The Ultimate Guide To Freedom Camping in New Zealand

Freedom camping is one of the best ways to see New Zealand on a budget.

But what exactly is it? And how can you get involved?

This is The Ultimate Guide To Freedom Camping, where I’ll be covering:

  • What Is Freedom Camping (Including the rules and regulations you need to be aware of to avoid a hefty fine)
  • Debunking Some Common Freedom Camping Myths. Don’t Get Caught Out!
  • The 4 Tools and Websites I Use To Find Awesome Camping Spots – SPOILER…they’re all free!
  • What To Pack – The Essential Equipment You Need To Take
  • How To Not Piss Off The Locals
  • A ‘Bonus’ Tip For Making The Most Out Of Your Next Freedom Camping Trip

So, What Is Freedom Camping?

The Kiwis are easily the most outdoorsy, back-to-basics kind of people I’ve ever met.

I’ve been based here in New Zealand for a few years now, and I can tell you that one thing the locals hold dear to their hearts is the beauty they have in their own backyard, their rights to access and enjoy it and their responsibility to maintain and preserve it.

It’s ingrained into what it is to be Kiwi.

And, may I be the first to say…fair enough!

When you’re back yard looks as beautiful as theirs, you have no choice but to explore it.

Head of the valley on the Routburn Track Great Walk
Looking down through the valley on the Routeburn Track

And few things typify that ‘get amongst it’ nature, than the Department of Conservation.

I’m not going to get started on all of the ways that the Department of Conservation (DOC) are downright awesome. That’s a whole other post in itself. But one of the many, many ways that they kick ass is in their approach to wilderness camping.

Freedom camping has become a broad term, but essentially it refers to camping on publicly owned land.

Originally, freedom camping was a phrase coined by the DOC to mean camping in tents while hiking or otherwise exploring public land and protected and preserved areas.

Nowadays, freedom camping has taken on new meaning, and is usually used in reference to sleeping in your vehicle – often done by travellers and tourists who are exploring New Zealand by road.

That being said, the principles are still the same. Camping in your car/tent on public or conservation land for free.

And in a country where almost 30% of the land mass is in public ownership, that gives you a lot of options!

 

Freedom Camping Myths

#1 – “I can camp on any public land I want, for free”

Wrong.

Although largely true, there are certain areas where freedom camping is not allowed or is restricted.

This comprehensive list from the DOC details all of the places where freedom camping is prohibited.

How not to get caught out?

Always check the local bylaws before picking your camping spot. Look carefully for any signs prohibiting freedom camping in certain areas. For the most part they are usually quite clear. Observe them! Non freedom camping zones are heavily enforced, and your chances of receiving a fine and a rude awakening in the early morning hours are high.

#2 – “I can just park up and sleep in my car”

Well…not quite.

In some areas, freedom camping in vehicles is restricted to those which are ‘self-contained’.

Self-contained basically means you need to have some kind of setup for the safe storage of human waste within your vehicle. (You can read more about what constitutes being self-contained and how to become certified here.)

This is often in some of the more popular freedom camping areas, where larger numbers of non self-contained vehicles has in the past lead to issues of littering and/or the improper disposal of human waste.

How not to get caught out?

Check the above DOC list of restricted freedom camping zones before you hit the road, so you know where you can and can’t park up for the night.

In my experience you’ll also see plenty of signage at restricted camping zones, so there usually really isn’t an excuse for not knowing.

This rule is often disregarded by backpackers and budget travellers. And it quite often will land you in trouble.

Just like non freedom camping zones, restricted zones are well policed, and for good reason.

#3 – “Campfires are awesome”

OK. I’ll give you that one. Because campfires are awesome.

However…

Certain parts of the country impose fire bans or fire restrictions during the hotter, dryer summer months.

These are imposed locally and differ from place to place according to the local conditions at the time.

Some areas like central Otago on the South Island, which is particularly drought prone and arid in the summer, are nearly always under fire ban due to the risks of open flames and the potential damage caused if the fire gets out of hand.

How not to get caught out?

Each township or area you come into usually will have a sign on the approach advising you of the level of fire risk at that particular time.

Look for those signs. And listen to them!

Much of the South Island is sparsely populated, with large open areas of conservation and agricultural land. In the dry months, a small spark can soon cause catastrophic damage, as we have seen time and time and time again.

And with many towns still relying on a voluntary fire brigade of locals, the infrastructure and resources often aren’t equipped to deal quickly with large scale incidents.

The 3 Freedom Camping Tools And Websites You Need

So now that you know what freedom camping in New Zealand is, I’d imagine you’re pretty keen to get on with planning your trip?

This section is a run down on my top tools and websites for finding the best camping spots right around New Zealand. The resources featured here are all completely free. Some feature paid camping sites in addition to free spots. I consider them all to be essential tools, and ones I find myself using often.

1 – campermate.co.nz

Hands down my favourite resource going. Campermate.co.nz has helped me out in a few situations and saved me countless hours of Googling over the years.

The website has a really useful ‘Map’ feature, which places points of interest for campers on a map of New Zealand. You can then zoom into the specific area you’re interested in and quickly see at a glance the exact location of heaps of free and paid camping spots, public toilets and points of interest. You can then click on each point for more details, information and reviews or comments from other users.

The CamperMate community is great and a lot of the comments are super useful.

They also offer a free downloadable app which has all of the same features as the website. Really useful for when you want to quickly look up campsites on the move.

2 – rankers.co.nz

Similar kind of concept to CamperMate, but a little more advanced in a few key areas.

On a wide, zoomed out view of a larger area, Rankers uses cluster groups to group sites together into areas of interest. This makes it seem a little less daunting and easier to quickly zoom into the exact area you want to look at.

Another feature I really like about Rankers over CamperMate is the easy to follow key. They have different symbols for free vs paid camping spots, so you can see on a quick glance which spots are good for free camping and which ones charge a small fee.

They also have an easy symbol system to show which type of camping is allowed in each spot – i.e. ‘self-contained’, ‘tent only’, ‘tent and any vehicle’ etc.

The map view also utilises Google Maps to overlay the campsites onto, so you can easily see roads and all the usual Google Maps stuff and work out how to get there.

The only downside to Rankers over CamperMate is that the site solely lists campsites. Public toilets, points of interest and all of the other cool stuff listed by CamperMate is not found here. Having said that, if your only objective is to find somewhere to camp, you’ll probably find it less cluttered and more detailed than CamperMate.

3 – DOC Campsite Map

Whilst not strictly freedom camping, since many of the sites charge a small fee, I’ve always found DOC campsites to be awesome. They’re cheap, and usually have basic facilities like a toilet and water supply.

A lot of the sites on this map aren’t going to be much use to your road trip, as DOC campsites are often located in remote backcountry and are only accessible by hike.

But…there are some which are located close to roads and make for great road trip stop offs.

The website has a cool feature where you can filter out all of the ‘walking and tramping’ campsites, to just leave you with the standard camp sites.

Another tool in the filters which is super useful, is the ability to filter down to see all places where freedom camping is restricted or altogether prohibited. So if you don’t want to splash for the official DOC campsites and would rather make your own way, a quick glance at your area with this filter on will tell you exactly where you can and can’t set up camp for the night.

A fantastic free tool, well worth checking out.

4 – AA Route Planner

The road network in New Zealand is pretty simple, and for the most part there really aren’t a whole lot of options.

There’s next to no motorways outside of Auckland, and many places in the South Island in particular have only one road in and out.

And that’s all well and good. Apart from when it’s not.

Occasionally, particularly in low season, New Zealand can catch it’s fair share of rough weather.

Big storms can blow in from the Tasman, strong southerly wind systems can move in and cause damage and disruption to a road system with few places for redundancy.

Sometimes patches of bad weather or even earthquakes can cause slips, landslides and road damage that blocks access to certain places completely. This happened recently when a major earthquake caused a slip which blocked the only route into and out of Kaikoura from the South. The slip caused the route to be closed for several weeks, and caused a lot of people to change their travel plans.

The AA site is a great way to keep updated with road news, keep abreast of road closures and plan your route with ease.

Think of any tools or sites I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments below and I’ll add them to the list.

Freedom Camping Without Annoying The Locals

This is the part that’s all too often overlooked.

You’ll find that, for the most part, the local people are extremely friendly and helpful.

But as I’ve already mentioned above, they are proud of their beautiful country. And they actively want to protect and preserve it for themselves and their future generations.

Unfortunately, it’s that age old thing of the small minority ruining it for the vast majority.

It’s reported that over 60,000 people freedom camp in New Zealand every year. That’s a lot of people! And as this special freedom camping report from Leslie Brent highlights, managing that volume of freedom campers is an ongoing problem.

Most people I’ve met have been clean, polite and respectful campers enjoying their journey.

Nevertheless, there’s always one or two who aren’t that way inclined.

With that many people giving freedom camping a go, it’s not realistic to think that everyone will be responsible and respectful campers.

Unfortunately it’s the few exceptions to the rule that paint the most vivid picture of freedom campers in the eyes of the locals. Thanks to those few individuals, the feeling in most local communities is focused far too much on the negative environmental impact of the few freedom campers, rather than the positive social and economic impact of the many.

Some sites have even had to be closed down after complaints of improperly disposed human waste and the threat it posed to health and safety of local residents.

With tensions occasionally running high between campers and locals, confrontations like this one are not unheard of. There are even reports of locals in some areas becoming so frustrated that they are resorting to the threat of vigilante action to protect their home.

Those are fairly extreme examples, but they do illustrate a very real issue.

So, with that said, here are a few things you should keep in mind when you’re freedom camping in New Zealand, to make sure that you don’t end up in that minority:

  • Dispose of all human waste properly. Bury it, or better still, use a toilet.
  • Observe the local freedom camping bylaws and restrictions. Camping is banned in certain areas for a reason.
  • Leave only footprints. Remember that one of the reasons you probably decided to camp there in the first place is because it’s a beautiful spot. Keep it beautiful. Take all of your rubbish with you and leave the land exactly as you found it.
  • Take care not to do any unintended damage to the environment during your stay. Wash your dishes carefully in a container, then tip the dish water out at least 100 meters away from any running water source. Never wash dishes directly in lakes or rivers, where the chemicals and leftover food scraps can pollute the water system and have knock on effects on wildlife.

If you stick to the above tips and follow the regulations, you’ll have nothing but good experiences on your next freedom camping trip.

Remember right at the start of this article when I told you that the one thing the locals hold dear to their hearts is the beauty they have in their own backyard? Well, it’s true. And for the most part they’re pretty stoked to share it with you. But if you don’t look after and protect that beauty, don’t be surprised if you find them to be not all that welcoming.

 

What To Pack

So now you’re all set and ready to go freedom camping! You’ve picked your spot and you know what to do and what not to do while you’re there and how to be a good camper.

But what should you take with you?

I always prefer to pack light, opting for simple solutions rather than complicated or expensive equipment.

With that being said though, there are a couple of bits of gear I would never want to be without.

In this section I’ll give you the run down on my essential packing list. Here are my top things to take when you go freedom camping:

  1. Portable Gas Stove (essential)

These little beauties are a game changer!

Before I came to New Zealand I’d never come across something like this. Now, I never go on any kind of trip without one. Weather I’m going on a road trip, going hiking, kayaking or fishing…if I’m planning to be out in the backcountry for any length of time, I’ll be carrying one of these.

They’re lightweight, pack down small and are extremely reliable!

They are also cheap enough to buy and very cost effective to run. The replacement gas bottles will usually set you back around $20-$30 and should last you a good few hours of burn time.

You can pick these up at most sports and outdoor shops, instore or online at Warehouse ($45) and at most Mitre 10s.

As I mentioned earlier on in this guide, fires are always dangerous and often banned here. These little burners are a much safer way to cook your dinner and boil your water while out and about. It’s also a damn sight easier than trying to start a camp fire every night to prepare your feed.

2) Insect Repellent (important)

Sandflies.

Don’t even get me started on these guys.

I’m convinced these things are the only downside to New Zealand.

But they are one hell of a downside.

If you don’t know what sandflies are or you haven’t experienced them yet, this short guide is an excellent read and should arm you with all the information you need. Or for a more entertaining, light-hearted read, this Stuff Travel article is also worth a look.

On the plus side, sandflies are not dangerous. They rarely carry diseases and are very unlikely to make you sick. They’re just more of a mental drain, with the added bonus of making you itch yourself stupid.

So pack some good insect repellent and prepare to cover up.

Or if you prefer to try to avoid them completely, this map of New Zealand shows you where the sandflies are most concentrated.

3) A Good Sleeping Bag

You can’t put a price on a good nights sleep.

Especially when you’re on the road and exploring new places.

There’s just nothing worse than waking up in the morning after a rough nights camping, feeling groggy and tired and being unable to enjoy the day.

A good sleeping bag is essential to making sure you don’t end up red eyed and zombie faced in all those road trip photos you’re dying to take.

At certain times of the year, temperatures here can change rapidly when the sun goes down.

Winters here are especially cold, particularly on the mid to lower parts of the South Island.

Make sure you have a sleeping bag that can get the job done.

Pro Tip…

A little while ago, someone introduced me to one of these.

A self inflating matress.

These things are amazing! And now that I know they exist, I never go on a camping trip without one.

They role up small (just clip it onto the back of your backpack if you’re hiking) and make such a difference when it comes to getting a good nights sleep.

Some camp spots can be on pretty solid ground – especially in summer when rain is scarce and the ground is dry and hard – and if you’re in a tent without much padding on the ground, you’re going to be waking up in the night sore.

These things are cheap and they’re a good way of keeping your body off of the hard ground and helping you get a good sleep.

 

One Last Thing…

Exploring New Zealand by car is awesome. Especially with so many amazing free camping spots to choose from. Spots which are nearly always nestled in beautiful surroundings and stunning locations.

But there’s a slower method of exploration that I always lean towards if I have time on my side.

Exploring by foot.

Multi day hiking (or ‘tramping’) is huge in New Zealand.

As I hinted to in the freedom camping resources section above, DOC have a huge list of basic huts and campsites scattered throughout the stunning backcountry of New Zealand.

What’s more, all DOC land is completely free camping land – with the exception of some of the great walks, where camping has been restricted to controlled sites in order to maintain a manageable cap on visitor numbers.

If you have the time on your road trip, I urge you to leave the car or camper behind and head out on foot for a true freedom camping experience.

 

Wrapping Up

Well, that just about completes my Ultimate Guide To Freedom Camping In New Zealand.

If you made it this far, well done you! And thankyou. Seriously. You guys make this blog what it is by taking the time to come and read it.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback in the comments below, or you can head over to Twitter and drop me a tweet. If you think of anything I’ve missed out, then let me know and I’ll continue updating this guide.

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