Tips for Winter Driving in NZ

winter windscreen with frost

March 11, 2019

Booking a motorhome or campervan in the winter months is a popular choice for keen skiers and snowboarders who are planning to head to the ski areas of Queenstown and Wanaka or even the North Island ski fields at Whakapapa and Turoa.

So we thought it was a good idea to provide our customers with some tips for staying safe on the roads in a New Zealand winter.

Although winters in New Zealand are generally very mild compared to some parts of the world, please don't assume there is nothing to look out for.

1. Ice

Perhaps the most common thing you will come across in a New Zealand winter, especially in the South Island, is regular ice. Frosty mornings are likely to occur every winter day it isn't raining, so prepare ahead. If there is a very severe frost overnight, you might want to plan to start your day a little later than usual to allow the ice to thaw a bit on the roads, especially if where you will be driving is shaded in the mornings.

Black ice in particular is a real hazard and there will often be warnings on local radio or weather sites, if it is really bad. Normally black ice will form if it has been raining in the night or the day before then the temperature drops overnight to freezing point. 

If your windscreen has frosted over, take the time to clear the ice before you start driving for the day. You can use an ice scraper or a combination of warm water and the van heater at full blast on the windscreen, while you use your windscreen wipers to help remove the melted ice.

2. Snow and snow chains

Snow down to sea level is not a regular occurence throughout New Zealand every winter - in fact some places will go through several years in a row without a snow fall. However the further south you travel, the greater the likelihood of a snowfall at some point during a winter, particularly in the mountainous locations like Queenstown and Wanaka.

And of course, if you are planning to drive your van up ski field roads, you are very likely to have to negotiate snow.

We recommend all our winter clients who are heading south should ask about hiring snow chains from us before you leave our depot. If you have never fitted chains to a vehicle before, there are often services who will charge a small fee to fit your chains - we recommend you do this!

3. Rain and wind

As an island nation, one thing New Zealand winters generally have plenty of is rain. If you are not used to driving in the rain, slow down to a speed you are comfortable, check forecasts to see if any heavy rain is ahead, and if so, try to avoid planning any lengthy time on the road in those conditions.

The rain often will pass through within a few hours, but again, check those forecasts just to make sure it isn't settling in for several days in a row.

One prevailing weather pattern that is common in a South Island winter is the southwester - if you see or hear a forecast southwesterly weather pattern, that means a combination usually of cold, wet and windy. One benefit is that it won't come with a frost most of the time!

So if that is coming up on the weather forecasts, plan your activities to be mainly indoors. Ski areas won't be open in those conditions, but very likely they will be receiving fresh dumps of snow, as that weather comes straight up from Antarctica.

4. Weather sites to check

Look out for weather and road warnings for the places you are heading, as usually they will advise if chains are required for mountain passes like Lewis Pass, Arthur's Pass and Haast Pass in particular. 

Check the Automobile Association Roadwatch website for warnings, and the Metservice website here for longer term weather forecasts. The Metservice also has a paid app which you might want to download if you are in the country for a while, and if you are a Twitter user, follow the @MetServiceWarn account for severe weather warnings.  

You might also want to follow on Facebook and visit the Canterbury Weather Updates site, which often has more detailed forecasts for the Canterbury region, especially of major weather events. The CWU site also has this very handy page of webcams throughout the region which give you the real time view of what weather is doing in each location, many of which are ski fields.

5. Be prepared for unpredictability

New Zealanders talk about the weather a lot (you can always strike up a conversation with locals by talking about the weather), mainly due to the fact that it is very changeable. It can start off sunny in the morning but turn to torrential downpours by afternoon, so never assume the conditions will stay the same all day.

Check the forecasts and prepare accordingly with warm and waterproof clothing options - merino or similar layers close to the skin and the ability to strip off if it gets too hot during the day. This is particularly important if you are doing any hiking in mountainous or bush areas - again, the weather can change very quickly, so always be well prepared.

This guide from the Mountain Safety Council has some great information.