Rethinking New Zealand: Cramped and Crowded and Not For Cycle Touring –  At Least Not in Summer

I haven’t written in a while because I haven’t been taking pictures. And I haven’t been taking pictures because it didn’t feel as if I would be telling the whole story. A week along the west coast of New Zealand represented an accumulation of frustrations that we have experienced throughout the country – a lack of dirt roads or alternatives to busy highways, crowded camping, and the sheer numbers of tourists absolutely everywhere – and though the region was geologically fascinating, with glacier covered mountains just meters away from the sea, we had a hard time enjoying it.

New Zealand is busy, busy in a touristic way I couldn’t have even imaged possible. There are camper vans parked on every street corner, hundreds in every campsite, and thousands every single day on the road going every which way. It can be hard to even meet a local in so many towns (at least down here in the South Island) as the number of tourists and people with working visas far exceeds the number of locals during the summer. And we too are tourists, adding to those numbers.

Freedom camping is illegal in most areas of New Zealand as the sheer numbers of campers would quite literally destroy the place, and though this is perfectly understandable, is does take away our favorite part of cycle touring; finding a totally isolated place high on a mountain or down by a river to cook dinner, watch the sunset, and fall asleep as the day turns to night. Instead, we find ourselves camping among dozens (and sometimes hundreds) of others all crammed together, sometimes literally only a foot or two away.

After speaking with multiple other cyclists who cycled throughout the country ten or twenty years ago they all say the same thing – it didn’t use to be like this, and they won’t be coming back again anytime soon. We have also spoken with many who find this place “empty” compared to other countries, notably those who have cycled Western Europe or live in the UK, so, it’s definitely  a matter of perspective.

We are disappointed by the lack of dirt roads or highway alternatives as we had been lead to believe that we could do much of the country following a route – the Tour Aotearoa – described as “similar to the American Great Divide.” What we hadn’t realized is while this route incorporates a lot of really wonderful single track riding, it also uses highways between them meaning that if you are simply going straight down the country, you end up on a lot of pavement.  The Kenneth brother routes have many more options if you are ready to do loops around different regions, which we wished we had done rather than trying to cross country cycle through the country as we have been use to in the past. We aren’t the only ones who feel mislead either. We have met a dozen or so full suspension mountain bike/fat bike bikepackers expecting mostly dirt roads/single track who are thoroughly unimpressed, as, like us, they tried to just head straight down the country.

We are spoiled. After cycling through the Andes and the Himalayas we have high standards, especially when it comes to free camping in beautiful places and high difficult passes on quiet roads through the mountains. And it certainly hasn’t all been negative, in fact, we have had a really lovely trip yet want to share some of the realities of our tour as well. New Zealand does have some really amazing multi-day mountain bike routes as well as 4X4 roads which lead to huts in beautiful places. New Zealand has worked hard to increase cycle tourism by creating these routes throughout the country and we can see how in the off season, when the in between roads aren’t so busy and the campgrounds aren’t so full, New Zealand would be a really enjoyable place to ride – especially if you go into it ready to do squiggles in the various areas with the most trails.

We loved the Molesworth station and St. James route in the northern part of the South Island, the Wilderness Trail in the middle, and the Around the Mountains trail down south, as well as many different sections of the North Island (which we now realize is much less busy in general). And the country is visited by over three million people every year for good reason; it really is beautiful, the kiwis really are incredibly friendly, and there really is a lot to do in terms of outdoor adventures. And the rivers. The rivers are stunning. I have never seen so many clear, clean, colorful rivers in my life.

If someone was to ask, we wouldn’t recommend cycle touring New Zealand, not in the traditional road cycling way anyways, but with a self-contained camper van (self-contained vans can camp for free whereas nobody else can), packrafts, a backpacking backpack, and mountain bikes with a bikepacking set up we think New Zealand would be a great country to visit during the off-season. From April – December (weather wise, we would suggest March-May, and November, December) there are two other trekking routes which open up to mountain bikes, plus, all of the other trekking routes see a huge decrease in users meaning you would  be able to find yourself  solitude pretty easily.  With a self-contained camper van you would be able to pull off and camp in a whole lot more places (for free), plus, you would be able to drive between the mountain biking loops through highway sections where the riding isn’t all that great. And with packrafts you could explore (and fish!) all of the breathtaking rivers throughout the country. Or, if you are keen to simply cycle (and not add to the overwhelming camper van situation) then cycling the country during the off season would be lovely.

Since we are lucky enough to be here, spending time together on an extended vacation doing what we love, we are most certainly going to make the most of it even if it isn’t always what we had expected. Along the west coast we figured out that by waking up at six we were able to enjoy the ride for a few hours before the herds of camper vans began their daily migration, and I have begun trail running before or after our rides which has allowed me to explore trails without a single other person on them, and watch sunrises or sunsets from various scenic locations. We are also planning out our next month to include some of the notorious mountain biking routes, as well as some other adventures that should take us much farther away from the traffic (there will be packrafts involved)!
The only three pictures I took this week: us at sunrise enjoying the mountains and momentarily quiet roads (at the top of the page), a photo (no added color) which shows one of the amazing sunsets we got to witness, and a random mountain who happened to get his photo taken.
*As this post has gotten controversial I would like to remind those reading that these are our personal experiences and in no way negate or alter whatever you may have or will experience here, and we are open to (politely shared) suggestions or routes that you loved on your own tour here.

32 thoughts on “Rethinking New Zealand: Cramped and Crowded and Not For Cycle Touring –  At Least Not in Summer

  1. Thanks for sharing this about NZ. It’s obviously changed since I was there tramping for 6 months in 1986!

  2. Thanks for be honest it really helps others that are thinking into come or not, to really understand what is going on. We are cycling here also and we totally agree with you, almost same feeling in the north island, now in some days we go south island, let’s see. Nobody said about this reality to us, so thanks for share it, we will do same, it is not the place to travel by bicycle if you love free camp, nature and freedom.

  3. Thanks for the run down. I’ve heard this before about NZ. And when I mentioned it folks said, “No, the cycling is great!” I wonder what their standrds are. I know what mine are and dodging traffic is not omething I enjoy. I’m currently in Australia cycling and trying not to get run off the road. But it’s temporary here on the coast south of Sydney. Got a friend here and then it’s off to the interior. I just cycled the Baja Divide. Wouldn’t see a car for days. Lots of goats though.

    • Yeah it for sure depends on standards. Most Europeans we meet (especially those from the UK or those who are not cyclists or who haven’t cycled toured much) say “wow this place is so desolate” because they are use to multi million people cities, whereas we, like you, would much prefer to see more goats than cars!! We will have to look up the Baja divide, it’s been coming up on our radar more and more now.

  4. Great blog post. I spent 6 weeks in a camper recently and experienced similar. I was shocked to find just how much tension there is between locals and freedom campers. I felt like a criminal wanting adventure as a responsible camper. Let’s clarify one thing too- I live in New Zealand! 6 years ago I lived South and moved north to then return for this road trip – so much has changed. Tourism is aimed at rich money spenders and dirtbags are now no more than mess makers. The thing is I experienced the hoards of campers who left rubbish, their poo and empty beer cans. I also experienced campers who respected the environment. Overall even as a resident I was dissspointed too. The days of heading outdoors with my son and lighting a fire and sleeping under the stars are gone. We are now criminals if we do this. Very sad. On a positive note – off season is fine for more space and peace. Also if self contained regions allow free camping. It’s just a real mess and nz is not doing to well anymore. Tourism is now a problem.

  5. Thanks for that words. That is exactly the same way we felt, when we were at our round the world trip in 2015 in NZ. The number of tourists was way to much and it was really hard for us to enjoy the nice landscape. Anyway, we wish you a nice honeymoon and send you many greetings from Austria, where the landscape is similar to NZ and you have enough space for yourself😊 markus und heidi
    PS: If you ever come to Austria, please let us know. We always have a cosy bed and a warm shower for touring cyclists

    • The key issue nz faces with regard to the fact that it receives 3 million visitors a year is that there are only 4 million taxpayers to pay for the infrastructure required to support these visitors. Freedom camping does not pay for toilet/water/cleaning and all other costs associated with humans in remote places. And while some people are responsible for their own impact, most are ignorant of their environmental impact. I personally think that a declaration of intent (which requires honesty) at arrival into nz should incur a freedom camping suggested koha (Maori for donation) to help nz improve its management/support of freedom camping.

      • Yeah I really like that idea. We are actually quite happy that New Zealand has mostly done away with free camping (well except for campers I guess) as we can only imagine the impact. It would be neat to see some kind of education/donations in place to. New Zealand if free camping were to be on the table again. place New Zealand, being such a tiny country, has done a great job coping with the amount of people we are just very surprised just at how many people do visit and the impacts we have seen because of it.

  6. Hey guys! We spent 3 months cycling in New Zealand after more than 3 years of Asia and Australia and came to the exactly same conclusions. This is not a cycle touring paradise. Especially after flying there from Australia, where you can put up your tent wherever you want, New Zealand appeared to us as a huge tourist resort. We followed Kennett brothers’ advises, followed the Tour Aotearoa route from Cape Reinga to Wanaka, but still could not find a real joy doing it. Once you visited the Himalayas or the other truly wild places, there is no way back!

  7. I am very surprised about this report and your experiences. I cycled NZ in 1995 on a quite another different way (Auckland – Coromandel – Tauranga – Roturoa – National Parks – Wellington – Marlborough Sounds) and I followed some cyclist’s blogs in the presence, where I didn’t find such complaints. Maybe you chose the wrong route? Could it be that the east coast of Northern Island is quieter? I was more disturbed by mentioning the environmental degradation through the extensive agriculture and the erosion of the hills, which were all wooded before the European settlers conquered NZ.

  8. I’m really sorry that you didn’t have the experience of this amazing country you were expecting. It’s an amazing and special place and given you’d made the effort to come here, it’s really sad that you were disappointed and frustrated. It does sound as though you were on the most popular routes at peak season which, whilst not exactly like visiting St Mark’s Square in Venice in July, is certainly busier and more crowded than many other parts of New Zealand for most of the year. We’re a country of just 4.4 million trying to pay for the same infrastructure (roads, power grids, water supply, education & health as well as tourist facilities), that other countries with far more tax and rate payers. We’re approximately the same land mass as the UK and California, but the UK has over 60 million people to help fund roads and other services, California has over 40 million, New Zealand has just 4.4 million people to cover the same stuff. How do we balance making it great for tourists with what we can afford. Would you be happy to pay a fee that funded separated cycleways in order to use them. To what extent are people prepared to help fund the experience they want to have?

    • Definitely, and it’s understandable just like our US state and national parks that are very very busy I’m the summer. We have just been surprised how busy it is in between too, but like you said it is a small country accommodating a lot of tourism! I certainly don’t think it’s New Zealand fault, I think that’s just how it is and it’s great for cyclists to then know what to expect.

  9. I toured the North and South Island for seven weeks in 2000 and met some of the warmest,welcoming, and friendly people on the planet.I can remember some mornings cycling four hours before I seen a car,and this tour was all on the road.Once upon a time,New Zealand was a well kept secret,but clearly now that is not the case anymore.I don’t mean to be critical,but sometimes what works for me,doesn’t always work for you.What I’m saying is if your unhappy or it doesn’t meet your expectations,don’t be critical,move on.I cycled the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route and there is literally a couple hundred miles of paved roads and even some Interstate travel,not exactly the mountain bikers paradise that your describing.

  10. Oh the campervans! I hear you on many of these points, having spent a couple months (Nov/Dec) touring/bikepacking the south island this past year. It is hard to put backcountry routes together, so we had different expectations and started doing tramping and other things.

    Life got a lot better for us when we really dug into the ‘freedom camping’ definition. Even when freedom camping is banned you can still camp 200m from any road, and 200m from any ‘no camping’ sign. “Wild” camping (different than freedom) is allowed on most DOC land, and even national parks. We were able to find some nice places to free camp away from the campervans once we got a handle on what the rules really are.

    There are some great routes on the rest of the S. Island, too. Pretty much all of the NZ cycle routes are really good. Round the Mountains, Otago Central Rail, Alps2Ocean – highly recommended.

  11. My Wife and I have just done a Mountain Bike holiday of the West Coast using a stationwagon to carry our gear and get to the locations we wanted to ride. I did see lots of Bike packers on the road and with the amount of traffic it definitely did not look they were enjoying themselves. You are right and I would recommend getting a van or camper and touring, it is much safer and a lot less stressful.
    We did Old Ghost Road, West Coast Wilderness trail, Dun Mountain, Rameka track, some of Queen Charlotte plus a few others and had an amazing time, there are definitely more Tourists in NZ but we were not inundated in the areas we chose to visit.
    Sadly riding a bicycle on our roads is dangerous and I certainly hope you guys stay safe and enjoy your further travels.

  12. Hi Nomads,
    Sorry to read that your cycling trip in New Zealand hasn’t been great. It seems you’ve worked out some of the reasons for that, but haven’t got the whole picture yet.
    Exploring New Zealand by bike has actually never been better, but you can’t expect to enjoy it in a traditional cycle touring way, as you’ve worked out the hard way. It’s not the 1980s any more. Timing and route selection are critical now. You chose a bad time for two reasons.
    First, February is the peak tourist season on the West Coast. Second, State Highway One has been closed since November due to a major earthquake, so a lot more people are driving down the West Coast – but that is temporary!
    I start the Tour Aotearoa event in late February so that riders don’t strike such heavy traffic down the West Coast.
    It seems strange that you make no mention of the West Coast Wilderness Trail, or the Maruia Saddle, or many other great cycling routes. I hope you didn’t miss out on them?
    You mention there being multiple trekking routes that are open to mountain bikers from April to December. This isn’t true. Apart from the Heaphy Track and the top third of the Queen Charlotte Track, what are you referring to? Furthermore, cycling in New Zealand between June and November is not great advice. It’s generally cold, wet, and the days are short.
    The best time for a long trip is late February to late May. We have more cycle trails here now than you could possibly ride in a three month visit, and more being built all the time. But bikepacking and careful timing is the best way to enjoy them. That’s why bikepacking is booming in New Zealand. There are many experienced riders who shake their heads when they see people cycle touring the way you are. We wish you were doing it differently and having a good time because we know it’s possible. You can see their comments on the Bikepacking New Zealand facebook page.
    Pedal on!
    Jonathan Kennett
    Author of several NZ cycling guidebooks and Tour Aotearoa organiser

    • Yeah we see now that it’s definitely great for mountain biking (bikepacking) and much harder to traditionally “tour through the country” on a cross country type of tour, and yes, we have realized seasons play a huge role! Unfortunately due to our jobs this is our only option timing wise, but for others I can see how the off season or shoulder season would make a huge difference. We did indeed do the wilderness trail (I’ve been slacking on blogging this trip..) and enjoyed it, as well as really enjoyed some of the routes up north, in the north of the South Island, and the around the mountains route which we just finished (there is now a really neat free doc site right after the ferry ride across from Queenstown!). Another random route we loved was the backroads from Picton to Blenheim which was quiet and beautiful!

      If we were to do this trip again we probably would have gotten a camper van or taken busses between the different areas and made it more of a segmented trip rather than the cross country sort of trip we are use to, in order to enjoy the mountain biking routes yet avoid the busy highways (and places without doc sites where you camp with 200 other people in a holiday park…).

      We are very impressed with much of the cycling infrastructure here and can tell New Zealand is investing a lot into mountain bike routes in various places across the country, and, like I said before, I think it would be beneficial for others to realize how many busy highways they will be on – and I do realize a few of the really busy roads aren’t typically like that by the earthquake moved traffic around – in between the routes following strictly the Tour Aoteraroa route as we (and many others we have met who followed the route to a T) were surprised by the amount of pavement involved after reading about it online.

  13. This was a really interesting and slightly sad post to read. I hiked in NZ over twenty years ago (and had recently written a post referring to that experience a bit) and absolutely loved it. It sounds like things have changed a lot, and there’s probably lots of reasons: accessibility, world population (there’s simply more of us moving around!), Lord Of The Rings?! I feel lucky to have experienced it when I did. For us it was so quiet on the West Coast of the South Island that we couldn’t get a ride all day – we hitched a lot and were met with great kindness and generosity. It got so late we set our tent up in a grassy ditch and got up the next morning to catch the one bus of the day! We were there late in the season and were hiking rather than biking, but still…..Tricky situation, tourism must be a great boon to the country, but how do we avoid wrecking the place…’s an ongoing issue everywhere I suppose.

  14. A great post, thank you sharing openly. I think if people can read your advice, and the response of Jonathan Kennett they will be much better informed about how to enjoy their cycling holidays in NZ.

    Personally, I’m wary of cycling on roads in NZ. As you state they are busy and not always spacious. Some of the driving is terrible too. I, along with many of my friends, hung up my road bike in the interests of safety years ago.

    I hope you can find the time and means to visit us again in the future for a more positive experience.

  15. Thank you very much for your constructive feedback. It is truly very helpful. I’m glad that overall you’ve enjoyed your visit to our country and have taken the time to highlight how your experience could have been outstanding.
    Safe travels. John S

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