If you’re thinking about taking a trip to New Zealand, you probably already know that a van trip is the best way to see this beautiful and diverse country. New Zealand has made this extra easy on us (especially budget travelers) by allowing visitors to “Freedom Camp.”
Not surprisingly, this has led to an enormous boom in tourism, particularly among the younger budget traveler demographic. Countless van rental companies tout self contained van rentals with unlimited miles, and the country even has its own website dedicated to the buying and resale of campervans. But as numbers climb, the problem grows. Auckland, Queenstown and Christchurch have all completely outlawed freedom camping within the city limits - and other provinces are starting to follow suit. If you want to camp in any of these major cities, you will have to pay for a site or camp at least 40 minutes outside the city. Why? Because campers are abusing this privilege. Freedom camping is not what it used to be, and it may soon be a thing of the past.
If you ask any local, they will tell you horror stories of overcrowded sites that have been turned into public toilets. A huge part of this problem is the sheer number of campers.
I visited New Zealand for three months in the dead of winter - the deep off season. I camped at freedom sites nearly every night, and every single one of them was at least half full. So if you are visiting in the summer months, it is highly likely that every site will be overfilled.
So what can you do to help?
1. Camp at designated freedom sites
This was one major point of confusion among travelers we met. While it does depend on the province, you can't actually park anywhere you want. There are very few places that allow this anymore, and it is likely that it will be completely eradicated in the coming months. Since its a grey area, your best bet is to stick to designated freedom sites. These will (almost) always be marked with the appropriate signage. Campermate is a great reference - you can download an offline map of all the freedom and paid sites in the country and they are generally kept completely up to date on recent closures and other tips.
2. Park in designated spaces
Most freedom sites have designated parking spots. Parking outside of these areas will not only result in a fine (and in many cases, a wheel clamp), but it adds to the overall problem and will put more strain on the local communities that still allow freedom camping.
3. Be prepared to pay for a site
If you’re visiting in the high season, know that you will need to arrive at your site early to get a spot. If you arrive and it’s full - be prepared to move on. And again, don’t park outside of designated sports. Plan to pay for a campsite at least a few nights a week - it will take a lot of stress off you and your fellow travelers. Almost anywhere you find a freedom site, there will be a paid site nearby.
4. Be self contained
This one sounds like a no brainer, but people still try to cut corners and end up waking up to $400 fines. You must have a sticker indicting your vehicle is certified self contained. If you are renting a van, this will already be taken care of for you. If you are buying your van, make sure it has up to date certification or you will need to get it inspected by a self-containment issuing authority or a qualified self-containment testing officer (local plumbers can sometimes have these certifications as well). Self contained means you must have a chemical toilet, wastebasket, and a greywater system that meets the requirements; more info on that here: https://bit.ly/2M01ESk
5. Use your chemical toilet
The biggest problem freedom camping faces these days is human waste. Yes, it’s gross to go to the bathroom in a tiny chemical toilet in your small van - but it’s no excuse for using public land as your toilet.
Most freedom sites do have bathrooms on site so you won’t need to use your chemical toilet often. But when there isn’t a bathroom, you must use your own. Work it out with your fellow traveler(s) so that you can have your privacy as needed. Incense does wonders for the odor. The point is, you are camping for free and that won’t always be glamorous. This is what you signed up for, so do your part to make sure future travelers can have the same freedom camping privileges.
6. Leave no Trace
While this one shouldn’t really need an explanation, I can’t count how many times we arrived at a site and spent the first ten minutes cleaning up other people’s trash.
Pick up your trash and dispose of it properly (that means recycling). Even if that means holding on to it until you reach your next destination.
Traveling New Zealand by van is truly the best way to do it. On behalf of all the past and future travelers - we ask that you do your part to make sure freedom camping is here to stay. It might get difficult as sites get more and more crowded, so be aware of that going into your trip.
Being flexible and responsible is key to getting the most out of your freedom camping journey. Keeping these tips in mind will not only keep you out of trouble, but will set an example for the other campers around you. If we all do our part, we can turn things around and make sure freedom camping is an option for the generations that come after us.