The Ins and Outs of Freedom Camping in New Zealand

by | Feb 19, 2020 | 0 comments

Campervan driving the Queenstown - Glenorchy Road

To save money on our trip to New Zealand, we had planned to freedom camp the entire trip. We like the outdoors and camping, so figured one month in a campervan couldn’t be too bad. After making mistakes, and learning A LOT about freedom camping along the way, we’ve compiled this guide with all the ins and outs you’ll need to know when visiting New Zealand.

Note: All prices are listed in NZD and USD. As of February 2020, $1.00 NZD = $0.65 USD

What is Freedom Camping?

First and foremost is knowing exactly what freedom camping means. As defined by NewZealand.com, it’s “camping in a tent, campervan or motor vehicle on public land, on a site with minimal or no facilities, such as toilets or showers”.

Freedom Campsite on New Zealand South Island West Coast Drive
Views from our freedom campsite along New Zealand’s West Coast Drive on the South Island.

Is Freedom Camping Allowed in NZ?

Generally speaking, yes. When freedom camping there are four main rules they request people follow:

1) Dispose of Rubbish Responsibly

Don’t leave your garbage in the camping area. Throw it away in designated bins.

2) Keep New Zealand Clean

Nature isn’t your bathroom. Use a public toilet or one in your vehicle.

3) Protect the Environment

Recycle whenever possible.

4) Use a Waste Disposal Station

Dump your toilet and grey water at designated disposal sites.

Woman at campervan dump station.

So if you follow these four rules, you can camp anywhere in the country, correct? Wrong. A continued rise in tourism, along with people improperly following Leave No Trace practices, has ruined this ideal for current travelers. Too many times have sites become trashed, or human waste been left on the side of the road, that the local governments are cracking down. As such, Freedom Camping is now more limited and strictly enforced across New Zealand.

How Do you Qualify To Freedom Camp?

In order to freedom camp you must follow specific guidelines. First and foremost is having a proper Certified Self-Contained (CSC) vehicle. This means, among other things, that you have a government approved way to collect both human waste (i.e., you can avoid going to the bathroom in nature), and grey water (from cooking, cleaning, etc.) for properly disposing later. You can recognize a CSC vehicle by the blue sticker on the back and registration in the front window.

ProTip: If you’re renting a campervan, most rental companies will list on their website which vehicles are CSC and which are not. Don’t hesitate to confirm with them though before booking if you’re unsure.

Renting a Non Self-Contained (NSC) vehicle or traveling with a tent? While it won’t be the easiest way to freedom camp, we did encounter a few sites throughout New Zealand that allowed NSC vehicles overnight. Just be aware that the amount of freedom sites you qualify for will be fewer in number.

Where Can you Freedom Camp?

This is a tough question to answer, as there’s unfortunately no hard and fast rule you can follow. Each district across New Zealand sets their own freedom camping policy. Some districts will have signs posted everywhere saying where camping is or is not allowed, whereas others are completely unmarked and they just expect you to know the rules or risk a fine. Super confusing, we know.

We found there are two surefire ways to learn where you can freedom camp:

Use a Camping App

Left: Green Campers = freedom sites, blue = DOC/low-cost sites and purple = holiday parks

Campermate and Rankers are the top players. They’ll help direct you to designated freedom sites as laid out by each town/city, and will even specify if a NSC vehicle or tent is allowed.

Regularly freedom sites are just parking lots located on the outskirts of town (to be closer to the center usually requires a paid holiday park). Sometimes these freedom sites will have public toilets available, and if you’re lucky, a freshwater tap or garbage can.

Public toilet at freedom campsite in New zealand
The weirdest and most uncomfortable toilet seat we encountered while freedom camping.

ProTip: If you use these camping apps, make sure to read both the site description and recent comments as conditions change regularly. Some locations shut down in the off-season, have specific hours in which you can park there, or perhaps experienced a recent string of vandalism. Only by reading both sections can you get the full picture on what to expect for the night.

Visit the local I-Site or DOC Center

Freedom Camping Begins Sign in New Zealand

The people at I-Sites (Information Sites) and DOC (Department of Conservation) Centers can tell you the specific regulations for freedom camping in their district and if it’s allowed in unmarked sites (such as highway pullouts). Camping apps don’t show unmarked sites, so speaking with a local is your best source of information for what is or is not legal.

Now you’re probably thinking, ‘why not just check online?’. Feel free to give it a go and let us know if you find a good resource in the comments (seriously, we’d love to know). In our experience though, the rules per district either weren’t available online or were confusing and made us concerned we’d misinterpret them. By asking someone directly, you’ll cut through any confusion and get the answers you’re looking for.

The only downside is you have to visit their offices during business hours; there usually isn’t information just left outside on a billboard to follow. This, however, can be difficult if you’re like us and regularly spend the majority of the day out sightseeing. We often found the office closed by the time we rolled into town and had to fall back on using a camping app.

Have a Backup Accommodation Plan

Sunset while freedom camping

You’d think that since New Zealand offers freedom camping, there’d be heaps of sites available across the islands. WRONG. Sure, the government says they have over 500 sites to freedom camp, but that’s spread out across both islands. This means, at best, you’ll find a few sites in each destination. Cities want tourists to spend money, so you’ll usually find more paid sites available over free ones.

In addition, freedom sites are first come, first served. This means that just because you can freedom camp, you’re not guaranteed a spot. As such, it’s always good to have a backup plan on where to spend the night.

On the North Island there are plenty of cities and towns, so everything is much closer together, and freedom sites tend to be only a short drive away from one another. This makes it a lot easier to have a fluid itinerary. If you arrive somewhere and find all the spots full, just move to the next and cross your fingers.

The South Island is different. Being less developed, there are fewer freedom sites available in close range to one another. Because of this, your best backup plan may be a paid site. When this occurs, you’ll have two types of sites to choose from:

DOC Campgrounds

DOC campgrounds are run by the government and are generally cheaper than a private holiday park, with prices ranging from $8.00-$20.00 NZD ($5.17-$12.93 USD) per person, per night. That’s correct, campsites in New Zealand charge by person, not vehicle.

A benefit to DOC sites is that they’re usually located in very scenic places (perfect for those wanting Instagram-able pics!). Facilities, however, will be basic. Similar to freedom camping, you’ll typically have an outhouse and garbage can available. Some sites also include picnic tables, recycling bins and potable water.

Holiday Park Campgrounds

These were taken at the Orange Sheep Campervan Park near Franz Josef Glacier.

Holiday Parks are privately owned campgrounds and come with more facilities. Think hot showers, outdoor kitchens and/or BBQ pits, flushing toilets, and (often) free WiFi or laundry machines. Many holiday parks also offer both powered and non-powered sites, so those that want to hook their campervan up to electricity can do so. Because of the added facilities, holiday parks are always more expensive than DOC campgrounds. Generally speaking, you can be looking at anywhere from $20.00-$50.00 NZD ($12.93-$32.32 USD) per person, per night.

Travel Tip: In high season (December-February) we’ve heard that all campsites (freedom, DOC and holiday parks) can fill up quickly. In addition, DOC and holiday parks can be reserved in advance, so you may find they don’t have many walk-in spaces available. If you’re going to try freedom camping first, it’s best to arrive as early as possible (4:00 pm or earlier), since the later you arrive, the harder it may be to snag a spot in your preferred location.

Traveling in shoulder season (March-May and September-November) or off season (June-August) will give you more leeway in your arrival time. We were fortunate to get a spot in each of our preferred sites throughout the trip, but there were a few times when that same location filled up by the time we went to bed. If that’s the case in shoulder season, I can only imagine how fierce the competition is for freedom campsites in high season!

Just Because You Can Freedom Camp, Doesn’t Mean You Should

Freedom Campsite near Queentown
By the time we went to bed 6 more campervans had squeezed into this small roadside pullout.

With most freedom sites being on the outskirts of town, or long distances away from tourist sites, it’s not always the most cost effective accommodation. Know your vehicle’s gas mileage and then do the math to determine if the cost of gas you’d spend is cheaper than the holiday park. There were a few times where we found it’d be cheaper to pay for a holiday park located near our scheduled activity versus driving a long ways to/from a free campsite.

It’s Hard to Freedom Camp 100% of the Time

Even if you get a self-contained vehicle, most campervans aren’t self-sufficient enough to allow for 100% freedom camping. Campers that come equipped with a refrigerator to cool groceries, overhead lighting in the cabin, or even a charging plug for your electronics, all run off a secondary battery. These batteries aren’t meant to last for more than a few days before needing a recharge. That’s when you’re required to pay for a nicer campsite that has power hookups. To avoid paying for powered campsites, we recommend the following tips:

Purchase Shelf-stable Foods

Dinner ingredients for campervan recipe.
We used frozen peas and carrots to speed up our prep time, but could have just as easily cooked with raw veggies for an entirely shelf-stable meal.

Buying shelf-stable foods cuts out the need for a cooling system. We’ve found you can get most ingredients in a shelf-stable version, including milk, eggs and cheese. It does mean though that you need to plan your meals more meticulously since the goal is to eat everything and not have leftovers that require refrigeration.

Rent a Campervan with a Solar Panel

You can rent a vehicle with a solar panel that charges the secondary battery. This is what we did and it allowed us to be 100% self-sufficient during our entire month long trip around New Zealand. 95% of our trip was spent freedom camping, and the few times we paid for a site, we were able to save money by opting for an un-powered spot.

Doing Laundry on the Road

Freedom Camping with socks drying in dash of campervan.

Since freedom camping sites don’t offer laundry facilities, you’ll have to pay for these services separately while on the road. Typically we found that laundry machines required $1.00 or $2.00 NZD coins to operate (about $0.65 or $1.29 USD respectively). It can be difficult though to get enough coins on the day of, so stockpile them throughout your travels. That way you’re good to go when laundry day comes. The easiest way to locate a laundry site is through Google or a camping app, such as CamperMate.

Of course, the alternative is to wash your laundry by hand in the campervan itself. However, space inside the van will be limited, making it challenging to dry your clothes all at once. Additionally, if you’re traveling in the off season, the weather is colder, meaning it’ll take forever for your clothes to get dry (Trust us, we tried it. Did you not see our socks lined up in the picture above?). We recommend this only if you have a minimal number of items to wash, or are traveling in summer, where you’ll have more consistently warm, sunny days. 

Taking Showers on the Road

Freedom sites also don’t typically have showers, so unless your campervan comes with one, you’ll need to find facilities along your trip. There are a few options to choose between:

Cold Showers

Outdoor Cold Shower in New Zealand
Free cold water showers at the beach.

If you’re okay with a cold shower then you can easily find facilities across the islands. These are typically near beaches and close to towns, so be prepared to shower in a more public setting and wear your swimsuit accordingly.

Although the benefit to cold showers is that they’re free, it’s not recommend unless you’re traveling in summer when the weather is hot. Our trip was at the end of spring, so the weather was still cold on most days and required we wear multiple layers of clothing to stay warm. There was no way in hell we were going to be able to handle a cold shower without feeling like our limbs were falling off!

ProTip: When using shared or public shower facilities, it’s best to have a pair of water sandals in your gear. You’re everyday flip-flops (or jandals as they say in New Zealand) can work great!

Hot Showers

Orange Sheet Campground Shower Stall

If you want a hot shower then you’ll need to pay. These are harder to locate outside of holiday parks, so your best resource will be to use camping apps which have the independently owned showers plotted out. Many, interestingly, tend to be at local swimming pools or gas stations.

If using the showers at a public pool, be prepared for an open bathing chamber. There’s a higher chance of having to share the facilities with another person versus getting your own private shower stall.

Paid hot showers will often require $1.00 or $2.00 NZD coins to operate, so pull from the same stockpile your saving for laundry.

Oh, and did I mention the showers will be timed? This is the perfect opportunity to level up your sustainability by taking a 5 minute shower. The faster you can get washed, the more money you’ll save, and the better it is for the environment.

Solar Showers

First sunset in New Zealand.

Solar showers are portable and use the sun to heat up throughout the day so you have warm to hot water come late afternoon. This can be a great option in the summer time, where there’s plenty of solar rays, but you may struggle finding a place to string up the shower. We recommend DOC campgrounds, where there’s generally trees and a little more privacy to bathe without a ton of onlookers. Even then, you may still want to don a swimsuit.

Some companies (such as Euro Campers) provide a solar shower with your camper rental. Otherwise you can pick one up at The Warehouse for about $12.00 NZD ($7.76 USD).

Responsible Travel Tip: Whenever showering outside, make sure to use environmentally friendly biodegradable soap and shampoo. We prefer Br. Bronner’s unscented soap.

Going to the Bathroom on the Road

Throughout you’re trip you’ll encounter many different restrooms. Generally speaking though, they fall under three main categories.

Public toilet at freedom campsite in New zealand
Toilet at one of our freedom campsites. Weirdest toilet seat. It was hard plastic and extremely uncomfortable.

Freedom Campsite Toilet

We found that many of the freedom campsites we stayed at had public toilet(s) on site. Although it meant getting out into the cold if you needed to use them at night, it was preferable to the one on-board the camper.

A few tips though if you plan to use a freedom campsite toilet:

  • Sometimes the toilet will be just an outhouse (a.k.a. long-drop in New Zealand).
  • Bring your own toilet paper. Don’t ever expect there to be some inside.
  • Have hand sanitizer available. If the restroom even offers a sink, there often isn’t soap provided, so it helps having another way to sterilize afterwards.

ProTip: If the toilet seat is in questionable hygiene, and you really need to sit down, combine some of the toilet paper you packed with a squirt of hand sanitizer to make a cleaning wipe.

Public Toilet

When out in nature, the best public restrooms are often found in information buildings (like a DOC Center) and entrances to public parks. The amenities are usually basic (such as only cold running water), but they will come with flushing toilets. In towns and cities you can try fast food restaurants, grocery stores and gas stations.

Public toilets are generally better than freedom campsites, so use them when you can.

Woman using self-contained toilet in campervan traveling around New Zealand
Sitting on our CSC toilet. Curtains are drawn on both sides so people can’t see what I’m doing.

On-board CSC Toilet

Larger model campers regularly come with a small bathroom stall, which makes going to the toilet on-board a little less awkward. Generally speaking though, people will still have the pleasure of joining in with your sounds and smells.

The real challenge comes with the small and mid-sized campers. They only have room for a small pump-action squat toilet. This means you look like you’re trying to ride a clown car while doing your business. You’re also having to set it up in either the kitchen or middle of the dining/sleeping area, making it very awkward if others are about.

Tom and I generally prefer our privacy while on the toilet and so opted to use the on-site facilities over our camper whenever it was an option.

Would We Recommend Freedom Camping?

We’d definitely recommend freedom camping to others. It was lovely, even with some of the challenges we faced. Freedom camping is a great way to see the country while saving money and meeting other travelers. We also stayed in some very cool places that we’d have otherwise overlooked.

Of course, this type of travel isn’t for everyone. There were some days when we went stinky due to a lack of shower or laundry (…or both), or had to deal with sharing the on-board toilet together. If you prefer holiday parks, we can understand. However, we’d still promote trying freedom camping at least once. It’s a different, unique and fun experience!

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