How to Drive in New Zealand in Winter

26 July 2019

Driving overseas can be a daunting experience. To say the least, New Zealand has some interesting roads.  They navigate through impressive landscapes and although beautiful, they do require a little extra knowledge and understanding to travel them safely – especially in the winter.

Winter in New Zealand is mild compared with some places around the world. However, for anyone heading over to New Zealand from a place that sees little to no snow, it’s best to read up on some safety tips and tricks ahead of time to help you get around.

Here’s a short guide to driving in New Zealand in winter to get you prepared for your trip of a lifetime!

We drive on the left 

It’s true, like our neighbours in Australia, we drive on the left side of the road. Our steering wheels are also on the right hand side of the car (opposite to many places in the world) and if you’re driving a manual car this means the gear stick will also be operated with your other hand.

A great tip to help you remember to keep left is to put a small sign on your dashboard that reminds you to drive on the left. In New Zealand, there are often arrows on the roads to remind people of the direction of traffic which is also really helpful!

But besides the directional arrow sign, we also have lots of other road signs unique to New Zealand. Be sure to also brush up on some of the other road signs in New Zealand before jumping behind the wheel!


Winter road conditions

Have you ever seen those videos of cars sliding at slow speed as if they’re on an ice rink? Well, New Zealand’s not that bad and for the most part snow on the roads is cleared pretty quickly. But that’s not to say you won’t encounter ice or snow from time to time during your trip (especially on mountain passes or on remote roads like the road to Milford Sound.)

During or after a snowfall it’s a great idea to lower your speed and drive to the road conditions. If the snowfall is heavy and the road is completely covered in snow then it may be time to get out the snow chains. Most rental vehicles in New Zealand come with them and you should make sure you know how to use them! If you don’t, ask the rental company for a demo before hitting the road, but if you don’t, just ask a friendly Kiwi local to give you a hand (they’re pros!)

But winter doesn’t just mean snow and it can also bring heavy rain. Heavy rain in New Zealand has its own dangers and one of the most common is slips. Slips are when heavy rain washes away the side of a mountain and this can often happen on remote roads. During heavy rain, either don’t drive or refrain from stopping anywhere with steep mountainsides near the road.

Driving up to the ski fields

Driving up to the ski fields in New Zealand requires you to be prepared. One of the best pieces of advice (and usually a requirement on the ski fields) is to always carry snow chains no matter the weather forecast. Why? Because it can change so quickly!

Picture this, you’re in Queenstown this winter and you drive up to the Remarkables Ski Field on a bluebird day only to have it start to snow while you’re busy shredding. Now, you need to drive down some pretty steep roads with no chains! It would be nearly impossible and you may have to leave your car at the top and get the bus down!

Another great tip is to use low gear when driving down the steep roads from the ski fields. This helps keep your speed low without breaking. It’ll not only save your breaks but also keep you in control of your car. Even in an automatic, you can usually lock them in second gear by moving the stick out of drive and into the number two.

Snow chains

There are two types of snow chains in New Zealand, standard and easy-fit. If you haven’t used chains before or don’t want to be stuck out in the cold for a long time fitting chains, get easy-fit chains. They’re simple to fit onto your car and only take around 5 minutes to fit on two of your tires.

Yep, I said two tires. Why? Because it’s likely you’ll only have two and it’s important they go on the correct wheels. If you drive a rear wheel drive car, put them on the back tires. If your car’s front wheel drive, then make sure you put them on the front. It’s that simple. If you’re not sure then check with the rental company before you take the car – chains on the wrong wheels won’t help much!


If you’re visiting destinations such as Queenstown this winter, and you aren’t confident on the roads, then consider taking the bus to the ski fields or joining one of our coach tours to Milford Sound. The road to Milford is known as the most beautiful drive in New Zealand and our experienced coach drivers know how to get you there safely! Our coaches depart daily all year round from both Te Anau and Queenstown! 

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