Freedom camping in New Zealand

One of the most confusing aspects of planning a New Zealand road trip is wrapping your head around freedom camping. Some people sugar coat it and make it seem like the easiest and most doable thing in the world, and others will tell you its impossible and not to even bother trying. What is the current situation with freedom camping in New Zealand? After spending 5 weeks there, we’ll tell you below!

This article may contain affiliate/compensated links. For more information, please see our disclaimer here.

Is it possible to Freedom Camp in New Zealand?

Yes, you can freedom camp in New Zealand, but there are some strings.

Below we’ll discuss a variety of things like how you find freedom camping sites, whether you need a self contained camper and if it’s worth trying to freedom camp.

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Do you need a self contained camper?

Self containment basically means you have enough water and a toilet that you are able to use for 3 days before needing access to sanitary facilities.

There are many more ‘self contained only’ freedom camping sites than there are non self contained ones. It is possible to freedom camp in New Zealand without being self contained however it is more difficult, simply due to availability. Our article on whether or not to get a self contained van NZ outlines all the factors to consider before hiring or buying your camper.

Browse a variety of self contained and non self contained campers here.

How to find freedom camping places

By far the easiest way to find freedom camping places is to use the free Camper Mate app. You can select whether you’re looking for self contained or non self contained, free, paid or Department of conservation sites. Its also a great app when looking for things such as public toilets, dump stations and fuel.

The other, more challenging way to find places to freedom camp in New Zealand is to work it out for yourself. This involves looking at local council and region government websites and trying to establish which land is owned by whom. Sound fun?

Freedom camping in New Zealand - Lake Taupo North Island

Freedom camping government by-laws

You cannot just camp wherever you feel like it. New Zealand is broken up into larger regional areas, which are then divided into local council areas. A region may have specific freedom camping regulations, however the local councils bylaws can override the general laws, limiting freedom camping further. Some areas will have almost no freedom camping areas, where as others will have more flexibility.

If you are adventurous and/or organised and want to work it out for yourself, you can visit the websites of each local council and familiarise yourself with their freedom camping by-laws. I tried this way and it’s not easy, but the best resource for information is this website which has a breakdown of the different regional areas and the local council areas they contain.

The fine for freedom camping in a restricted area is $200 NZD so you want to be sure that you’re not breaking the rules.

Tips and tricks for freedom camping in New Zealand

If you’re intending to freedom camp, there are a few tips and tricks that will save you plenty of time and effort.

Avoid missing out in peak season

Free camp sites in and around popular tourist areas will fill up quickly during peak season. As space is limited and there are thousands of campers on the road, ideally you want to arrive early if you intend to stay in prime locations. What is early? I would say before 3pm. If you arrive later than this you risk it being full.

Generally speaking, as we were there at the height of summer, if we weren’t arriving in a popular area until after 5pm, we booked a paid site for the night to avoid the trouble.

Freedom camping in New Zealand - Kingston Lake near Queenstown, South Island New Zealand

Sometimes however, it was just the luck of the draw. For example, at one site near Rotorua, there are literally 5 marked freedom camping spaces. We arrived at about 3.30 pm one day and were disappointed to find them all full. The next day however we drove past them at 5 pm on the way to see a waterfall, and there were 2 spaces free.

Distance from tourist areas gives you more space

To avoid the crowds move out of tourist areas. The further away from ‘touristic’ areas and attractions, the more likely the freedom camping site is to have space. We often turned up to these, more out of the way sites, at any time of the day/evening with no problems.

Do use the camper mate app to find everything you need

Use Camper Mate to choose your freedom camping sites, its full of information and reviews which will allow you to make informed decisions. It will, for example, tell you problems with some freedom camping sites that aren’t ideal, whether it be for noise, safety or sand flies! It will also tell you if campsite is closed, which is not uncommon!

We found it to be a lot more reliable than say, Rankers.

Most people are happy to share their spaces if you ask

Generally speaking, its considered polite to give other campers some space and privacy, however if you simply ask, you’ll find most people are willing to let you squeeze in near their camper.

Just a reminder that the fine for parking in the wrong place, or being a non self contained camper in a self contained camping ground, is $200. Some spots are much more strict and we did see the odd inspectors around.

Pack in pack out and leave no trace

I think the main thing to remember when you’re freedom camping, is that you really should be pack in pack out, leaving no trace that you were there. Make sure you put your rubbish in the bin and don’t leave disgusting things in places they shouldn’t be.

Part of the problem is that people are trashing freedom camping spaces, leaving rubbish, or simply doing stupid things like pooping in bushes and that is annoying the locals and councils. If we all acted responsibly then the restrictions on freedom camping wouldn’t be a problem.

Freedom camping in Winter

We were in New Zealand in summer but we’ve been told that winter is a great time to freedom camp and many of the spaces, even the busier ones, will be free.

Worthwhile items to have with you

We were really suprised at how bad the internet is in New Zealand. The towns are very spread out and you’ll often lose Wifi between them. If you’re freedom camping in the middle of no where, you’ll have to expect no internet, so we recommend a copy of the Lonely Planet New Zealand (Country Guide). It gives you a quick reference no matter where you are so you can plan your next steps.

Another good option is to consider is to get a Tep Wireless which picks up on any nearby WiFi signal and allows you 1gb of Wifi a day. It’s enough to plan and organise a hike or to download a map to your next destination. It also means that if one freedom camping space is full you have internet to hunt down the next one.

Is it worth trying to freedom camp in New Zealand?

In short, absolutely. New Zealand is incredible and the freedom camping places we stayed at were all amazing. Of course, if you choose you can park in designated freedom camping car parks, but drive a little bit longer out of the cities and find the spaces by the rivers. It’s so worth while.

You may also find these articles useful

Planning a trip to New Zealand? Here is how we got started

This article may contain affiliate/compensated links. For more information, please see our disclaimer here.

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About Christine

Christine and her partner Ben have spent the last few years traveling through New Zealand and then Europe by campervan. They travel with their dog Alisa, who they adopted in Croatia. You'll find them exploring old cities, hiking through National Parks, and taking unforgettable road trips.

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