It’s hard to imagine a country more well-suited to freedom camping than New Zealand, and the South Island is filled with free camping sites every wanderlust-struck heart should visit. Zipping around the South Island at one’s own leisure is one of the most memorable and rewarding journeys to undertake. Nature and travel are part of the way of life here in New Zealand and there’s a real reverence for the land.
If you’re new to the area or new to travelling in a campervan rental in general, you should make sure to take note of the areas that you can and can’t camp and the DOC — Department of Conservation — rules and regulations first, as you plan your itinerary.
At Travellers Autobarn New Zealand, we help our aspiring road-trippers pick not just the best spot for their travel goals but spots that will suit their budget and their desired experience while making sure they’re keeping up with all site requirements.
Ready to undertake some gorgeous free camping in South Island, NZ? Let’s explore…
It’s hard to pick just one perfect spot for free camping in South Island but, if you forced us to choose, it would have to be the inimitable Pelorus Bridge Campground in the Marlborough region.
This campground is located in the Pelorus Bridge Scenic Reserve — which is exactly as stunning it sounds, with its lush forest and river scenery. Here, beautiful and ancient vegetation — such as trees of beech, rimu and kahikatea — make up the fertile lowland forest area. Even more fascinating, it was an early Māori settlement.
While you cannot trek back around the sloping hills of the forest, the nearby Maungatapu Track makes for a very popular ride, allowing you to travel between Pelorus Valley and Nelson.
Besides this, the campsite is separated into two divisions, one with powered sites and the other non-powered. There are easy trails that surround the campsites and you can take a dip in the river that separates the two areas. You can also go kayaking and canoeing on days when the current is stable and calm. There is also a café and shop at the entrance to the site.
There are a couple of restrictions that will affect your planned dates. Note that from 26 December to 4 January, there is a minimum 3-night stay required. Fires, on the other hand, are not permitted at any time. Bookings open at 9 am on 30 August for stays between December to April. If you’re planning to stay anytime between 1 December to 28 February, or on public holiday weekends, make sure to have bookings ready for sure.
Located about an hour and a half from Te Anau is the secluded but stunning Mavora Lakes Campsite. This incredibly beautiful landscape has been divided into two sites — one along the south of Mavora Lake and one alongside the North Mavora Lake. Both sites afford campervan travellers the ability to really get back to the land, undertaking activities such as trout fishing, hiking, walking, tramping, mountain biking, swimming and more.
The campsite itself is equipped with picnic tables and BBQs and there are plenty of designated fire spots if you’d like to get cooking. While there is a ramp for boats, motor boats are only allowed on sites alongside North Mavora Lake. Besides this, you’ll be rewarded by incredibly stunning views that might look a little familiar — this was, after all, one of the locations of the Lord of the Rings films.
Even though Punakaiki is popular with travellers and there are a large number of sites with beachfront accommodations, there are still opportunities to go free camping in this South Island spot in NZ. It’s the perfect place to set up a base camp and explore the Paparoa National Park, while situated on a site close to the beach with direct access to the trails.
As you park at the site and hunker down for the night, you’ll hear the soothing sounds of the ocean waves crashing against the rocks. Then, wake up the next morning for an unforgettable sunrise and breakfast with a view of this incredible landscape.
Campers will also be able to enjoy access to the famous ‘Pancake Rocks’, Truman Track and the Pororari River track. In the morning, take the time to explore the beach, with its rock pools and blowholes around the area. You can also scale the sheer limestone gorges, undertake bush walks, and go tramping, fishing and swimming.
And, as a bonus, while there’s no Wi-Fi on-site, there is a pub just a few steps along the road where you can get some internet access if you need.
If you’re looking for sites that will afford you the flexibility of freedom camping in Queenstown, Twenty Five Mile Stream, a ways up from Meiklejohns Bay, is a great place to rest your head and make your ground zero, so to speak. From here, you can not only venture into Arrowtown but you’ll also have direct access to Queenstown. There are beautiful wine trails in the area, as well as AJ Hackett Kawarau Bridge Bungee and the Kawarau Bridge Car Park.
Once here, you can remain at the camping site for a total of four nights in your campervan hire. The site itself is situated right beside the serene and placid Lake Wakatipu and is likely to be quite empty when you arrive. The site is a 30-minute drive from Queenstown but gives travellers access to the most stunning views of the lake and its surrounding theatre of mountains. You’ll need a self-contained campervan, however, because there are no public toilets or facilities.
Moody, stormy and utterly breathtaking: this is Milford Sound Lodge. Offering powered sites for campervan rentals, these forest sites offer the ultimate in ‘camping’ creature comforts while still affording travellers all the experiences of staying in the wild.
However, despite the fact that the facilities are high-quality and chock-a-block full of ‘indulgences’ like laundry, breakfast, kitchens, public toilets, showers and more, there is so much to do in the area that you might not even get to enjoy these creature comforts. Count on such exciting activities as kayaking trips, trout fishing, bush and track walking, hiking, sound boat cruises and sound diving, where you can view the delicate and lush corals under Milford Sound.
Another really great spot for freedom camping in South Island, NZ is Lake Tekapo. It sits on a hill overlooking the Mackenzie basin of Lake Tekapo and, besides the stunning views of the shimmering lake, the site offers plenty of activities and amenities. There is a range of powered and non-powered sites that can support travellers in a campervan rental.
The park itself gives travellers access to toilets, hot showers, kitchens with microwaves and ovens, and laundry facilities. You can also hire bikes, enjoy free BBQing on the grounds, take advantage of the children’s park (if you’re travelling with kids!) and sit down to a scrumptious meal on the picnic tables with great views of the lake.
Besides this, campers can partake in a whole range of activities including, star-gazing, dipping into the therapeutic hot pools & fun waterslides, ice skating, skiing, snowboarding and snow-tubing, golfing, walking & cycling, fishing, boating and water skiing.
There’s simply no end to the number of camping sites that pepper the picturesque South Island. It’s a land that is designed specifically for campervan enthusiasts — or so it will feel! If you’re ready to begin your own multi-day journey, reach out to the knowledgeable and friendly team at Travellers Autobarn New Zealand. We can help you plan a road trip you won’t soon forget and make sure you’re safe while you undertake your adventure of a lifetime!