7 Steps to Freedom Camping, Kiwi Style

Want to go to New Zealand? That’s cool – so does nearly everyone else in the world. The country of

Want to go to New Zealand? That’s cool – so does nearly everyone else in the world. The country of four million is now flooded with about 2.5 million tourists a year, and the number keeps growing. The waiting lists to hike one of the Great Walks can be up to 12 months long, and travelers – especially those used to the open spaces of the American West – can feel stifled in KOA-style “holiday parks,” sardine-like Department of Conservation campsites and hostels that charge campers to pitch a tent on the front lawn. Plus, New Zealand is expensive enough without paying $30 to “camp” in the suburbs.

But fear not. Kiwis, who have no shortage of charming phrases, have coined a brilliant one to describe the art of camping without coughing up a cent: freedom camping. There was even a bill passed in 2011 to legalize freedom camping on most public conservation land. But when you’ve been driving/biking/surfing/kayaking all day, it can still be hard to figure out where to crash. Here’s how to do it right:

1. Be Creative
Camping is legal in New Zealand’s national parks as long as you’re 500 meters away from a trail or road. When Jesse and I showed up in Queenstown to hike the super-popular Routeburn Track, we were dismissed by a Department of Conservation official who told us that all huts and campsites were booked for the next two months and that, due to the geography, it was “virtually impossible” to find a suitable campsite 500 meters off-track. She even brought out a topo to illustrate her point. But we’d talked to locals who had freedom-camped the Routeburn, and, as luck would have it, while hitchhiking to the trailhead later that day were picked up by two guides. We unfolded our own map and they pointed out pristine alpine valleys just a few kilometers off the main track where we found both solitude and better campsites than the jam-packed DOC ones.

That said, do your research. The same tactic can’t be used so easily on the more-popular and nearby Milford Track. If you try to freedom camp the Milford, you’ll probably be caught. And escorted out.

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2. Seek Local Advice
In the frontcountry, talk to locals to get a feel for whether freedom camping is discouraged or part of the culture. Hang out at the local pub, have a beer or two, and casually inquire if there are any remote beaches/rivers/etc. nearby where you might pop a tent. Mention that you don’t require any facilities and they’ll usually get the picture and point you to some out-of-the-way place where you won’t be disturbed. Or they’ll invite you back to their house, where you’ll drink more beer and eat fresh seafood and probably be invited on some epic adventure that you’d never have thought of on your own.

3. Consult Your Map
There are certain stretches – Haast Pass, for example, or the Catlins Coastal Route – where camping is prohibited except at designated sites. But Kiwis are an industrious bunch and not easily deterred by such signs. Their strategy? Choose an area where overnight car parking is expected – say, at the trailhead to a multiday track. Park there, then walk a kilometer or so down the trail or up the river, and find a place to spend the night without worrying about someone in uniform shining a flashlight in your face.

4. Be Ready to Pay
Sometimes it works out for the best – Curio Bay in the Catlins, for example, is well worth your $12. Instead of rows of sites, they give you a map of soaring dunes and headlands, draw a few big circles on it, and tell you you’re welcome to camp anywhere you’d like within them.

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5. Go South
New Zealand is a country of 4 million citizens and 60 million sheep, spread out over an area roughly the size of Colorado. Of the people, nearly a million live in Auckland. Two million more reside on the North Island, leaving only a million or so (and most of the sheep) on the rugged South Island.

What the numbers mean is this: The South Island has a great deal of open space, and though an unfortunate amount has been turned into sheep pasture, there are a lot of places to conceivably pitch a tent or lie down on the sand. The chances of someone driving at 6 o’clock in the morning down the remote dead-end road where you’ve surreptitiously pitched your tent are slim.

6. Get Off the Beaten Track
Okay, this is beyond cliche. But popular hikes like the Great Walks are packed during the summer, and finding freedom and solitude there can be a challenge. There are thousands of other ridgelines and valleys that receive virtually no traffic and are unregulated. My favorite was Tutoko Valley along the Milford Road in Fiordland. There, you can walk three hours through thick rainforest, camp on the edge of a glacial river, and run around naked in the sunshine until you’re so bitten by sandflies that you have to retreat to your tent to scratch for a while.

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7. Be Responsible
Although freedom camping is legal in most places, it’s often discouraged by DOC officials because they’re deluged with inexperienced trampers and campers who leave toilet paper tucked under rocks and get miserably lost. So prove them wrong by practicing Leave No Trace and being prepared.

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Showing 6 comments
  • Steve

    The 2011 law was to allow councils to ban freedom camping, not to allow it. Now local councils can designate areas as not for freedom camping, and fine you (I think about $200). They do allow some ‘self contained’ motorhomes to camp places, but if you don’t have a toilet in your car, you’ll be fined.

    Best advise is to avoid peak season, and hide when you freedom camp. If you’re a km from your car and hidden from the track, you’ll most likely be fine.

    They started the banning because people would freedom camp in their cars and leave human waste and trash at trail heads etc. So rather than use the existing laws that bad you from littering or taking a dump beside the road, they banned let councils ban camping and issue huge fines. The camp grounds got behind this, as it forces people to go pay them $30 to camp for the night. A real shame. There was nothing like a driving holiday on the cheap in the South Island with a station wagon, mattress and some toys like mountain bikes and surf boards.

  • Mischa

    Point 7 and Steve’s comment are on-point. The big problem in NZ is the few who spoil it for the many by making a mess and leaving it there. There are such a huge number of tourists, often inexperienced and ignorant of leave-no-trace practice that it doesn’t take much for things to get messy. It sucks that it’s lead to freedom camping being banned in a lot of popular places, but it also sucks as a local to run into piles of rubbish left by idiot tourists in beautiful places.

    Freedom camp forever, just keep it clean!

  • Jill

    I second the above comments- I’ve seen a lot of visitors (and kiwis, to be fair), abuse freedom camping. I also don’t think the article should encourage getting around the rules and camping places you shouldn’t- rules about where and where not to camp exist for a reason and if you are visiting another country, you should respect the rules and the wilderness. I was driven crazy by cheap backpackers not wanting to pay for parking camping on prisitine beaches and protected dunes because they wanted more beer money.

  • Steve

    The post 2011 system also means that every council independently controls freedom camping in their area. You could assume that if there is no sign, then it’s okay, but if you spent a month doing that in the popular areas of the south island, you’d eventually get caught and get a big fine (removing much of the savings you’ve made by freedom camping the past month). Now most of the people that are, according to the media, being caught, are staying in cheap motor homes which are basically Toyota minivans with a bed and stove in them and zero bathroom. They’re not people who park and walk off into the bush until they’re out of sight. So as the author said, park at a trail head and walk 1km, and then get out of sight, and you’ll be fine 99% of the time.

    I personally was planning a longer trip to NZ to repeat a trip I made in 2007, but freedom camping in a station wagon with a mattress and then mountain bike on the roof. The plan was six weeks, with a campground once a week for a real shower, just using the beaches and rivers the other days (as in Feb/Mar, it’s warm and perfect for ‘wild showering’. However the government rushed these rules through before the Rugby World Cup in 2011, which took car-freedom camping from being relaxing to being stressful. Add to that a few other events in my life, and the trip had to be canned.

    The New Zealand government and councils are looking to target higher spending tourists. They’d rather have one million tourists spending $500/day than five million back packers spending $100/day. And given many many backpackers traveling in NZ have just finished traveling in South East Asia on <$50/day (some down to $20 a day there), it's quite a shock to get to NZ and find that you're going through $100 a day just in food, transport and accommodation (not to mention the astronomic costs of all the adrenaline based activities you've come there to do in Queenstown).

    Still, if you're thinking of going to NZ, and you're 'time rich and cash poor', then:
    1) rent a cheap station wagon (or buy on http://www.trademe.co.nz, NZ's equivalent to eBay, and sell when you're done).
    2) pop into your local Kathmandu store for some camping supplies, half price every other month
    3) freedom camp in your car in all the non-touristy places, but don't expect to be able to do it in Queenstown or Nelson or some of the other gems. In those places, make friends with locals and use their back yards. You'd be amazed at home many kiwi's have travelled overseas and experienced amazing hospitality and want to pay it forward.

  • Dr.R. Clavan

    The ENTIRE ‘problem’ could be very easily solved if councils would just provide PUBLIC TOILETS and RUBBISH BINS!

    Kiwis are SOOOO stupid. In all other countries places where a lot of tourists go will have public toilets and rubbish bins and hence no human waste or rubbish. The GREEEEEDY New Zealanders REFUSE to provide such basic necessities yet DO complain when tourist leave their crap in nature, but only because of lack of provided toilets.

    After the earthquakes Christchurch had THOUSANDS of portaloos. Everywhere. They are now standing somewhere doing nothing. Place those portaloos (and rubbish bins) at places where people complain about human waste and rubbish. Problem solved.

    But I know, that’s too much common sense for Kiwis.

  • Tash

    Heya, we are planning to freedom camp a night on the routeburn this december. Any chance you rememeber the spot? Thanks!

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