8 Essential Tips for Safe Winter Driving in New Zealand

New Zealand is one of the best countries in the world to explore by car. But embarking on a winter road trip does present some challenges.

A combination of heavy snow, icy roads and, in some areas, plenty of narrow twists and turns can make driving to some of its most remote regions not exactly straightforward.

For this reason, it pays to exercise a bit more caution than you otherwise might during the warmer and clearer months of summer. With that in mind, here are eight essential tips for safe winter driving in New Zealand.

Tongariro National Park in New Zealand featured as a Mount Doom in The Lord of the Rings. It is around a 4.5 hour drive from Auckland in the North Island.

1. Consider the vehicle

If you intend to hire a car when driving in New Zealand in winter, remember that some vehicles are more suitable for conditions at that time of year than others.

Generally, All-Wheel Drive (AWD) vehicles are better equipped to handle snow or muddy conditions caused by heavy rain, than any other type of car. So, make sure you select one that has good traction, steering and braking, as it will give you the best control on the road.

2. Carry Snow Chains

In some parts of New Zealand during the winter, particularly the alpine roads or ski mountains within the South Island, you are required by law to carry snow chains with you.

Even if you are going somewhere where you are not legally obliged to take snow tires, it is worth taking this precaution. Otherwise, you could find yourself stuck at an impassable stretch of road.

If you are hiring a car, snow chains should be automatically included in the overall rental. However, if you plan on driving your own vehicle, you can purchase snow chains at outlets like Repco or Supercheap Auto.

3. Drive Slower

When driving around New Zealand, it is important to remember that you are not in a Formula 1 race. Therefore, you should make a conscious decision to drive at a slower pace in the winter than you otherwise might do in summer.

This is especially crucial when black ice or heavy snow is present on the road. Doing this will enable you to remain in control of the vehicle and give you a couple of seconds more reaction time should you suddenly find yourself having to negotiate a tricky situation.

4. Keep your distance

In addition to driving slower, you should also make a concerted effort to keep your distance from the car in front.

Typically, drivers should invoke the two-second rule, which means that it should take them two seconds to pass a landmark after the vehicle ahead of them has done so. But in the winter, particularly in snowy conditions, you should double this to four seconds.

Your braking time will naturally take longer in inclement weather. So sticking to the four-second rule will provide you with an extra distance buffer in terms of safety.

5. Avoid braking suddenly

Even if your vehicle has good traction, it does not mean you have to continually test it.

Snowy, icy and wet conditions are more prevalent on New Zealand roads in the winter. Avoid slamming on the brakes, if not absolutely necessary. Slamming on the breaks increases the likelihood of them locking up or your wheels spinning.

Most newer models of cars feature a good standard of anti-lock brakes or traction control. However, it is not worth tempting fate by braking sharply on a regular basis.

6. Maintain clear visibility at all times

It’s hard to drive at the best of times with unclear visibility. So, it pays to ensure your front and back windscreen is clean and clear whenever you drive.

Additionally, you should always give your headlights a wipe over every time you stop and make sure your wing mirrors are crystal clear.

Maintaining this visibility will make driving easier. However, no matter what time of day it is, should the weather turn, you should always put on your headlights.

That said, in snow or heavy fog, use fog lights or dipped headlights as opposed to the full beam. This will prevent light from reflecting from the fog, which might impair your sight lines.

New Zealand is home to many wineries including on Waiheke Island, a short ferry ride from Auckland. You can rent a car and include wineries on a New Zealand road trip itinerary.

7. Take emergency supplies

Even if you are planning to drive only a short distance, you should always take emergency supplies with you.

The chances of breakdown or accidents are much higher during the winter, especially in adverse weather conditions. So it is worth being prepared.

Important items to carry in your vehicle include a first aid kit, reflective blankets, extra warm clothing, water and food. It is also worth taking a battery charger for your mobile phone or other device, as well as a second spare tire and a snow shovel.

Should the worst come to the worst, you will make things a little bit easier for yourself as you wait for assistance.

8. Monitor Road Conditions

Finally, regardless of where you travel, it is always a good idea to monitor the road conditions of your trip.

Apps like MetService will give you an idea of what the weather will be like during your journey, while Waze or Google Maps can advise of any accidents or delays in real-time.

You should always err on the side of caution when driving in New Zealand. If the weather is bad, don’t be afraid to stop or, better still, postpone or cancel your travel plans.

Encompassing remarkable landscapes, splendid wineries, delicious local cuisine and friendly locals, New Zealand and Australia have a wealth to offer visitors. Happy travels…and drive safe!


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