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Freedom Camping in New Zealand

The Do's and Don'ts of Tent, Camper or Motorhome Holidaying in New Zealand

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Moke Lake Reserve, Queenstown, New Zealand

Moke Lake Reserve, Queenstown, New Zealand

Image Courtesy of New Zealand Tourism

What is Freedom Camping?

Freedom camping is a long-honored New Zealand tradition and refers to camping in places outside of camping grounds and holiday parks. In other words, it's about pitching your tent or parking your motorhome or campervan anywhere! Of course, this does not apply to private land. You should always check to make sure where you want to stop is open to the public.

With many large and spectacular wilderness areas throughout the New Zealand, freedom camping is a very appealing option for getting around the country. It gives you not only the flexibility of where you go, but it will be cheaper as well.

Freedom Camping Laws

Despite the popularity and appeal of freedom camping, it is not legal to park in just any public place you fancy. Unfortunately the actions of a minority of campers has resulted in increased scrutiny of freedom camping in recent years. New laws were passed by the government in 2011 in an attempt to regulate freedom camping and each local council also has specific by-laws that apply to its own region. These regulations vary amongst regions so it is important to check what they are for any area you are visiting.

In essence, the new laws allow for freedom camping in any area where it is not specifically prohibited. Although these prohibited areas will generally be signposted, it is best to check with the local Tourist Information Center where you can and can't freedom camp. Many councils have introduced specific areas for freedom camping.

Self Containment Certification

One 'loophole' which exists in the laws surrounding freedom camping in New Zealand is that there is no distinction made between camping with or without self contained facilities (on-board waste and water). This means that in a 'free' area where there are no facilities provided, you are still able to camp there even if you have no means of ablutions and waste disposal. While this is a good thing for responsible campers, it has unfortunately led to a lot of abuse, with people leaving rubbish and other 'pollution' in some areas, causing unsightly damage to the environment.

Unfortunately, this lack of responsible use has also led many local councils to attempt to ban freedom camping in some areas due to the leaving of rubbish. This is despite the fact that a self contained motorhome is very unlikely to do this. It seems a strange anomaly, but it appears to be a case of a few spoiling it for the majority.

If you hire a motorhome in New Zealand and it is equipped with a toilet, shower and waste water facilities, it will almost certainly have a Self Containment Certificate. Smaller vans and campers will not have these facilities. If you are hiring one of these then the responsible thing to do is to is to camp only at designated sites (such as campgrounds and holiday parks) that have their own facilities.

Planning Your Freedom Camping

When planning a camping trip in New Zealand it is worthwhile to consider whether or not you wish to spend any significant time freedom camping as opposed to staying in campsites and holiday parks. There are advantages and disadvantages to both:

Advantages of Freedom Camping

  • Greater flexibility

  • Able to be less organized (don't need to book ahead)

  • Greater seclusion

  • Generally you will have a larger vehicle or motorhome, so more room and comfort

  • Lower nightly accommodation costs (no camp fees)

Advantages of Campground/Holiday Park Camping

  • Generally better facilities

  • Nightly camp fees more than offset by cheaper vehicle rental rates for vehicles that are not self contained.

  • More social time

Most travelers to New Zealand on a camping or motorhome holiday would probably do a mixture of freedom camping and campground stays.

New Zealand is a wonderful place for a camping or motorhome holiday and there are many great driving trips in both islands. Just be sure to check out the rules on where you intend to stay and when in doubt, ask someone. And above all, have a great time while respecting New Zealand's precious environment.

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