Are you thinking of visiting New Zealand? Renting a campervan or car hire? Wondering where you’ll go on that trip of a lifetime, what sights you’ll see and places you’ll stay? Well we want to make that trip a little easier and cheaper for you, by teaching you the tricks of the trade to Freedom Camping in NZ.
Everyone is talking about it, but what does it mean? Where are the free camping spots, how do I find them, what are the rules? This guide gives you an introduction to freedom camping in New Zealand. We’ve got all the basics covered as well as the following:
- What is freedom camping in New Zealand?
- What are the rules of freedom camping in New Zealand?
- What is a self-contained vehicle?
- How do you find the best camping spots?
- What are the best apps for freedom camping?
- What are the 5 best freedom campgrounds on North Island?
- What are the 5 best freedom campgrounds on South Island?
What Is Freedom Camping in New Zealand?
Freedom camping often entails camping outside of recognised campgrounds on public land or using campsites specially designed for freedom campers. Families and adventure lovers alike appreciate freedom camping because of the quiet and unobstructed views it affords. There are frequently no other campers right on top of you to keep you up at night or wake you up in the morning. You can laugh, sing, and talk as you like without disturbing others too.
As these spots are usually quieter than your normal paid campgrounds, you can enjoy 180-degree views or better of some of the most stunning terrain in New Zealand. This is ideal for stargazing and if you’re into your photography. It can be like having your own campground all to yourself!
Some freedom camping locations are truly free, in that they don’t cost anything. Others charge a fee, albeit usually a small one, but you are not restricted in the way you would be in a family holiday camp or RV park. Instead, you can park in out-of-the-way locations because you don’t need to be hooked up to an electrical or water connection (but more on that below). You see more of nature and can come and go with ease, covering lots of ground without having to spend hours “decamping”.
What Are the Rules of Freedom Camping in New Zealand?
Whilst freedom camping NZ sounds very… well, free, there are a few rules to follow, so that everyone has an enjoyable experience and you don’t wind up paying fines for camping how and where you shouldn’t. It’s worth noting that fines for violating camping rules can be quite steep. You don’t want to run afoul of the law or ruin freedom camping for others by flouting the rules.
The first rule is that most of the time, you will be required to be in a self-contained vehicle, sometimes called a self-contained camper or a campervan, which fortunately, is easy to rent in New Zealand. You can learn more about self-contained vehicles below, but know that using one of these campervans lets you camp on Department of Conservation (DOC) land and district council land, provided you are not breaking any rules for the area (length of stay, distance from town, etc.). Although tents and non self-contained vehicles are allowed in some locations, many spots are restricted to all but self-contained vehicles.
You can ask any local information centre (a.k.a. i-SITE) or DOC visitor centre about their specific rules for the area in which you wish to camp. Sometimes you can find this information online as well. Never camp on private land or on district council land that specifically forbids camping.
To preserve the pristine and beautiful nature of the country’s wilderness, you want to make sure to observe the rules of environmental cleanliness while you’re freedom camping in New Zealand. That means:
- Use only the toilet in your campervan or a public toilet. Do not use nature as your personal toilet.
- Be cautious when lighting fires. Never leave a fire unattended, and be sure to douse it completely when you’re through. Be aware that in some high-risk areas, fires are completely forbidden.
- Use designated rubbish bins, or take any trash with you. Always pack out what you bring in.
- Use recycling facilities when possible, rather than putting recyclable items in a bin.
- Empty your campervan’s toilet and waste water only in designated areas. Never dump your waste products in the wilderness.
- Be mindful of noise if near other campers or residential areas.
- Leave as little evidence of your camping behind as possible.
What Is a Self-contained Vehicle?
A self-contained vehicle meets specific standards that make it environmentally friendly and allow you to camp without having typical campground public facilities nearby. It must have fresh and waste water storage for at least three days, a toilet and a lidded rubbish bin for all your refuse (wrappers, food waste, etc.). Self-contained vehicles in New Zealand are marked with a “NZS 5464” sticker that means it meets Caravan Self-Contained Certificate standards.
More fun, however, are the perks that come with a self-contained vehicle. These spacious vehicles typically sleep multiple people and contain equipment for cooking and food preparation, like a sink, gas cooker, small fridge, and even a microwave. There are places to plug in small electronics, so you can have light and charge your phone or camera.
Everything is very efficient, with a remarkable amount of storage and comfort for your trip. There are drawers and cabinets for your belongings and convertible tables and benches for eating, lounging and sleeping. You’ll be amazed at what you can stow in your self-contained vehicle.
You drive, cook, dress, and sleep in the same vehicle, which saves a lot of hauling gear, tent pitching, and other camping prep that can take the fun out of the experience. Also, your campervan provides better shelter from inclement weather than a tent, and should a rainstorm come up, all you have to do is pop inside for a hot cup of tea and a game of cards. On chilly mornings, you’ll appreciate being able to sleep until sunrise without the cold ground under your back.
If you rent a campervan from Travellers Autobarn in New Zealand, you’ll get additional extras:
- Ability to make one-way rentals
- 24/7 roadside assistance
- Unlimited kilometres
- Free road atlas
- Free heater, hot water bottle, extra sleeping bags in winter
Travellers Autobarn makes self-contained vehicle rental super easy. You can even be as young as 18 years old to rent a campervan, and the bond system is quite reasonable. You can select from several levels of liability, and the funds are simply frozen, not deducted from your account. Campervan rental fees are cheaper out of Christchurch, too, so keep that in mind when you’re making plans.
How Do You Find the Best Camping Spots?
If you’re looking for the most gorgeous spots for freedom camping, there are tonnes of terrific resources.
First, decide where in New Zealand you want to camp. If you’re not a native kiwi, you may not have realised just how large the country really is, spread across two main islands. You’ll want to calculate the distance between destinations, taking into account rough terrain, weather, road incidents, and closures.
Let’s say your bucket list includes “camping New Zealand North Island.” You can use one of several excellent maps, like this one from New Zealand.com, to zoom in on areas that look appealing to you, based on activities you enjoy, beaches, mountains, volcanoes, and the like.
Check with the New Zealand Department of Conservation to make sure that any conservation land where you might want to camp is not prohibited (restricted to self-contained vehicles is okay if you have a certified campervan as discussed above). The DOC manages the National Parks for the country of New Zealand, so if you want to camp in one of those parks, that’s an ideal starting point for research.
Travellers Autobarn offers free, handy downloadable guides with input from us, which can help you plan a road trip, even in the wintertime. We also include popular itineraries, so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. And Travellers Autobarn is available by phone, too, should you have any questions.
What Are the Best Apps for Freedom Camping?
Of course, in today’s high-tech world, there are also apps to help you find ideal camping spots, whether you’re free camping South Island NZ or free camping NZ North Island.
It’s worth noting, though, that not all camping apps are encouraging or inclusive of freedom camping. Some are more focused on holiday parks and family campgrounds, which aren’t really for the freedom camper. Fortunately, there are free camping apps that are ideal to find more remote sites.
CamperMate is a popular app that provides data on a wealth of camping elements, collected from users around New Zealand, so it’s full of insider tips and tricks. There’s an Android and an Apple version, and new locations and information are added daily.
Campgrounds for self-contained vehicles have their own section, and you can look up things to do and hidden secrets, as well as get area road warnings. There’s an online map for advanced trip planning, too.
Rankers Camping NZ app is perhaps even more widely used. With iPhone, iPad, and Android versions, one of its biggest selling points is its offline freedom camping New Zealand map system, which frees you from New Zealand’s poor Internet and lets you use the app virtually anywhere.
Travellers Autobarn also have a free app, which hosts an abundance of information from campgrounds, things to do, where to locate ATMs, find the closest petrol station, and much more. It is available to download from Google Play and iTunes.
From holiday parks to isolated sites conducive to freedom camping, these apps will help you find it all, along with rules, restrictions, photos and reviews. The photos really help you find the campsites with the best views, so you know what to expect in advance.
What Are the 5 Best Freedom Campgrounds on North Island?
Whilst beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and there are hundreds of lovely campgrounds on North Island, here are five highly ranked spots you might want to check out.
#1 Rotokare Scenic Reserve
Are you an avid birder? The Rotokare Scenic Reserve may be the perfect freedom camping spot for you. This scenic reserve has spent millions of dollars eradicating pests like weasels, stoats, and rats from its confines and has enclosed the reserve with a predator-proof fence, which has allowed bird species to repopulate.
A small donation is requested of each camper per night to offset costs of running the reserve, but users find it worthwhile paying. Self-contained vehicles can park in front of the estuary. No dogs are permitted in this wildlife sanctuary.
#2 Anzac Bay
Campers love the view at this location. At the beach itself, there are swimming and fishing areas, although you do need to take care with the currents. Whilst there are parking areas limited to freedom campers in self-contained vehicles only, you’ll find family campers using the facilities nearby. There’s something for everyone here with dolphins jumping within view, small caves to explore, and a sandy stretch of beach to walk.
#3 Tuapiro Reserve
You’ll catch fantastic sunsets in a tranquil location at the Tuapiro Reserve, and it’s absolutely free to camp there. Enjoy the water views and bird life, including black swans. Users love the options for picnicking, kayaking, and fishing. This is a popular camping site for dog owners, too.
#4 Lake Aniwhenua
If you enjoy trout fishing, this is a great place to stop and camp. You can park quite close to the water much of the year. There are bathrooms and a cold shower nearby, although the bulk of the overnight traffic consists of self-contained vehicles.
Campers at Lake Aniwhenua report no fee assessed for any type of camping. Families with children like the gentle terrain around the lakeside and the serenity of the waterside.
#5 Mohi Bush
Another bird-watching paradise, Mohi Bush is a small campervan turnout area in the Hawkes Bay area near Maraetotara Falls. It’s a great spot to stop for a quiet night’s rest and to hike the area for nature appreciation before heading to the falls. Try to reach it before sunset, though, as it can be a bit hard to find in the dark.
What Are the 5 Best Freedom Campgrounds on South Island?
Like the North Island, South Island is full of amazing freedom camping spots. In fact, South Island is where freedom camping really takes off, with dozens of beautiful and exciting spots to pick from. Here are five picks for favourites to consider.
#1 The Pines, Lake Pukaki
Visitors rave about the gorgeous views at Lake Pukaki, and this area at the side of the lake is limited to self-contained vehicles only, as there are no facilities. You’ll love the turquoise waters and snow-capped mountain vistas, and it’s no wonder this stop gets consistently top ratings on the Rankers app.
Other attractions here include wonderful stargazing without city light, gorgeous sunrises and sunsets, and fishing close by. It’s mostly very still, but when it gets windy, it can be extremely chilly, so pack extra layers of clothing and warm bedding just in case.
Wellington is New Zealand’s capital city and is located near the southernmost point of the North Island. It’s a quirky and creative city with a strong art scene and a good dose of coffee and craft beer culture.
#2 Long Beach Domain
About 30 minutes from Dunedin along a spectacular drive, Long Beach is known for rock climbing and cave exploration, among other attractions. The sandy beach offers views of penguins and seals and is gentle enough for swimming.
You’ll only find other freedom campers at Long Beach Domain, as it is restricted to self-contained vehicles only. With a large grassy area for ball playing and nearby picnic tables, campers find it idyllic. Campers report the entrance sign can be tough to see, so keep your eyes peeled.
#3 Alex McKenzie Arboretum, Otautau
Tree lovers will adore this well-shaded camping site with picnic tables, plenty of space for parking, and tranquil walks through the plantings and flowers. This freedom camping spot is in the far southern end of South Island, so it’s a place to stop if you’re doing an island loop. Fires are prohibited, but pets are allowed, and there is no fee to camp there.
#4 Ohingaroa, Kenepuru Sound
For free camping overlooking Ohingaroa Bay, this camp spot can’t be beat. Stays are limited to two nights maximum, and the camping is restricted to-self-contained vehicles only.
There is boat access as well, which makes the site popular with water sports enthusiasts, so get there early to get one of the four available spots. Users rave about the clear skies at night and the quiet there, even though it’s close to the road. You can go for a swim and then savour the sunset if you’re lucky enough to snag a spot.
This is a special place that has been lovingly transformed alongside the shore of Lake Monowai. Known as one of the most isolated campsites in the South Island, Monowai is a spot you must visit. Located in Fiordland National Park, enjoy the lake, many walks, fishing and boating options available. This really is a freedom camping spot that should be on your bucket list.
Freedom camping can be one of the best ways to experience the wonders of both North Island and South Island in New Zealand. If you plan well in advance, observe the rules, and make sure you are in the proper vehicle, such as using self-contained vehicles where they are required, you’ll see sights that will amaze and delight you.
Whether you’re looking for freedom camping Christchurch rentals or freedom camping Auckland assistance, Travellers Autobarn is here to help you. Contact Travellers Autobarn today to make your reservation and book the campervan that’s right for your trip of a lifetime.
Download the full guide for top tips on campervan life and our teams recommendations on the best books worth reading before you go
To put it simply, any time of year is a great time to travel New Zealand in a campervan. Speak to the team at Travellers Autobarn for more information and to book your campervan today.
We look forward to welcoming you on the trip of a lifetime!
If you are after more Campervan Travel Guides please check out our New Zealand Campervan Travel Guide section…