When people told me it would be cold on the South Island of New Zealand, I didn’t believe them. Know-it-all me went around all “I’m from Canada, I know cold.” And I do believe that I have a pretty high threshold for “cold” (relative to the entire human race, of which the majority live in warm places *cough cough* India, Africa and Southeast Asia).
So while the temperatures in New Zealand never got down to -36 C (which is the temperature outside my window at this current moment), it did drop below -5 C often. And even worse: New Zealand houses, for the most part, are not insulated and many don’t have central heating! Plus, it’ll cost you an arm and a leg (maybe even your first born child) to heat your house with a space heater or detached radiator. So basically, regardless of whether you’re inside or outside, South Island is flipping cold.
AND if you plan on visiting the rainy parts (i.e. Milford Sound, Mount Cook/Aoraki NP) and spending much of your time outside, it’ll be even colder and there will be periods of relentless wind and rain. Okay, I think I’ve said it enough. Winter in New Zealand is not a joke.
But fear not! In this post I’ll outline what to pack and why, plus some tips for buying gear and background on layering. However, if you’d like to skip all that and just want an easy to read packing list, you’ll find one at the bottom of the page.
How to stay dry & the importance of Outer Layers
Your outer layout is meant to block out wind and water. This is your first line of defence against the elements. It’s also where I recommend people invest a little money into if they’re buying new gear.
Good Rain Coat
If you’re going to splurge on one piece of outdoor clothing, let it be your rain jacket. I’m not saying go out and buy a $700 super fancy Gore-tex raincoat, but buy a good raincoat from a reliable company.
For a long time I used the Patagonia Torrent ($120) however it completely soaked through in a relentless rainfall in Mount Cook (this is my fault, not Patagonia’s – I wore that coat nonstop for three years and didn’t re-waterproof it once). That weekend I bought the Marmot Gore-tex Minimalist on sale for ($375) and this jacket has proven to be very effective.
Rain Pants (optional)
This is an optional item, but one I really wished I’d had for trekking. When it’s pouring rain (as it often does in Milford Sound), your hiking pants might not be waterproof enough to keep you comfortable. I used the MEC Hydrofoil Rain Pants for three years but lost right before I left for New Zealand.
If you want to enjoy all the outdoor wonder that New Zealand has to offer, I absolutely recommend bringing a pair of waterproof hiking boots. They will keep you dry and comfortable throughout your trip. If you’re in need of a pair, I’ve written an article with my best tips for buying a pair of hiking boots.
How to stay warm (good base + mid = happy camper)
Your base layer has a few functions, but the primary one is keeping your body dry from the inside out. When you’re active, your body sweats. You want the clothing that directly touches your body to wick away moisture, not absorb and retain moisture. Wet clothing = cold body.
The best materials for base layers are merino wool or synthetic wool. Merino is more effective, but also more expensive and delicate. Synthetic is cheaper and very durable, but not quite as good at wicking away moisture and keeping you warm. Personal opinion, but I think synthetic is warm enough and I like how durable it is, so I rarely buy natural merino.
My recommendation would be to bring 3 base layer shirts (either 2 t-shirts and 1 long sleeve, or vice versa). The reason I recommend three is because most of us sweat quite a bit on our armpits and backs, so having a few shirts will keep you feeling clean in between washes.
Also known as long-johns or long-underwear, your base layer bottoms go underneath your hiking pants and give you extra warmth on a chilly day. I didn’t find I needed to wear a base layer bottom everyday, so I only had once pair. Also, when it comes to pants I’d recommend buying synthetic. I found merino wool to be too delicate for pants and have torn through two pairs. Now I only do synthetic.
Your mid layer is your insulating layer. It typically goes on top of your base layer and underneath your outer layer. I say “typically” because you won’t always be wearing a base layer; likewise, you won’t always be wearing an outer layer.
Bring one fleece sweater. Fleece is a great material because it will keep you very warm and it dries very quickly (seriously, put it in the washer and when it comes out it’s barely even damp). Fleece is one thing I don’t think you need to splurge on. Until I started wearing nice fleece sweaters to work (they count as business casual, right?) I never bought fleece at regular price, and I often got it second hand. Fleece is one excellent place to save some money!
I’d also recommend bringing a puffy jacket (or as they call it in New Zealand, a “puffer”) as a second mid layer. You can buy a down puffy jacket (which is expensive and very warm) or a synthetic down puffy jacket (still pretty warm, but much cheaper). I used a synthetic down coat when I was in NZ and it worked just fine. However, I’dd add that I recently invested in a down puffer and not going to lie… it is incredible. Definitely worth the price (however, I still bought last season’s bright orange jacket on sale – I ain’t made of money).
Bring a durable pair of hiking pants. These don’t need to be expensive, just something that’ll provide some protection against the wind and won’t rip if your fall on the trail. I’ve been using MEC Sandbagger Pants for five years now and I still love them (they aren’t waterproof however, which is why I recommend rain pants). Also, I realize now that I definitely bought mine 3 sizes too big because mine don’t look like the image at all!
How to stay comfortable: don’t forget that casual clothing
There are a lot of times where you won’t need all this outdoor clothing on the South Island. For instance, you’ll want something more casual if you’re exploring a city like Dunedin, where it will get cold but may not be cold all of the time.
When it comes to what shirts to bring, the ball is in your court. I like athletic shirts from Lululemon, however I also have no real fashion sense so I understand if you want something a little nicer. I also like a good flannel or a comfortable knit shirt.
Bring any pair of pants you like! Though honestly, I dislike jeans and don’t understand why people travel with them. If they get wet they’re wet for days and they usually aren’t that comfortable. The On The Fly Pants from Lululemon have become my go-to pants for just about every occasion (I even wear them to work).
Running shoes, trainers or sneakers
When you’re walking around the city or in the car driving, I understand if you don’t want to wear your hiking boots. I don’t either! I brought a pair of all black running shoes with me, however any kind of closed toed shoe would work. I specify closed toe because it can still get a little chilly and you’ll want something sturdy because you’ll be doing plenty of walking around.
Okay, this one is totally optional and seems counter intuitive to put in a post about winter. I know, but hear me out. I bring my Tevas everywhere. I have no shame wearing them with wool socks, so I put them on whenever my feet need a break from hiking boots (for example, when cooking in a hostel kitchen or walking to the outhouse when I’m camping).
Oh and before you go
I hope this helps you pack for your trip to New Zealand! I’m sure you’ll have an amazing time; just do your best to stay warm! And if you haven’t yet checked them out, I’ve written both a two-week itinerary for the South Island and a three-week itinerary for the South Island.
Oh, and the quick packing list I promised it just below. As always, let me know if you have any questions or thoughts, either in the comments section or by sending me a message.
Winters in New Zealand: Packing List
Clothing for Outdoor Adventures
- 1x Raincoat
- 1x Rain pants
- 3x Merino or synthetic base layer shirts
- 1x Synthetic base layer pants
- 1x Fleece sweater
- 1x Puffy jacket
- 1x Durable hiking pants
- 3-5x Wool socks
- 2x Shirts
- 1-2x Pants
- Sports bras (optional: normal bras)
- Cotton socks
- 1x Hiking boots
- 1x Running shoes/trainers/sneakers
- 1x Sandals (optional)