Non self contained or self contained van NZ? A guide to choosing the right camper for you!

Do you need a self contained van NZ to travel New Zealand? What about to freedom camp? Can you hire a non self contained van, and if so, which camper is cheaper? If you’re feeling overwhelmed trying to understand New Zealand’s ‘self containment’ and freedom camping regulations, you’re not the only one! In this article we’ll outline everything you need to know regarding self containment NZ and freedom camping so you can just get on with planning your campervan trip.

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

Main things we’ll cover in this article

  • An explaination of what a self contained van NZ is
  • What do you need for a camper or motorhome to be considered self contained?
    • grey water tanks
    • rubbish bins
    • toilet
  • How does self containment relate to freedom camping?
  • What do you do with the waste that’s in your grey water tank and toilet?

Self contained or non self contained campervans?

What is a self contained van NZ?

A self contained campervan is one that contains these things

  • A fresh water tank – that can hold enough water for 3 days
  • A sink
  • A grey water tank
  • A rubbish bin with lid
  • A toilet

A campervan that has all these things can be ‘certified’ as self contained and will have a ‘certified self contained’ sticker somewhere on the vehicle.

According to these guidelines a camper car or van that does not have a toilet, potable water and a lidded bin is not self contained.

Why would you need a self contained camper van?

The reason that many people choose a self contained campervan is for the purpose of freedom camping. Freedom camping is a term specific to New Zealand, I believe. American’s are probably familiar with the term ‘boondocking’, and Europeans may use the term ‘wild camping’. These are all essentially the same thing. You are staying somewhere, usually off the grid, without power or water connections.

Freedom camping in New Zealand

New Zealand is a country that allows freedom camping, however it really isn’t what you think, or what some websites make it out to be. There is no pulling your camper up beside a famous tourist area and spending the night.

Designated freedom camping areas in New Zealand

Freedom camping in New Zealand is tightly regulated, and rather confusing for the average person. Regional councils can have freedom camping regulations that are overridden by local councils. Essentially it means that you can’t just camp wherever you feel like it and you’ll face a $200 fine if you get it wrong. The good thing is however that the local councils offer designated freedom camping spaces, which means with a little planning, forethought and useful apps, you can indeed freedom camp your way around the country.

If you intend to use the designated freedom camping places, having your own supply of water and a grey water tank, and toilet means that the government don’t need to supply these amenities. In return, you can camp for free, wherever freedom camping is allowed.

Is it even possible to freedom camp in New Zealand?

Some websites will tell you freedom camping is entirely possible, simply get a self contained camper and off you go. Equally as many websites will tell you however that it’s near impossible. If you’re like us, you’ll find all the websites that say its possible to freedom camp, hire a (more expensive) self contained camper, only to then find all the websites telling you you’ve wasted your money because freedom camping is dead in NZ. Argh.

After 5 weeks in New Zealand during the peak season, I can tell you that freedom camping is both entirely possible, and absolutely amazing.

We have written a whole article on freedom camping if you want more information.

Kingston Lake Freedom Camping site for self contained van NZ

Do I need a self contained van to freedom camp?

The reality is that there are far more ‘self contained’ freedom camp sites than those for non self contained. The concept behind a freedom camping site is that you do not require toilet and drinking water facilities because you’ve come with your own. Interestingly however, toilets are usually available anyway.

If you have a non self contained vehicle you will be very limited in the number of sites available for you to use. You will also have the problem of not having water, or a toilet should you need one.

Without a valid self containment sticker you’re not allowed to camp at self contained only sites. Inspectors will often patrol the busier and more popular freedom camping sites to check for valid self containment stickers.

Editors tip: If you are trying to save money or reduce the cost of your trip, or if you simply would prefer to freedom camp out in nature, then you will need a self contained camper to travel New Zealand.

Weighing the cost of self containment

The main benefit of being able to freedom camp in New Zealand is that it is free. However, as a self contained van NZ costs more than a non-self contained camper van, you’ll need to consider your budget and decide whether the additional van cost negates the expense of paying for nightly camping. I’m going to suggest that it does. It will be cheaper in the long run to get a self contained camper than to pay for camp grounds.

If you have a self contained van NZ you have the ability to choose where you stay, based on your budget. For example, you can stay at freedom camping sites, Department of Conservation sites and paid camp grounds.

However if you have a non self contained camper, the chances are you will want to stay at some sort of paid site on the odd occasion to shower etc. The Department of Conservation offer relatively low cost camp grounds with facilities.

South Island of New Zealand - self contained van NZ

Other factors to consider

Cassette toilet in a self contained camper vs public toilets

The campervan toilet

A little note on the ‘toilets’ in many smaller self contained campers, they’re little, like little port-a-loo’s. You open a little trap door, sit on the top waste collects in the bottom, you close the trap door and shut the lid. They’re maybe 45 cm square at best and they’re always inside your camper. We saved this special little loo for number 1 and used the amazing public and camp ground toilets for number 2!

In larger campervans or motorhomes, you may have a larger ‘built in’ toilet. These look like a regular toilet with the cassette underneath. You just need to remove that when it’s full and empty it.

Public toilets in New Zealand

You may be wondering how you’ll survive if you didn’t have your own toilet. If you’re wondering what the public toilet situation is like in NZ, I would have to say that it’s phenomenal.

I have bodily systems that refuse to cooperate unless they’re happy with the facilities. Imagine me in the Indonesian Jungle a few years back! Ha! I was pleasantly surprised in NZ, I never met a public toilet I didn’t like. They’re clean, airy, light and always, always had toilet paper and usually some kind of soap or hand sanitiser. The worst of them were the long drop toilets at some free camp sites but even those were in good shape.

Public toilets are pretty much everywhere, and can easily be found using the camper mate app, so provided you can hold until you reach the nearest loo, you won’t be left desperately hanging for a bathroom.

Sink and grey, or waste water tanks

Having a sink and grey water tank in a self contained camper is really useful, especially if you cook. The water tank and sink allow you access to fresh clean water to wash your hands, prepare food and wash dishes. The grey waste water tank collects the dirty water from the sink and stores it until you’re able to empty it, using an evacuation hose.

The grey water tank is really important as it stops waste water containing oil and soap from getting into the environment.

Having your own rubbish bin

This seems like such a small thing until you try to travel for a few days and you can’t get rid of your rubbish. Having a bin with a lid is necessary. Freedom camping sites do not always have bins available and you’ll need to make sure that you take your rubbish with you at all times, leaving nothing behind.

Where to I dump all the waste?

You may be wondering where you’re supposed to put your rubbish, empty your toilet or dump your grey water when you’re full? That is a valid concern and one you’ll deal with a lot as you campervan around New Zealand.

You’ll find dump sites at various place throughout the country. You’ll need an app link Rankers or our preferred option, Campermate, in order to find them. Otherwise you’ll find them at paid camp grounds.

You can simply put your rubbish in the bins provided. Empty your toilet and connect your evacuation hose to the grey water tank to drain it. You can also refill your water tank. Most dump stations will have a potable water tap available.

Electricity for a self contained van NZ

One mistake we made was not having the ability to recharge all our electronics. Freedom camping sites are un-powered, as are the cheaper Department of Conservation sites (although the more expensive DoC sites have power).

In hindsight, we probably could have chosen a camper that was not self contained, because we used paid camp sites quite a bit anyway.

You’ll want to make sure that you take a power bank with you to recharge your phone and camera batteries.

Getting a campervan with a transformer

Our self contained camper van didn’t come with a transformer, which transforms the 12v from your battery to 230v of your power sockets. This gives you the power to recharge everything from your lap top to your power bank. This meant that whenever we wanted to charge something we would have to go to a powered campsite and plug our van in.

We would definitely recommend getting a camper van with a transformer installed. You can also bring your own, like this one. Transformers come in all shapes and sizes and I manged to install one into our European camper van for under $50. Just simply look at what you want to charge/use it for and see how much power it uses.

Our laptop for instance, only required 50 watts to charge and that was all we wanted to use it for, so we managed to get a cheap 150 watt power converter. Be mindful that hairdryers/kitchen equipment use a lot of power sometimes as high as 3000 watts.

Lucky for you there is a power converter out there to suit every need and budget. Just be mindful that using it for something it was not designed for could possibly damaged your transformer or even your appliance.

For us, this lack of power meant that we had to book into a paid camp ground every few days to recharge and reconnect. If you’re able to sustain your own power and electronic devices then you may want to freedom camp or enjoy Department of Conservation camp sites continuously. If not, then you’ll need a way to recharge or be you’ll have to disconnect! Gasp!

Consider your travelling and lifestyle

I say this, because there were quite a few times when we desperately needed a paid camp ground for a deliciously hot shower. We did some pretty tough walks, and after getting all hot, sweaty and exhausted, we just knew we would end up booking something. Towelling off, or jumping in and out of freezing Department of Conservation cold showers did NOT appeal to us after spending 6 hours hiking Tongorriro for example.

The verdict?

So, after all that – self contained van NZ or non self contained? I think the key message is, you decide.

If you choose a self contained campervan you will pay more, however you have greater freedom as to where you stay. You will need to make sure that you are able to keep your electronics charged and you may want the occasional shower, but you’re otherwise fairly free to choose where you spend the night (within the councils constraints, of course!).

If however you decide to go with a non self contained campervan, you will have less access to free camp sites, meaning you may have to pay more frequently. Of course the other alternative is to drive until you find a non self contained camp site.

Sand dunes North Island of New Zealand - Self contained van NZ

If you need access to power, or you like hot showers often, you’ll probably end up paying for camp grounds regularly anyway, in which case it doesn’t matter whether your camper is self contained or not.

So, the choice is yours. Personally we found it quite worthwhile having a self contained camper, despite paying for camp grounds and having access to toilets everywhere. We were able to stay in some incredible places without any concerns or risk of fines.

Being a little more prepared to handle our electronics would have made it easier for us to camp more often.

You may also find this article useful

Planning a camper trip around New Zealand? Here is what we did

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

Don’t forget to pin it for later!

Trying to decide whether you need a self contained campervan when you're in New Zealand? Here is our complete guide to self containment including why you would need a self contained camper, what makes a van self contained, and the pro's and con's of self containment #newzealand #campervan #travel
Trying to decide whether you need a self contained campervan when you're in New Zealand? Here is our complete guide to self containment including why you would need a self contained camper, what makes a van self contained, and the pro's and con's of self containment #newzealand #campervan #travel
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.

Leave a comment