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.
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.
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.
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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