscapes and plentiful outdoor recreation opportunities. So we brought camping gear, and bookmarked tons of secret spots for camping. (They’re not actually very secret. There’s a great app called CamperMate that shows you all the local camping options on a map.) Having a car just makes it easier for us to explore some of the more remote treasures. Plus, camping helps us save money on accommodation. which in turn helps fund the cost of the car! Full circle!

The Department of Conservation, mainly referred to as DOC (as in, waddup doc!), is absolutely phenomenal here in New Zealand. Most areas have an i-Site and/or DOC visitor centre dedicated to helping tourists plan their visit around the local area. So many pamphlets. So many maps. So much support. 

 

Renting a Car

There are plenty of options to choose from when it comes to rental cars and campervans. JUCY is the most popular - and iconic - choice here in New Zealand. They make a whole line of vehicle options, including the infamous purple and green campercan. A lot of people opt for campervans because they’re well equipped and easy to maintain here in NZ, but being that we already have an outstanding backpacking tent and two mediocre sleeping bags, we chose to downsize to the “el cheapo” option. For 40 days, this little cherry hyundai would be home.

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Unfortunately, you can’t get around the fact that you constantly need to buy gas. It takes 91 unleaded, which isn’t cheap compared to prices in the States, but luckily el cheapo’s are relatively fuel efficient. Much more efficient than a campervan would be.

Also it’s weird, but you pay for gas after you pump it. We learned that the awkward way our first time at the pump. Apparently they “trust people” here. Also it’s called petrol, not gas.

 

Driving on the Other Side of the Road

It’s not actually that weird. It really only takes a day or two to get used to. As always, never drive distracted, and it’s totally fine. At first, turning is the trickiest part. Roundabouts, too. While they’re super efficient for traffic control and emission reduction, they’re definitely less straightforward than a 4-way intersection.

Only complaint: windshield wipers. Every time we go for the blinkers, our wipers start wiping. RIGHT HAND for indicating, not the left. 

 

Our Route

Most people go the most direct route from Auckland to Wellington, stopping in Waitomo, Hamilton, Matamata, Rotorua, Taupo, Tongariro, and finally Wellington. That’s pretty much the most basic way to go through the North Island, hitting some of its top attractions.

However, we took a very different route, expanding out to other regions of the North Island and cruising roads less travelled. We started in Auckland, and immediately shot north to the Bay of Islands, where we stayed at a friend’s place in Russell. Then we revisited Auckland briefly before heading down to EcoQuest on the Firth of Thames, and around to the Coromandel Peninsula where we stopped along Hahei Beach and the town of Coromandel. Afterwards, we wandered around Waikato, Matamata, Tauranga/Maunganui, and Rotorua. After that, our plans got a little jumbled, but we headed down past Wai-o-tapu to Taupo, and then back up to Ohope to take the East Coast Road to Gisborne and Napier. Finally, we took route 2 through the mountains to the North Island’s southernmost city, Wellington.

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If you’re wondering why we doubled back from Taupo, read this post.

 

Road to Russell

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Dome Forest trail, off SH1 leaving Auckland

Dome Forest trail, off SH1 leaving Auckland

Rockman trail, off SH 1 leaving Auckland

Rockman trail, off SH 1 leaving Auckland

Kauri Grove Trail, Russell Whakapara Road

Kauri Grove Trail, Russell Whakapara Road

 

Coromandel Peninsula - the 309 Road and the Pacific Coast Highway

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Waiau Falls, the 309 Road

Waiau Falls, the 309 Road

Stuart and the Pigs, the 309 Road

Stuart and the Pigs, the 309 Road

Pacific Coast Highway

Pacific Coast Highway

Pacific Coast Highway

Pacific Coast Highway

Pohutukawa trees along the Pacific Coast Highway

Pohutukawa trees along the Pacific Coast Highway

 

Southern Waikato

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Limestone rocks poking out of farm hillsides in Southern Waikato

Limestone rocks poking out of farm hillsides in Southern Waikato

Surprise rainbow over the farms along the Waikato River

Surprise rainbow over the farms along the Waikato River

Rainbow over the limestone rocks

Rainbow over the limestone rocks

 

East Coast Road (Tauranga-Gisborne-Napier)

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The East Coast Road climbs and falls through the mountains right up against the ocean

The East Coast Road climbs and falls through the mountains right up against the ocean

Blue and purple rivers wander out to the ocean under the overpasses of the highway

Blue and purple rivers wander out to the ocean under the overpasses of the highway

The East Coast is known for the "old time" feel, where townspeople still ride horses from place to place

The East Coast is known for the "old time" feel, where townspeople still ride horses from place to place

Churches dot the coastline

Churches dot the coastline

 

And of course, no matter where you go:

Sheep

Sheep