Snow Tripping in New Zealand — the Spaceship Solution

Post by blogger | October 26, 2017      

New Zealand is a sparsely populated, incredibly beautiful country — perfect for road tripping. Some days it seems every 3rd car is some sort of “campervan,” most often a rental. Having the ability to sleep in your vehicle opens up a lot of areas to stay. Also, the savings of no hotels or hostels every night well outweighs the extra cost of a caravan vs a car.

Cruisin in our sleek little spaceship.

Cruisin in our sleek little spaceship.

When planning our little trip to New Zealand, I deliberated. We had the option of renting a car, a small non self-contained campervan, a larger, self-contained campervan, or even buying something and reselling it at the end of the trip.

We decided to go for one of the smaller campervans available, a Beta 2s from Spaceship campervans.

The rules and regulations regarding camping and campervans in NZ are unique, and I still don’t entirely understand them. But overall, we had a good trip and our spaceship was an well-tuned transportation device.

There are various camping classifications in New Zealand. “Freedom camping” is the NZ term for what we in the States would simply call “camping,” meaning camping anywhere outside of an established campsite. To legally freedom camp, you need to have a camper that has holding tanks for grey and black waste: certified as “self contained.” Moreover, even if you do have a self contained vehicle, you’ll still find plenty of areas where freedom camping isn’t allowed.

If you have a camper van without waste facilities, or simply a car and a tent, you have to camp in an established campsite that has a toilet. Luckily, you’ll have your pick of hundreds of campsites. Some are free, and others range in price from $8-$20 NZD a person. (Apps are available that show where campsites are, and which areas allow freedom camping).

The Kiwi system is a bit restrictive, and I’m not sure it would work or be accepted in places like the western US. However, with the concentration of tourists and other campers in NZ, it makes sense and works well.

Our Spaceship campervan was a Toyota Estima minivan, similar to a Toyota Sienna in the U.S. Spaceship has a variety of mini-van based campervans for rent. Their inexpensive models are based on the Toyota Emina (Previa in the US), and simply have a bed platform. They also have more deluxe models than ours with more amenities. I thought the mid-range option would be ideal. The fact that it has a fridge and extra battery turned out to be super helpful.

The Beta2s has been modified extensively for camping. All seats but the driver and passenger seats have been removed, and a bed platform has been built in the back. The bed platform is made of thick plastic board, with a number of different chambers accessible from hatches on the top surface. One contains a small electric fridge while others are for storage. The bed can be either configured to be entirely within the vehicle, or stick out the back door, to give a bit of extra room inside.

A typical scene inside the van. A pile of gear. Gearalanches are a real danger.

A typical scene inside the van. A pile of gear. Gearalanches are a real danger.

Front storage area and fridge.

Front storage area and fridge.

Rear storage area under the bed.

Rear storage area under the bed.

When traveling we folded the bed to create more interior space. A number of accessories come with the van. In the rear, each window has curtains. For cooking there are two small propane camp stoves, and a large assortment of pots, pans and utensils. A small table attaches to the side of the van. The van also comes with a large folding table, folding chairs and two awnings that attach to the exterior via suction cups.

We began our trip with concerns about the tiny spaceship meeting our needs. Much to our delight, the van ended up doing surprisingly well. I’m always on a bit of a budget, so it was nice to keep the cost down compared to other options. Also, I hadn’t really realized how expensive gas is in NZ. Although the Toyota wasn’t a gas sipper, it was certainly better than a large camper. As far as driving goes, we essentially had a large car. In terms of cargo capacity, this being a ski trip we had just about as much gear as two people could bring to another country. We were able to fit everything into the van, with a bit of gear shuffling required when we wanted to set the bed up.

The van had a fridge and an extra battery — excellent. We bought a bunch of food at the “pack and save” at the start of the trip, and bought nearly nothing more. Having the little fridge was key to helping out food last the entire trip.

The bed and other “built out” camping features of the van worked well. The bed platform is a thick plastic sheet rather than plywood, with some metal bits as well. The structure seemed strong. Under-bed storage was overall adequate for all our food, cooking gear, and a bit of other junk underneath the bed. Everything else went in our duffels, which stowed behind the front seats. The only thing that didn’t store well was our skis, which we normally put on top of the bed, or diagonally on the floor behind the seats. Overall impression: compared to some minivan camper conversions I’ve seen in the U.S., the Spaceship folks did a great job.

We had the ability to set up the bed to sleep fully inside the camper. We ended up doing that most of the time, sometimes because of wind, and sometimes to escape from the deadly NZ sand fleas.

The bed set up for interior sleeping.

The bed set up for interior sleeping.

Bed set up to sleep partially outside the camper.

Bed set up to sleep partially outside the camper.

Another use for the bed platform: Ski workbench.

Another use for the bed platform: Ski workbench.

Our van also had a few downsides, mostly relating to the size of the camper (admittedly, due to our choice in size of vehicle). It certainly would have been nice to have a bit more space for our gear inside. In order to sleep, we had to move two unwieldy duffle bags up to the front seats. Also, even without our ski gear, there isn’t much space for cooking or hanging out inside the camper. Since our trip was during spring, we didn’t have much cold or wet weather. We cooked and hung out outside quite a bit.

Since our camper was a bit space limited, we were disappointed when we unpacked for the first night and found we had quite a few things that were unnecessary and took up valuable space. For one, we had sheets and a comforter. Not needed since we had sleeping bags. A large assortment of cooking gear and utensils were included with the van. Useful and appreciated if you travel in convoy with friends in another vehicle (join for dinner?), but not needed by us. Lesson: If you rent a van, go through the included gear and make sure you have everything you need, and not too much extra.

This was my first time spending an extended period of time in a campervan, and the first time I’ve ever been on a trip where we rented a car for the duration of the trip. Overall I’d do it basically the same way again.

Sidebar: An inflatable roof rack could perhaps be mandatory for any trip that involves skis and van rental. Our friend that we skied with in Greece a few years ago had one on his rental car, and ever since then I’ve thought it was a smart idea. They can be found online for $100-$200, and simply inflate and then strap to the roof of any car. Once you have the rack, it’s easy enough to strap the skis to it. The rack packs up small enough that it would be easy to buy it in the states or online before the trip, and bring it in the baggage. If we didn’t have our skis stored inside the campervan, it would have opened up quite a bit of space inside, and made it much less of a hassle.

Relaxing in beautiful New Zealand.

Relaxing in beautiful New Zealand.


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14 Responses to “Snow Tripping in New Zealand — the Spaceship Solution”

  1. VT skier October 26th, 2017 8:31 pm

    A cool Dodge Ram Promaster van conversion is built in Jolliete, Quebec. A friend in Vermont just took delivery of one , the “Imagine” version shown here
    Pop up roof, two batteries, built in propane stove and fridge, even a hot water shower (well you stand outside the back doors). Check out the pictures. And with Canada/US free trade, he just drove it across the border, into Vermont, no Federal tax or duty.!

    He plans to ship it over to Europe for the ultimate #vanlife touring vehicle for traveling from one ski zone to another !

  2. Matus October 27th, 2017 1:46 am

    Great info. Re ski rack: the inflatable ski rack has straps that go through the doors and so there is a problem in the rain – the water gets into the interior. I am taking magnetic skiracks. Larger but they work.

  3. Lou Dawson 2 October 27th, 2017 6:23 am

    VT, thanks for the link, that thing is amazing, though clear proof you get what you pay for (smile). Lou

  4. VT skier October 27th, 2017 8:32 am

    Don’t forget that price is in Canadian dollars. I should add, that this new Ram Van, built for US and Canadian market, has all the DOT and EPA stickers under the hood for import into the US, with no modifications required.
    I will send you pictures from the Dolomites, when we get there with the van..

  5. Lou Dawson 2 October 27th, 2017 8:44 am

    I’ve spent 40 years going after free socks and gloves, where is the van (smile)?

  6. Mac October 27th, 2017 11:22 pm

    You guys didn’t run into the team that managed the first ski descent of the Caroline Face on Mt Cook?

  7. Slim October 28th, 2017 7:30 pm

    The big question is:
    Do you think you were better off with this camper van than with a similar size vehicle and a tent?
    With just. 2 people in a minivan you could leave sleeping pads inflated and keep and easy to set up, car camping tent, packed in a loose bag.
    That would give you more room to sleep, indoor cooking space and less rearranging in the car of skis and gear.

  8. Jernej October 30th, 2017 11:44 pm

    Lou&VT… why bother transporting the promaster to Europe when the original FIAT/Citroën/Peugeot badged van conversions are everywhere?

  9. Jernej October 31st, 2017 1:48 am

    VT: having looked at the link for the Imagine I’m now even more convinced that you’re setting yourself up for an expensive and very uncomfortable experience.

    1) pop up roof will be either unused in winter or waste valuable energy you don’t have (more on that later). There’s a good reason why nearly every European FIAT/Citroën/Peugeot campervan conversion is the H2 or even H3 version (higher roof). H2 is tall enough for a person around 1,90m to stand up straight. H3 is usually used in conversions with bunk beds. A pop up roof is nice in summer, not much insulation in winter…
    2) The 95Ah battery will go flat in 3 or 4 days max. What then? The 120V input will be useless. Even with the 100W solar panel option you’re looking at 5-6 days max usable autonomy in winter. After that you will really need to plug in somewhere for at least a day, 2 would be preferred for proper recharge. But obviously not with the 120V. And forget about alternator charging as a few hours drive between resorts will do nothing for the battery. I’ve already included that “recharge” in the one extra day of autonomy.
    3) This company is clearly new at the conversion business as anyone doing this for a while would have known not to put a rear side window on the same side as the sliding door. A recipe for disaster if forgotten in the open position and someone opens the door or the door slides back due to an incline (broken window, bent hinges etc). I’ve noticed a few other problems on the photos but those are minor.
    4) The grey water tank outlet will freeze, leaving you with blocked sinks
    5) There is no mention of heating but I presume it is the same as in the Inspiration van (propane). While nothing is mentioned of the brand/model, I presume it’s one of the Truma models. This is where winter reality hits… I doubt you will be able to refill the propane tank or exchange it for a full one. Nearly every country has a different tank/connector standard and they will not touch anything foreign (Norway is a nice exception). It is the singular reason why we carry two tanks in winter and are limited to 3 weeks at most. An 11kg tank will last you a week, maybe 2 if you don’t mind being a bit cold and don’t use the pop up roof where heat will be escaping like crazy. If you’re lucky it’s a Truma E version with electric heating option but that will only extend your misery when you get to the electricity charge on the camping bill (not every campsite includes free electricity, I once paid 60€ just for electricity over 2 nights in Zillertal). There is a way around this problem by buying every possible gas regulator pigtail hose available from Truma. That is if you don’t mind messing with propane installations then buying a new tank in every country.

    Anyway, I strongly suggest you reconsider your plan and rent a van when you get here. At least some of those problems will be minimized if not eliminated. In any case I wish you a nice trip

  10. VT skier November 5th, 2017 8:08 pm

    Thanks for the advice !
    My friend Louis has bought the van already. I expect it will be used in North America first, to iron out the bugs. He has already driven it to a few weddings, in the East, with his wife, and slept in it, (in Fall weather) so I think it was ok. He spoke about just starting the motor from time-to-time, for heat, (after a cold night !) but I don’t think he has the auxiliary gas heater. They had a VW Vanagon before.
    He probably won’t ship it to Europe until next winter or later.
    I didn’t see the propane setup, but he said it uses small tanks. His Van Conversion does have 2 batteries.

  11. Jernej November 6th, 2017 2:18 am

    Seriously, just rent a van and you might have a chance to enjoy the experience rather than suffer through it. Winter is a definite (very) low season for rentals in Europe (with Spain & Portugal as the possible exception) so I’m guessing you might have a chance of a decent price.

    From the specs on the website the van has 2x6V batteries in series with a capacity of 95Ah. Even if you double the capacity it’s not going to last very long. Running the engine to warm up is useless in winter. Maybe the V6 petrol he probably has, but the diesel takes forever to warm up and comes to operating temperature only after about 15 minutes while driving straight or uphill. The needle won’t move anywhere at idle or going downhill. I have that problem anytime I spend the night on a mountain pass, and especially in Norway coming down from the mountains to the sea and the engine temperature needle didn’t move for over an hour. Not to mention hardly any of that heat will make it to the back of the van. Or that your ski boots and clothes will be perpetually wet.

    Running the engine at idle also won’t do shit for the battery. The propane heater, some LED lights, water pump etc. will set you back about 10-15Ah over night. That will require a couple of hours of actual driving to recharge and it still won’t be a proper recharge but that’s another issue altogether.

    There’s just so many issues in winter “vanlife” in the Alps/Pyrenees/Scandinavia that for all practical purposes you are limited to about two weeks of mountain living. After that comes the time to head to a warmer climate to get yourself and the van back in order. If this van has a battery charger that can handle 230V then you might have a chance. Otherwise forget about it now.

  12. Crazy Horse November 6th, 2017 7:17 am

    With a camper van you are always home —. For several years I owned a 1984 Chinook high top 19′ van. It was built on a 1 ton Ford chassis and had the rare 7.2 diesel engine(18mpg), a forced air heater, 3 way refrigerator/freezer and a sit down bathtub. I originally bought it for my frequent weekends in Whistler. Nothing quite like being at home in a hot shower 10 minutes after getting off the slopes. Later on it took me all over the West. I eventually brought it to Jackson Hole where it was frequently used for winter commuting in spite of my long and twisty access road. Never failed to start at -0. I look at the 120K Sprinters that are becoming common, and find little to choose over my old $8,000 Chinook.

    While I might agree with Jemij about the limitations of a mini-van for winter camping, taking the next step up in size completely changes the picture.

  13. Lou Dawson 2 November 6th, 2017 9:26 am

    Lesson that Lisa and I learned with RV ownership, go big or stay home (smile). Sure, I see the point of the smaller rigs, but overall the point is next level above a tent camp. Getting to that level requires something larger than a tent. Lou

  14. Jernej November 6th, 2017 2:33 pm

    Big or small is not really an issue. That’s just comfort or lack thereof. The problem of transporting a canadian/US van and making it work during european winter is far more basic and I’ve outlined it in the previous comments. Electricity and heating (different propane tank connection standards in nearly every alpine country) are issues that require far too much work to make importing worthwhile compared to simply renting a local van in whatever country you happen to be. And it isn’t going to be simple even then.

    Even if you have plenty of solar panels, you can’t get around the fact nearly all of the Alps are above 45° latitude, there’s a lot of shade in the narrow valleys and clouds/fog is always an option for days on end. Let’s not even consider Scandinavia, I think the best I got from a 120W panel and one of the best mppt solar regulators, was a couple/few Ah over an entire sunny day in the south of Norway (60° north). In other words, useless. We got through 2 weeks also thanks to above freezing temps at the coast and many long & warm tunnels where various parts of the van finally defrosted. And a friendly propane guy who didn’t wave us away at first sight of our “unusual” tank (as has happened in many other countries).

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