New Zealanders are known for their warm hospitality and laid-back Kiwi culture. Rain or shine, you’re always bound to find friendly faces and helping hands. However, as with any culture, it’s always best to come prepared and know what things to avoid in New Zealand that could turn your dream trip into an awkward situation.
Considering New Zealand is a bit of a quirky country, it only makes sense the main things to avoid aren’t the norm. With little religious influence, you can wear what you want, eat and drink what your heart desires and look forward to meeting open-minded locals.
Below we take a look at the 11 do nots in New Zealand. Whether you’re popping in for a few days, visiting for a month or two, or planning to call the country your new home, you’ll want to read up on these 11 things to avoid in New Zealand.
1. Hiking unprepared
All in all, New Zealand is one of the safest countries in the world to live in. There’s very little crime, hardly any dangerous animals, and the country has good health care. However, an unnecessary amount of people are injured each year while hiking. It’s easy to assume we’re talking about extreme hikers who push their limits a bit too far, but surprisingly we’re not.
In a report by the Mountain Safety Council, it’s estimated there’s an average of 4,000 hiking injuries, 500 rescues, and five deaths per year – and the majority of these occurred between 11 am and 2 pm on day hikes due to inexperienced hikers. Of course, when you’re in New Zealand, it’s an absolute must to get out and enjoy nature, but it’s essential to be prepared.
Always be sure to check the weather but also plan for the opposite (more on that later), stop in at the Department of Conservation (DOC) Visitor Center to chat with them about the route and any safety hazards, and be sure you’re wearing hiking shoes or boots with a good grip. It’s also important to tell your family, friends, accommodation, or the DOC visitor center your plans so they know where to look should you not return on time.
2. Assuming the weather won’t change
If there’s one thing you should know about New Zealand, it’s that the weather can and will change suddenly. One minute you’ll be frolicking along in a t-shirt and shorts, and the next minute you’ll be wearing a puffer jacket in a snow storm. We’re not exaggerating either.
The most significant factor in New Zealand’s variable weather is the fact that the country is comprised of two main islands that are long, skinny, and far from other large continents. Along with that, the Southern Alps running down the South Island create strange wind patterns and rain shadows, and as much of the country is near the Tasman Sea or the Pacific Ocean, New Zealand is prone to gale winds and cyclones.
Whether you’re going out for a full day hike or heading for a stroll around town, you’ll always want to pack layers. After all, It’s Murphy’s law that if you don’t pack a raincoat, it will rain, and if you don’t pack your sunnies, the sun will shine all day.
3. Boating without a life jacket
Boating, kayaking, and stand-up paddleboarding without a life jacket can result in major fines in New Zealand. Unless you want to fork over up to $500, one of the things you’ll want to avoid is New Zealand is being on any body of water without a life jacket.
It’s not always good enough to have one with you, either. In Queenstown, Southland, Wellington, Canterbury, Hawke’s Bay, and Waikato the law states you have to be properly wearing a lifejacket while on the water. This isn’t a law that gets turned a blind eye on either. Maritime officers seem to have a hawk-eye for those flouting the rules, and unless you’re a good sweet talker, there’s little chance you’ll be let off with just a warning.
While these fines for not wearing a life jacket may seem harsh, they do save lives. Much of the water in New Zealand is cold and fast-moving, making it much more dangerous than other parts of the world. Lake Wakitipu in Queenstown, for example, barely gets above 3 °C (37 °F), and even on a hot summer day, hypothermia can set in within five minutes, making it difficult for you to get back on your watercraft and moving to safety.
4. Driving without being comfortable behind the wheel
New Zealand is an ideal road-tripping destination with its diverse landscape and magnitude of best places to explore. Most visitors choose to rent a car and tour the North Island, South Island, or both in a matter of weeks. We’re not telling you to skip the road trip, but you should make sure to do your homework before jumping behind the wheel.
Even the main highways in New Zealand can be challenging to drive. It’s more unusual to be driving on a straight and multi-laned road than a windy road with hidden corners and one-lane bridges. On top of needing to be comfortable with mountainous roads, you’ll also need to be confident driving on the left side of the road. Some other caveats to be aware of include:
- It’s easy to underestimate drive times. Always allow yourself plenty of extra time to get to your next destination.
- One-lane bridges are common.
- Certain roads are not covered by rental car insurance.
- If you’re driving in winter, you’ll need to know how to put chains on your vehicle if you’re getting into high mountainous areas.
- Blind corners are common; never pass unless you have a straight and clear road ahead.
- New Zealand’s incredible landscapes can be HIGHLY distracting!
5. Rip currents
Imagine a hot summer day and you can’t wait to hop into the ocean. You see a patch of water that appears calmer than the surroundings and decide that’s the perfect spot for a dip. Next minute, you’re getting pulled straight out to sea, and there’s nothing you can do but try and enjoy the ride – that’s a rip current.
For starters, a rip current is a narrow body of water that’s moving away from the coast and out to sea. These tricky beasts can be hard to spot, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the ocean. As a general rule, be cautious if you see water that’s a different color than its surrounding and always be wary around rocky headlands and jetties as these can create strong rip currents.
If you’re caught in a rip, don’t panic, you’re not bound for Australia if you know what to do. Firstly, it’s important not to fight the rip and try to swim back to shore. Secondly, try and alert someone on hand that you need help by raising your hand in the air and waving. Thirdly, wait until the rip stops pulling you out and you can swim back to shore.
6. Not respecting Maori traditions and culture
Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand (or Aotearoa as it’s called in te Reo Maori), are well respected in New Zealand. Maori culture can be felt and seen throughout daily life. When you’re in New Zealand, it’s essential to avoid anything that will be disrespectful of Maori traditions and culture. Of course, it’s impossible to avoid something you don’t know, so we’ll chat through a few of the most important ones.
Firstly, it’s essential to understand that the haka is a sacred ceremonial war dance and shouldn’t be performed as a joke. Once you see a haka in person, particularly at an All Blacks rugby game, you’ll understand just how powerful and packed full of emotion the dance is. Attempting to copy the dance yourself could be viewed as disrespectful, so if you must, be sure to do it behind closed doors.
Another important thing to know is regarding a Maraes – a Maori meeting complex. You can not just pop in to have a look if you pass by. Instead, you have to be invited and welcomed into the Marae through a traditional process that involves a welcome call, formal speeches, songs, and hongi (Maori greeting).
The final thing to note is to avoid sitting on tables or even placing bags, hats, or other things on the table. You won’t notice this in much of the country’s food culture, but in regions where Maori culture is dominant, you’ll want to be on your best behavior.
7. Forgetting the sunscreen
You’ll notice it almost immediately, especially in the South Island, that the sun somehow seems hotter in New Zealand. It’s not just a feeling either, New Zealanders and those visiting are much more susceptible to sunburn than most other places in the world, and the country has one of the highest rates of skin cancer across the globe.
You’re probably wondering how the sun can possibly be stronger in New Zealand. Well, the main reason is attributed to the good ole ozone layer. From the late 1970s, potent emissions began eating away at the ozone layer, creating a hole in it – which happens to be over New Zealand, Australia and Antarctica. Without an ozone layer to absorb UV rays, more will reach your skin and cause damage. In addition, New Zealand has cleaner air in general, which means less UV light is blocked by air pollution.
Scientific facts aside, it won’t take long to release forgetting the sunscreen should top of the list of things to avoid in New Zealand. A fun day out in the sun in one of New Zealand’s warmest places can quickly turn you into a miserable lobster, so take it from us. Lather up before heading outdoors, even in the winter, and always re-apply every few hours or after a dip in the water. Even with 50 SPF, you’ll be amazed your skin still takes on a lovely tanned glow.
8. Bottled water
Almost everyone you meet in New Zealand will be carrying around a water bottle, or a drink bottle as the Kiwis call it. New Zealand has some of the freshest water in the world, and relying on bottled water for your supply will have you looking like a fool. Save yourself some money, help save the planet, and add bottled water to your list of things to avoid in New Zealand.
When you’re in larger towns and cities, water is collected from dams and rivers and passed through a water treatment plant before reaching your tap. This water is regularly tested for any oddities, up to 100 times a month, unlike bottled water which on average is only tested four times a month.
When you’re out in the backcountry, this is another great opportunity to rely on Mother Nature. There’s nothing better than ice-cold water from a thundering stream in remote New Zealand. You’ll also notice most huts have a rain run-off tank that can be used for drinking and cooking. This water is also perfectly fine to drink, although on rare occasions, you’ll see signs recommending the water be boiled first.
Okay, this one is a no-brainer. With the endless amount of research on the adverse side effects of smoking, you should avoid smoking and certainly avoid picking up the habit no matter where you are in the world. However, New Zealand takes it a giant step further and makes it both difficult and expensive to smoke. So much so the country has a lofty goal deemed Smokefree Aotearoa 2025.
Cigarettes are taxed so heavily in New Zealand, a standard pack of Marlboro cigarettes will cost you a staggering US$25 – and it’s only going to go up from there. Along with the tactic of making smoking an expensive habit, the government is also imposing laws that significantly lower the amount of nicotine a cigarette can have. If you happen to be under the age of 14, you’re even more out of luck. The government plans to raise the minimum age to buy cigarettes every year from 2022, essentially blocking anyone currently 14 and under from ever picking up the habit.
All in all, you’ll notice few people in New Zealand smoke. If this is one of the things to avoid in New Zealand you’ll struggle with, always be sure to be outside, well away from any doors or windows, and never toss your butt on the ground!