Traveling by campervan is one of the best ways to see New Zealand – you can travel at your own pace, get off the beaten track and take time to enjoy the spectacular scenery for which this country is famous.
Freedom camping adds a new level to a campervan or motorhome holiday as you can also stay overnight in comfort in some amazing locations. Imagine watching the sun set over crashing waves at a surf beach before you head to bed, or waking to sunrise over mountain tops. It’s the ideal way to see all New Zealand has to offer.
In this article, you'll find all there is to know about freedom camping in New Zealand.
What is Freedom Camping?
Freedom camping is when you stay on public land that isn’t a recognised campground. To do this legally you need a vehicle (usually a campervan) that is designed to be self-contained for up to three days. That means you have enough reserves of water and power to stay in an area with no services because you have the required facilities in your campervan to be self-sufficient (a toilet, fresh water storage, wastewater storage and a rubbish bin with a lid). Campervans that are certified self-contained (CSC) have a compliance sticker to show this.
Is freedom camping still allowed?
There’s been so much in the media on this topic over the past year, that campervan users may have gained the impression that freedom camping is very unwelcome in New Zealand or even banned. Neither is correct.
Most areas of New Zealand warmly welcome campervan users. However, a few irresponsible campers have left a bad impression about campervanning with the locals in some parts of the country. The culprits are usually people in low budget vans with no toilet or water storage facilities. All Wilderness campervans and motorhomes are certified self-contained which means they meet the standards for having a low impact on the environment e.g. have a toilet and sink, sufficient water storage, and a sealable refuse container.
The Freedom Camping Act came into force on September 1. It has given local authorities the ability to prohibit freedom camping in specific areas and enforce the bans. You are liable for a NZ$200 instant fine (or up to $10,000 depending on the severity of the offence) if you (a) camp in an area where it is not permitted; (b) breach any restrictions at the area; (c) damage the area; (d) dispose of your waste inappropriately; or (e) refuse to move on if asked to by an enforcement officer. On the other hand, local authorities can’t impose blanket bans – that is, they have to specify areas where freedom camping is not permitted. People travelling in certified self-contained vehicles like ours still have the right to camp in all areas unless it’s specifically restricted under a council bylaw or Department of Conservation notice. Look out for the round sign containing a tent and campervan with a red line through it – they mark the spots you should avoid.
I think that the new law is pretty reasonable. It balances our right to freedom camp with the need to protect the environment. It’s New Zealand’s pristine landscapes that make it such a compelling destination. It’s in all our interests to protect that.
Once you understand your rights and responsibilities, the problem for visitors is getting information about where you can and can’t freedom camp. The best source of information is the Campable app, which gives motorhome travellers a unique experience of New Zealand by allowing them to stay at private properties around the country. This handy app (available for both Android or iPhones) features Campable sites such as vineyards, beaches and country resorts as well as freedom camping sites and commercial campgrounds. It also lists LPG stations, dump sites and i-SITE locations and is a must-have for your next road trip.
Oh, and if you’re thinking about hiring a campervan to follow your rugby team around New Zealand this month, contact us. We still have a couple left and they’re certified self-contained to boot so you can enjoy a spot of freedom camping.
Where can I freedom camp in NZ?
You can’t just freedom camp anywhere. You may have found the perfect spot to spend the night in your motorhome, but if it’s not on the list of places you’re allowed to free camp, it is illegal to stay there.
New Zealand has a huge range of freedom camping spots, many of which are beachside, by lakes or native bush, or with spectacular mountain views, while others are in towns and cities. Some of the places that are free to camp might be next to busy roads or in council car parks. Some may also require the purchase of a freedom camping permit for a small fee. Sites on public conservation land (usually near beaches or bush) are administered by the Department of Conservation (DoC). You can search the DoC website to find a spot with campervan access. The most basic DoC campgrounds are free, with fees increasing according to the services available (for example, the water supply may just be a stream). i-SITEs – NZ’s network of local information centres - is also a great source to find freedom camping places.
We also recommend downloading the free Campable app from the Apple App Store or Google Play, a super handy tool to help you find not only freedom campsites, but private properties around the country where you can stay and get up close to Kiwi life. The Campable app also features commercial campsites as well as LPG stations, dump sites and i-SITE locations.
Another place to look for sites is with the Camping Our Way website, a guide not only to where you’re allowed to wild camp but also to Kaitiakitanga, the principles of guardianship originated by New Zealand’s indigenous Maori people that underline sustainable management of our landscape for current and future generations.
How much is a freedom camping fine?
In the past, New Zealand has been abused by visitors ‘wild camping’ without a self-contained camper, mistreating the landscape and disposing of their waste in our native bush. This has led to the New Zealand government putting bans on camping in specific areas and giving those who break the rules an instant fine of NZ$200. You can also get a court fine of up to $10,000 for a major dumping of waste, for example a campervan emptying its sewage tank onto public land.
So, for the good of the landscape, and your wallet, always check for “no overnight camping” signs or ask for recommended spots at a local Visitor Information Centre (called i-SITEs). Do some research beforehand to find the best spots, or once you’re on the road use an app like Campable to see all the freedom camping spots and amenities near you.
If you’re in doubt about overnighting in a given location, please ask. Remember your actions affect all those who hope to follow.
Are freedom camp sites free?
Yes, in many places it is – but not always. The most basic of the DoC campgrounds are free with fees increasing according to the services available (in other words, the water supply may just be a stream). Any fees are modest. For example, some local authorities issue a permit that works out to just over $3 a night.
Be aware that while many are spectacular, some of the places that are free to camp are not very enticing – near busy roads or in council carparks. But they may still save you money while enroute to the more attractive sites.
A little research beforehand is definitely recommended to make the best of freedom camping.
How Do I Choose the Right Campervan for Freedom Camping?
For the greatest possible choice of freedom camping locations, your vehicle must be certified self-contained (CSC). This means being able to be entirely self-sufficient for up to 3 days, particularly in terms of waste and wastewater. Many councils will only permit freedom camping in a certified vehicle, indicated by a compliance sticker.
The quality of CSC campervans available to rent in New Zealand varies, so when booking your motorhome do some research to ensure the company is reputable, and ask about the features and what’s included.
For example, bathrooms in CSC campervans can range from a portable toilet (at the cheaper end of the market), to a toilet and shower area screened off by just a curtain, to a full bathroom with toilet, shower, basin, storage and lockable door (in more premium campervans). It also pays to check what kind of heating is provided in the vehicle (especially if travelling in winter), if bedding is included (some rental companies charge extra for this) and what sort of fridge, cooking and kitchen equipment is provided.
While choosing a cheaper rental may save you money initially, you could find you need to buy extra items (blankets, pots and pans, cutlery etc) after you collect your vehicle.
It also pays to check the quality of the motorhome you’re hiring and what sort of on-road support the rental company provides while you’re travelling in New Zealand. You don’t want to find yourself in a campervan with mechanical issues and no one to contact for help.
All vehicles from Wilderness are modern European motorhomes that are certified self-contained, ideal for travelling year-round in New Zealand and come with everything you need, as well as on-road support.
Through our Wilderness Environmental Care Code, we encourage travellers to join us in respecting the landscape.
What facilities can I expect at a freedom campsite?
Technically you could be freedom camping in a shopper’s carpark next to malls and restaurants (though not everyone would call that ‘camping’), on public conservation land or in parks and reserves there may be toilets, picnic tables, barbecues, rubbish bins and a water supply. Generally the more remote the site, the more limited the services.
This also applies to WiFi and cell phone coverage. New Zealand has many areas where there is no digital coverage.
But New Zealand is also a compact country. Unless you’ve really sought to go deeply off road, you’re unlikely to ever be more than a few hours from an outpost of civilisation.
A properly self-contained vehicle means the emphasis is all about the freedom. Travellers can revel in some of New Zealand’s wild, beautiful places – and replenish their spirit – all at no extra charge. Don’t be put off by having to top up water or empty the toilet – it’s clean, quick and easy, will only need to be done every few days and is well worth the freedom a campervan holiday brings.
Freedom camping checklist:
If you’re planning on a freedom camping adventure here, here's a checklist to ensure your stay is comfortable and enjoyable.
Before freedom camping
- Fill up water supplies before heading off
- Empty wastewater before heading off.
- Charge all necessary electronics
- Make sure you have enough supplies to last you for your trip
During freedom camping
- Never use the bush or waterways as a toilet
- Keep detergents, soap, toothpaste etc. out of waterways
- Respect private property
- Use only approved dump stations for motorhome waste.
- If you do want to light a fire, be sure it’s legal in the area you’re in and it’s small enough to control
- Keep our native bush clean and our wildlife safe
After freedom camping
- Empty your wastewater at designated dump stations
- Leave no trace of your visit
- Dispose of all rubbish responsibly, or take it with you
Ready to hit the road? Check our itineraries!