With diverse scenery packed into a compact country, New Zealand is a brilliant destination for a road-tripping adventure with family or friends. There are plenty of roads detouring to spectacular and remote locations where for free camping opportunities abound. Of course, your respect and care for New Zealand's beaches, forests and waterways will also guarantee a friendly welcome from the New Zealanders. Follow these top tips on how to find out if, and where, you can camp for free so that – in the local lingo – everything will be 'sweet as'.

Beachfront free camping in a campervan in Northland New Zealand

Where can you camp? Always ask first!

Assume nothing, always ask at the local i-SITE tourist information centre where you are allowed to camp for free or 'freedom camp' (basically pull-up anywhere and set-up camp) in a local area.  Yes, that stunning hilltop location you spotted when driving into town may well be privately owned and camping overnight means you'll be illegally trespassing on someone's land – with consequences.

Many New Zealand towns and cities offer designated areas where you are allowed to camp for free.  Other places to check where camping is OK, but with a small charge for amenities, include Department of Conservation office (DOC; doc.govt.nz) and holiday parks. Look out for – and please do respect – signs indicating if camping is allowed or not.

Winding roads on a free camping road trip in a campervan

Best source for local information? DOC is your friend, bro

Department of Conservation? These three words are your key to having a brilliant backpacking and road-tripping adventure throughout New Zealand.  DOC manages more than 200 campsites around New Zealand, usually well-priced at just NZ$6 to NZ$10 per person per night, and these often include barbecues, cooking shelters, toilets and access to running water!

Top locations include alongside Lake Karapiro, just a short drive from Hobbiton on the North Island; and at Cascade Creek in the Fiordland National Park en route to the South Island's spectacular Milford Sound.  DOC also operate free campsites, often in even more pristine wilderness areas of the country, but these are often restricted to fully self-contained vehicles only, as they often don't offer access to public toilets.

Best camping apps for your smart device

Add extra storage into your phone or tablet before you leave home. You're going to need it for your videos of Māori welcomes, mountain biking, and Milford Sound, but there are also a number of helpful apps worth downloading from Google Play or the Apple store.  Produced in association with DOC and the i-SITE network, 'Official Camping NZ' shows every legal free-of-charge and paid camping location around the country.  It's approved by every local council in NZ and reviews from other travellers on specific camping areas are included. Plus you can download maps for offline use – a bonus as mobile internet data in New Zealand can be expensive. A similar app also worth downloading is CamperMate.

Plan your trip by hitting these local websites

New Zealand's Tourism Industry Association has launched a 'Camping our way' website (camping.org.nz) with a handy 'Where to camp?' summary in English, French, Dutch, German and Spanish, and if you click on 'designated areas', a link appears to download the Official Camping NZ app. Easy.

To access the same regional camping information available on the app – including detailed descriptions of each location's facilities and costs and reviews from other travellers – head to the 'Respect NZ' map on the Rankers website (rankers.co.nz/respect). And if you're hiring a campervan from local companies including Spaceships (spaceshipsrentals.co.nz), Jucy Rentals (jucy.co.nz) or Escape (escaperentals.co.nz), their websites also feature freedom camping guidelines. Basically there is plenty of information out there on how to freedom camp in New Zealand.

Road tripping through the Mavora Lakes region of the South Island © Matthew Micah Wright / Getty

The importance of on-board toilet facilities

Read this very carefully if you're planning on camping around New Zealand...  If you're driving a campervan with toilet facilities including an on-board grey water storage system, you are allowed to stop and stay at authorised campsites without public toilets. (Note that dumping facilities for waste water are mapped on various camping websites and smartphone apps.)

If you're driving a smaller campervan or are in an ordinary car, camping is only allowed at campsites where public toilets are provided. Why? Well the answer is probably pretty obvious: New Zealand won't be beautiful forever if its strewn with used toilet paper now, will it?

Not all free camping is free

Tips on how to be environmentally responsible

Kiwis – both the easygoing locals and the country's feathered, long-beaked national bird – are fiercely proud of their nation, and love to share their home with visitors.  Unfortunately their love and respect for the their South Pacific home has not always been reciprocated by some travellers and this is causing a fair bit of angst in New Zealand these days. By following the guidelines you'll have a much better, and less environmentally damaging, freedom camping trip around the country.

  • Leave no trace of your campsite.
  • Properly dispose of all your litter. If there are no bins, take it with you.
  • Don't chop down trees and vegetation for campfires – unbelievably this has been done by some clueless campers in New Zealand across recent years. Really.
  • When cleaning or washing, be sure to keep soaps, detergents and toothpaste out of the waterways.

Travellers come all this way to experience New Zealand's world-beating environment, and it's our shared responsibility to treat the country's forests, lakes and rivers with kindness and respect.

The Freedom Camping Act, it's the law

Sadly, due to the actions of some freedom campers around New Zealand over the last decade – including leaving rubbish and used toilet paper on beaches, roadsides and in bushes (!) – the country passed the Freedom Camping Act in 2011.

This means local councils have the authority to fine anyone camping overnight illegally up to NZ$200 per vehicle. A few local authorities also add a further NZ$200 wheel-clamping fee. That spur-of-the-moment decision to spend the night camped illegally on a lake's edge does have the potential to get expensive, and yes there are plans afoot to ensure fines are paid before you leave New Zealand.

Sea views and free camping on the Great Barrier Island near Auckland New Zealand

With a wide range of free-of-charge and low-cost camping options available, and plenty of information available on how and where to access these, fines are a tough but fair punishment that have wide support from New Zealanders.

We advise: love this country like the locals do, and enjoy your freedom camping trip around this gorgeous country. Sweet as.

This article was first published in October 2016. 

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