Camping the New Zealand way

With over 800 campgrounds and holiday parks around New Zealand, there's really no need to freedom camp.

In a country bursting with spectacular landscapes but home to just 4.5 million people, it’s no surprise that New Zealand has evolved into a campers’ paradise.

From north to south, mountain to sea, there are in fact more than 800 vehicle-accessible places to pitch your tent or park your van.

Whether you’re looking for a tent spot in the wilderness, or an easy pull-in for a large motorhome with a playground for the kids, New Zealand camping is bound to exceed your expectations.

There are around 400 serviced holiday parks, offering everything from television lounges and games rooms, bike and kayak hire, and even spa pools.

Despite extensive amenities and sizable summer populations, most still feel leafy and natural, with thoughtful landscaping, ample grass and mature trees. Many are situated in enviable locations – behind sand dunes, alongside rivers, or on the edge of forest.

The majority are owner-operated or community run, ensuring genuine hospitality and personal service. And with more and more affordable built accommodation available in holiday parks, you don’t have to be a camper to enjoy the magical atmosphere of the classic Kiwi holiday.

If you’re looking for more of a wilderness camping experience, you’re also in for a treat. The Department of Conservation administers 250 road- or boat-accessible campgrounds, mostly located in remote, scenic locations such as Forest and National Parks.

Here you’ll find toilets and water at the very least, but possibly also picnic tables, cooking shelters, fire pits, rubbish bins – and perhaps even a cold shower!

Similar facilities are offered at scores of council camps, dotted around the country in public domains and reserves.

You may also have heard of freedom camping, which refers to staying overnight in an area that is not a designated campsite, such as a beach- or lake-side reserve.

This type of camping is cheap or even free, with some councils setting aside certain areas for this purpose. In recent years, however, abuse of this privilege has caused problems.

‘Freedom’ campers must have their own toilet and grey and fresh water systems. They may also stay only where permitted, but with rules and regulations varying from region-to-region, visitors could be forgiven for not knowing what the rules are.

A combination of ignorance and bad manners has led to many beautiful places being littered with rubbish and human waste, a growing problem resulting in local authorities having to clean up the mess and foot the bill while they’re at it.

One regional council reported that complaints about irresponsible freedom campers increased more than five-fold over three years, and that 80% of illegal camping was by overseas tourists in small, non-self-contained campervans.

In an attempt to counter this problem, the Freedom Camping Act came into law in 2011. ‘Freedom camping’ has now been officially defined, with local authorities empowered to restrict or ban camping in troublesome spots.

The new law’s primary aim, though, is to clarify where you can camp, rather than where you can’t – and how you can do it responsibly. It’s about establishing parameters and sending out a message: that polluting the New Zealand environment is unacceptable.

Freedom camping in prohibited areas can result in an instant fine of $200. More serious offences such as illegal dumping of campervan effluent tanks could invoke a fine of up to $10,000.

During peak holiday season and in other unusual circumstances, campers and motorhome tourers can get caught out without a site for the night.

Fortunately, there are still places that cater to them, and the best way to find them is by asking a local person or the friendly folks at the i-SITE.

Assume nothing: the presence of a toilet and a rubbish bin is not your ticket to a free night’s stay.

Camping the New Zealand way is about friendly neighbours, trust, and fun. It’s also about respect for the environment, and supporting a traditional Kiwi holiday that’s been enjoyed by people from all walks of life for generations.

In New Zealand’s network of holidays parks and campsites, you too can share in its endless pleasures.