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.
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!
Because 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!
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!
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.
So 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.