Whether you are a backpacker, working holidaymaker, or a short-term visitor on a road trip, camping is a great way of seeing the country and meeting interesting people. It’s easy to do in New Zealand and won’t break the bank. Kiwis themselves are such outdoor enthusiasts and very much into camping holidays, and hence there is an abundance of options available, from fully self-sufficient camping in the middle of nowhere to established networks of fully serviced campgrounds in highly frequented tourist destinations.
In my first article on camping in New Zealand, I am outlining the broad categories of these options.
Network of serviced campgrounds
New Zealand is host to several networks and groups of campgrounds which can be found in the most popular destinations of the country. They are referred to as holiday camps, family parks or holiday parks. They are often set-ups with lots of capacity, including chalet and cabin accommodation, powered sites for campervans, unpowered tent sites, and ample facilities such as communal bathrooms, kitchens, sitting and dining rooms with TV, outdoor eating areas, barbecue areas, and some even have a pool, beach volleyball court, etc. Depending on the network or on the individual franchise, they can be tailored specifically towards families with children.
Here are the main ones:
You can also check out the Holiday Parks Association of New Zealand to have a look at options in your chosen region and plan ahead.
Independent campgrounds, i.e. family-run businesses not affiliated with a network, can be found all over the country. They will be listed in directories such as the AA New Zealand Accommodation Guide, available at iSites, and can range from fully serviced larger sites to very basic campgrounds mostly frequented by fruit pickers (although the latter ones are mostly unlisted and found by talking to locals or other travellers you meet along the way). It’s always a good idea to scan your first iSite for such directories and to have two or three in your car.
Camping on hostel grounds
Many hostels also offer you to pitch your tent on their front or backyard at a lower rate than a dorm bed. As an example, sleeping in our tent in the backyard of YHA Tekapo, my partner and I paid $15 each.
Department of Conservation (DOC) campsites
Brochures listing all DOC campsites are available at every iSite and DOC visitor centre. There is one booklet for the North Island, and one for the South Island. Both brochures list all campsites by type (basic, standard or serviced). Every region has their own section with separate maps for you to gain an overview of where the various sites are located. Every campsite has their own picture, description of facilities and directions on how to get there.
Freedom camping is a bone of contention in New Zealand. It was tolerated years ago, but due to the effects of ever increasing numbers of holidaymakers from abroad touring the country and taking advantage of the lack of regulation or information, freedom camping has attracted more and more attention from councils, conservation bodies and other authorities in recent years. Understandably, New Zealanders are keen on keeping their country clean and encouraging sustainable tourism for the benefit of locals and visitors alike.
In response to these developments, the Tourism Association of New Zealand has created a very informative website on camping best practices and on where to camp and not to camp depending on whether you are fully self-contained or not. In short, you are not fully self-contained if you do not have a toilet, shower or grey-water storage system, e.g. if you are travelling around in your car and sleep in it or in your tent, you are not fully self-contained.
However, that does not mean that you can only stay in holiday parks or independent campsites. Depending on what region you are in, the rules on freedom camping differ as local government agencies regulate camping restrictions for their areas. Generally speaking, freedom camping is not permitted in or near urban areas. Wherever you are, go to your local iSite or DOC visitor centre and ask about freedom camping. They will be able to tell you whether freedom camping is generally not permitted in the region or direct you towards specific areas where it is. Usually, this will be a specific location that offers toilet and waste facilities and allows campers to park overnight. Some regions require you to buy a freedom camping permit for a certain amount of nights that must be displayed on your vehicle.
As you can see, regulations differ greatly, so it is inevitable to check with your local visitor centre or council. If in doubt and there is no iSite in sight, just ask a local. Who knows, they might even invite you to pitch your tent on their land for a night. Never underestimate Kiwi hospitality!
So far so good. I hope you’ve got a broad overview of what’s available in Aotearoa in terms of camping. Check back regularly as there will be more articles focused on camping specifics, such as equipment (what to bring and where to get it), standards (what to expect), locations (off the beaten track) and much more.