Your friendly guide to freedom camping in New Zealand

Ground breaking discovery: your Toyota Estima is ~not~ self-contained

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Summer is in full swing here in New Zealand, which means two things: 1) unpredictable weather and 2) unpredictable tourists.

It’s no secret that New Zealand has become a hot spot destination for nature lovers around the world. While Kiwis are generally happy to share their little slice of heaven with the rest of the world. They only ask one small thing: don’t take the piss.

Need a translation? No worries, I gotcha.

Take the piss is a British/NZ/Australian term that does NOT mean go pee on something.

When someone in New Zealand is taking the piss, it means that the person has taken certain liberties at the expense of others — still confused? Let me put it in layman’s terms: If you visit New Zealand, please stop treating it like your own personal garbage can.

freedom camping

For a while, New Zealand was known as a dream destination for “freedom camping.”

In short, freedom camping is a poorly-named activity that allows travelers setting up camp anywhere, even places with no facilities or designated campsites. A classic kiwi pastime, it was all well and good when it was mostly just kiwis out freedom camping around their own country.

But what do you think happened when New Zealand exploded into tourism stardom, and millions of people flocked to this little island for a holiday?

If you guessed heaps of people saw it as a chance to travel for free, then you are correct. If you guessed that freedom camping pisses off a lot of locals and is a massive part of the overtourism conversation today? You are also right.

freedom camping
Image by RON ECKMAN

To be clear, New Zealand does still allow freedom camping but under strict guidelines (which many ignore). However, it’s often misunderstood, and it DEFINITELY does not mean you can pull up your wildly offensive Wicked Campervan and park at the most Instagram-able site you can find.

Don’t worry fam, if you’ve dreamed of renting out an outrageously expensive old VW Combi and camping by a wild, vacant turquoise lake filled with blossoming flowers; you’re not out of luck. I’m going to tell you exactly how you can have your cake and eat it too.

Here’s precisely how you can freedom camp responsibly in New Zealand, be respectful and not take the piss. Read on, dear ones.

freedom camping

1. Go self-contained, do it

There was once a time when freedom camping wasn’t as popular, and local councils didn’t view it as a threat to New Zealand’s pristine environment.

That all changed in 2011 when the Rugby World Cup resulted in entire fleets of campervans being rented out. The public 420 designated free campsites were trashed. People pooped everywhere. It was a mess.

In 2018, regulations got tighter. Now, the national standard says that all camper vans must be self-contained. Self-contained is the word to remember around freedom camping.

This means you need to be able to live in your vehicle for three days without requiring more water or dumping your wast.

freedom camping
No self-contained sticker

Let me put it differently.

This means you need to be able to shit in your van for three days without getting rid of your poo. So don’t come at me with your Toyota Estima telling me it’s self-contained unless you’ve got three days of poo stored up there to prove it, ok?

The regulations also require the vehicle to have freshwater storage, wastewater storage, a lidded bin for your rubbish, and a toilet that can be used inside the car, even when the bed is in place.

Let’s make it clear for the people in the back. If your van does not have a toilet, it isn’t self-contained.

freedom campingThis is what a self-contained van looks like. Does it look like something your grandparents would travel in? Yes, but that’s just how it works. It’s big enough to live in for days.

2. That little blue sticker doesn’t mean shit

If you’ve been in New Zealand, you’ve probably seen the much-coveted blue sticker that is supposed to prove your van is the self-contained meaning you can camp anywhere you damn well, please. Not true.

It’s usually stuck on the back windshield or bumper of a campervan – or shitty converted hatchback or mini-van used by long-term backpackers to bum around in.

If you’re shopping around for a camper van to use during your year-long working holiday, don’t let some slimy salesperson trick you into believing that blue sticker has any meaning whatsoever.

The magical blue sticker means nothing any more!

If you’re confused, refer to the requirements in point #1.

If you can’t poop in the van for three days straight according to the specifications, it’s not self-contained.

Even the van it has 10 of those blue stickers on the back, it’s not self-contained. I could get some of those stickers on the black market and pop them on my Subaru Outback. That doesn’t make it self-contained.

Don’t pay an extra $1,000 for that van you found on Trade Me just for the sticker! The sticker doesn’t mean anything anymore. It’s the actual set up inside the camper. This is what they check for.

freedom camping
Do you think they’ve got a toilet and three days of poo in here? NO.

3. Where can you park your self-contained camper van?

Now that you know what your self contained camper van is and is not, you can start looking for designated freedom camping spots.

Just because you have a self-contained vehicle does not mean you can pull up on any quiet road you feel like and conk out for the night.

Chances are people probably live down that road and don’t want to see your ugly ass van when they wake up in the morning. Please respect the people and the land here. New Zealand is the home of many, and it’s not Disney Land. Would you park your car outside someone’s house and live out of it wherever you’re from? Then why would you do it here?

freedom camping

This also means you can’t drive up to the shores of Lake Wanaka for a peaceful night of sleep.

Try it, and you’ll be met with a $400 fine when you wake up in the morning. Trust me, it’s easier to pay for a campsite at that point.

But, if you’re dead set on finding free camp spots, you’re not out of luck.

There are plenty of spots for responsible freedom camping, but the rules and regulations change depending on the region your in, and the specific DOC land around said region. The best bet is to go to the local iSite Visitor Information Center, DOC visitor Center or check with the local council.

Rankers are also an excellent resource for those looking to find a proper freedom camping location.

freedom campingWhile it makes a beautiful photo, it’s unrealistic to think you can pull up to any old beach and park up for the night. Most likely, your free campsite will be an old gravel parking lot in the middle of nowhere.

4. How to be an excellent little freedom camper

Okay, you’ve got the right vehicle, you’ve found the right spot to park up for the night, now what?

Just like any camper, there are a few things you can do to be a responsible visitor. Remember, each location will have it’s own specific rules and regulations. These hot tips will be universal no matter where you are.

  • Generally, No Fires: Fires can be a serious threat to New Zealand’s ecosystem, especially in dry regions such as Central Otago. There are year-round fire restrictions on public conservation lands, and no open fires are permitted during the fire season. You should only light a fire at designated DOC campsites with fire pit amenities. If you’re hoping to roast some s’mores by the fire, you’re probably out of luck. Be prepared to cook all of your food on your gas stovetop.

freedom camping

  • Pack it in Pack it out: It seems ridiculous to have to say this in 2020, but here we go. You must take whatever littler you accumulate while camping out of the campsite with you and dispose of it in the rubbish bins or recycling bins. Chocolate bar wrappers, toilet paper, tea bags, we’ve seen it all. Don’t try to tell me it accidentally fell out of your pocket; we don’t care. When you’re getting ready to leave a site, do a thorough once over to make sure your site is clean.
  • Don’t bathe in the lake: As tempting as it may be to score a free shower in crystal clear lakes, resist all temptation and pay for an actual shower elsewhere. You can find cold and sometimes hot showers at campsites as well as paid showers at gas stations or hostels. Similarly, don’t wash your manky-ass clothes in the lakes or rivers either. Soaps and detergents are harmful to water life, so if you’re going to wash your clothes in a buck, dump the water in the soil to let the dirt filter it before entering the water systems.

freedom camping

  • Dispose of your wastewater at designated areas: Now that you know how to be a responsible freedom camper with a vehicle that can hold wastewater (greywater) for three days, what the hell do you do with it when it’s full? You don’t dump your shit anywhere other than designated waste disposal dump stations. Most official campsites will have dump stations
  • Boil your water for at least 3 minutes: In general, water in New Zealand is much cleaner than a lot of other countries, and often drinking from rivers and streams will be harmless, but it’s best not to gamble if you’re worried about the water quality. Give the water a quick three-minute boil to get rid of any harmful bacteria that may be lurking.

freedom camping

  • Lock your shit up: While it’s rare to find violent crime in New Zealand, theft is relatively common when it comes to visitors and camper vans. Be sure to lock up your camper van when you’re out or when you’re sleeping for the night. There have been a few sporadic cases of violent crime against camper vans; While you generally don’t have to worry about that, it’s always good to think twice before camping in a super remote and isolated area.
  • Lastly, pay for a freaking campsite once in a while: Look, I get it, traveling is expensive, and even $20 campsites can add up over a few weeks. But tough shit. That’s life. That’s traveling. Not everything can come for free. By all means, do your best to seek out one of the 500 open designated freedom camping areas. If you can’t find one close by, bite the bullet and find a local campsite.

freedom camping

5. Just stay in campsites or holiday parks

You can find holiday parks in nearly every town, and DOC campsites dotted all down the country.

New Zealand has an incredible network of cheap campsites and holiday parks galore where you can park up with heaps of facilities. When I am traveling around in a campervan, I often split my nights between holiday park campsites, freedom camping, and DOC campsites. After all, hot showers are fantastic.

If you end up at an unattended DOC campsite, don’t take the piss and try to pay for free. Don’t arrive late at night and leave before dawn all to avoid the $10 fee.

The money you pay for DOC campsites is much needed to maintain our beautiful ecosystems. It provides facilities to visitors so everyone can enjoy this country. Seek out freedom camping if you must, but don’t forget that there’s nothing wrong with a good old fashion DOC campsite once in a while.

freedom camping

Now, go forth and be free, you wild ‘lil freedom campers.

Get that shot that will win you at least 20 likes on the gram. Twirl in the field of lupins, New Zealand’s most beautiful weed.

Do what you need to do but do it responsibly. Thanks for visiting this beautiful part of the world. And an even bigger thanks for leaving it better than you found it.

Have any tips for freedom camping responsibly? Have you ever traveled this way before? Spill!

freedom camping

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