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What’s the Deal with Freedom Camping in New Zealand?

What’s the Deal with Freedom Camping in New Zealand?

Nothing seems to get news-commenting New Zealanders more riled up than a negative story about freedom camping. The source of all that is evil and wrong in our otherwise perfect society can be traced back to freedom campers. Apparently they use and abuse our beautiful country while spending next to nothing (which is in no way true). Anyway, this isn’t a piece about how a small but vocal portion of New Zealanders are woefully uninformed bandwagon jumpers who let the media dictate what they are outraged about. It’s about freedom camping in New Zealand and how to do it without getting murdered by pitchfork wielding locals.

What is Freedom Camping in New Zealand Actually like?

It’s awesome. New Zealand is all about nature, and freedom camping (and camping in general) is the perfect way to experience it. You’ll stay at lots of off the beaten path places that you would never have visited otherwise and there is a large community of like-minded people freedom camping all over New Zealand, making it a good way to meet other tourists (and locals, as plenty of us freedom camp too).

Self Contained VS Non Self Contained

If you have a “self contained certified” sticker on your van you’ll have a far greater choice of where you can freedom camp in New Zealand. Self contained means the vehicle has water storage and a toilet. Many people with self contained vehicles almost never use the onboard toilet, and there are even rumours that rental companies charge you extra if you do use it. There are public toilets at most freedom camping grounds anyway, so you may never actually need to use it (whether that “fine” rumour is true or not).

Where can you freedom camp in New Zealand?

There are far too many places to list here — check out the Camping NZ app (this isn’t a paid plug, it’s the app I use).

Some locals despise you

According to a vocal minority of New Zealanders, freedom campers are poor, unwashed losers who enjoy going to the bathroom wherever and whenever they feel like it (definitely not in a toilet though). The amount of outraged stories I’ve read online paints freedom campers in a very bad light, but it’s simply not the case for the majority. I’ve freedom camped a fair bit over the last year and have never seen anything disgusting or untoward. Sure, there’ll be the odd bit of rubbish left behind the next morning but you’ll see that about almost anywhere (not to mention the strong local tradition of dumping our waste for free where we think it’ll never be found). We’re firmly in the age of outrage, so it makes sense that people will jump on this kind of bandwagon, but freedom camping is not the cause of all (or any) of New Zealand’s serious ecological problems.

Most locals don’t have a problem with freedom camping as long as the people doing it are respectful of the places they stay (which they generally are). Don’t be afraid to get to know the locals – most people who have negative views on freedom camping are far more likely to write a misinformed comment on a news article than actually abuse you in real life.

FURTHER READING: One of many negative articles / comment chains about freedom camping

It’s not always economical to freedom camp

Assuming your vehicle isn’t self-contained, you’re limited in where you can park up for the night. Often these freedom camping spots are in the middle of nowhere and require a bit of a drive to get to. Sometimes it’s cheaper to save on petrol and sleep at a DOC (Department of Conservation) camp nearby. A good example of this is at the car park / camping ground at Mount Cook. It’s a long way back to freedom camping spots like Lake Poaka (a 45 minute drive), so if you want to explore the Mount Cook area for more than a day (which you definitely should) it makes sense to camp there rather than make the long round trip drive so you can freedom camp. DOC camps are often more scenic as well, so that’s a bonus. When we travel we tend to split our stays between DOC camps and freedom camps, with the occasional splash out at a proper camping ground for a hot shower and a cooked meal.

Bear in mind you can get fined if you freedom camp in the wrong place!

Early morning at Mount Cook

Finding a vehicle

The age old question – “Should I buy or should I rent?” (which was the original title / lyric of the famous Clash song) is easily answered once you know how long you’ll be travelling for and what your budget is. If you’re on a tight budget and are coming for a month or more, I’d recommend buying a vehicle and selling it when you’re about it leave. Some people even come out with a profit using this method.  Use websites such as Trademe and Backpacker Board to find cars and vans. The easiest places to buy and sell vehicles are Auckland, Christchurch and Queenstown. Expect to pay $2000 – $3000 for a decent station wagon which will fit a double bed and all your bags etc. You’re looking at $3000 – $10,000 for something a little bigger, but unless it’s self-contained I don’t really see the point. You can make a station wagon pretty comfortable and they are also easier and more economical to drive. When buying a second hand car make sure to get it checked by an expert — there are plenty of people selling dodgy cars on websites like the ones listed above.

If you’re only in New Zealand for a short time and don’t want to deal with the hassle of buying and selling a car, renting is a good idea. Self-contained vans will set you back around $100 – $150 a day, so it’s not the most economical way to travel. Small cars can be rented for less than $20 a day – buy a cheap tent and some gear and you can camp at a lot of freedom camping spots in New Zealand.

Driving in New Zealand

Driving in New Zealand isn’t always easy, especially if you’re in a larger vehicle than you’re used to. Roads are often narrow, we drive on the left side of the road and local drivers tend to try and aggressively pass anyone they suspect of being a tourist. I’ve done a lot of driving in New Zealand over the past year and I’ve seen so many terrible drivers, and most of them appeared to be locals. Safety should be your biggest concern when driving in New Zealand, so always focus and be prepared for the worst. Don’t drive faster than you’re comfortable with and try and travel during daylight hours. The speed limit is generally 100 km/h on country roads but they are often rough and winding – you don’t need to travel at the speed limit all the time but if you are going slow make sure to pull over and let people pass when you get the chance. It’s annoying when you’re stuck behind someone going 70 km/h and they’re completely oblivious of the build of cars behind them (or they’re so inconsiderate that they just don’t care).

Are you a fan of freedom camping or do you think it should be banned? If you hate freedom camping please leave me some outraged comments!

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Jon Algie

A travel blogger from New Zealand who hates talking about himself in the third person and has no imagination when it comes to naming websites.

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Lynda Richmond

Sunday 2nd of February 2020

Free camping in NZ benefits the cities who rent and sell the Campervans. Also the Government who collects the tax from the airlines tickets, petrol stations and the supermarkets. Local businesses in small towns lose out. Particularly Motorcamp owners,Backpackers and Cafes. Also local people who have their lifestyles compromised by overcrowding of local attractions for no return. Yes like many other New Zealanders I object to this form of Tourism that does not spread the economic gain around the regions as promised by the Government. I have been on the local Business Partnership Group and speak to local retailers. The feedback is that the campers aren't spending in the town. Our local reporter went to the local freedom camp carpark to survey travellers on their spending. The general conclusions were that they spent very little. Some only $20 a day! We can see the negative effects environmentally and economically. It is my understanding that even when the locals have taken their coffee cart to freedom camping spots in Greymouth and Hokitika, campers don't even buy a coffee. If Freedom Camping has a bad reputation it is because they have earned it. This week 35 campervans were reported to be parked in the main street of Franz Josef waiting to freedom camp in a local quarry. Apparently they were cooking their lunch outside Hotels and restaurants. Would they do this in their own country? Reports say Franz Josef looked like a Refugee Camp. Now the Council is closing the FC site.

Yes as a New Zealander I am fed up with it and have every right to be. We need to get a lot tougher. E.g No freedom Camping near the centre of town in or in close proximity to Motorcamps or Backpackers.

Limit the amount of Freedom Campers allowed into NZ each year. We are not an internationsal free camping ground.

Make it compulsary for campervans to have fully enclosed toilet and hand basin. Afterall we don't have the toilet in our kitchen at home!

Jon Algie

Monday 3rd of February 2020

Hi Lynda, thanks for the comment! I know it's a complicated issue and the way the media reports on it doesn't help. The way I see it the only people who are potentially losing out are the camping ground owners, and in my opinion many of them are extremely overpriced for what they offer. $40 + for an unpowered site is pretty extreme and I can't blame travellers for looking for a better alternative. And I reckon if they were struggling so much those prices would come down (which they don't seem to be doing).

I do agree that the government could be doing a better job with the spaces they make available to freedom campers. As for us, we've only freedom camped in areas away from cities and places that attract a lot of tourists. Places like Lake Poaka, Arthur's Pass, the one just south of Kaikoura, Alfred Stream Reserve etc. I haven't noticed any issues at these places in terms of rubbish etc, certainly no more than any other car park at a tourist attraction in New Zealand. Maybe I've been lucky, but I honestly haven't experienced the kinds of things that get reported in the media a lot. It doesn't mean it doesn't happen, but it's an issue that gets people riled up and the media loves that (and a lot of the hysteria is stoked by people with vested interests).

Banning freedom camping would have a massive impact on a lot of New Zealanders. It's not just international tourists who freedom camp in New Zealand -- far from it. We should be encouraged to see more of our country, not restricted by more rules. That includes the whole self-contained thing. Why would you need a self-contained vehicle if there are bathrooms at the camp? People with self-contained vehicles will generally use bathrooms at camps provided they are of a decent standard. So if there are decent bathrooms at a freedom camping spot it's completely irrelevant whether you have a bathroom in your vehicle or not.

I also don't want New Zealand to become a place which is only accessible to the elite. I love that our country is so revered overseas and I love the fact that people from all walks of life can travel here. Freedom camping is a big part of that, and it's not like the wealthier travellers are suddenly deciding to forgo all the comforts of a hotel or paid camping ground to save a bit of money.

Having said all that, I'm sure things could be improved. Like you said, restricting freedom camping areas to places that aren't annoying for locals would be a good start. With the amount of tax collected by the government from freedom campers you'd think better facilities etc could be provided. Things like coin operated showers, decent bathrooms etc would be a good start.

Thanks again for the comment, it's always good to hear informed opinions about freedom camping!