Freedom camping in New Zealand

If you are thinking of camping around New Zealand, there are a few things you should know before setting up camp an potentially bagging yourself an expensive fine for camping in the wrong place with the wrong vehicle.

I got so excited when I heard New Zealand allows freedom camping. I had visions of  driving along obscure roads in the middle of nowhere, finding a breathtaking view and parking up for the night. Just me, Andy and the view. But no, this ‘freedom’ comes with some rules!

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What is freedom camping?

I picked up a leaflet whilst we were in NZ and it described freedom camping as:

to camp (other than at a camping ground) within 200 metres of a motor vehicle accessible area of the mean low-water springs line of any sea or harbour, or on or within 200 metres of a formed road using one or more of the following:

  1. a tent or other temporary structure
  2. a caravan
  3. a car, campervan, camper trailer, horse truck, or other motor vehicle

Freedom camping does not include the following activities:

  1. temporary and short-term parking of a motor vehicle
  2. recreational activities commonly known as day-trip excursions
  3. resting or sleeping at the roads in a caravan or motor vehicle to avoid driver fatigue

 Where can I freedom camp?

Most freedom camping areas have signs which tell you where you can park and how long you can stay. There are quite a lot of freedom camping spots that are car parks with only 2 or 3 spaces and some have time restrictions that state you can only camp from 5pm to 9am. Due to the limited spaces this can make it difficult to find a spot particularly if it is high season.

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There are also by-laws which have been brought in by local councils to further restrict where you can freedom camp so it is worth visiting tourist information when you reach a new area to grab a list of camping spots as the by-laws vary from one council to another.

The areas where you can freedom camp are not the only restriction. You need to have a self contained vehicle too.

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What is a self contained vehicle?

The technical definition of self contained for freedom camping is:

a vehicle designed, built and certified for the purpose of camping which has the capability of meeting the ablutionary and sanitary needs of occupants of that vehicle for a minimum of 3 day without requiring any external services or discharging any waste and complies with NZ Standard 5465:2001 as evidenced by the display of a current self-containment warrant issued under NZ Standard Self-Containment of Motor Caravans and Caravans

Basically this means the vehicle must have a toilet , a grey water tank, a shower and a self-containment-blue-sticker-smlittle blue sticker which certifies the vehicle meets these requirements. This description had me thinking we’d be driving around in something the size of a bus given the amount of space you would need to fit everything in. But fear not! As we discovered when we picked up our van, these requirements aren’t exactly what they seem.

Our toilet was a glorified potty. It had a toilet seat and collected the waste in a container at the base which had some sort of chemical in it. It was kept underneath the seats in the back of the van. There was nowhere to use the potty in the van so you would need to set it up outside the van to use it. There was nothing to hide you from view whilst using it. Bet the neighbours would have loved that!

The shower was even better. It was a plastic bag with a hook at the top and a shower head attached. Once again, it needs to be used outside the van and no shower curtain was provided. There was also nothing provided to catch the water as you showered so I don’t see how it would meet regulations. If nude showering in public isn’t for you, then perhaps stick to a wet wipe wash until you reach a fully equipped campsite!

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What are the fines?

Thinking you might chance it and camp where you aren’t supposed to or without a self-contained vehicle? Totally up to you but if you do get caught, and it does happen, you can get an instant fine of NZ $200 not only for camping where you aren’t supposed to, but also for littering, refusing to leave when asked or refusing to give information to the enforcement officer.

This fine goes up to NZ $5,000 for behaving illegally towards an enforcement officer and up to NZ $10,000 for any major waste dumping, e.g. dumping sewage tank contents.

What are the campsites like?

There are a few different types of campsite available in NZ which I’ll describe. As I mentioned before many of the freedom camping spots are public areas like car parks, which have toilets you can use. They can be located next to beaches, national parks and some are even in city centres next to “super loos” which have hot water showers and washing machines that can be used for a few dollars.

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Conservation Campsites – these are run by the Department of Conservation (DOC) and are graded according to the facilities they have e.g. running water, flushing toilets, showers etc. They run from serviced (pretty much everything included) through to scenic, standard, basic and free. Serviced through to basic all carry a charge which varies from NZ$4 per person to NZ$21 per person.  Bear in mind most of these campsites, apart from the serviced, have no electricity. It is worth downloading a brochure from the DOC website which gives you all the information you need including if access to the campsite is on a dirt/ gravel road.

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Private campsites – these are run for profit. These campsites can be found all over both the North and South Island and are of varying standards which is often reflected in the price.

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Make sure you call the campsite for a “best price” quote and double check if hot water for showers is included in the price. You often won’t be told on the phone unless you ask. Advance booking is mostly only needed if you are in a city  such as Queenstown (which was mobbed when we went) or if it is Christmas/ New Year.

To find all the campsites available, from free to paid campsites, grab an app like CamperMate or Rankers. We used both and found the reviews campers had written on these apps were invaluable.

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If you are thinking of driving yourself around New Zealand don’t forget to check out Rat Pack Travel for some great deals on vehicle hire and itineraries.

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