I wake to the sound of birds chirping and waves gently lapping at the nearby shoreline. I’ve had the most amazing sleep, and I’m so cosy and warm that I don’t want to get out of bed – but then I sit up and crack open the door to the most incredible ocean view I’ve ever woken up to.
This is my idea of a holiday.
I’m guessing van-cation isn’t the word you would have attached to this kind of travel, so I’ll say it… van life. There’s a reason – actually, quite a few reasons – that #vanlife became a viral sensation. Living in a van, whether it’s long-term or just for a week, can be one of the most freeing ways to travel (or to live, but we’ll focus on travel here). In my 42 years of exploring Australia and the world, I’ve had some incredible experiences, but having a van has made me realise that van adventures are the best adventures.
When you read about ‘van life’, you’re probably picturing some kind of converted cargo van (yes, like the ones you see on Instagram). To clarify, I’m referring to campervans, RVs and motorhomes of all shapes and sizes.
Why you should live the (short-term) van life in Australia and New Zealand
If you’re visiting Australia or New Zealand, especially if you’re an outdoorsy type, you need to do it in a van.
Not only is it a more cost-effective way to see two countries that are otherwise relatively expensive to travel in, but it’s also the easiest way to spend time near the kind of places you’ll want to be. Why hire a car to drive from your hotel to the closest mountains every day when you can just stay in the mountains?
There’s no need to worry about check-in and check-out times or rely on public transport, and you don’t have to even have a solid plan for where you’ll stay each night of your trip. Free as a bird, you can decide where to go in the moment and stay an extra night somewhere if there are just too many hiking trails to choose from.
Both Australia and New Zealand are reasonably safe and have RV-friendly laws and free or low-cost RV-accessible campgrounds, making them more suited than most other countries to a van-venture.
You’ll no doubt be aware that Australia is quite spread out, and many of its most beautiful natural places are remote. The right campervan will make all these places accessible – no organised group tour required.
How to choose a temporary home on wheels
Whether you’ll be living the van life for a few months or a week, choosing the right van could make or break your trip.
Do you only need a van that’s kitted out for two? Or are you travelling as a family? Will you hire a van? Or are you travelling for long enough to warrant buying one? There are a lot of factors to consider.
Considering your minimum requirements for comfort and space is always an excellent place to start. You want enough room to be comfortable, especially for longer trips. Extended periods of bad weather will always be a pain when you want to get out and see things. Having enough room to properly stretch out and not feel too cramped can make all the difference.
There’s a lot of variation in van kitchen and bathroom setups, ranging from ‘none at all’ to ‘completely self-sufficient’ and everything in between. Would you be happy with an outdoor camp kitchen that packs down and stores in the van? Or will you need a sink and benchtop?
Your van’s bathroom – or lack thereof – can also make a big difference to your travel possibilities. Some vans are equipped with a small shower and composting toilet, while others have no bathroom facilities. Many van lifers are happy to make do, but if you’re travelling remotely without access to campground bathrooms, you might find yourself wishing desperately for a hot shower.
There’s one even more crucial decision to make when planning a van adventure through Australia or New Zealand: to hire or buy a van.
Hiring a van is a hassle-free doorway to the van life, especially for those on a shorter escapade. It’s a chance to test the waters without a hefty financial commitment. The hiring cost covers maintenance, insurance, and sometimes even road assistance, and you avoid the hassle of dealing with paperwork and compliance regulations.
If you’re only visiting Australia or New Zealand for a few weeks, hiring is going to be the most cost- and time-efficient option. Take a look at peer-to-peer hire platforms like Camplify (Australia or New Zealand) or VroomVroomVroom, which aggregates motorhomes for hire from various platforms (Australia and New Zealand).
For those with a bit more time to spend exploring every nook and cranny of Australia or New Zealand, it’s worth weighing up the costs. Obviously, the more time you plan to spend exploring, the more worthwhile buying a campervan might be.
Buying a van is an investment in your adventures. Your van will be your companion on the road, moulding itself to the whims of your journey. You’ll be able to customise your mobile abode to your liking, whether that’s installing solar panels or a luxurious mattress. However, ownership comes with responsibilities like following vehicular regulations, regular maintenance, and insurance. On the upside, the resale value of vans is decent (at the time of writing, it’s ridiculously high), and there’s a thriving market when the time comes to pass on the baton of van life.
For those looking to invest in their journey, there’s a huge market for second-hand and new vans and motorhomes for sale in both New Zealand and Australia, offering options that range from budget-friendly to luxurious. The decision boils down to the duration of your adventure, your budget, and your willingness to manage the van’s upkeep. Both hiring and buying open up a whole new range of fun and flexible ways to explore the mesmerising landscapes of Australia and New Zealand.
Driving and camping: Aussie and NZ rules and regulations
Like any holiday, a successful van adventure requires at least a little bit of preparation and planning.
Obviously, you’re going to need a driving license. Fortunately, you can use your overseas license to hire and drive a motorhome in both Australia and New Zealand, provided it is a valid and unrestricted license that hasn’t been cancelled or revoked. If your license isn’t in English, I recommend getting an International Driving Permit (IDP) that is issued in English. Both countries allow official translations, but it can cause issues, especially in Australia, where laws around license translations differ from state to state.
You’ll also need to check out the licensing requirements for the vehicle you are driving and the country you are driving in and consider things like van registration and insurance. If you hire a van, this will be taken care of, and you’ll need to prove that you meet licensing requirements. If you’re considering buying a van, researching rego, insurance, and licencing can save you a lot of hassle down the line.
Once you’re across the requirements for driving (and maybe had a few goes at parking before you head off- there is nothing quite like a whole campground of people staring at you while you unsuccessfully attempt to reverse park your van for the very first time!), you need to consider where you will camp. While part of the fun and freedom of van life is deciding this as you go, a general idea of camping options can make choosing a spot at the end of a long day much easier. WikiCamps and WikiCamps NZ are fantastic apps with crowd-sourced info and reviews of potential camp spots.
If you’re travelling in New Zealand and your van is certified to be self-contained (which means it can manage waste and provide water for up to three days), ‘freedom camping’ is an enticing option, allowing you to camp for free in designated (and often picturesque) sites. Over in Australia, the legal landscape is slightly different. There’s no federal law against sleeping in your vehicle, but local laws may vary. Make sure you keep abreast of the local laws and sign-posted parking regulations to avoid fines (or the much worse option of having your van towed).
Packing and prep for a cruisy van holiday
Packing for a van holiday might feel like a daunting task- packing enough so you have everything you need but not so much that it impedes on your space, is a delicate balance.
If you’ve hired your van, some of what you need might come provided. It’s worth checking what comes standard with your hire and what things you’ll need to bring, lest you wind up 200 km from a supermarket with no garbage bags or bug spray. If you have bought a van, you’ll probably gradually add to your set-up as you figure out what you need.
Thinking of van life as camp life without the tents can be helpful for making your pack list. Don’t forget to bring warm bedding and at least one set of warm sleeping clothes, even if you’re travelling in a warm climate. Vans generally make for warm and cosy places to sleep, but even the most well-insulated can get a bit chilly on cold nights.
You want to avoid loose items rolling around while you’re on the move, so a van with plenty of space to secure or store items can be a significant advantage. Don’t forget to pack a first aid kit and check essentials like your spare tire and jack before you set off. Make sure you are well stocked with food, water and petrol, especially if you are heading somewhere more remote.
Van life sometimes means embracing the unpredictable, and that goes for packing, too. A small box of bits and pieces like gaffer tape, spare batteries, rope, matches, and Blu-Tac will come in handy when you least expect it, and a stash of card games and books is a lifesaver on rainy days.
Where to go: Planning your Australia or New Zealand road trip
Van travel in New Zealand or Australia offers so many enticing options. The most challenging part is deciding where to start and what you want to see first.
Australia is huge, and some of the most spectacular areas, like the Red Centre, are perfect for well-planned extended van travelling. Coastal areas such as the NSW South Coast are dotted with tiny towns and beautiful beaches, which are ideal for van life adventures. The Great Ocean Road is an iconic road trip route that can take you all the way to the historic Limestone Coast. For inland adventures, the spectacular rock formations of the Grampians and the Arapiles are populated with van and motorhome travellers year-round, ensuring easy camping options and a great vibe.
Compared to the expanse of Australia, New Zealand is relatively compact. Split into the North and South Island, NZ’s natural beauty and laidback attitude make van travel a breeze. Depending on your time constraints, you might even be able to road trip both islands in one visit. The South Island offers whale watching, glaciers and the scenic highlights of Queenstown and Wanaka. The North Island provides Maori culture, caves and glowworms, volcanic landscapes and geothermal waters.
The freedom of van and motorhome travel allows you to be pulled off the beaten track and go where the wind takes you. While it’s great to have a rough plan (and know in advance where you can and can’t park and camp legally), sometimes the real fun of van life is finding quirky towns, deserted beaches and lush national parks that make you want to stay another day. Knowing your options while embracing the unknown allows you to go with the flow and make the most of the flexibility and freedom of van life road trips.
Van life is the ultimate way to explore the natural beauty of Australia and New Zealand. Hiring or buying a home on wheels is an affordable, flexible way to travel, which opens up infinite options for adventure.
Remember to do your research, choose the right van for your needs, and put in some prep time for planning and packing. Apart from that, remember to embrace the spontaneity and freedom of van life. You never know where you’ll end up.
Have you travelled around Australia or New Zealand in a motorhome? Or do you have any questions to help with your plans? Please let us know by commenting below.