Listen up, everyone! It’s the first week of June. Winter has officially arrived. Grab your woolen sweaters! Raid the supermarkets for supplies! Gather your loved ones inside. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.
You may think I’m being dramatic because New Zealand actually has a relatively mild climate year-round compared to say, Canada or Siberia, but trust me on this: winter in New Zealand is next level.
No, the temperatures don’t get below -5 Celsius very frequently and it often doesn’t snow to ground level, usually remains just in the mountains, but don’t let that trick you. Yes, if the sun’s out the days can be quite pleasant but if you’re heading into your first winter in New Zealand, there are some things you need to know.
Here’s everything you need to know about surviving New Zealand’s winters.
Winter is opposite, obviously
The seasons are opposite in New Zealand from what many of us might experience in the Northern Hemisphere.
Winter officially runs from June to September, with usually the best skiing and snowboarding in July and August. The autumn colors usually are finished in the South Island by mid-May and so from May to June is the sort of ugly in-between season where it’s cold and damp but the mountains aren’t open yet for all the winter fun. Wanaka is usually blessed with an inversion layer around this time as well, but more on that in a bit.
May and June are when most locals go overseas on holiday but can be a great time to travel here and get good deals and its certainly quiet.
The night is dark and full of terrors
And by terrors, of course, I’m referring to poorly-built wooden houses with little to no insulation.
New Zealand went through a radical century of minimal building regulations for homes which resulted in little-to-no understanding of insulation and therefore pretty terrible design flaws for New Zealand homes.
Many homes have very little insulation and no double-glazing on the windows. Central heating and radiators don’t exist (as far as I can tell) and down in Wanaka where we live, you heat your house with a fire. Yes you read that right. A fire.
A study done in 2010 showed the average evening temperature of a New Zealand living room was 17.8 degrees Celsius. For my American friends keeping track at home, that’s a balmy 64 degrees. Some homes were as chilly as 10 degrees in the evenings (50F), well below the World Health Organization’s recommended minimum 18 degrees.
Of course, Kiwis will hear this and give a solemn nod and perhaps say, “She’ll be right,” (ehhh, not ideal but oh well what can you do?) But Kiwis are built tough and are a hardy folk. Much tougher than me. They basically come out of the womb ready to be submerged in an ice bath. They see ice on the *inside* of their bedroom window and don’t even flinch.
Just put on your puffer jacket and beanie and you’ll be fine. Harden up.
I thought I was ok with the cold. I survived seven Chicago winters where the temperatures rarely reached above -5C but in Chicago, the inside of places are usually warm and inviting.
I’m used to central heating. You know, a heating system that circulates warm air throughout the home to ward off the cold and dampness. I’m not used to wearing six layers and sleeping under 14 blankets. I’m not used to only heating one room in the house (sidenote: am I alone in thinking sitting on an ice cold toilet seat has to be one of the most unsettling feelings on the planet?) All I’m saying is I shouldn’t see my breath in the morning as I roll out of bed. Is that too much to ask?
Look, I’m not telling this to scare you or dissuade you. I’m just giving you the hard words because you should know exactly what you’re heading into. No one told me these things when I moved here so you’ll be miles ahead of me. Your mental preparation starts now.
I reckon it takes three winters here before you get used to it.
Invest in your heating sources
Part of why New Zealand houses are so cold is because it can be very expensive to heat them.
Most older homes will have a wood burning stove which will heat up the common area. If you’re lucky, you might have a heat transfer system that pretends to transfer that warm air to the bedrooms (spoiler: it doesn’t).
Many of us Americans grow up without solid fire-building skills, but trust me, it only takes one winter in Wanaka with a wood burner for heating and you’ll learn to build a good fire fast.
If you’re planning to heat your house with wood, buy early.
Seriously, you can never be too early to buy your winter supply of wood. Not only will it be cheaper the earlier you buy it but there’s also a good chance the entire region will run out of wood if you leave it too long. You also want it really early because often it’s wet and not completely dried out and you need time to get it to dry.
If you’re nearing the end of May and haven’t figured out your wood supply yet, be ready to shell out big bucks for a few meters or be prepared to tough it without a fire.
If you’re a giant baby like me, you’ll also probably want to figure out how you can have a heater in your room without blowing your life savings. I use an oil heater and I’ve read if you let it run for 3 hours a day for 30 days, your monthly power bill will go up by about $50. Since I leave mine on almost all night, I’d triple this.
Some houses are heated with heat pumps which can be more economical.
If you’re heating your water with electric power, your bill will be even higher. In my opinion, there’s really no way around it. I’m past the point in my life where I’m too cheap to pay to be warm so I try to budget through the year. I’m conscious when I get my cheap summer bills to set some extra aside for winter.
Bite the bullet and pay up. It’s so worth it to be warm.
The sun is there. Learn how to find it
It’s no secret that winters are dark. We’re not special here, I know.
This isn’t a fact solely synonymous with New Zealand. Unless you’re on the equator, every country gets dark earlier and earlier as winter creeps up. But in many parts of the South Island (especially our beloved Wanaka home) we are also treated to the infamous inversion layer in the early winter day smothering the town in a layer of grey gloom for days on end.
Without getting too science-y here, inversion layers develop when the ground cools off rapidly making the air closest to the ground much cooler than the atmosphere layers above. This produces a dense, low hanging cloud that blankets the town. Sometimes it burns off by the afternoon and othertimes you’re stuck with it.
If you’re planning to enjoy a Wanaka winter, you’ll most likely be introduced to the inversion and be left wondering when the sun will come out again. But don’t worry, it usually ends by July and August and then we have many bluebird winter days, great for skiing.
Here’s the secret: get above the sun.
It can be so deceiving when you’re the town, huddled beneath the dark clouds to think you’ll never see the sun again but a quick drive up Cardrona Valley or up the ski field access roads will catapult you into that bright and warm sunshine you’ve been craving.
If you don’t want to drive, just start walking up a hill. Any mountain reaching 1,000m is likely to be above the inversion layer and there’s really nothing quite like popping out the other side of the inversion layer, basking in the sun and looking down to the sea of clouds below you.
Pretty tough to not feel very smug for all those poor people still in town hiding under the clouds. Go ahead, let that smirk slip. No one’s going to know when you’re 1,000m in the air.
And before you know it, the ski fields are open and winter New Zealand is in full swing.
Powder days are the best!
If you find yourself living near one of the many mountains in New Zealand or even just visiting in winter. Learn to ski or get up the hills.
Skiing and snowboarding is a big part of the winter culture in New Zealand, and it’s really fun to embrace it. Everyone gets excited for storms and powder days, and being such small communities you often see people you know up the mountains.
You’ll find us riding up at our local mountain, Cardrona, this winter, we have season passes and are especially excited as there is already so much snow!
Since major hikes are often off the cards in winter due to avalanche dangers, zipping around on skis is the next best thing. And there is great backcountry exploring and even heli-skiing options to be had for the bold and adventurous.
Winter is the perfect time to accessorize!
No, I’m not talking about a new necklace or a dope new scarf (although that actually might be a good investment tbh). I’m talking about home accessorizing!
There are few old tricks of the trade to pull out from the archives on how to keep warm in the house, without lighting the fire or putting the heater on.
First things first, you’re going to need to get yourself about five hot water bottles.
Yes, the ones your mom would give you when you had terrible cramps. Stock up on those babies and fill them to the brim every night with boiling hot water. Hug one while you’re watching a movie in the lounge. Strategically put them in different corners of your bed to make it nice and toasty before going to sleep. Take one with you to meet a friend for brunch. Whatever. I’m not here to judge you.
Get a nice wooley cover for them, or if you’re feeling particularly kiwi, a possum fur cover.
Next, stock up on merino wool clothing. I know it can be expensive but it’s worth it. You’ll be much warmer in wool than in cotton and you’re body will be thanking you for not having to work so hard to keep you warm. Long sleeve shirts, leggings, hats, gloves. You really can’t have too much merino.
Often heating is such a luxury in the States and I can remember living in places with radiators where it was so hot inside in winter you’d be in a t-shirt. Well let me be the first to tell you, you won’t even be looking at t-shirts in winter in New Zealand. Bundle. Up.
Finally, you’re going to want to get yourself some flannel sheets. There’s nothing worse than crawling into an icebox of a bed thanks to your cotton sheets. Flannel sheets will change your life and will make getting out of bed in the morning 10 times harder.
(Hot take: Many people in New Zealand use electric blankets to heat their bed. I’m not advocating for this because there’s tons of research showing they are extremely dangerous, emitting an electromagnetic field that is directly linked to an increased risk of cancer. Google it!)
Learn to eat seasonally
If you’re staying for winter you’re going to find out very quickly that a lot of produce is simply not available in the winter.
Yes, hi, privileged American girl over here, I know.
I guess I took for granted the plethora of tropical fruit and exotic vegetables offered year-round in American grocery stores. I quickly changed my tune when I moved here and saw that limes are $30/kilo here ($13/lb). Don’t even get me started on avocados.
Most people who live here know avocados are strictly off limits until summer unless you’re a millionaire.
The good news is you’re quickly going to learn how to eat seasonally.
Things like broccoli, parsnips, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, sweet potato and carrots get a lot cheaper.
At first, you might miss your watermelon and pineapple and bell peppers but it will just make them taste that much sweeter when they finally come back in season.
Indulge in your hobbies
Winter is a great time to finally devote some time to that hobby you’ve been meaning to pick up.
The daylight hours are limited, the weather outside is frightful, etc. etc. Maybe take that pottery class you’ve been scoping out. Perhaps you’re finally going to learn how to crochet a pair of socks. Take a cheese making course. Learn to bake really dope bread.
Even better, learn how to make the perfect American doughnut because there’s a shockingly low standards for good doughnuts in New Zealand (what’s a girl gotta do to get an old-fashioned cake doughnut around here??)
Also get outside and indulge in some of those epic winter adventures available around New Zealand. My favorite is snowshoeing on the Tasman Glacier.
There are a lot of cool things happening in winter
It’s not surprising that a lot of the really cool events happen in winter when people really need a boost of spirits. There are plenty of winter events to keep you happy.
Starting in late May, get tickets to the world-renowned Banff Mountain Film Festival which hits locations (including Queenstown) around the country. Hit up another film festival, this time the New Zealand Mountain Film Festival which is a super fun event celebrating all things adventure in Queenstown and Wanaka for a few days.
Check out Luma, a lights festival focusing on arts and culture in Queenstown. Don’t forget to partake in your local Matariki (Māori New Year) celebration.
Winterfest in Queenstown is also a big hit, and this year the host mountain is my local hill, Cardrona Alpine Resort! The southern hemisphere’s biggest celebration of winter, it is such a fun way to kick off the winter season if you find yourself around the South Island at the time.
Embrace the cold
What’s that saying? If you can’t beat them, curl up in a ball and cry until you finally generate some body heat? No?
Despite my complaining and moaning, there’s a reason I’ve weathered three winters in Wanaka.
Yes it’s cold and somedays I feel like my toes won’t have feeling in them again until October but there’s no denying winter is a special time in New Zealand. The mountains that are already spectacularly grand somehow look even more massive and majestic with half a coat of snow.
Embrace that snow and do as the locals do.
Get up the hill and learn to ski/board. If you already know how bite the bullet and buy a ski pass so you can enjoy the winter sun guilt free whenever you please. Go for a walk on a lower altitude track (there are TONS!). Find some snowshoes and go from a tramp around the gentle slowing Pisa Range.
If nothing else, find some snow and throw a snowball in your best friend’s face. It’s bound to make you laugh and break out of that seasonal depression disorder.
It can be tough weathering New Zealand’s winter but just remember, each day you’re that much closer to summer and when it’s all said and done, you’re going to be a lot tougher on the other side of winter than when you started.
Welcome to the Kiwi lifestyle. Time to harden up!
Do you travel in winter? Have you ever been to New Zealand in winter? Share!