Back in 2019 the dream for my partner and I was simple, just us, the camper-van, and the open windy roads of New Zealand for miles. We would camp where we liked, swim in the sea and drink lots of gorgeous New Zealand wine. This dream became a reality by the end of the year where we spent six week travelling from North to South of the country in our trusty van. Of course, we were doing this all on a shoestring budget and so any way we could save money we would do. This included our most valuable money saving weapon, a thing called ‘Freedom Camping’.
In New Zealand, in permitted areas compliant with certain rules, you can park up for the night and sleep in your van for FREE. This was a perfect way for us to save money as staying even in a basic campsite every night would set us back £10/20 minimum, which doesn’t sound like a lot but over six weeks that is a lot of petrol and bottles of wine we could have bought instead! We spent the majority of the trip freedom camping and learnt some excellent tips and tricks along the way which I have bundled together for all your future adventurers.
What can I expect from a Freedom Camping Site?
Generally a free-camp spot can be in a carpark, field, forrest, in front of the beach, behind a train-station; you get the point, but they are anywhere where the are specific signs out in place saying you are allowed to camp there in accordance with the regulations. Some spots will simply be a few car-park spaces, others will have fresh water taps, public toilets, sinks or dump stations. Generally the most useful spots are the ones with facilities, particularly fresh water and toilets. But be prepared, often free-camp spots will provide you with a field and nothing but stars over your head and mountains in the background, after all, this is free!
Self-contained is the key
The most important thing to note before you start your trip Freedom Camping through New Zealand is that your van, camper-van or car MUST be certified as self-contained by a relevant authority. If you do not have this certification or documentation, you can not freedom camp in 95% of the designated areas.
If you are hiring a van, this is usually done as a standard for you so you do not have to worry, just make sure you double check. However if you are planning on buying a van or renting from a less established company, you may have to organise these measures yourself.
What does self-contained mean?
In New Zealand this means your vehicle has the means to house a fresh water tank, grey waste, a portable toilet and a rubbish bin and these all must have capacity for 3 days worth. These measures were put in place to help protect the natural beauty of New Zealand and keep the country clean for local residents and tourists alike.
Now you have the basics, here are some hot hints and tips to get you freedom camping like a boss and make sure you are prepared for anything
Finding your spot
Freedom Camping areas are specifically designated areas which usually have a limit on the amount of vans and where exactly you can park, i.e.. you cant just pull up anywhere for the night.
The spots are advertised much, as obviously many locals and councils would rather you paid money to stay on a site, so you have to be savvy where you look. The best thing I ever used in New Zealand to help me find my spots was an app called Campermate. This app places all the open freedom camp spots on a map for you to search though, it details how many vans can stay, what facilities they have and the hours you can stay there. It even allows for comments from its users so you can see if it gets busy, if the facilities are clean and what people thought of it.
Always have a backup option
If you are travelling New Zealand in the height of summer, as most do, freedom camp areas can get very popular. As many spots may only have capacity for 10 vehicles, you might sometimes find when you arrive at a spot that there is no room and you will have to find an alternative. Ways around this are often to check the Campermate app for comments which say it gets busy and arrive early. However, you will often want to make the most of your day and so arriving at your final stop for the night in early afternoon isn’t always desirable. Instead, make sure you have at least one other back-up option. Be that another free-camp spot nearby or a paid campsite which has availability. Having a contingency plan saves a lot of stress if you are low on signal or it is getting late in the day.
Find cheap shower spots
If you are planning on travelling for as cheap as possible, using freedom camp spots are a great option, but they are missing one key thing, a shower. There are only so many times you can class a sea dip as ‘cleaning’ and the further south you go the colder it gets. If you are really adverse to paying for a campsite, my greatest hack for saving money were using swimming pool and gym facilities. For the fraction of the price of a campsite you can pay for a swim or to go to the gym and use their showers afterwards. Some leisure centres even account for this and have pricing up just to use the shower. You can also look for public hot/cold showers which are often free or a couple of dollars for a few of minutes.
New Zealand is a country of outstanding natural beauty, and part of the reason why it has remained this way is tourist and locals alike respect the land they live on. Almost all Freedom Camping spots will stipulate you cannot have any wild/camp fires, so bring warm clothes or invest in a small heater. One of the most important things you can do to protect the land is take all your rubbish with you. Any bottles, cans, wrappers and toilet roll should be put in bins nearby or taken with you to be disposed of properly. This is a simple way you can continue to make New Zealand a clean and beautiful environment for you and those who travel after. For more ways to protect our planet whilst you travel, check out our piece on how to travel plastic free on a budget, it provides some great tips on how to reduce your plastic consumption on the road.
Be savvy with the rules
In every district, there will be different restrictions on the places you can camp, how long you can camp for and how many people can camp at any one time. This will even vary between camp spots in the same area. Before you pick your spot, make sure you know the rules so you can avoid getting stung by unnecessary fines.
Invest in a large tank of water
Not every free-camp spot will have access to fresh and clean water and sometimes it is quite a mission to try and find free taps around if you are in remote areas. Of course there is nothing worse than not having enough water to boil your pasta. To avoid this, invest in a big tank/ bottle of about 10 litres and top it up and any opportunity so you have backup water which will last you a night or two, so you can eat as much pasta as you like and stay super hydrated.
Like most things in life, getting used to Freedom Camping is all about finding what works for you and learning on the go. Hopefully with some of these handy hints, you can arrive in New Zealand ready to adventure with a little insider knowledge to get you started and make you feel like a seasoned free-camp pro.