Free Camping in New Zealand
Freedom camping or free camping is the practice of putting up tents or parking up campervans in public areas not designated for camping. Free camping typically means that freedom campers cannot access facilities such as clean drinking water, toilets (either flushing or long drop) and waste disposal facilities. Free camping appeals to campers, especially those on a tight budget because it offers the ultimate in 'cheap camping'. In New Zealand, freedom campers tend to use laybys, picnic areas and very remote spots.
There are now around 420 ‘free’ campsites scattered around New Zealand that are designated by local councils and the Department of Conservation. Up until 2011 in New Zealand, it was much easier to find a free campsite as many of the councils didn’t see freedom camping as a problem and there weren’t as many rules. Then, around the time of the Rugby World Cup in 2011, the entire campervan rental fleet was booked out months in advance. Also around this time, there were some highly publicised cases of irresponsible freedom camping (going to the toilet in a public place, leaving rubbish in popular free camping spots etc).
Unfortunately, free camping is having an increasingly negative effect on New Zealand’s clean, green environment due to the increasing volume of freedom campers – some of whom create litter problems, dispose of human waste inadequately and discharge grey water outside of dump stations. Free campers tend not to be popular with local residents but it doesn't have to be that way. To help keep New Zealand beautiful, avoid fines, and stay in the good books with the locals we've put together some helpful 'need-to-knows', best practice tips, and links to local council and government resources.
What are the new rules?
From February 1st 2018, the national standards covering self-contained vehicles have been tightened. All motor caravans and caravans must be self-contained when staying overnight at locations where self-containment is required, this includes some DOC campsites (note some locations do not require campers to be self-contained, as a responsible camper you must check all signs at the location you are staying at). This means you need to be able to live in your vehicle for 3 days without requiring more water or dumping waste. The vehicle must have freshwater storage, wastewater storage, a rubbish bin with a lid, and a toilet that can be used inside, even when the bed is in place. If you do not have a vehicle with a self-contained toilet, you will need to park near toilet facilities. Your vehicle hire company should have information to pass on about the type of vehicle you need. For information on these definitions click here.
The confusing part for travellers is that different regions and Department of Conservation areas have different rules. To make sure you're aware of these differing rules, be sure to check in with:
Local Isite Visitor Information Centres
DoC Visitor Centres
or if you're still in doubt check out:
Local Council Information
To access an up-to-date list of Freedom Camping sites check out www.rankers.co.nz
Free Camping Best Practice
Freedom camping is not illegal in New Zealand, but local by-laws can specifically restrict it in certain areas and free campers not complying with notices can be fined. If you are free camping in New Zealand, do try to follow the guidelines below:
- Make sure you park your campervan or pitch your tent in a safe area, well away from traffic.
If possible, try to camp near to a public toilet block, where you can use the toilets and sinks (sometimes showers).
- Keep your car or campervan doors locked at night.
- Portable fuel stoves are less harmful to the environment and are more efficient than fires. In dry times of year, open fires may be prohibited in certain areas – be sure to check for fire restrictions. If you really have to make a fire, keep it small, use only dead wood and make sure it is out by dousing it with water and checking the ashes before you leave.
- Improper disposal of toilet waste can contaminate water, damage the environment and is culturally offensive. Use disposal facilities where provided or bury waste in a shallow hole at least 50 metres away from waterways.
- When cleaning and washing in open waterways, take the water and wash well away from the water source. As soaps and detergents are harmful to water life, drain used water into the soil to allow it to be filtered.
- If you suspect water to be contaminated, either boil it for at least three minutes, or filter it, or chemically treat it.
- Litter is unattractive, harmful to wildlife and pollutes water. Take all your litter with you, recycle what you can, and dispose of non-recyclables in the appropriate rubbish bins or refuse centres.
- Camp carefully and respect the environment and other visitors – leave no trace of your visit, nothing but footprints as the old adage goes.
- Check out NZ Tourism Guide for more info.
Campermate.co.nz has a great free app available on IOS and Android which lets you know where the free campsites are while travelling around NZ. Check it out!
From February 1st 2018, the national standard covering self-contained vehicles have been tightened.