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Freedom camping tips for New Zealand

1. The dream of staying in pure nature

Freedom camping tips for New Zealand - campervan on a beachPictures of lonely campervans in the wild, overnighting next to white sand beaches, watching the waves and a starry sky at night and waking up in time for sunrise... Freedom camping of this kind actually is possible in New Zealand, but unfortunately not that easy to turn into reality. Along the popular tourist routes (see travel itineraries) even New Zealand is too small to allow such experiences for all visitors. But with a bit of planning and luck this dream can still be realised today.

2. The freedom camping myth

There are good reasons why the most beautiful places in New Zealand are full of campsites with hot showers, communal kitchens and flushing toilets... 

  • Freedom camping in the rain is only fun when you have a campervan big enough to stand in, cook, do the dishes, lounge and use a toilet.
  • After a few days even a large campervan will be a bit tight, the water may run out or a tank must be emptied.
  • Even in the 21st century there are no power sockets on the beach and if you don’t drive you can’t recharge your mobile phone - how can you update Facebook if in remote places without mobile reception..?
  • Staying free of charge to keep travel costs under control is probably rather a romantic thought instead of reality, especially when renting an expensive, self-contained campervan. Is it not just a pretext to be able to hire a top of the range adventurous model without a bad conscience...? If you have 3 weeks to spend in New Zealand you may only find the opportunity to freedom camp for 2-3 of those nights.

3. Current problems with freedom camping

New Zealand newspapers have for years been full of stories in which tourists stay overnight in the wild, make noise, light fires then leave their rubbish and waste behind, which is quite annoying for local residents. Simple waste is the smallest problem, unfortunately regular urination leads to visible - and also smellable - consequences. Excrement doesn’t get buried and toilet paper piles up in the most beautiful places: not exactly '100% Pure New Zealand' for all the nature lovers who follow afterwards.

Freedom camping tips for New Zealand - campervan clubSince Kiwis themselves have also been happy for decades freedom camping, the New Zealand Campervan Club members especially suffer from the consequences of further closures of permittable freedom camping areas. Its members have to be well equipped and certified for freedom camping, so they have hardly contributed to the problem. Now the next step in this chess game is that most districts only allow freedom camping if a vehicle meets the strict requirements of the campervan club - which becomes a major obstacle for many travellers in smaller backpacker vans.

Another sad problem is that on occasions tourists have been targeted by criminals in remote places. Although this still is extremely rare there is a risk that it can happen in any area, so it is advisable to plan for your safety.

  • Overnight spots with several vehicles are preferrable in isolated places.
  • Car parks in city centres can be busy with partying crowds on weekends.
  • Always park the campervan in such a way that you can easily drive off.
  • Lock all lthe doors on your vehicle at night and have a mobile phone ready.

4. Regulations and rules

Each district can adopt individual rules to restrict freedom camping (in New Zealand these are called ‘bylaws’), which is often the case where there have been problems in the past. Examples of such rules are: 'Free camping is allowed in all community car parks with toilets'; 'Maximum stay 3 nights'; 'Restricted camping up to 5 vehicles within 100 metres of a toilet'; 'Free camping only between 1 March and 31 October', etc.

Freedom camping - self-containment certificateThe term ‘freedom camping" is often used synonymously with the self-containment certificate (New Zealand Standard Self-Containment of Motor Caravans and Caravans). Freedom camping therefore doesn’t automatically mean that you can put up a tent or overnight in a regular car. Normally, only vehicles with a current valid self-containment sticker AND card may remain in such places. The detailed rules are quite complicated, roughly summarised a vehicle should be able to keep its passengers clean and independent with water and sewage for a period of three days. The certificate is issued for a fee (or free of charge for members) by the New Zealand Motor Caravan Association (also certified plumbers and respective companies may issue stickers and cards). The rules require:

  • 4 litres of fresh water per person per day (for 3 days)
  • 1 litre toilet capacity per person per day
  • 4 litres of wastewater capacity per person per day
  • A closable waste bin
  • A smell-proof sink with pipes leading into a grey water tank

Waste water may only be disposed of in special stations (dump stations).

Buying a car with an old sticker is no longer a good solution, depending on region the inspectors can be merciless and penalties can run into hundreds of dollars. There is still hope for typical smaller backpacker vans, using mobile solutions for tanks and toilet seems to work, but please consult a self-containment officer before buying items. The certification of a vehicle from ground up can easily take the first two weeks of a trip and cost a lot of money, it’s best to buy or rent a self-contained vehicle from the start.

Freedom camping tips - dump stationsSewage and grey water may only be disposed of in special stations (dump stations). This also applies to the washing-up and showering water (apparently, dangerous bacteria may form in tanks, so that DOC has also adopted this rule for its parks). It makes sense, of course, that the shampoos and cleansers of hundreds of visitors should not simply run off beside a lake or river.

Campervan toilets are full of chemicals so they must also be disposed of in dump stations - if you empty the contents into a normal toilet with ecological disposal or a septic tank, this can destroy the necessary bacteria in the system.

For smaller backpacker vans there is still hope to get certified by using mobile solutions for tanks and toilets, but whether this really works out may depend on how generous an inspector is - after all, the toilet in the vehicle should also be easily usable. Getting the self-containment certification for a vehicle from the ground up can easily take up the first two weeks of a trip, and devour some money!

Freedom camping tips New Zealand - self contained cardSimply buying a vehicle with an old sticker is no longer a good solution, depending on the region the inspectors know all such excuses and the penalty can be hundreds of dollars in fines.

There are less inspectors and police checks in remote areas, but those who are caught will have to expect a fine. With a bit of luck they will simply direct you away to another spot, also not ideal in the middle of the night.

Both the districts and the government are constantly installing new public toilets so the situation should improve in the long term.

5. Tips on how to find the best freedom camping spots

  • The further you venture from the usual travel destinations the more relaxed the rules will be - and the more space left for adventure.
  • Travelling outside of main tourism season makes everything easier - from mid-December to the end of February the best freedom campsites are well-occupied.
  • Often parking spaces are limited - the sooner you arrive the better the chances of finding a super spot for the night. And the longer you have time to enjoy it!
Freedom camping tips New Zealand - self contained campervansSince the rules are different in each district it’s worth investing some time into planning an itinerary to open up opportunities later. It does not make much sense to arrive late at night on a Coromandel beach and hope for that perfect free spot. Since many districts still allow free camping near a toilet, there are still many possibilities to stay in tents or cars, it just takes more planning.
  • If you can’t plan much in advance then you should at least try to enquire about local freedom camping options in a local i-SITE (an official tourist information centre), they usually close around 5pm. Create a bookmark in your mobile or print a list of all the current visitor information centres with their addresses and opening times.
  • All the regions also have dedicated tourism websites with information (links can be found in our region descriptions). Some offer special camping brochures for download, and detailed regional maps will help you find the most beautiful places for the night.
  • There are various travel apps that list all of New Zealand's commercial campsites but also some free parking areas. If a car park has toilets then (depending on the region) the chance is higher that it could also be a free campsite. See our recommendations for travel apps.
  • Many clubs, pubs, restaurants, backpackers and hotels welcome campervans in their car parks, perhaps with a fee (often only for the showers), hoping that campervanners will eat and drink in their restaurants. These are usually also listed in travel apps.
  • All districts, as well as all cities, have their own websites which more or less describe local freedom camping opportunities and rules. See the districts of New Zealand.
  • Hundreds of free campsites and car parks in tourist areas are reserved for certified campervans and other mobile homes, sometimes for a small fee and with power points. They should be listed in the apps as well or enquire at an i-SITE.
  • The less touristy areas often conclude that freedom campers are good for the area as they support the local economy. A website launched by the New Zealand campervan club offers them the opportunity to present themselves as 'motorhome friendly towns', see www.mhftowns.com.
  • The New Zealand Campervan Club operates a network of campgrounds and overnight facilities on dedicated properties (called POP - Park Over Property, often provided by other club members), both charge very low fees. Whether a membership is worthwhile just for a New Zealand trip is doubtful because the joining fee is quite high. See the NZMCA website.
  • It makes sense to look out for new specialised travel guide books, but keep in mind that because of the current discussions rules are still changing.

6. Alternative options to freedom camping

Freedom camping in New Zealand - campervan on a beachDepending on the area the solution is simple: the most beautiful campsites in New Zealand are operated by the Department of Conservation (DOC), at the cheapest prices (normally 6 NZD per person per night), with at least toilets and running water. Take one of the DOC maps listing approximately 200 campgrounds. They usually always still have a spot left for late arrivals because parking spaces are rarely pre-arranged. Only a few have limits or are very crowded in full season. DOC manages protected reserves where no commercial campsites are allowed to operate, in all other areas these campgrounds are of course rare. See the DOC website at www.doc.govt.nz/campsites.

Many of the commercial campsites and holiday parks are located beside the most beautiful beaches and lakes, while free parking is often banished to car parks or inland locations. Thus, between NZ$10 - 30 per person not only provides infrastructure, waste disposal, security, etc., but also for the privilege of enjoying these beautiful spots - and nice memories are probably why travellers come to New Zealand!

Some districts have their own chain of campsites, such as the Auckland Regional Parks or the 'Summer Campgrounds' of the East Cape, with reasonable prices for the most beautiful campgrounds, often with toilets and also for non-certified campers.

7. Our freedom camping tips in short

  • Download the Tourleader New Zealand website! If possible rent or buy a vehicle with a certificate for 'self-containment'.
  • Only overnight at approved places with a toilet handy.
  • Never leave any waste.
  • Drain tanks only at the official dump stations.
  • Always use a toilet.
  • Do not annoy local residents or other campers.
  • No fires, these are prohibited nearly everywhere.
  • Ask about the local freedom camping rules


Check out our tips about renting campervans and mobile homes or for other options see getting around New Zealand.

 
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