30 Apr Freedom Camping in New Zealand – Can The Dream Live Up to Reality?
One of the main reasons for choosing to travel to New Zealand’s North or South Island is the opportunity to camp wild. It sounds like heaven: spending the night in the most beautiful places of the country for free, all by yourself. Waking up in the morning to the great outdoors, listening to animal sounds and a friendly breeze in the evening, discovering a secluded beach. These are the expectations that awaken when I think of freedom camping in New Zealand.
At least, they were. Because unfortunately, and even though supported by the officials, dreams in this case cannot live up to reality.
Freedom Camping is a Part of New Zealand’s Culture
Freedom camping looks back on a long tradition in New Zealand – for locals as well as for foreigners. But due to the ever-increasing crowds of people coming to the country, who all seem to be looking for secluded spots and who do not always treat them in a responsible way, the attitude of locals towards freedom camping has changed in recent years.
By law freedom camping is still allowed anywhere where there is no prohibition sign – but nowadays these signs are found almost everywhere. The result is, that freedom campers are more and more forced to spending their nights in designated parking lots – which isn’t fun for anybody.
In and nearby most of the villages and small towns we visited, freedom camping is no longer possible. There are many reasons for this. One certainly is that – thanks to the unique international reputation that New Zealand has acquired as a haven for freedom-loving and adventurous individualists – more and more people from the Western Hemisphere, but also from Asia, spend their holidays here. A rush that the small island nation is no match for.
New Zealand needs money for new hotels, campsites, bigger streets, public toilets. At the moment, this money is coming from taxpayers and the communities. But those seem to have had bad experiences with freedom campers in the recent past – which has cost many of them their good will.
Bad Experiences with Reckless Freedom Campers
We’re talking about rubbish being disposed of on the roadside or human excrements that spoil the landscape. We too had an unpleasant experience with these legacies, nicely crowned by a piece of white toilet paper. No wonder, freedom campers are often anything but welcomed guests.
But why not put rubbish bins everywhere and build toilets? As I heard from locals, this would take money the communities actually don’t have. Anyways, for me, the charm of these places lies precisely here: in the fact that you get the impression as if you were the first person to step onto this part of land. Comes with a little less comfort and more responsibility, but also more beauty.
Freedom camping does not just mean camping for free, but experiencing an essential kind of freedom that once might have been the original idea of the whole thing. Today, there are very few places on this planet where you can camp wild. For me, freedom camping accounts for a large part of New Zealand’s fascination in general.
I am sure it’s neither in the interest of the state officials nor in the interest of the locals and travelers to let the tradition of freedom camping disappear in the next few years.
Hopefully this won’t happen. Let us act carefully, responsibly and appreciatively. To do so, there are a few practical recommendations to follow.
Freedom Camping Etiquette
- Freedom camping is basically possible wherever it is not prohibited.
- Freedom camping in private areas and generally within city limits is not allowed.
- Freedom camping in designated areas without toilet is only allowed in “self-contained vehicles” – i.e. those with their own toilet, fresh water and sewage system. A well visible sticker on your campervan will demonstrate this.
- Do not leave any waste! Meaning: take your rubbish bags with you, until you can dispose of them at a public waste station or at the next campsite. If a visit to the toilet is unavoidable, collect legacies and toilet paper and store them in a sealed plastic bag (same way you would handle a dog’s poo). Everything else is a no go!
- Gray and black water (ie waste water from shower and sink as well as toilet waste water) may only be emptied in marked “dump stations“.
- Usually you will find information about special features of a campsite and how long you can stay in one place on a sign at the entrance. I would stick to those recommendations at least roughly, since controls take place regularly.
There may be small deviations depending on the area you’re traveling, but if you follow the rules, you will be fine and safe everywhere. Generally spoken: leave only footprints.
By the way, the officials strictly punish illegal camping with a fine of NZD 200 currently (March 2018).
So how do I find a Freedom Campsite?
These two (free) apps will become your best friends when traveling New Zealand. You’ll be using them every single day! My definite favorite is “Campermate”. In 2018 this app is the “most used TravelApp of New Zealand”, no other provides as much reliable information. Everything you need in one app.
From free and paid-for campsites to dump stations, gas stations, lookouts, WiFi spots and more. All is free, intuitive and available offline – if you download the maps (which I would highly recommend, because especially on the South Island, the mobile connection is often really bad – or better, inexistent). The equipment of the campsites is indicated with easy-to-understand icons.
Campermate lives from the user comments, which are numerous and often only a few days old. Prices of campsites are only to be found in the comments-section and often not reliable, which is a bit suboptimal. There never was an unplesant surprise for us concerning the prices though. If you have decided on a place, just click on “get directions” and Google Maps will guide you right to the desired location via coordinates. All in all, the app does a great job, and does not confuse with too much information.
On the other hand there is WikiCamps, also free, also with offline map to download. I have downloaded both apps at the same time, but initially avoided WikiCamps because it’s by far not so intuitive. There are too many useless filters and other settings, which can be confusing in the beginning.
But I finally figured it out. Basically, you need nothing more than the map. You can zoom in (similar to Campermate) and compare the different sites. The relevant things are easy to understand, but to this day, I don’t know all of the icons and menu possibilities. Just never needed them. The comments are not so numerous and sometimes outdated. The prices though are easier to find since they have their own icon and – to my feeling – are more reliable than on Campermate. This way you are faster comparing one site to another. With WikiCamps, every time you want to get directions to your new destination, you first have to agree to use Google Maps.
In summary, I prefer Campermate, but I am meanwhile using both apps for comparison reasons of prices and comments. While Campermate is best for comments, WikiCamps gets me the prices. Moreover, they complement each other in terms of finding campsites. So either go with both, or choose Campermate.
Note: While both apps let you download the content for offline use, once you hit get directions from Google Maps you still need internet connection again – unless you are happy to get lost using crappy onboard navigation systems. Read more about how to stay connected to the internet while traveling to remote destinations using a pocket WIFI device and an external antenna. As far as internet connection in New Zealand is concerned, it doesn’t get any better than that.
Managing expectations. What can I expect from a Freedom Campsite?
You’ve probably come here to experience untouched nature – but now find yourself squeezed like sardines on a dreary large car park right next to the road. So what you certainly cannot expect are lonely pitches in the midst of nature, preferably located directly on the beach or by the lake. There will be no beautiful freedom campsites around the towns and popular tourist destinations. You will find a “no camping” sign even at the sometimes idyllic looking rest areas on the highways.
Sadly, traveling New Zealand is no longer an insider tip. Ever more people are looking for their personal freedom and secluded spot here. That’s how it is. So please prepare, try to manage your travel expectations and thus be capable to enjoy the beauty some of the freedom campspots still have to offer.
At this point, there is still some catching up to do for the country’s official tourism sites in my opinion. It’s necessary to offer clear guidelines and down-to-earth information about freedom camping and its limitations.
This is what we found out the hard way
- A freedom campsite can be idyllic, but often is completely bleak.
- Sometimes it comes without any facilities. But you often find at least a composting toilet (to our experience always spotless and always (!) equipped with toilet paper.) There was not a single toilet without paper – not used to that from Southern Europe at all! On the North Island near the beaches we frequently found showers as well as BBQ areas.
- Especially in the summer months, secluded spots for only you and your family are far from being realistic nowadays. We were traveling in early fall and never had a freedom campspot to ourselves. Usually the number of campervans allowed to one place is limited, so there would be between 3 – 20 other campers to our company.
- None of the sites was inviting enough for us to stay for more than 2 or 3 nights. There is an upper limit of allowed nights to stay anyway, mostly that’s a few days time. We headed to a Holiday Park about every 3rd or 4th night to wash clothes, load up the batteries, take a shower.
Freedom camping is not what it used to be. Especially as a family, consider increasing your budget and/or head to DOC (Department of Conservation) campsites. These are Campsites with varying facilities, often located in National Parks. Besides all levels of comfort (including freedom campsites) they offer panoramic views and near-natural sites and without being overcrowded.
Take This Advice: Don’t Go Down a Gravel Road Without a 4WD!
If you are (like us) traveling in a motorhome without 4WD, consider that streets to the more secluded places are often not easy to manage. Long, narrow gravel roads are no fun, take soo much time and simply are nerve-wrecking. Even if the kids enjoy themselves being hurled from one side of the camper bed to the other. We got into several uncomfortable situations – and have managed only with a good deal of luck. Find out about the local conditions either via the DOC brochure or via Campermate app.
In the end, it all comes down to this: freedom camping is not what you might expect it to be. As everywhere else in the world, the more people want to do and experience, the more problems occur. So maybe we were just a couple of years too late, and we definitely expected too much. The dream doesn’t live up to reality here.
And what did the kids think of freedom camping? Too much nature, too little playground – that was the basic tenor of our children. They consistently preferred the fully equipped campsite with bouncing pillow and trampoline. So, as we were traveling with “nature philistines“ (still hoping this will change one day) and to maintain family peace, we regularly visited a Top 10 Holiday Park or a similarly equipped campsite. Which also offers some advantages.
Microwave popcorn included!
So, what do you guys think of freedom camping? What is your favorite freedom campspot? Or which way of getting around do you choose when exploring New Zealand? Let us know!