Home » The Ultimate Guide to Backpacking the North Island

Welcome to the ultimate guide to backpacking the North Island of New Zealand! Whether you’re a seasoned backpacker looking for your next adventure or a first-timer eager to explore this stunning region, you’ve come to the right place. 

The Ultimate Guide to Backpacking the North Island

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll take you through everything you need to know to make the most of your backpacking journey through the North Island.

The North Island: A Brief Overview

The North Island of New Zealand is a treasure trove of natural beauty, cultural richness, and adventure opportunities. 

From the bustling city streets of Auckland to the pristine beaches of the Coromandel Peninsula, and the geothermal wonders of Rotorua, the North Island offers something for every traveler.

Why Backpacking?

Backpacking is arguably the best way to experience all that the North Island has to offer. 

It allows you to immerse yourself in the breathtaking landscapes, connect with locals and fellow travelers, and discover hidden gems off the beaten path. 

Plus, it’s a budget-friendly way to travel, giving you the freedom to explore at your own pace.

Best Time to Backpack the North Island

Seasonal Variations and Weather Conditions

The North Island experiences a temperate maritime climate, which means mild temperatures year-round. 

However, the weather can be changeable, so it’s essential to pack accordingly. Here’s a breakdown of the seasons:

  • Summer (December to February): Summer is peak tourist season in the North Island, with long days of sunshine and warm temperatures perfect for outdoor adventures. However, popular destinations can get crowded, and accommodation prices may be higher.
  • Autumn (March to May): Autumn brings mild temperatures and fewer crowds, making it an ideal time to visit. The foliage turns vibrant shades of red and gold, creating stunning landscapes perfect for hiking and photography.
  • Winter (June to August): Winter in the North Island is relatively mild, with cooler temperatures and occasional rain. While some outdoor activities may be limited, it’s an excellent time to explore cultural attractions, hot springs, and indulge in hearty comfort food.
  • Spring (September to November): Spring is a beautiful time to visit the North Island, with blossoming flowers, newborn lambs, and warmer temperatures. It’s also shoulder season, meaning fewer crowds and better deals on accommodation and activities.

Peak vs. Off-Peak Travel Times

Peak travel times coincide with the summer months (December to February) when tourists flock to the North Island to enjoy the sunshine and outdoor activities. 

Accommodation prices are higher during this period, and popular attractions can get crowded. 

If you prefer quieter travel experiences, consider visiting during the shoulder seasons (autumn and spring) or even winter when you’ll have more room to breathe and explore.

Events and Festivals to Consider

The North Island hosts a plethora of events and festivals throughout the year, catering to every interest and taste. 

From cultural celebrations to food and wine festivals, there’s always something happening. Here are a few highlights:

  • Pasifika Festival: Held in Auckland in March, this vibrant festival celebrates Pacific Island culture through music, dance, food, and art.
  • Womad: This world music festival takes place in New Plymouth in March, featuring artists from around the globe.
  • Art Deco Festival: Held in Napier in February, this festival celebrates the city’s Art Deco heritage with vintage car parades, jazz music, and themed events.
  • Planning your trip around these events can add an extra layer of excitement and cultural immersion to your backpacking adventure.

Packing Essentials for North Island Backpacking

Packing for a backpacking trip to the North Island requires careful consideration to ensure you’re prepared for whatever adventures come your way. 

From clothing and footwear to camping gear and essential documents, here’s everything you need to pack for your journey:

Clothing and Footwear Recommendations

  • Layering is Key: The weather in the North Island can be unpredictable, so pack clothing that can be layered for warmth and versatility. Include lightweight, moisture-wicking fabrics that dry quickly and can be worn in various combinations.
  • Waterproof Outerwear: Be prepared for rain showers by packing a waterproof jacket or poncho. A compact umbrella can also come in handy.
  • Sturdy Footwear: Comfortable, supportive footwear is essential for exploring the diverse terrain of the North Island. Invest in a good pair of hiking boots or trail shoes with grippy soles for traction on slippery surfaces.
  • Swimwear: Don’t forget to pack your swimsuit, as there are plenty of opportunities for swimming and water activities in the North Island’s lakes, rivers, and beaches.
  • Camping Gear and Equipment
  • Tent: If you plan to camp during your backpacking trip, invest in a lightweight, waterproof tent that can accommodate your group size.
  • Sleeping Bag and Mat: Choose a sleeping bag rated for the expected temperatures and a compact sleeping mat for insulation and comfort.
  • Cooking Supplies: If you’ll be cooking your meals, pack a lightweight stove, fuel canisters, cookware, utensils, and a small cooler for storing perishable items.
  • Water Filtration System: Ensure access to clean drinking water by bringing a portable water filtration system or purification tablets.

Essential Documents and Permits

  • Passport and Visa: Ensure your passport is valid for at least six months beyond your planned departure date from New Zealand. Check visa requirements for your nationality and apply for any necessary visas in advance.
  • Travel Insurance: Protect yourself against unexpected emergencies by purchasing comprehensive travel insurance that covers medical expenses, trip cancellations, and lost or stolen belongings.
  • Driver’s License: If you plan to drive in New Zealand, bring your driver’s license from your home country or an International Driving Permit (IDP).

Top Backpacking Destinations on the North Island

The North Island of New Zealand is a paradise for backpackers, offering a diverse range of landscapes, attractions, and activities to suit every interest and budget. 

top backpacking destinations on the North Island

Whether you’re drawn to pristine beaches, ancient forests, volcanic wonders, or vibrant cities, you’ll find plenty to explore. 

Here are some of the top backpacking destinations on the North Island:

1. Auckland

  • Description: New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland, is a vibrant metropolis known for its stunning harbors, diverse cuisine, and cultural attractions.
  • Activities: Climb to the top of the iconic Sky Tower for panoramic views, explore the waterfront Viaduct Harbour, or take a ferry to nearby Waiheke Island for wine tasting.
  • Accommodation: Auckland offers a wide range of budget-friendly accommodation options, including hostels, guesthouses, and budget hotels.

2. Coromandel Peninsula

  • Description: The Coromandel Peninsula is renowned for its pristine beaches, lush rainforests, and natural hot springs.
  • Activities: Relax on the white sands of Cathedral Cove, hike the scenic Coromandel Coastal Walkway, or soak in the mineral-rich waters of the Hot Water Beach.
  • Accommodation: Campsites, backpacker lodges, and holiday parks are scattered throughout the peninsula, offering affordable accommodation options.

3. Rotorua

  • Description: Rotorua is a geothermal wonderland known for its bubbling mud pools, steaming geysers, and Maori cultural experiences.
  • Activities: Explore the otherworldly landscapes of Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, experience a traditional Maori hangi feast and cultural performance, or relax in natural hot springs.
  • Accommodation: Rotorua offers a variety of backpacker hostels, motels, and holiday parks, catering to budget-conscious travelers.

4. Tongariro National Park

  • Description: Home to three active volcanoes, including Mount Tongariro and Mount Ngauruhoe (aka Mount Doom from “The Lord of the Rings”), Tongariro National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site renowned for its dramatic landscapes.
  • Activities: Hike the world-famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing, ski or snowboard on the slopes of Mount Ruapehu, or embark on shorter walks to scenic viewpoints.
  • Accommodation: Stay in nearby towns like National Park Village or Ohakune, where you’ll find backpacker hostels, lodges, and campsites.

5. Bay of Islands

  • Description: The Bay of Islands is a subtropical paradise dotted with secluded bays, sandy beaches, and crystal-clear waters.
  • Activities: Cruise the bay to spot dolphins and other marine life, go kayaking or snorkeling in the marine reserves, or explore historic sites like the Waitangi Treaty Grounds.
  • Accommodation: Options range from budget-friendly hostels and campsites to boutique lodges and holiday homes, catering to all budgets.

These are just a few highlights of the many incredible destinations awaiting backpackers in the North Island of New Zealand. 

Whether you’re seeking adventure, relaxation, or cultural immersion, you’ll find it all and more on your backpacking journey.

Transportation Options for Backpackers

Navigating the North Island of New Zealand as a backpacker is relatively straightforward, thanks to a variety of transportation options catering to different preferences and budgets. 

Whether you prefer the convenience of public transport, the freedom of a road trip, or the adventurous spirit of hitchhiking, there’s a transportation option to suit your needs:

1. Public Transport Overview

  • Buses: Intercity bus services connect major cities and towns throughout the North Island, making it easy to travel between destinations. Popular bus companies include InterCity and Naked Bus, offering affordable fares and flexible schedules.
  • Trains: While not as extensive as bus services, scenic train journeys like the Northern Explorer between Auckland and Wellington offer a unique way to experience the North Island’s landscapes.
  • Ferries: Ferries operate between Auckland and destinations in the Hauraki Gulf, including Waiheke Island and Rangitoto Island, providing convenient access to island getaways.

2. Car Rental and Road Trip Suggestions

  • Car Rental: Renting a car or campervan gives you the freedom to explore the North Island at your own pace, allowing you to venture off the beaten path and discover hidden gems.
  • Road Trip Routes: Popular road trip routes include the Coromandel Loop, which takes you through picturesque coastal towns and pristine beaches, and the Thermal Explorer Highway, showcasing the geothermal wonders of the central North Island.

3. Hitchhiking Tips and Safety Precautions

  • Hitchhiking Culture: Hitchhiking is relatively common in New Zealand, especially in rural areas where public transport options may be limited. It’s generally safe, but exercise caution and use common sense when accepting rides from strangers.
  • Safety Precautions: Stick to well-lit, busy roads, and avoid hitchhiking alone at night. Trust your instincts and only accept rides from drivers you feel comfortable with. It’s also a good idea to let someone know your travel plans and check in regularly.

Whether you choose to explore by bus, train, car, or thumb, getting around the North Island is part of the adventure.

Budgeting Tips for Backpacking

Backpacking the North Island of New Zealand can be an incredibly rewarding experience, but it’s essential to budget wisely to make the most of your journey without breaking the bank. 

From accommodation and food to activities and transportation, here are some budgeting tips to help you stretch your dollars further:

1. Cost Breakdown

  • Accommodation: Budget-friendly accommodation options include hostels, campsites, and holiday parks, with prices ranging from NZ$20 to NZ$40 per night. Consider staying in dormitory-style rooms or booking campsites to save money.
  • Food: Eating out can quickly add up, so opt for self-catering whenever possible. Visit local supermarkets and markets to purchase affordable groceries and cook your meals. Budget around NZ$10 to NZ$20 per day for food expenses.
  • Activities: Many of the North Island’s attractions, such as hiking trails and beaches, are free or low-cost. Allocate a budget for any paid activities or tours you’re interested in, and prioritize experiences that offer the most value for your money.

2. Money-Saving Strategies

  • Travel Off-Peak: Visit during the shoulder seasons (autumn and spring) or winter to take advantage of lower accommodation prices and fewer crowds.
  • Use Public Transport: Utilize public buses and trains for long-distance travel, as they are often more affordable than renting a car or campervan.
  • Cook Your Own Meals: Save money on dining out by preparing your meals at hostels or campsites. Look for accommodation with kitchen facilities and cookware provided.
  • Look for Free Activities: Take advantage of free attractions and activities, such as hiking, swimming, and exploring scenic viewpoints. Check local event calendars for free concerts, festivals, and cultural events.
  • Travel with a Group: Consider traveling with friends or joining group tours to split costs for accommodation, transportation, and activities.

3. Free or Low-Cost Attractions

  • Beaches: The North Island is home to stunning beaches like Piha, Raglan, and Ninety Mile Beach, offering endless opportunities for swimming, sunbathing, and surfing.
  • Hiking Trails: Lace up your hiking boots and explore the North Island’s network of hiking trails, including the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, Abel Tasman Coast Track, and Te Araroa Trail.
  • Cultural Experiences: Attend free cultural performances, visit local museums and galleries, or explore historic sites like the Waitangi Treaty Grounds and Te Papa Tongarewa National Museum.

Safety Tips and Precautions

Ensuring your safety is paramount when embarking on a backpacking adventure in the North Island of New Zealand. 

While the region is generally considered safe for travelers, it’s essential to be prepared and aware of potential risks. Here are some safety tips and precautions to keep in mind:

1. Health and Safety Considerations

  • Travel Insurance: Purchase comprehensive travel insurance that covers medical expenses, emergency evacuations, and repatriation. Make sure your insurance policy also includes coverage for adventure activities like hiking and water sports.
  • Medical Supplies: Pack a basic first-aid kit with essentials like bandages, antiseptic wipes, pain relievers, and any personal medications you may need. Familiarize yourself with emergency medical services and facilities in the areas you’ll be visiting.
  • Sun Protection: Protect yourself from the sun’s harmful rays by wearing sunscreen, sunglasses, and a wide-brimmed hat. Stay hydrated and seek shade during the hottest parts of the day to prevent heat-related illnesses.

2. Emergency Contacts and Resources

  • Emergency Numbers: Save important phone numbers, including local emergency services (dial 111 in New Zealand), your country’s embassy or consulate, and your travel insurance provider. Keep a copy of these numbers in your phone and written down in case of emergencies.
  • Travel Alerts: Stay informed about current travel advisories and safety alerts for the North Island by checking government websites and local news sources regularly. Be prepared to adjust your travel plans accordingly if necessary.
  • Safety Apps: Consider downloading safety apps that provide real-time alerts and updates on weather conditions, natural disasters, and other potential hazards. Share your itinerary with trusted friends or family members and check in with them regularly.

3. Tips for Solo Travelers

  • Stay Connected: Stay in touch with friends, family, or fellow travelers by sharing your whereabouts and planned activities. Check in regularly, especially when venturing into remote areas with limited cell phone reception.
  • Trust Your Instincts: Listen to your gut instincts and avoid situations or individuals that make you feel uncomfortable. Stick to well-lit, populated areas, especially at night, and be cautious when accepting rides from strangers.
  • Meet Locals Safely: While meeting locals can enhance your travel experience, exercise caution and meet in public places during daylight hours. Use reputable hospitality exchange platforms or group activities to connect with locals safely.

Cultural Etiquette and Respect

Respecting local customs and traditions is essential when backpacking through the North Island of New Zealand. 

By embracing cultural etiquette and showing respect for indigenous communities, you’ll enrich your travel experience and foster positive interactions with locals. 

Here are some tips to help you navigate cultural nuances with sensitivity and respect:

1. Understanding Local Customs and Traditions

  • Maori Culture: The indigenous Maori culture plays a significant role in New Zealand’s identity and heritage. Take the time to learn about Maori customs, language (Te Reo Maori), and traditions, including the concept of manaakitanga (hospitality) and kaitiakitanga (stewardship of the land).
  • Greetings: Greet locals with a warm smile and a handshake, and consider learning a few basic Maori greetings, such as “kia ora” (hello) and “haere mai” (welcome). Be respectful of personal space and avoid overly familiar gestures.
  • Gift Giving: When visiting someone’s home or participating in a cultural event, it’s customary to bring a small gift as a token of appreciation. Choose gifts that reflect your own culture or something locally sourced, such as handmade crafts or food items.

2. Tips for Interacting with Indigenous Communities

  • Respect Sacred Sites: Many areas in the North Island hold spiritual significance for Maori communities. Respect signs indicating sacred sites (tapu) and refrain from touching or entering these areas without permission.
  • Participate Mindfully: If you have the opportunity to participate in cultural activities or marae (meeting grounds) visits, do so with humility and an open mind. Listen attentively, follow instructions from your hosts, and ask questions respectfully.
  • Support Indigenous Businesses: Show your support for Maori-owned businesses, including restaurants, tour operators, and arts and crafts shops. By purchasing goods and services directly from indigenous entrepreneurs, you contribute to the local economy and cultural preservation efforts.

3. Responsible Tourism Practices

  • Leave No Trace: Follow the principles of Leave No Trace by minimizing your impact on the environment and leaving natural areas as you found them. Dispose of waste properly, stay on designated trails, and avoid disturbing wildlife.
  • Respectful Photography: Seek permission before taking photos of individuals, especially indigenous people, and be mindful of cultural sensitivities regarding photography. Avoid intrusive or disrespectful behavior, and ask for consent before sharing photos on social media.


What are some top highlights to see on the North Island?

The top highlights on the North Island include Auckland, Waitomo Caves, Hobbiton, Rotorua, and Taupo.

Northland in the far north is also highlighted as a less touristy but beautiful region to explore.

How much time is recommended to see the North Island?

Most backpackers recommend spending 3-4 weeks to properly see the top locations on the North Island. 

However, you can cover the main highlights in around 2 weeks if you have limited time.

What are some must-do activities on the North Island?

Some must-do activities include exploring the glowworm caves in Waitomo, visiting the Hobbiton movie set, experiencing the geothermal wonders in Rotorua, and relaxing by the stunning Lake Taupo.

What gear and equipment is recommended for backpacking the North Island?

Key gear recommendations include a good pair of hiking boots/shoes, a personal locator beacon for safety, trekking poles, a tent and sleeping pad if camping, a water filter, and insect repellent.

What is the best time of year to backpack the North Island?

The North Island can be visited year-round, but the summer months (December to February) are generally the most popular and pleasant time for backpacking.