We are passionate about the outdoors and freedom camping allows you to stay in more remote area’s. When I read that in order to stay at a free campsite you need to travel in a self-contained vehicle, one that has a toilet and a grey water tank and we had not booked that, I tried to upgrade our car. But they were no longer available. Freedom camping might be off limits for us this trip….
Despite the fact that we were traveling in the New Zealand off season we saw many camper vans. No doubt that in the peak season the amount of vehicles driving around will increase by a lot, so it is not strange that there is now stricter legislation for freedom camping.
The App Campermate has proven to be our ideal travel companion throughout our trip. It is free to use and is updated by travelers. It shows points of interest, campsites, public toilets, petrol stations and reviews.
The map is interactive and gives detailed information and reviews from travelers. The best part is that it works offline as well, as especially on the South Island there are many places on the West Coast that have no phone or internet signal.
The campsites have three labels and they are easy to find on the map as they have different color tags
- free campsites (green)
- low cost campsites (blue)
- paid campsites (purple)
In the two weeks we traveled around we stayed at all three types of these campsites, so here is our experience.
Staying at free campsites
Since freedom camping is such a big part of the New Zealand culture, there are still some area’s where freedom camping is allowed for non- self contained vehicles. Mostly these are parking lots with a public toilet close to a road. Some have a lot of space, like this one:
Others are a bit more cramped, like this one:
Then others are a real adventure, like camping in the middle of a city! It felt a bit weird to sleep in your camper van the middle of a city. We parked the car and went for a pizza in our ‘back yard’. After dinner Luka quickly wanted to get back to the camper and drive to the campsite “So that I still have time to explore the campsite while it is still light” was her comment. The look on her face when we said that we were already exploring the campsite was priceless.”So we are staying here” she said in disbelieve, still not quite sure if we were kidding her.
With these free camping spots you should not be too particular about the toilets though. Generally they are good, however they can not match with the high standard of Australian public toilets.
Staying at low cost campsites
These were a pleasant surprise to us. I am not sure if they have anything in common (beside their lower costs), but the two that we stayed at both were from private owners, they charged one price per vehicle and next to a toilet they both had a shower and power to charge your devices.
This Tavern in Waiotapu was in the middle of the hot springs, steam blowing everywhere and on walking distance from the Mud Pools. And no, they do not turn off the steam at night when the tourists are sleeping anyway.
The paid campsites are commercially run campsites, like in any other country. They come in individual ones and there are some chains. The prices here were a bit of a shocker for a family, as they charge a rate per person per night. We could find the adult prices on Campermate, in addition that that you also pay a supplement for the children, mostly 50% of the adult cost per child. You can easily pay more than NZ$100 per night, which is more than double the amount that we paid per day for our camper at low season rates.
The first night we stayed at a powered site, so we could charge our devices. But with the per person rate you end up paying over NZ$10 for power. So we found it a lot more economical to go for an unpowered site and do the charging in the kitchen instead and opt to not use our microwave.
On our last night we stayed at a superior Top 10 Campsite and enjoyed (and really, really) appreciated all the luxuries that were offered there.
We all had our personal favorites:
In hindsight it would have paid off for us to sign up as a Top 10 member for NZ $49. It would have given us 10% discount on the campsites themselves, the ferry crossing and on many excursions.
This is the last one I would like to mention. These campsites that are run by the Department of Conservation and there are over 200 of them. They are also classified in the same three categories; free, low cost and paid. No need to tell that they are mostly located in beautiful area’s. The paid (=serviced) campsites have all the facilities, all other campsites are basic and just have a toilet and a tap. Read more about the categories and facilities.
If you are renting a camper van you can buy a weekly DOC Campsite pass, that is valid for 7 consecutive nights. We paid $75 for the pass for our family of four, the night rate would have been $24 (basic) or $39 per night (scenic campsite). No need to prebook a pass, as you can buy it online while you are in New Zealand, just beware that you need to print the pass. Not all DOC campsites are included (serviced ones are excluded) in this pass though, but quite a few are.
In summer you can stay at these campsites for 7 nights as most of them are near a lake or river. In winter you might prefer a warm shower every now and then.
Lots of choices when traveling in a camper van in New Zealand. We liked the mixture of basic and luxury. However this might have been our last trip in a small camper van. Next time we will save up a little longer and invest in a bit more comfort and space. This camper van had driven over 350.000 km already. Yes, I am afraid that we have to admit that we are slowly getting into that age….