It's not uncommon to spot rental campervans and motorhomes touring the north and south islands of New Zealand. Why be committed to a hotel or AirBnB booking when freedom camping gives you the opportunity to explore and camp anywhere? After a day of driving and touring, nothing compares to finding a quiet spot by a river or beach to spend the night. This was our first experience freedom camping in New Zealand so the beta I'm sharing is based on my experience and in no way the expert advice.
The range of camper van options are as diverse as the companies that supply them from Juicy, Kiwi Campers, Motorhome Republic, Britz, and Maui. I am not personally endorsing any of these companies, but these are some of the brands we saw touring around. Van types range from sleeper vans, vans with pop tops, vans fully loaded with kitchens and bathrooms - fleet options are endless! What you hire depends on your needs, group, size, and budget. One of the other things we also had to consider when choosing a rental company was the necessity for a different location for pick-up and drop off. Not all companies offer location pick-up and drop-off alternatives. There are also sites where you can rent a privately owned camper van or motor home, like an Air BnB on wheels.
For our NZ road trip we rented a 2-berth van from Motorhome Republic. Our rental unit was a luxury condo. We spend a lot of our camp life in a 2 or 3 man tent which makes a 2-berth van luxurious! My husband is also 6 ft tall so being able to stand up in a van was an important detail. Our unit was self-contained, another important detail you need for freedom camping. Whether the toilet is a port-a-loo or toilet/shower room in your unit, self-containment allows you the freedom to camp anywhere. If the unit is not self-contained you could be fined or asked to move to by a ranger.
This depends on the type of unit you desire. Costs for hire are on per day basis. Additional fees can add to the overall cost of renting a unit. Perks like camp chairs, extra bedding, etc. are other costs. Alternate location pick-up and drop-off may be extra. Delivering the van to a ferry terminal may be extra. Each extra adds to your total cost per day. Insurance is extra - check the fine print of your credit card, often you are covered for vehicle rentals and purchasing insurance with a rental company will void the the credit card insurance. All these should be factored in when deciding between freedom camping and AirBnB. Don't forget about fuel consumption. Petrol is not cheap in New Zealand.
Where to Camp?
Holiday park? Freedom Camp site? Beach camping? Down by the river? The options are endless.
You can find reasonably priced holiday/caravan parks in almost every town or city in New Zealand. As a couple who enjoys the spaciousness of the great outdoors, a crowded holiday/caravan park doesn't appeal to us. Holiday/Caravan parks have many perks like toilet and shower rooms, grey water dump stations, fresh water, and powered sites. We have yet to experience the luxury of staying at one. During peak season the holiday parks are crammed full with vacationers. Off season is usually a good time to stay in holiday parks since they're not at full capacity.
The rumours that you can camp anywhere in New Zealand as long as you're self-contained are 98% true. Road signs informs travellers when entering and leaving a freedom camping zone. Within each zone are designated freedom campgrounds where camping is permitted. Don't expect spacious individual sites like you might find in Canada. Often, these designated zones are open spaces (parking lot style) that fit 8-12 vehicles side by side. Many towns will have will have designated free camping areas, some better than others. Coastal towns are great because quite often the free camping zone is beside the ocean or the river.
Nature Reserves are another place where freedom camping is allowed. There is usually a large grassy camping area and many reserves have drop or flushing toilets. Some nature reserves are not so free and require payment using the honour box or a ranger will visit to collect money. We stayed in a couple of nice nature reserves, free and fee. Each stay was wonderfully lush, quiet and pleasant.
Most National Parks in New Zealand don't allow freedom camping, but there are designated campgrounds where fees per person apply. Some campgrounds are primitive and some are equipped with toilets and cooking shelters. In Paparoa National Park we found a sweet designated spot beside a beach which made camping feel more spacious. Driving through Fiordlands NP we checked out several potential camping areas and picked a couple to stay at after our Milford Sound tour. In the end, we decided to camp beside a river south of Te Anau.
If staying over night in a parking lot is your only option, well then, that's your only option. You can always opt for a caravan park, but that's paid luxury camping over freedom camping.
How Did We Find Our Campsites?
Finding freedom camping maps at tourist info stations was not an easy task. We relied on a few phone apps to get us to some hidden gems! Wikicamps New Zealand and maps.me were the two apps we heavily relied on. Both apps have the feature to download offline maps, which is great if you don't have a data plan. Reading the comments on Wikicamps New Zealand helped us narrow down our choices and find some premium sites. If you're friendly chat up some locals for tips and hidden gems.
Leave no Trace!
Don't be a tosser! Freedom camping goes on the belief and trust that users keeps the site clean and pristine. One of the biggest disappointments is getting to a site that is littered with garbage and waste. Reading comments on the apps really gives you a clear idea about the site's cleanliness. A good rule of thumb is pack out what you pack in. Many road side stops have bins to toss your litter. As well, many towns and some tourist information centres have grey water dump stations. There's no excuse to leave your mess for others to clean up.
Would We Freedom Camp Again?
Absolutely! We had the best time exploring New Zealand's South Island in a camper van. Upsides and downsides? Now that we've travelled in a 2-berth van we would try something smaller and more compact, or find a similar size to the 2-berth but with a different layout. The ability to travel at our own pace without the stress of meeting our hotel or AirBnB reservation is freeing. Sure, there is the daily search for a new site, but that is all part of the adventure. Freedom camping is not for everyone, but it is a great way to experience New Zealand's natural beauty.