South Island winter driving tips, ahead of Queen’s Birthday Weekend 30 May - 1 June


With the Queen’s Birthday public holiday long weekend ahead, drivers need to stay safe and plan ahead, particularly if they are driving long distances in freezing, windy or wet conditions.

Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency encourages drivers to be well prepared – inside and outside the car and in relation to the weather and driving conditions.

“We want all our travellers to get to their destinations and back again safely and to enjoy the journey,” says Waka Kotahi Journey Manager Tresca Forrester.

Check the MetService forecast for your route before you head off(external link)

Check the MetService Warnings and Watches page(external link) 

While Waka Kotahi highway crews will be monitoring past trouble spots with machines handy, people should also be ready for winter conditions, says Ms Forrester.  All active work sites will be closed down for the long weekend so delays will be minimal and only at places with long-standing repairs underway.

“Across the whole South Island quite different conditions can affect our roads over the same weekend, so it pays for people to be aware of those differences if they are heading away from home and travel well prepared. Have food, water and warm clothing in your car in case you need to stay put at any stage.”

For specific closures due to weather, slips or crashes which might have closed highways temporarily, as well as planned repair sites, check our traffic and travel map and information.

Traffic and travel map on the Waka Kotahi website(external link)

Top of the South – Nelson, Tasman and Marlborough

The coldest parts of the highway network are probably around St Arnaud via the Wairau Valley (SH63), but it can also get icy on SH6 east of Nelson on the Whangamoas and to the south of the city on the Spooner Range and Hope Saddle.

Takaka Hill (SH60) in Tasman District, sits out of the sun for much of winter and also requires care on icy corners. With cyclone repairs underway, there is a one-way section on this hill managed with traffic lights.

Managing the South Island alpine passes

Waka Kotahi crews’ management of the alpine passes (Lewis, Arthur’s, Porter’s) and Haast Pass in South Westland will largely be the same this winter as last winter:

  • SH7 Lewis Pass and Rahu Saddle (near Reefton) will be open or closed.
  • SH6 Haast Pass to Makarora in Otago will be open or closed.
  • SH73 Springfield to Otira (ie both Arthur’s and Porters Passes) will be open or closed.

Please note: People using alpine roads or going to skifields need to carry chains and know how to put them on. Weather can deteriorate fast in these high altitudes.

“The open/close system means drivers will be asked to park up or wait at a café in a nearby town for a short time if they get to a highway which has been closed due to snow or ice conditions,” says Ms Forrester. “The road crews will ensure the roads are gritted or de-iced and traffic can get through safely once it is safe to go.

The crews are experienced and want every one of our road users to be safe in wintery conditions.

“We encourage everyone just to pause before a winter journey and go through the safety checklist – a few minutes spent on planning may well save your life.”

South Canterbury/North Otago

The semi-alpine Burkes Pass in South Canterbury on SH8 between Fairlie and Tekapo and the alpine Lindis Pass on SH8 in North Otago between Omarama and Cromwell get very cold and foggy and can have ice and snow in winter.

People driving through these high country routes in winter conditions, as in Queenstown and Wanaka, need to carry chains and know how to fit them quickly. Cell phone coverage can be patchy in places.

If conditions are very bad, crews will close the highway or restrict road users to non-towing vehicles.

Otago and Southland

Most highways in Otago and Southland managed by Waka Kotahi highway maintenance crews will largely follow the same system as the alpine pass management - either Open or Closed, if winter conditions make travel marginal or unsafe. This includes the main SH1 into Dunedin from the north also, where crews often lay grit or de-icing material ahead of below zero temperatures. In some cases, the roads may be open to vehicles so long as they are not towing anything.

The Crown Range Road, other local roads around Wanaka and Queenstown

The Crown Range Road between Wanaka and Queenstown is managed by Queenstown Lakes District Council (QLDC). People who use it regularly are expected to have a set of chains in their vehicle and be competent at getting them on in freezing conditions.

QLDC has a daily road update emailed by 7 am which provides invaluable road advice for people heading to the skifields or just getting around their district.  They also send out text updates.

Southland’s Milford Road, State Highway 94

The Milford Road, SH94, is managed by the Milford Road Alliance – Downer NZ and Waka Kotahi and is either open or closed, with limited mobile coverage in places.

As well as snowfall and black ice in winter (already this year there has been black ice on parts of this road), this highway is in an avalanche area and has an avalanche monitoring system in place to protect people.

This winter and spring people will also drive past construction sites in several places as the repairs to the February storm are progressed. Expect to see one-lane sections, crews and  temporary speed limits.

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Winter driving tips

  • Check weather and travel conditions on highways before you start your trip and on breaks throughout your journey - use link)
  • Call 0800 4 HIGHWAYS (0800 44 44 49).
  • Ensure your car is safe and equipped: spare tyre, warrant of fitness up-to-date, lights, brakes and wind-wipers all working, clean windscreen inside and out, check tyre treads to ensure good grip.
  • If you are travelling long distances, share the driving and have regular breaks.
  • Wear your seat belt throughout the journey and check your passengers have theirs clicked in too.
  • Driving on roads that are exposed to snow and ice can be treacherous, so slow down and drive to the conditions, not the allowable/legal speed limit. Increase the following distance between you and the vehicle ahead.
  • Be prepared when travelling in case of delays on the road, particularly in alpine conditions. Make sure you have warm clothes/food/water/charged mobile phone. In an emergency, phone 111. Bear in mind some parts of the highway have no cell coverage.
  • Learn about winter driving, including how to get your vehicle ready and if you are driving in an area where chains may be needed, practise putting them on before you go so you are not caught out. 

Driving safely in winter(external link)

If extreme weather or treacherous road conditions are forecast, consider whether you really need to travel.

Plan ahead for a safe, enjoyable journey. Keep up to date with: