New government regulations on free camping require separate certification for vehicles. Photo / Bevan Conley
One international traveler has lashed out at Aotearoa’s reputation as the “primary camping country for freedom,” claiming the reality is far more difficult to navigate.
On the New Zealand Travel Tips (NZTT) private Facebook group, one user shared his disappointing experience of trying to complete a freedom camp during his stay.
“I’ve been here with the camper for two weeks now and am finding it extremely difficult to find any nice spot,” they wrote, adding that often they couldn’t even find a patch of grass to stay.
“Every designated spot I’ve stayed at was basically an ugly parking lot with a car next to a car,” they said, adding that paid campsites are no better.
“The Mt Cook DOC campground is basically a large parking lot with no privacy.”
Whenever they came across a nice spot, they encountered a warning sign.
“Every time I see a potentially beautiful place for a freedom camp, there’s a no sign,” they wrote. “I’m not even trying to stop now. Just stay overnight in the parking lots.”
They posted in the group asking if they were doing something wrong or if this was a typical experience.
Kiwis were quick to confirm that due to poorly behaved campers, freedom camping wasn’t the experience it used to be.
“Unfortunately, the people before you ruined it for everyone by not doing the right thing and some got hired,” explained one user.
Another agreed, saying many free campsites have been closed after people disrespected locals and the land. “A lot of previous liberty campgrounds were closed because people were disrespectful and left all their junk behind,” they said.
One user said cities were “burned” by freedom campers during peak travel times prior to the pandemic.
“In our area, for example, we had many disrespectful campers who left trash and body waste in many of our beautiful parks and rest areas, damaging the environment and making it inedible for locals,” they shared.
Many commenters said it was a privilege to enjoy Aotearoa’s beautiful land and views, so it was fair to charge a fee.
“I think it’s a mixture and a kind of privilege to be able to park for free.” said one person.
“You get what you pay for,” added another person, explaining that a “nasty parking lot” is free, a small fee gets you a DOC camp with toilets and cold showers, while a little more money means you could stay in a holiday park with nice views and facilities.
Self-contained liberty camper in Ferguson Park. Photo / George Novak
The government has also launched a new bill aimed at holding campers to stricter standards.
In August 2022, Tourism Secretary Stuart Nash introduced the Self-Contained Vehicle Legislation Act, which would require vehicle-based freedom campers to have a certified self-contained vehicle in order to stay overnight on most council-managed properties. The bill says these vehicles would need a fixed toilet and also proposes tougher infringement procedures.
“Throughout this work, we’ve heard many stories of how those who abuse the Freedom Camping rules place an unfair burden on small communities and damage our reputation as a quality visitor destination,” Nash said.
Freedom campers who play by the rules are welcome, he added.
Maui campervans RVs on the beach. Photo / Included
However, there were still beautiful spots to be found if you knew where to look.
“It’s definitely not the same as it used to be but you can still find some nice spots and Doc campgrounds are still pretty cheap for great spots,” one person wrote.
To avoid disappointment, group members recommended researching campsites before getting in the car or RV.
“There are a lot of nice places to be, though – do a little research if you’re going to an area as there are often alternatives in a region and maybe look for DoC campsites (they’re cheap),” advised one person.
Several recommended the CamperMate app, which displays a map of nearby campgrounds, restrooms, and garbage stations, as well as other information such as traveler tips and places with WiFi.
The Rankers Camping app also provides a map of campsites organized by category such as DOC campsites, free camping, self-catering only, tented camping or holiday parks. It also provides information on nearby hikes and activities.
Travelers can also visit Tourism Industry Aotearoa’s Camping Our Way website for advice and rules on where and how to camp in Aotearoa.
According to Tourism New Zealand, there are four things every traveler should know before setting off.
1. Know the local rules
Travelers should check the rules and regulations of both the local council and the Department of Conservation land you are camping on, as rules can differ depending on who is the custodian of the land.
2. Be aware of the fines
Freedom camping can get pretty expensive if you get caught breaking a rule; Fines can cost up to $1000.
3. Understand what a self-contained vehicle is
If you scroll a map or drive around, you’ll quickly find that many campgrounds cater to “self-catering vehicles” only.
According to the New Zealand Motor Caravan Association, “A certified self-contained vehicle will meet the sanitary and sanitation needs of the occupants for at least three days without the need for outside services or the disposal of waste.”
Put simply, if your vehicle doesn’t have a toilet to sort you out for three days, it’s not self-contained.
4. Follow the promise of care
Whether you’re free camping or just hitting the beach, everyone should know and follow the Tiaki Promise; a commitment focused on the care of Aotearoa. Those who follow the Tiaki Promise do everything possible to travel safely and lightly, to care for the environment around them and to respect the culture.