Mountain Biking in New Zealand: A Complete Guide
Everything you need to know about mountain biking in New Zealand.
Seeing New Zealand’s epic landscapes is one thing but experiencing the adrenaline-pumping terrain or having a cruisy ride along a historic rail trail is another. Experiencing New Zealand on two wheels is an increasingly popular way to discover the landscapes, history and terrain of the country. In this complete guide to mountain biking in New Zealand, we’ll go through every practical tip and things you need to know to prepare some epic riding Down Under.
Thanks to the Nga Haerenga: The New Zealand Cycle Trail there is more than 20 “Great Rides” that cover 2,500km of trails across New Zealand. On top of that, you have dedicated MTB parks to pure backcountry wilderness trails. For details on the bike trails themselves, refer to our biking category. This is more of a complete practical guide to mountain biking in New Zealand.
Trail Grades Guide
Almost all New Zealand bike trails are given a grade to help riders understand the difficulty of the trail. There are trails for beginners to hardcore extreme riders (so there’s literally something for everyone)! When researching New Zealand bike trails, be sure to choose something that suits your riding abilities. If you’re a newbie to mountain biking or unsure what to go for, consider sticking to Grades 1-3 for your first few trails.
Bike Trail Grade Guide
- Grade 1 – Easiest track with a smooth, flat surface.
- Grade 2 – Easy with some gentle climbs and avoidable obstacles like rocks.
- Grade 3 – Intermediate with steep hills and some avoidable obstacles.
- Grade 4 – Advanced level track with long steep sections, narrow tracks and obstacles you might have to ride over.
- Grade 5 – Expert is technically and physically challenging.
- Grade 6 – Extreme level is for people who know their shit. Possible man-made or natural jumps.
Downhill Mountain Biking Grades
When at a New Zealand mountain bike park, the grades are the same as what is described above. However, to make mountain bike park maps simple, there are usually colour-coded as follows:
- Green – Grade 1-2
- Blue & White (White square with a blue cyclist icon) – Grade 3
- Blue (Blue square with a white cyclist icon) – Grade 4
- Black Diamond – Grade 5
- Double Black Diamond – Grade 6
Cycling on New Zealand Roads
Although the vast majority of New Zealand bike trails are off-road, there may be sections where you are cycling on the road. Cycling infrastructure in and around New Zealand is still a developing asset, so both Kiwi and international drivers may not be expecting to see cyclists on the road. For your safety, you need to make sure that you are as visible on the road as possible. Here are a few tips:
- In New Zealand it is compulsory to wear a helmet when cycling. Not doing so could incur an instant fine.
- Help to be seen by having lights on your bike and wear bright or reflective clothing. Good bike hire companies in New Zealand will provide you with such, so consider this feature when looking for bikes to hire.
- Stick to the New Zealand road rules
- Use hand signals to indicate when turning or stopping
- Ride in single file no more than two abreast, especially on narrow roads and where there is traffic
- If you have a tail of cars behind you, pull over and let them pass.
Where to hire a bike from
Where can you not hire a bike in New Zealand? Where there’s a major bike trail, you can bet there is a place to hire a bike for it. Budget mountain bikes, e-mountain bikes and top-of-the-range mountain bikes: there is a huge offering in New Zealand. Long-term bike hire is available in major cities like Auckland, Christchurch and Queenstown, while other bike shops may offer a buy-back scheme where they will refund you half the price if the bike is returned in good condition.
What should be included in your bike hire
- A good-condition bike with working breaks, gears and suspension (duh!)
- Bike helmet
- Safety features like reflective panels and lights
- Tyre pump and puncture repair kit
- Reflective over-vest (optional)
- Saddle bags (optional)
Be aware that New Zealand bikes have the rear brake on the left!
Bringing your own bike from home
We get it, nothing feels quite the same as your own bike. With the right packaging and organisation with your airline carrier, bringing your own bike to New Zealand doesn’t have to be a painful process.
Check the airline regulation
Before considering bringing your own bike, you need to check what the regulations are for transporting bikes with the airline you plan on using. Most airlines require bikes to be packed in a bike box or bike bag. This means you will need to dismantle your bike to fit, there is not way around it. Check if there are any additional charges for checking in a bike, as some airlines charge around NZ$200 to check-in bikes. Finally, there may be a weight or size limit to your bike packaging so be sure to check that information too. (Usually, it’s around 2m long and 23kg limit).
Packing your bike
As mentioned above, soft bike bags or cardboard bike boxes are the easiest packing option, as you can either fold up the bike bag to travel with once in New Zealand or discard the bike box an simply buy a new one in New Zealand before your flight home. Bike bags or boxes are usually available at bike stores and bike boxes are sometimes sold at airports.
Insurance for your bike
Remember that you may want to add your bike as an extra personal item to your travel insurance, which is usually much cheaper than buying stand-alone insurance for it.
Getting around New Zealand with a bike
Unless you are a biking machine and are literally using you bike to get around New Zealand, you are going to want to know how to transport a bike from trail to trail. An easy way to solve this issue is to simple hire a bike at each location you plan on biking. However, if you want to use your own bike or the same bike all around the country, then here are your options:
Hire a car or campervan with a bike rack
If you are in New Zealand for less than a month, then consider hiring a car or campervan with a bike rack. A bike rack is likely to come at an extra cost with any car or campervan rental. Bike racks are more standard on campervans than they are with cars. Learn more about renting vehicles in New Zealand with our huge page dedicated to rentals in New Zealand.
Buy a bike rack for your car
For those of you doing a working holiday in New Zealand or just backpacking around the country for a few months, then buying your own vehicle is much more cost-effective than renting. If you have not already, check out the ins and outs of buying a vehicle in New Zealand with this guide. Bike racks can be bought at any major bike store in New Zealand such as Torpedo7 or Bike Barn.
Taking bikes on national coaches
You can travel on the national coaches (InterCity and Manabus) with a bike, but under the following conditions:
- The bike must be collapsed down (both wheels removed from the frame), the handle bars turned, pedals removed and the chain covered to be counted as one of your two checked-in luggage entitlements, or
- If your bike is not collapsed down, a NZ$10 charge is payable to the driver.
Once you have reached a major town close to popular bike trails, there is highly liked to be mountain bike shuttles transporting you and your bike (or hired bike) to one end of the trail and pick you up from the other end. These shuttle services are readily available, especially for the “Great Rides” and more!
Bikes on Trains
The national train service is very limited in New Zealand, acting more as a scenic rail journey rather than getting from A to B. However, trains and bikes tend to go very well together. For example, bikes are welcome on all KiwiRail services for a NZ$10 fee. You must store bikes in the baggage carriage. Other train networks, like Dunedin Railways and the Bay of Islands Vintage Steam Railway connect cyclists to major bike trails, so bikes are welcome on board.
Mountain biking Tours around New Zealand
Because New Zealand is such an awesome mountain biking country, there are mountain biking bus tours that take keen cyclists all over the country catering to all riding abilities. Not only is this an easy way to get to all the bike trails, but transporting your bike is sorted. The tour company will provide you with a bike and transport it will you on the bus, either by specially designed trailers or on a bike rack. Check out Flying Kiwi which is an awesome example of a flexible tour for mountain bikers.
Accommodation on or near bike trails
Towns located close to popular bike trails in New Zealand often provide a good selection of accommodation from campsites to hostels to hotels. Most cyclists prefer to make use of holiday parks, campsites and hostels, as these accommodation options are affordable and often have somewhere to store bikes or hook you up with local bike hire companies. Here are a few links to inform you on what to expect from these different types of budget accommodation:
On multi-day bikes trails, you will find a mix of backcountry huts with limited facilities and lodges, depending on which multi-day trail you do. Trails like the Queen Charlotte Track and the Timber Trail are known for their accommodation experiences as well as the ride.
Be aware that you cannot simply camp anywhere in New Zealand. In order to keep New Zealand beautiful, you can only camp in designated locations like campsites and holiday parks. Certified self-contained campervans and motorhomes can camp on most council-run or Department of Conservation land where there are no restrictions. Find out more about freedom camping here.
Food and services near bike trails
Popular bike trails such as the “Great Rides” are often located near or pass through towns with at least a convenience store, cafe and public toilets. In fact, they are designed that way partly so you can enjoy the local cuisines and wines of New Zealand. Some trails may even have coffee stands or food trucks during the busy summer season. Nevertheless, you should always pack at least some snacks to sustain you for the ride or in case the ride takes longer than planned.
Some bike trails in New Zealand are in the backcountry with no food or services whatsoever. You will need to fully sustain yourself. However, these backcountry trails are likely to have huts or public toilets.
There are plenty of mountain bike trail descriptions on BackpackerGuide.NZ, on the Department of Conservation website, leaflets, information centres and more so you can plan the food and supplies you will need.
Learn more about food shopping in New Zealand here.
What time of year is the best to mountain bike in New Zealand?
Thanks to different micro-climates in New Zealand, mountain biking can be enjoyed year-round in New Zealand. During the rainy seasons (June to August), you will find better soil conditions in the Central North Island (Taupo and Rotorua) thanks to permeable volcanic soil. Although the summer season (December to February) is the most popular time to cycle New Zealand, the warmer weather can make it too uncomfortable for some riders, so you might at least want to bike in the southern South Island where temperatures are a little cooler. Alternatively, spring (September to November) and autumn (March to May) usually have more favorable temperatures for mountain biking.
Whatever time of year you decide to mountain bike in New Zealand, be prepared for frequent changeable weather. It is also best to check the weather forecast before setting off and be prepared for a change in weather.
For more information on the seasons and climates in New Zealand, check out When is the Best Time to Go Backpacking in New Zealand? and What is the Weather Like in New Zealand?
Mountain Biking on the North Island
Right about now you are probably wondering what bikes trails are worth checking out in New Zealand.
To paint you a picture of what to expect from bike trails in New Zealand, here are some of the highlights from the North Island. Of course, if you want more details on a specific region, be sure to head on over to our Biking category.
- Twin Coast Cycle Trail (2-days, 84km, Grades 1-2). In the winterless Bay of Islands, cycle from coast to coast through old railway tunnels, forest lakes and farmland.
- Hauraki Rail Trail (2-3 days, 77km, Grade 1). Ride through the Waikato region on this trail following an old railway corridor through Karangahake Gorge, across the grand Arapuni swing bridge and to the historic town of Waihi.
- Motu Trails (1-3 Days, 10-91km, Grades 2-4). Three trails make up the Motu Trails in the Bay of Plenty. Choose one or a mix of the three trails taking you through sand dunes, dense native forest and and isolated road to waterfalls.
- Timber Trail (2 Days, 85km, Grade 3). Prepare to be wowed by the wilderness of the Timber Trail deep in the forests of the Pureora Forest Park where all you will hear are your wheels spinning and the birds.
- Mountains to Sea (3-5 Days, 217km, Grades 2-4). Bike from the edge of New Zealand’s largest volcano to the coast of Wanganui encompassing forest, mountains and the culturally significant Whanganui River.
For more rides, head on over to 10 Great Bike Trails on the North Island.
Mountain Biking on the South Island
For a mix of Southern Alps scenery, coastal and heritage trails, then consider choosing some trails from the South Island. There are so many to choose from but we’ll list just a few here to give you have idea of the offerings and to keep things simple.
Here are the mountain biking trails to look out for on the South Island.
- Queen Charlotte Track (2-3 Days, 70km, Grades 3-4). Ride through a mix of forest and stunning coastal views of the Queen Charlotte Track with a whole range of accommodations to choose from.
- Old Ghost Road (2-4 Days, 85km, Grade 4). Revel in the wild West Coast views of the South Island on this historic mining trails called the Old Ghost Road.
- Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail (6 Days, 306km, Grades 2-3). Starting in the heart of the Southern Alps, journey past glacial lakes and far-stretching views throughout the ride.
- Otago Central Rail Trail (1-5 Days, 152km, Grade 1). Hop from town to town on this old railway trail delving into the Kiwi culture on this easy multi-day cycle trail.
- Clutha Gold Trail (2 Days, 73km, Grade 2). Ride through stunning river gorges which links up with the Otago Rail Trail connecting classic Kiwi towns.
For more South Island inspiration, check out 10 Great Bike Trails on the South Island.
Mountain bikers Code
The Mountain Bike Association of New Zealand has developed a mountain bikers code which you will seen often displayed at the beginning of any major cycle trail in New Zealand. It acts as a code of biking etiquette in New Zealand, which every cyclist and mountain biker should follow. As well as following the rules of New Zealand roads, which is described more in detail in the section above, you should also be aware of the following:
- Stay in control so you can safely avoid other trail users (and keep yourself safe)
- Give way to walkers
- Use a bell or a friendly greeting when approaching other trail users to let them know you are there
- Ride on shared-use tracks in small groups (less than eight riders)
- Be patient with slower riders and pull over where safe to let faster riders pass
- Only ride where bikes are permitted
- Leave gates as you find them (open or closed)
- Be prepared with the appropriate clothing and food (including for change in weather, getting lost or in an accident)
- Don’t skid, cut corners or veer off the main trail
- Clean your bike regularly to avoid the spread of weeds
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