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6 Things To Do On Your Trip To New Zealand

A Gearhead® Guide To The South Island

Published April 11th, 2024

Traveling to New Zealand is a common bucket list item, and it’s an ideal vacation spot for good reason. Known for its breathtaking vistas, warm and welcoming people, and manifold, pristine wildlands, New Zealand—named Aotearoa by the islands’ indigenous Māori people—is an obvious destination for anyone looking for some awe-inspiring time off. (After all, it’s the scenic backdrop for an iconic trilogy of fantasy films.)


Turns out, the land of sheep outnumbering people is super action packed, too. For those who seek it, New Zealand offers top-notch opportunities for adventure and adrenaline—in fact, it’s the birthplace of the commercial bungee jump. Between its two main islands and around 700 smaller isles, this relatively tiny Oceanic nation hosts a seemingly unfathomable range of stunning terrain. Glaciers, peaks, and fjords; subtropical forests, volcanic tablelands, and sandy beaches. And it’s all within a similar square mileage (or kilometrage, as the metric-using Kiwis would say) as the state of Colorado.


For this article, we sent a pair of Gearheads into the wild—with one pack per person and more than enough stoke for every sheep on both islands—to explore New Zealand’s South Island (Te Waipounamu in Māori). From sea to summit, and all the locales in between, they squeezed as much adventure as they could into not-long-enough two-week road trip. Read on for a taste of Gearhead-approved pit stops (plus travel tips for seamless trips) for you adventure holiday in Kiwi country.

Watch Gearhead® Experts Jill & JM Test Fjällräven Gear In New Zealand

What To Do In New Zealand

  • Go Tramping
  • Take A Hike
  • Sleep Under The Stars
  • Hit The Beach
  • Angle For Trout
  • Eat A Meat Pie

Tramp In A National Park

After touching down in Queenstown, our Gearheads packed their bags for a many-mile hike in Mount Aspiring National Park’s Southern Alps. They embarked on the steep and spectacular Rees-Dart track.


Tramping is the Kiwi term for backpacking, and it’s a bit of a New Zealand pastime. If you’re walking long distances and need to spend the night in the wilderness, that’s tramping. A network of trails (or tracks, as they’re called locally), covers both the North and South islands.

Wondering when’s the best time to go backpacking down under? The typical hiking season in New Zealand is during their summer, December through May. Even during the summer, cold weather and snowfall can arrive in the blink of an eye at higher elevations, so we recommend packing gear for all weather scenarios.

What Are Hiker Huts?

Unlike many thru-hikes in the United States, New Zealand’s trail network is home to backcountry huts. Nearly 1,000 of these small, overnight accommodations pepper the country’s trails. Most huts include a common area, bunk space, and pit toilet. Some also have running water and flushing toilets. Compared to digging a hole and sleeping on the cold hard ground, these simple sanctuaries are the pinnacle of backcountry luxury! Some huts operate on a first-come, first-served basis, while others require booking in advance.

Because many tramping routes hop from one hut to the next, you may not need to pack a tent at all. That means less time finding a suitable campsite and more time enjoying evenings with your hiking party.

New Zealand Backpacking Trails

Many of New Zealand’s scenic walkways are on public lands maintained by the Department of Conservation (DOC) or other local authorities. These are typically free for day use, though they may require a fee for overnight stays. Tracks on private lands generally require a fee. Many popular hiking trails are located within New Zealand’s many national parks.

New Zealand’s premier trails for backpacking are the Great Walks, ten multi-day routes ranging from 20–51 miles in length. These tracks are well-maintained and easy to follow. The most popular Great Walk is the Abel Tasman Coast Track, which grants hikers mild weather and plenty of opportunities to sink their toes into the golden sand of the South Island’s northern shores. Due to their popularity, advance bookings are required for huts and campsites along all the Great Walks. The DOC generally opens bookings in mid-June for the following year.

The Great Walks aren’t the only tramping tracks New Zealand has to offer. New Zealand’s national parks are home to many less-traveled walks, which are perfect for impromptu travelers or last-minute planners. The South Island’s Mount Aspiring, Aoraki/Mount Cook, and Fiordland national parks are well-known for their excellent tracks and stunning views.

New Zealand is also home to its own thru-hiking test piece, Te Araroa. The Long Pathway, as it’s known in English, stretches from the North Island’s tippy top, Cape Reinga, to Bluff, the track's southern terminus on the South Island. A growing number of international visitors and Kiwis alike attempt the 1,864 mile track each year. In addition to excellent fitness and mental fortitude, attempting Te Araroa requires 3–6 months walking as well as both a ferry ride and quick river kayak.

Take A Hike

You don’t have to get far from the trailhead to discover New Zealand’s most spectacular scenery. Plenty of rugged peaks, fascinating volcanic features, hot springs, glaciers, and fjords can all be reached via 4–8 hour dayhikes. The Hooker Valley Track in Mount Cook National Park is a popular dayhike, especially for those wanting a gentler adventure. Well-maintained trails and little vertical gain paired with glacier views make this an excellent option. For those seeking a steeper hike, Roys Peak can be summited in a matter of hours. While only around 5 miles out and back, 3,600 feet of vertical gain will make your post-hike meat pie well-earned. Among the most photogenic day walks in the South Island is a quick jaunt to the West Coast’s glacier-fed Blue Pools.

Go Camping

While a hiker hut makes perfect sense when you’re tramping kilometers into the backcountry, sleeping in a tent is still an option closer to the road, too. The DOC maintains hundreds of campgrounds in some of the landscape’s most tranquil, secluded spots that you can still reach by car. These sites typically don’t have on-site managers or facilities, but they do have reasonable fees—some are even free!


Need a new tent for your trip? We break down how to choose a lightweight, packable tent here.

What Is Freedom Camping?

Freedom camping is the Kiwi term for sleeping in a tent or motorized vehicle on public lands. It’s just like boondocking or BLM camping in the United States (with some small exceptions). The over 500 areas where one can freedom camp in New Zealand do not have toilets, showers, or other facilities, so some extra preparation is important for this kind of holiday. Failing to follow freedom camping rules can result in a financial penalty. Here are the basics to ensure your responsible camping doesn’t leave you responsible for a hefty fine.

  • Pack it out: collect all your trash to dispose of properly. Leave no trace principals help keep New Zealand’s pristine lands beautiful for both locals and future visitors.
  • Always use a public toilet: unlike BLM camping, digging a hole to use the restroom is not permitted. If your vehicle doesn’t have a restroom, apps like Camper Mate can help you find facilities.
  • Observe signs: freedom camping is not permitted on DOC-managed scenic and recreation reserves and other areas where this privilege has been revoked. If you see a sign with an exed-out tent or camper van, look for somewhere else to camp.

Catch Some Waves

With over 9,000 miles of coastline (Hawaii boasts a mere 750 in comparison), New Zealand is a surfer’s paradise. Wherever you roam while traveling here, you’re never far from a surf break. Long sandy beaches, hidden coves, excellent reef breaks, and sandbars give New Zealand its reputation as a world-class surf destination.


At a glance, New Zealand’s surf scene is made all the better by its remote, uncrowded spots, consistent waves, and proximity to other adventures (sea to ski, anybody?). Plus, it’s home to Raglan, one of the best left-hand point breaks in the world—goofy footers, celebrate!

When To Go

You can surf in New Zealand year-round. However, this island nation is known for its unpredictable weather, especially in winter, making the warmer summer months some of the best times to paddle out.


If you’re heading to the South Island, you’ll want a wetsuit regardless of when you visit (you can read up on how to pick a wetsuit here). Even in the middle of summer, water temps around the South Island remain chilly, maxing out below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Weather conditions in the winter are more variable and unforgiving, but some breaks, such as Kaikoura, are at their best when the weather’s at its worst.

Where To Surf On The South Island

Colder temps and more precipitous forecasts around the South Island have the silver lining of deterring would-be crowds from the lineup. If you enjoy remote locales and prefer not to compete for breaks—and don’t mind chillier temps, of course—add a road trip to the South Island’s best breaks to your bucket list. If you drive in either direction from Christchurch (which has plenty of its own great spots) along the island’s east coast, you’re sure to find a treat. Kaikoura to the north offers up big, powerful, hollow waves, with some getting up to 20 feet. To the south, Dunedin offers many excellent surf spots, but some can get busy due to their proximity to the town proper. Further along the coast, PK Bay was one of our personal favorites. The combo of punchy, wally waves for days on the water and a campground for overnight stays makes it worth some extra time traveling.

Angle For Trout

With stunning scenery, hundreds of rivers and streams to choose from, and massive trout for the catching, both islands offer excellent fly fishing year-round. From big cascading rivers to small, fresh-from-the-earth streams, the varied waterways of the South Island offer diverse fishing experiences within a relatively small area. Plus, regular rainfall and a just-right-for-trout climate keep fisheries well stocked year-round.

Where To Fly Fish

The town of Gore, located along the Mataura River, claims to be the world capital of brown trout fishing. In our experience, we can’t argue with them. Flowing from the mountains south of Queenstown, the Mataura is Southland’s second-largest river. And while it doesn’t have the most fishable waters by volume, its perfect habitat for mayflies makes it a true angler’s dream. Brown trout freely rise in all reaches of the Mataura. The upper reaches with their crystal waters and willow-lined pools are most favored by dry fly fishers and nymphers, but the middle and lower reaches see plenty of traffic, too.


Another excellent fishing spot is the Taieri River. Located in the island‘s southeastern Otago region, the Taieri is the fourth largest river on the island and is known for its serpentine shape, many oxbow lakes, and its plentiful fly and spin fishing opportunities. Some sections feature scenic gorges and challenging access for those who want some extra adventure, while roadside spots like the campable Outram Glen are perfect for the road trip pit stopper.

These are just two spots to match the hatch. There are plenty more Edens for anglers around New Zealand to get out on the water and cast their days away.

Related Content: Fly Fishing In The Bolivian Amazon

Munch On A Meat Pie

A New Zealand trip guide wouldn’t be complete without mentioning what to eat. The country’s cuisine is a blend of European (namely British) imports and traditional Māori foods. During your visit, a savory meat pie is a must-try (if you’re a meat eater, that is). If you’re feeling peckish, you’re sure to find the signature mince and cheese pie in a pub, corner store, or even a gas station mini-mart. Other classics like fish and chips and lamb can be found throughout the islands. If you get a chance to try hāngī pie, don't pass it up. Hāngī is a cooking style developed by the Māori people where fish, meat, and vegetables are cooked in an underground steam oven. The unique combos of flavors in hāngī pie are a true Kiwi classic.

Final Thoughts

If you’re planning a trip to New Zealand, lucky you! This adventurer’s paradise is unlike anywhere else on earth. Before you set off, here are a few final things to remember:

  • Traveling to New Zealand from the U.S. is a lengthy endeavor—give yourself 2 weeks minimum, not including travel time, to explore everything this amazing island nation has to offer.
  • Don't forget your driver’s license! Current licenses from English speaking countries and international driver’s license are both valid.
  • Great walks require advance reservations, so be sure to book campsites and huts well in advance.
  • It’s easy to forget small items when you have a lot to pack. You can always buy a replacement when you arrive, but a packing list helps you save time and money.
  • Surfing can be chilly, so pack a wet suit if you want to catch some waves.
  • Have fun!

FAQ About Traveling To New Zealand

Q: What does a U.S. citizen need to travel to New Zealand?

A: U.S. citizens must have a valid passport or equivalent travel document as well as a tourist visa.


Q: Can tourists go to New Zealand now?

A: As of May 2022, New Zealand welcomes fully vaccinated tourists. There are no quarantine or self-isolation requirements.


Q: Can I bring hiking and camping gear to New Zealand?

A: New Zealand has strict biosecurity rules, so you’ll need to declare any items that may have come into contact with dirt, such as hiking shoes and tents. Be sure to clean these items as best as you can. A customs agent will inspect and possibly clean your gear before you clear customs.


Q: Do I need to use cash in New Zealand?

A: Cash is always handy when traveling if you encounter venues that don’t accept your credit or debit card. Most U.S. credit cards are widely accepted across New Zealand, with Visa and MasterCard being better bets than American Express.


Q: What should I pack for New Zealand weather?

A: New Zealand has a temperate climate and moderate precipitation levels. Average temperatures decrease the further south you travel. The warmest months are January and February, while July is the coldest. Regardless of the time of year when you’re visiting, it’s advisable to pack rain protection, as well as some warmer layers.


Q: Can I rent fishing, hiking, camping, or surfing equipment in New Zealand?

A: Yes! Rentals for all kinds of activities can be found across the country. If you’re visiting for an extended time, you can bring your own gear—as long as it’s free from dirt or other biological materials from your home country. For shorter stays, rentals can help you save money on checked baggage or shipping gear in advance.

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