Lifestyle New Zealand Travel Advice Van Life

FREEDOM CAMPING IN NEW ZEALAND EXPLAINED || Self-Contained Vs Non Self-Contained Vehicles

We’d heard the terms ‘Freedom Camping’ and ‘Self-Contained’ thrown around in articles we’d read before arriving in New Zealand, but didn’t have much of an idea as to what it really meant. When we decided to purchase a campervan to travel and live in, we did a lot of research. We looked into what kind of van we needed and where we would be allowed to camp. There was no easy-to-read article anywhere online, so I’ve put this post together as a useful resource for anyone wanting to travel around New Zealand in a car or campervan.

freedom camping in New Zealand

Self-Contained vs Non Self-Contained

This is something that you’ll become aware of when looking to purchase a campervan. Some vehicles will be advertised as ‘self-contained’ and are usually quite a bit more expensive than their non self-contained equivalent. This is because being self-contained earns the inhabitants the right to park in lots of places, free of charge. Therefore, you can easily save back the extra money within the first few weeks as you won’t be paying out $10-40 per night for campsites or hostels.

In order to be certified as ‘self-contained’, the vehicle needs to be inspected by a registered company with the right to grant the certification. The car needs to contain a container of fresh water, a sink with a tap, a container for grey water (dirty water, e.g. from washing up), a sealed bin for waste and a chemical toilet. The size of the water containers and toilet differ, depending on how many people occupy the van. Most are certified self-contained for two people.

The rules recently changed (Feb 2017) and have become stricter. With the toilet, you now have to be able to use the toilet inside the van, whilst the bed is made, with enough room to stick both elbows out. Before this, you just had to show you had a toilet for the inspection. This meant that many travellers were buying the toilet to become certified, but storing it away or selling it and never actually using it. All but two of the sites we stayed at had a toilet nearby which we could use, so we were able to get away with not using our toilet, but we still had it in the car… just in case!

freedom camping in New ZealandBecause of this new rule, lots of the smaller converted cars/ campers are now not able to be made self-contained. Eg. The popular Toyota Estima is now too small. The certification lasts for four years, so any cars that were certified with the old rules are still valid, but once the certificate expires, they will not be able to renew it.

I’d definitely recommend going for a self-contained van. You have so many more options when it comes to accommodation and can save so much money. We splashed out once a week or so on a campsite so we had access to a kitchen to freeze our ice blocks for our cool box. We also ended up staying in Wellington for a week thanks to a cyclone, spending $15 a day to park and stay outside Base Hostel. Even so, our total for accommodation was still under $200 for 60 days. That’s around $3 a day!

freedom camping in New Zealand

What is Freedom Camping?

Freedom Camping in New Zealand is exactly as it sounds – areas you can park up and sleep in your car/van free of charge. It’s permitted on public conservation land in areas that are not marked as ‘camping prohibited’. Most camping sites have no facilities and are therefore only for self-contained vehicles, but some do allow non self-contained vehicles too.

Watch out though…. if you are caught sleeping in a self-contained freedom camp and you are not certified, you will be fined a hefty $200!

freedom camping in New Zealand

Freedom Camping by a lake near Mount Cook

The Freedom Camping Act states that anyone is allowed to enjoy public land, including parking overnight, as long as they respect the environment (containing all waste) and the rights of others (no loud parties!). Even though this Camping Act exists, many locals hate campers and will try and move you on by telling you it’s a ‘no camping’ zone. However, as long as it is public ground, you have the right to remain there. Some councils have implemented bylaws which prohibit camping in certain spots, so if you are asked to move along by an enforcement officer, it’s best to do so to avoid a fine! 

It can get a little confusing at times, so the easiest thing to do is download the phone app Campermate. This will be your life-saver on the road!! The app shows you where all the campsites are, all over New Zealand. It shows which ones are for self-contained only and which ones are for everyone. You can also use it to find dump stations (for emptying your grey water), fresh water, public toilets, petrol and more. We used it every night to find a free camping spot and have stayed in some incredible places. Most are just a gravel car park or a grassy field but you can find some beautiful spots, especially those next to a lake! You can also read reviews which is very useful. You can see which places have grumpy neighbours, or are prone to flooding, or are noisy at night etc and seek out the positive reviews for the extra special camps.

freedom camping in New ZealandSo that’s the basics of self-contained vehicles and Freedom Camping! Hopefully this makes things a bit clearer if you are confused about what kind of van to buy and where you can camp. Travelling around New Zealand in a campervan has been the highlight of our 10 month world trip, so I’d recommend it to everyone!

Thinking of buying a campervan? Check out my Guide to Buying a Used Car/Campervan in New Zealand.

If you have any questions about my experiences living in the van or Freedom Camping, please let me know in the comments below 🙂

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  • Reply
    July 12, 2017 at 10:56 am

    Hey Alys! I am Kiwi and really want to set up a van this summer and tour around our beautiful land. These blogs are so incredibly useful and really make sense. I’ve never known the difference between self-contained or freedom camping! Finding the campermate APP is a god send. Thank you!! I hope you’re absolutely loving Aotearoa.

    • Reply
      July 15, 2017 at 8:44 am

      Hey! Thanks so much for your lovely comment – glad you have found the posts useful! We definitely couldn’t have travelled around as easily without the campermate app. If you are buying a van and want some tips, check out this post. Good luck with everything, you’ll have an amazing time! New Zealand is my new favourite country 🙂

  • Reply
    July 17, 2017 at 4:53 am

    This is such a helpful post! I feel like I’m following you around the world at the moment, first to China and now to NZ. We should be getting there sometime in September. Not sure we’ll be there long enough to justify buying a camper but even if we rent one this info will be great.

    • Reply
      July 17, 2017 at 8:55 pm

      Ha! My first ever stalker! 😛 Just kidding, that’s awesome that you are heading to NZ – I will be there again in September! I’m arriving into Auckland mid September. If you are around, it would be great to meet up for a drink or something 🙂

  • Reply
    January 4, 2018 at 11:43 pm

    Hi Alys, just a friendly suggestion to amend your advice regarding the Freedom Camping Act 2011.

    Unfortunately, the legislation isn’t as black and white as it first appears. In a nutshell it actually enables local authorities to implement bylaws that prohibit or restrict freedom camping in defined areas (many council’s have these in place) and it doesn’t override other statutes that have their own rules governing freedom camping. For example, freedom camping is generally prohibited on reserves under the Reserves Act.

    Just want to your readers to avoid a $200 fine if they refuse to move on from a prohibited area at the request of an enforcement officer. It’s also a major issue the industry is trying to deal with – ensuring visitors understand and respect local rules. Thanks.

    • Reply
      January 5, 2018 at 2:02 am

      Hey James,

      Thanks for this – my point was that if locals (neighbours etc) ask you to move, people have a right to stay. However, yes, if asked by an enforcement officer, then people would need to move along! 🙂 I’ll amend the post accordingly…

  • Reply
    April 28, 2018 at 12:00 am

    Hi ! Arrived in NZ a few weeks ago and looking for a car to buy. I will go with a SC car as I saw it would be easier to go around.
    I have 2 questions though :
    – is a 4WD recommanded to be able to go everywhere ?
    – if I buy an Estima now (a lot more on the market thus cheaper), do you think I’ll be able to sell it in a year time if SC goes until 2021 ?
    Thanks for your help !

    • Reply
      April 28, 2018 at 3:49 am

      Hi Johanne!

      You definitely don’t need a 4WD for most of New Zealand- the only benefit would be for driving on the beach where possible.

      As for the Estima, it’s a great choice of car! It’s the most popular campervan as it’s small enough for everyone to drive (even those that aren’t very confident) but still big enough to have plenty of room to live/sleep in. They are also a great choice because they sell so quickly and hold their value. You would definitely be able to sell the car on in a year’s time if SC til 2021… most people travelling New Zealand will need the car from 3-6 months.. a year at most.. so you should have no problems finding a new owner 🙂

      Happy Travels – New Zealand is awesome!

  • Reply
    July 27, 2018 at 4:55 pm

    Hi, I’m going to NZ in November to travel the South Island with my boyfriend. We are looking into buying a camper van now as my boyfriend is already living in Queenstown and we have been told they are cheaper now than in summer. This blog has been so useful and informative, just a couple of questions. Do SC vehicles contain a fridge as standard or is that not the case? Also is it exp sensible when crossing from the south to the north islands in a vehicle, did you do this? And if so how do you go about it? Thank you

  • Reply
    July 27, 2018 at 4:57 pm

    Hi, I’m going to NZ in November to travel the South Island with my boyfriend. We are looking into buying a camper van now as my boyfriend is already living in Queenstown and we have been told they are cheaper now than in summer. This blog has been so useful and informative, just a couple of questions. Do SC vehicles contain a fridge as standard or is that not the case? Also is it expensive when crossing from the south to the north islands in a vehicle, did you do this? And if so how do you go about it? Thank you

    • Reply
      July 28, 2018 at 8:09 pm

      Hey Alex 🙂

      Thank you – glad you have found the blog useful! Yes, buying now in Winter/ Spring is a good idea, you’ll find vans will be much cheaper now than in the peak of Summer!

      Self-contained vans don’t have to have a fridge to be self-contained, and in my experience most don’t come with a fridge. Most of the time, fridges are costly and use up a lot of power and space. In reality, even in Summer, it’s really easy to get by with a coolbox/Eski which is what we had. I don’t eat meat or cheese so it was easy for us to stock up the van for a few days at a time with dry products (pasta etc) and cans. Any vegetables we bought would last ages in the coolbox too so we never had any problems. I know plenty of people who have bought cheese and meat and also been fine – you just have to get into a habit of stocking up every couple of days, rather than doing one big shop to last the week.

      I crossed over from the North (from Wellington) to the South (Picton) in my van. It’s really easy to do – you just drive on to the ferry, enjoy the views and drive off the other side! There are a few different companies, but looking at Interislander and putting in a random date and selecting “van” shows the price at around $275 for the car and two passengers. You can have a look here –

      Hope this helps – enjoy your trip!! 🙂

  • Reply
    September 21, 2018 at 7:55 pm

    Hi!! I love your post! I am moving to NZ next month and I am a bit lost about where to find second hand vans (any useful app or website). Moreover, you spoke about the most beautiful spots for camping that you discovered in some reviews, would you mind sharing some of those magic places?? Thanks so much!! s

  • Reply
    Pare Hayward
    December 28, 2018 at 6:45 am

    Very Cool! I’m looking to do the same thing to travel around Aotearoa-NZ, so I found your blog inspirational! Ka pai, Ka mau te wehi!

    • Reply
      December 30, 2018 at 6:10 am

      Ahh thank you! Enjoy your trip!! 🙂

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