Just what should you pack for travelling New Zealand? Whether you’re making a whistle stop tour of three weeks or travelling for a year or more, you’ll probably need clothing for four seasons. The weather can be highly changeable at any time of the year! And, regardless of whether you intend to backpack, buy a van or car, or camp in a tent, you will enjoy it far more if you are carrying less. Less weight and less space equal less hassle, less stress and more enjoyment.
Everyone is unique, and expectations and plans for each trip will vary so we’re going to make some assumptions about readers of this article. We’re going to assume you intend to travel the length and breadth of New Zealand camping in either a tent or buying a vehicle making the most of the incredible outdoors, the landscapes, the wildlife, hiking and swimming, whatever it may be.
If you’re looking to just visit the cities and stay in hotels this probably isn’t the packing list for you.
If you just want to see a quick list of what we recommend packing you can jump straight to the either Alex’s packing list (for guys) or Gem’s packing list (for girls). Otherwise, read on for a bit of context and our take on some of the highly debated questions you’ll see online such as:
New Zealand is an incredible country. From the sub-tropical climate of the far north, to alpine volcanoes, to the glaciers of the south. It’s so varied that knowing what to pack when travelling New Zealand can be really difficult.
And it isn’t just the huge variety of landscapes you’ll be encountering, it’s also the wildly mixed climates. We’ve all heard the sayings like “if you don’t like weather, wait five minutes” or “four seasons in a day”. Well, these all have some basis in truth. New Zealand stands pretty much on its own with very little between it and Antarctica to the south, the wild Tasman sea to the west, the vast Pacific Ocean to the east and warm tropical seas to the north. It can make for some pretty wild weather!
It may be windy and wet for much of the year in the southwest and blisteringly hot in the north throughout the summer and everywhere in between, at any time of the day, any time of the year, everywhere else.
In short New Zealand is like nowhere else on earth, its islands are relatively small and remote but with big geological features and big weather you’d expect to find on the larger continents.
You’ll have an amazing time, during any season with the right gear and clothing to stay comfortable and without too many huge bags and too much stuff to carry.
By having several small items that can work in combination with each other you’ll end up with a considerably smaller bag than having clothing dedicated to just one purpose.
For example, if you take a large waterproof and insulated winter coat, it can only be used for those occasions when it’s really cold. You’re not going to want to put that on during a warm sub-tropical summer downpour. But, you’ll have to carry that coat for your whole trip.
However, if you had a lightweight mid layer hoody, and small packable down jacket and lightweight waterproof shell you can mix and match to suit the conditions.
Summer downpour? Just pop the shell jacket over your t-shirt. Sunny but cool spring evening? Stick the hoody on. Freezing cold and blowing a gale with sideways rain on top of a volcano at 2000m? Well, you probably should have checked the weather forecast and not gone out. But, to illustrate the point, you could put on a mid-layer warm hoody, with a light and warm insulated jacket with a wind and waterproof shell over the top.
All those layers take up less space and weigh less than your standard winter coat while being far more versatile. And, the individual items will likely see use all year round.
Layers are the best way to adapt to changing conditions quickly. Simply pop another layer on or take one off as temperatures change.
There were many times we woke up in our van to completely different weather than was forecast. Because we had a bag of sensibly chosen layers made it really easy to just grab what we needed for the weather we saw outside.
The cost of some of the things we discuss like merino and down can seem high. It can be more expensive initially, but we’ve found that in the long run, investing in the better quality products has cost us less overall. We have rarely had to supplement our packs with extra items because we were cold, uncomfortable or wet. And we’ve haven’t had to replace any items that might have been unsuitable, too big or too heavy. Plus because Merino doesn’t stink after days of wearing it you can buy less clothing in the first place.
Comfort and confidence in your clothing and gear directly translate to more enjoyment in a wider range of conditions. This is especially important when camping and enjoying the outdoors throughout New Zealand.
There is also less chance of unexpected surprises and additional expenses during your travels so you can get on with the business of enjoying yourself. Honestly, it will pay you back time and again to invest in the right stuff once.
You don’t have to spend a fortune on big name brands but try to get good quality materials and products to save yourself finding out too late that something just isn’t suitable. We have a lot of Icebreaker stuff, but we’ve built that collection up over the years.
Most of us probably don’t have the budget to go out and buy everything all in one go. The best thing to do is prioritise. We think your top priority should be a good quality waterproof jacket. You get what you pay for and once you’re wet, you get cold. Next up should be a good insulating jacket, down or synthetic. Uniqlo do great value down jackets, and Craghoppers have some fantastic synthetic alternatives if our other recommendations are just out of reach.
We are often asked about what bag to take travelling. Our answer is almost always the same, whether for New Zealand or elsewhere. Our choice is a 40-50 litre travel backpack that opens flat so you can get to everything easily without unpacking the whole thing like a traditional top-loader. 40-50 litres seems to be the goldilocks size. One that’s just right. Big enough to get everything in but manageable in size and pleasant to travel with.
Our favourite bags for travel are the Osprey Farpoint (mens) or Fairview (women) series. We have travelled extensively for long periods with clothes for four seasons all comfortably packed in a Farpoint 40. They have been fantastic bags and have stood up to plenty of abuse. Osprey also stood by their rock-solid warranty and replaced one that had a small hole in the seam.
If you need a bigger size, the Farpoint 55 and Farpoint 70 provide larger volume with a removable day bag which can be handy. Going any bigger than this can make it more difficult to carry and pack away in a van or when travelling on a bus.
The main thing is getting the size right and the open flat feature. There are other bags of course, but those are the key attributes to look out for.
What about suitcases? Definitely no suitcases! We’ve seen some pretty sorry looking campers with suitcases. Camper vans and tents are quite small places with very small storage cupboards (if any), if there is to be any camping on your trip, suitcases should not even be considered.
Packing cubes make the process of packing and organising your bag far easier and are well worth the investment.
Should I bring walking boots or trainers for New Zealand? This is often one of the most hotly debated questions online. And there are staunch supporters in either camp. Where do we stand on this issue? Somewhere in the middle.
Usually the arguments for walking boots include increased ankle support, safety and comfort on particularly rough terrain. With the arguments against being the size and weight that you’ll be carrying around the rest of the time.
Its often argued that trainers generally provide more comfort and are lighter weight so can be used in a wider range of circumstances. The downside is they can be less comfortable on really rough trails and they lack ankle support and grip.
All of these points are all valid. However, it doesn’t have to be as black and white as trainers vs boots.
Our recommendation is to look at a hiking shoe or trail runner as a multipurpose outdoor shoe. These can often feature stiff outer soles and mid-sole taken right from a walking boot but without the bulk and weight. This won’t provide as much ankle support as a boot and they won’t stop you from rolling an ankle. But, the sole design of these shoes can provide far greater foot support and traction when compared with normal trainers. They are lighter and easier to pack than boots and are comfortable for a much wider range of uses. We prefer waterproof or gore-tex versions to allow use throughout the year.
Gem wore hers for 19 days straight, trekking to 5500m in the Himalayas. They are definitely an option even on the more demanding treks. More comfort can mean less fatigue which can be safer in some respects.
Lastly, don’t forget a good pair of flip flops for the beach days! Our absolute favourites are from Reef. They are solidly built (way better than the plastic junk fashion items that are so popular), they look great, they’re supportive and best of all, super comfortable! Gem also tucked in a small pair of flat pumps for comfort without looking out of place when on a night out. Girls you don’t need heels – they take up way too much room, and a pair of flat pumps look just as smart.
We have always found the best combination to be a lightweight insulating jacket along with a separate waterproof shell.
For the insulating jacket, down has the best warmth to weight ratio and packs the smallest. Down is however, more expensive and isn’t as good at insulating if it gets soaked. Make sure your shell is tucked into your day bag if the weather is cold and unpredictable. Both down and synthetic jackets will have a degree of water repellence but if it’s really chucking it down its best to add your waterproof layer.
A shell jacket can also make a great wind break. I really needed mine in a recent mid-summer Tongariro crossing, at 2000m, even in the sunshine, the wind chill can be surprising!
Lastly, a small packable hat and some thin insulating gloves can be useful in the shoulder months as well as the winter (and summer if the wind chill up high gets a bit extreme!)
A small wash bag with the basics is all you need. Gem also has a small selection of make-up and we share a very simple “first aid” kit. It’s more like a small pack of plasters and pain killers etc. This should be fine for the vast majority of things most visitors will do. You shouldn’t have any problem getting help if you need it.
However, If you’re undertaking any serious multiday treks to remote locations, you will need to consider a more appropriate first aid kit and emergency plan.
You also need a towel or two. We usually have two towels, one large travel microfibre travel towel for the beach and one smaller one for the shower. Pick ones that pack really small and dry quickly.
This is largely up to you, everyone likes to carry a laptop, camera and phone these days, we are no different and carry all of those things in our day bags when travelling but obviously don’t carry it all with us when out hiking.
If you are planning on camping and travelling for the duration of your trip, leave all the straighteners, curling tongs, irons and hairdryers at home. They will be utterly useless while backpacking and camping. Many of the publicly available showers have these facilities anyway (maybe not straighteners and curling tongs!). But if you’re reading this, I would guess they are not on your packing list anyway!
If you are planning on living somewhere for six months and working, well, that’s up to you, it’s a different case not covered by this article.
Our last tip is to get a small Australia/New Zealand adapter when you arrive. Most of the worldwide multi adapters we tried were all too heavy for the frustratingly pathetic pin arrangement to keep the adapters in the wall. Small basic ones specific for Australia/New Zealand worked a lot better in most cases.
One of the most important things to consider with a layering system is the materials your clothes are made from. For example, our favourite material is merino wool. Its also New Zealands favourite too! Merino keeps you warm when it’s cold and cool when its warm. It wicks moisture away from the skin and retains its insulating properties when wet, so you don’t freeze from the inside out if you get caught out in the rain. Merino also dries quickly and it’s naturally anti-microbial, so it doesn’t stink even after days of use. Lastly, its super light and packs really small without creasing too much. The downside? It’s expensive, at least for premium brands. But there are many great lower cost merino products as well as synthetic alternatives that are very good value and have many of the same features. The thing to avoid is cotton.
Sounds like technical hiking gear right? That’s where it all started, but if you think about those features, they work great for travelling too. Most brands now have clothing that looks great around town, so you don’t have to look like a hiker when you’re out for dinner with friends! You can still look good and feel great.
The art of packing light is to pick versatile items for your bag. This will be things that perform well for all the different weather and activities you might put them through. But they also have to look great and be comfortable when you’re out socialising.
One of my greatest finds for travel – submersible shorts. Basically, board shorts that look like regular shorts but double as swimmers. I have three pairs in my bag which means just three pairs of shorts in total. No need for extra swimwear. This keeps the pack size down and I always have at least one dry pair for the evening. Good submersible shorts that I’ve personally used and have stood up incredibly well to full time travel are those from both RipCurl and Quiksilver.
You’ll want enough underwear for a week, two or three pairs of shorts/swimmers, one pair of synthetic hiking/outdoor trousers, one pair of jeans. Jeans are not ideal, they don’t pack small, but we’re realistic that you’ll want a pair for the odd night out in town. You’ll also want one pair basic long johns and one long sleeve base layer, three or four t-shirts and a lightweight hoody or mid layer. Lastly a shirt or polo shirt for a night out is always a good idea.
Pack a capsule wardrobe, make sure all the tops you pack can be worn with all the bottoms. This means you have maximum versatility and a wider choice of outfits. For this reason dresses and playsuits etc aren’t the most travel friendly (although Gem does have one dress). Jeans are big and heavy and don’t dry quickly. Instead look for a pair of quick dry leggings that look like skinny jeans. These are more versatile and take you from the mountain to the bar.
The list isn’t too different for girls compared to guys. You’ll need enough underwear for a week, plus two/three bras (and don’t forget one should be a sports bra), two pairs of shorts, one skirt, one pair of synthetic hiking/outdoor trousers, one pair of leggings, one pair thermal leggings/long johns, one long sleeve base layer, two t-shirts, two/three tank tops, one top for a night out, one dress, a cardigan and a lightweight hoody or mid layer.
We hope this article was useful, if you have any questions at all please let us know, otherwise we wish you a wonderful and safe trip in New Zealand!
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