Updated: Nov 23, 2018
The Exhaustive Guide to Freedom Camping in New Zealand.
Yep, it’s true. New Zealand is one of those countries that allows people to just camp all over (with some restrictions.) The first thing you should know is that freedom camping has become somewhat of a contentious issue. Some places will hate having you around, but others will love it. With tourism in New Zealand and, consequentially, freedom camping growing at crazy rates, some locals are getting frustrated at losing their secret pieces of paradise. Take a look at our “Travel & Respect” post for some tips on how not to be a dick while traveling, and follow our camping guide below.
nb: Freedom Camping rules are always changing, and although this
is all accurate as of 2018, it may not be in the future. Please do your
own research to avoid being fined.
First things first: If you choose to free camp please do so respectfully. More and more areas are banning freedom camping, or restricting sites to self-contained vehicles, a specific number of vehicles, or a limited number of nights due to the behavior of freedom campers. Please don’t be the reason these spaces get shut down all together.
1. Respect site guidelines.
2. Keep noise to a minimum at night
3. Use your onboard toilet. If you are not self contained, park somewhere with facilities and use them. If there are none provided, and you are desperate, dig a hole. We have seen more human waste (and TP) in New Zealand than anywhere else, and it is really sad to see people treating such a beautiful spot like that. Be a responsible pooper.
4. Take your rubbish bag with you. Yes, even if there is a bin. Never before have we seen people hide rubbish bags behind toilets., but it is rampant in the New Zealand freedom camping community. Most towns have a refuse/transfer station, which will also have recycling bins.
5. Be aware of neighbours, permanent and temporary. Don’t park a massive RV in front of someone’s view. Don’t park parallel if perpendicular works and saves space. Don’t box anyone in.
6. Don’t be afraid to call other people out. Okay, that’s not a rule, but go ahead and shame disrespectful campers. Many people have no clue they’re being disrespectful until somebody brings their attention to it, and those that do will be embarrassed.
Now that we’ve gotten all that bloody common sense out of the way: The main show.
There are 16 Regions (and 53 districts) in New Zealand, and each has their own rules and signage around freedom camping, as do many of the larger cities and tourist destinations. Infringement of these laws incurs a penalty of $200. There is also a notable difference between the north and south islands with the larger northern populations being more likely to find issues with freedom campers.
Freedom camping sites are open to 3 different categories of user. Self-contained (SC), non self-contained (NSC), and tent camping. More and more tent sites have been shut down, making free camping this way unreliable, but if you are hoping to supplement paid sites with a few free nights here and there, it's still possible for now.
Freedom Camping in a Self-Contained Vehicle.
This is by far the preferred freedom camping method. Many districts are cracking down on free camping due to the rapid increase of tourism and the subsequent pressure on local resources. By purchasing or renting a self-contained vehicle you can guarantee access to the highest number of free sites. A self-contained vehicle is exactly what it sounds like: a vehicle which can contain everything necessary for its passengers from fresh water to waste collection, allowing for minimal impact on the environment. These vehicles can be anything from a passenger van to a RV to a bus (and in New Zealand you will see some amazing busses.) Find out more about self-contained vehicles here. As a (very) general rule, in a self-contained vehicle you can park on any public space overnight, so long as signage does not say otherwise, or in any designated free camping spots. Do always check the local districts guidelines before camping in an unmarked space.
Freedom Camping in a Non-Self-Contained Vehicle.
Purchasing or renting a non-self-contained vehicle might seem like the more economical choice, as it is often cheaper both in initial cost, and with fuel factored in. However with Freedom Camping laws getting stricter and stricter, it could be hard to find a legal space to camp. We have met people travelling successfully this way who are in constant fear of fines, or who have ended up paying for more campsites than they had initially budgeted for. The positive side to a non-self-contained vehicle is that they tend to be smaller vehicles, and thus easier to hide. Not that we’re condoning that or anything. This also might be the way to go if you are planning on living rent free in other ways.
Freedom Camping in a Tent.
Sorry tent people, your sites tend to be a little scarcer. They also tend to be a little more vague, leading to a few surreptitious nights with early morning camp breakdowns. There are still some beautiful options though, and many by-donation sites to keep costs low. If you are into tramping, a tent can be set up anywhere along most DOC trails (within reason) so long as you are 50m from the trail. This gives you an excellent excuse to see even more untouched beauty from your tent door.
We wouldn’t have gotten very far without help from the travel apps below. They by no means offer an exhaustive list of campsites, but will provide you with tried and true spots, camping restrictions, and are wonderful if you choose to not do your own research. They are especially useful on the North Island where freedom camping is much more strictly policed.
This is the app you will hear about the most as it seems to be primarily used by travellers. As such, the comments section has a wide range of opinions from people with very different travel styles. It has an easy to use interface, can show you petrol stations, Wi-Fi locations, things to do and more. It is easy to add your own reviews, and to read the reviews and tips of others. The app eats through data, so we recommend downloading the offline version, and turning data off while you’re browsing.
* There is a similar app for members of the NZMCA which also includes member-only camping spaces. More about the NZMCA here.
2. Rankers (AKA Camping New Zealand)
This is my personal favourite. The Rankers app tends to be used most by locals, which makes it useful to anyone in a larger vehicle, as comments will give more details to the sites suitability for RVs and buses. The interface is a bit more finicky when it comes to leaving your own comments, and doesn’t allow anonymous comments. What I particularly like about rankers is that it lists some really great hikes, with genuine feedback on the trails themselves.
3. WikiCamps NZ
This app is gaining more and more traction, and is very popular with the budget traveller. My favourite aspect of this one is the roadmap, which is incredibly detailed, and has proven very helpful multiple times. Of all the apps, WikiCamps is the one that keys out all the amenities in a space the most clearly. Unfortunately to read any comments you need to have access to the internet, which is not always practical in New Zealand. If you are traveling with a tent or in a non-self-contained vehicle, this app is for you. The comments tend to lean towards where there was a safe non-self-contained sleep, and where people were asked to leave.
In all of these apps you will find dead zones, but by using them in conjunction we were almost always able to find a spot. With that being said, there are some very popular spots where freedom camping is not permitted at all, or extremely limited. Often nearby roads are listed as freedom camping zones where you can sleep in pull-offs, but be prepared to pay for a legitimate site if these aren’t your style. For those on a short trip through New Zealand and hoping to see all the hot-spots, it may not be worth renting a self-contained vehicle at all.
Good luck! Remember: New Zealand is offering these spaces up for free. There is no obligation on their part to make these sites as nice as a paid campground, and we as freedom campers are entitled to nothing.
For those wanting more of an understanding of freedom camping restrictions,
I’ve linked each region’s guidelines below.
Finish your trip planning with an itinerary of the north or south island.