Non self contained or self contained van NZ?

Do you need a self contained van NZ to travel New Zealand? To freedom camp? Or can you hire a non self contained van, which is cheaper? If you’ve begun researching a New Zealand road trip, you’ll likely have come across information about freedom camping (known as wild camping in Europe) and self contained campers. However it’s easy to get confused about which option is best. We’ll outline it all for you based on our experience travelling around New Zealand in a campervan.

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

Should you get a self contained or non self contained camper in New Zealand?
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Self contained or non self contained campervans?

What is a self contained van NZ?

Technically, a self contained campervan is one that carries the appropriate self containment sticker. To receive the sticker, it has to have a toilet and potable (drinkable) water that are sufficient for a period of 3 days. It also needs a bin that has a lid.

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

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. If you’re unsure what freedom camping is, check out this post. Having your own supply of water and a toilet means that the government don’t need to supply these amenities. It also means that 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, however equally as many websites will tell you 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.

Kingston Lake Freedom Camping site for self contained van NZ

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.

Don’t miss our post on freedom camping so you understand what it is and what it is not.

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 find it harder to find freedom camping sites that have the necessary amenities, ie water and toilets. There is actually just less sites in general.

Without a valid self containment sticker you’re not allowed to camp at self contained only sites.

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.

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.

Other factors to consider

South Island of New Zealand - self contained van NZ

Toilet and water options for non self contained campervans

As mentioned it is the toilet and drinking water requirements that define a self contained camper. 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.

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!

If you’re travelling with friends or have multiple people in a camper, you’ll need a privacy system or you’ll be getting really close really quickly.

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.

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.

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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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