On my trip to New Zealand earlier this year, I drove a camper van for the very first time. I drove it around both the wide open New Zealand countryside and through the cramped, hilly cities. It was fantastic, fun and scary at times. I learned a lot on this trip, both about operating a camper van and all the practical knowledge that comes with that, and about myself as a person.
Additionally, I went with my partner, amiably nicknamed “Mr Czech”. We had a great time figuring out how to use the van and scoping out which campsites to go to. We also learnt a lot about traveling together, working as a team and relying on ourselves to get through situations or to come up with new ideas.
1) How to drive a camper van and operate the camper van facilities
When I first got inside the camper van, I was shocked by how big it was! I found it a little difficult to stay within the lines on my left-hand side at first, because of the van’s size. I couldn’t imagine how much harder it would be for someone not used to driving on that side of the road. After a little while though, I got used to it and I actually kind of enjoyed the wide open roads and the fact that we were taking our whole lives with us everywhere we went. We could do anything we needed from that van, bar obtaining food and showering.
The camper van facilities included a toilet, a kitchen and a bed. The kitchen comprised of a sink, a kettle, pots and pans, a stove and cutlery. Our vehicle was self-contained, which meant that we could freedom camp. This was a fantastic experience that I would recommend. Everything was pretty easy to figure out, and we got used to folding out our bed every night to go to sleep. The only thing I’d change for next time is to have the kitchen part fully outside of the van. This time, we had to open up the back of the van in order to access our kitchen, which meant that heaps of bugs got in at night.
2) How to organize our food for the week to minimize waste
When we first got to New Zealand, our first trip after having picked up the van was to the local supermarket. We bought a whole heap of foods. Luckily, we had a fridge in our van, so we could keep things cold when required. However, I must admit that we learned a little about minimizing food wastage when one of our bread loaves started getting a little moldy (gross, I know).
In week 2, we decided to have a bit more of a plan for our meals so that we wouldn’t end up buying things that would go bad or that we wouldn’t eat. We also ate a lot of the things we bought for breakfast and lunch and tried to make meals that would make use of what we had left rather than eating out. We had a lot of fruit for our snacks and bread and soup for dinner. The best part was that we didn’t end up wasting anything in the end, because the last park we stayed at also had permanent residents and we were able to share our food with them.
3) How to find campsites to use, and how to use them
We found a fantastic camping app that we used a lot when we were there called Camping NZ. It showed us which campsites were in the area, and how much they cost per night. This is great because it allows you to check out all the options. After all, you don’t want to go super expensive if you don’t need to. However, it does depend on your budget.
We decided to alternate between the cheaper campsites, the more expensive ones, and of course, freedom camping. We sort of figured that the pricing was partly based on where the campsite was located. We found some good campsites with great kitchens and nice clean good-quality showers that weren’t too expensive, which was great. Some of the campsites were a bit stingy with their kitchens and made you pay extra for pots and pans – not fun! However, others were great and super clean, and others still were a little bit gross and made me thankful for our having our own pots and pans included with the van.
The important point here was to be responsible and clean up after ourselves. If everyone who stays there does this, the place stays clean and tidy for the next users. Due to everything being so communal, you really do need to think about your impact on others when you are staying at a campsite. This is something you can incorporate into your normal daily life back home and it is an important aspect of being a human being.
4) How to freedom camp
There is a fair bit of work involved with freedom camping, but the peace and quiet is worth it. Basically, you can camp anywhere you want as long as it isn’t on someone’s property or a no freedom camping area. Generally, the no freedom camping areas are anywhere within a city, and they’ll have signs on entering and leaving the city.
We used our van for everything we needed (obviously, those nights we didn’t have a shower – well, it is camping after all!). It truly was so much fun and it’s a great bonding experience, whether you are with your partner, family or with friends. It was so fantastic having the van – we never had to freak out that we wouldn’t get to our hostel by closing time!
Freedom camping allowed us to have some great experiences we wouldn’t have otherwise had. We got to have breakfast with some beautiful cows one morning, who were grazing in the field across from our van. We also camped by a gorgeous river with a stunning scenic backdrop. I do have a tip for this though – wear mosquito repellent! Otherwise, don’t cook dinner at dusk when you are camping by a river, as you will get bitten, and your van will be filled with bugs when you hop in to go to sleep.
5) How to show patience and kindness
When you are traveling in a camper van, you have to remember that you are going to be stuck in this tiny confined space with one person for a period of time. Things can get stressful! And they can especially be straining if you are introverts like we are. Things can also get a little boring if you are having to drive for three or four hours and you can’t read due to carsickness (like me!).
This is where I learned how to be mindful, and show patience and kindness both to myself and to my partner. I would focus on the views outside and try to really be in that moment. What with today’s technology and constant attention-grabbing media, this was a bit different for me. We were seeing beautiful new scenery everywhere, cooking dinners on the tiny stove, and figuring out solutions to right-in-front-of-you problems, all of which helped me to be in the moment. This was a good experience to have had, through which I learned to show compassion to myself and my partner, even when we were super tired and hangry!
6) How to rely on myself to find solutions to problems that cropped up
Problems will crop up when you are on the road and you’ll need to get creative to try and solve them. I can think of a few times when my little suggestions solved a problem we had and saved the day! I’d actually say that this could also be something that people learn when they are traveling no matter the mode of transport. That feeling that you get when you have figured something out, or gotten yourself where you needed to be, is one of the best feelings ever. It is one of independence and personal pride, and proof that you really can do this thing called adulting!
It was also fantastic when we were able to work as a team to solve a problem. This is great for any relationship you may have, whether romantic or not. It shows that you can work together, even in stressful situations, to get to an outcome you want.
7) That you only need a few key outfits – and for the most part, ditch the makeup
If you’re anything like me and you haven’t camped in a camper van before, you may not realize that having space to move around in is super important. The more things you bring, the less space you’ll have in the “back room” area. You realize that you’ll need that space for eating, sleeping, and sitting.
It was a little difficult to pack extremely lightly for New Zealand, because there was quite a large temperature difference between the coldest area and the warmest area we went to. We began in Christchurch and ended up in Auckland, so there was a lot of outfit variation. However, I would suggest a main pair of pants (mine had zips at the knee for warmer weather), a jumper, a wind-proof rain jacket, socks and a few t-shirts. As for the makeup, I wore some in two of the cities we went to, but other than that, it just took up valuable daylight time where we could have been having adventures!
8) That you’re going to get a little bit dirty – but know that one day, you will be clean again!
Sometimes, we didn’t get the chance to shower for a couple of days. And sometimes, we got quite dirty and muddy, particularly after trekking through certain rivers and streams to reach a lake. I personally shower 1-2 times a day when I am back home, depending on what activities I have been doing that day. For me, it was strange to have been trekking around all day, and not get to have a shower before PJs and bed.
However, I did it, and I actually got used to it! Mr Czech was surprised when, on day 2 of not having had a shower, I opted for yet another night of freedom camping and no showers. I surprised myself. If we got really dirty, though (like with actual mud on our bodies) we would go to a campsite with a shower. Part of the trip was getting used to being closer to nature, and it also felt like going back in time a little bit. Being the huge fan of Outlander that I am, I really enjoyed this component. So, I often felt that not showering for a while wasn’t so bad if Claire and Jamie (or their real-life 18th century counterparts) would have done it!
9) How to speak to random people and make friends
All the caravan parks we went to had kitchens that campers could use, and these were the places where people hung out at around 7pm each night. Now, some people who travel speak to others, and some don’t. Mr Czech and I had a few nights where we were so exhausted that we only wanted to talk to each other and didn’t have the energy to speak with someone new.
However, we also had a few evenings where we chatted with other campers over dinner and we had some fantastic conversations. I remember some boys that we met from the Netherlands that I am now still friends with on Facebook. They attended a University that I am a big fan of and I plan on doing my Masters degree there. We basically just started the conversation by talking about where we were from and what travels we had been doing, and we ended up talking about everything from healthcare to politics. It was a great night!
10) Tea is LIFE!
No but seriously, even the simplest of daily pleasures turn into sources of great happiness when you’re on the road. Having a cup of tea was so fantastic, especially in the really cold places higher up in the mountains. Even the canned soups, when heated up and put with some crusty bread, were fantastic. When you are moving throughout the whole day every day, outside in the elements and using all of your energy, the simple pleasures of food and drink become tantamount to heavenly.
I hope that I have given you some useful insights on life in a camper van, and perhaps inspired you to consider camper-vanning on your next holiday!
This is a guest post by Chloe Castle.
Chloe is a tea-drinking, style-loving, introverted travel writer. She loves globetrotting, reading, hiking, nature, ballet, language learning, and, of course, blogging! She aspires to become a linguist one day, and speaks English, French and Czech. Currently based in sunny Australia, she wants more than anything to live in Europe and continue to travel the world and speak new languages! Check out her blog: www.chloesvoyage.com