Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer or offering legal advice. I am simply offering my own interpretation of the Freedom Camping Act of 2011 and I will not be held accountable for any infringements to New Zealand laws from advice offered in this article. If you have any questions regarding New Zealand laws contact the New Zealand Government, the Parliamentary Counsel Office, the Department of Conservation, or any local authority regarding the matter.
The name itself just invokes a sense of independence and liberty.
In reality, Freedom Camping is a legislative act put forth by the New Zealand Department of Conservation in 2011 (link to actual legislation here.
The Freedom Camping Act was meant to allow Kiwis the freedom to camp in their caravans around the country and not have to stay at expensive campsites everywhere they went. To quote the actual legislation itself, § 5.1
In this Act, freedom camp means to camp (other than at a camping ground) within 200 m of a motor vehicle accessible area or the mean low-water springs line of any sea or harbour, or on or within 200 m of a formed road or a Great Walks Track
Once the travelling community caught onto this though, it had some unintended but beautiful consequences. Freedom camping is now a bona fide, time tested method of travelling and seeing New Zealand and I’m a big proponent of freedom camping but one must follow the rules. Problem is, nobody knows the rules.
There’s a ton of misinformation shared amongst travelers and locals alike regarding freedom camping rules and I’m going to dispel the rumors and set the record straight.
So what vehicles are allowed?
a tent or other temporary structure:
a car, campervan, housetruck, or other motor vehicle.
So basically you can sleep in your car?
If you want to sleep in your car and “camp”, you can. Very few people do this.
So, You can just camp anywhere you please? That sounds great!
Well, yes you can, but no. You can’t.
Let’s define what is not freedom camping as the legislation states—
temporary and short-term parking of a motor vehicle:
recreational activities commonly known as day-trip excursions:
resting or sleeping at the roadside in a caravan or motor vehicle to avoid driver fatigue.
Based on the “freedom camp” definition in the legislation it would appear that you can camp basically anywhere just off the road.
In reality, reading further into the legislation, freedom camping is regulated by the local authority in which you camp so the rules vary wildly by city, district, region, or Department of Conservation land.
To put it simply and to quote § 2.1.10 and § 2.2.15
Freedom camping is permitted in any local authority [or conservation land] area unless it is restricted or prohibited in any area
The Act lets local authorities make their own restrictions regarding freedom camping and prohibits them from outright banning freedom camping altogether. The same rule applies to defined conservation land under jurisdiction by the Department of Conservation.
To put it simply, freedom camping is allowed everywhere except where otherwise restricted or prohibited via “public notice”.
It’s a funny way of saying unless there are specific rules put in place, via “public notification”, you can camp anywhere just off the road.
Public notice, in relation to a notice given by a local authority, —
means a notice published in—
i. 1 or more daily newspapers circulating in the region or district of the local authority; or
ii. 1 or more other newspapers that have at least an equivalent circulation in that region or district to the daily newspapers circulating in that region or district; and
includes any other public notice that the local authority thinks desirable in the circumstances
Part b. above is of particular importance because nobody reads newspapers anymore. Well, at least travelers don’t/won’t.
So where do I find out the local rules regarding freedom camping in a particular area without scouring newspapers for the rules?
In 2018, with our newspaper-killing superior technology there are a few apps but the most popular is…
The CamperMate app
CamperMate was started by a student in 2011 in an attempt to map all the public toilets, petrol stations, supermarkets, free Wi-Fi, tips and campsites around New Zealand. Thanks to their efforts we have the most comprehensive freedom camping app in New Zealand.
For our use in freedom camping the right way, CamperMate proved to be an invaluable source and will help you find the locations of each and every freedom camping location including pictures and reviews of the various campsites. They even have a “fine guarantee” so that if “you received an Infringement Notice because you relied on materially incorrect information on (their) App” they will pay the fine.
There’s other criteria for the guarantee but I never once received an infringement notice from incorrect info in the app so I can say that it’s pretty accurate and I stand by it. (No I’m not affiliated with CamperMate) One time I did notice a recent change of a campsite layout that was not updated on the app yet so it’s best to check the signage first and if any other questions, the city council of the city one is in.
There’s one other way to find out about freedom camping rules in your area and that’s at the actual campsites themselves.
In order to clearly lay out the rules of freedom camping of a particular district or region there is *almost* always signage clearly stating the rules of most campsites.
The signage generally refers to:
Where freedom camping may occur; a bounded region generally
What types of vehicles are allowed, self-contained vs non self-contained (more on this later)
How many spots are available
Where to throw rubbish away
Unfortunately, since freedom camping is so popular there may not be enough space for everybody, and if you break the rules and you will receive a $200 NZD infringement notice.
There were many times where a campervan came by the campsite late at night and there was no space. If that happens you must move onto the next spot, or risk a $200 NZD fine, which was not uncommon to wake up with a notice on the windshield as the freedom camping spots are policed regularly.
Following the rules is of utmost importance as we want to encourage the locals to be supportive of freedom campers who spend money in their communities and not condemn all freedom campers because of a few bad actors.
Freedom camping is a point of contention with locals who see their communities being mistreated and trashed by campers who are not following the rules. Don’t be those campers. Follow the rules.
On the point of following the rules, a common reason why campers receive fines is because of what I mentioned earlier about self-contained campervans versus non self-contained campervans. The vast majority of free campsites require that the vehicle be self-contained and campers without a self-contained status risk being fined in those areas.
I suggest that if you are thinking about travelling in New Zealand via campervan that you highly consider buying or renting a self-contained certified van.
So what does it mean to have a self-contained campervan?
Self-containment NZS 5465:2001 is the certification of a campervan that verifies a vehicle has met the following criteria.
Freshwater tank – 12L per person for three days
Wastewater tank – 12L per person for three days, vented and monitored if capacity is less than the fresh water tank
A sink via a smell trap/water trap connected to a water tight sealed waste water tank
Evacuation hose – (3m for fitted tanks) or long enough to connect to a sealed portable tank
A rubbish bin with a lid
Toilet (portable or fixed) – Needs to have a minimum of 3L per person for three days and be able to be used inside the campervan with the bed made up (for all vehicles certified/renewed after 31 May 2017)
This may seem like a lot of things but there are many businesses in New Zealand that specialize in converting vans into self-contained vans. Self-contained campervans typically cost a premium over standard campervans due to their desirability.
Just by having all the self-contained criteria is not enough though as the vehicle must be inspected and certified to receive a self-contained sticker. I’d suggest buying a van with the certification already complete as denoted by the certification sticker on the front windshield by the vehicle registration.
Just a word of caution if buying a self-contained van. Make sure the self-containment certification contains the correct registration plate of the actual vehicle the sticker is on. The van I bought had the certification from another vehicle, whoever did the certification of my van did so illegally so watch out for that.
That’s pretty much all there is to freedom camping in New Zealand! Get out there and see this beautiful country for yourself!
Summer is a very popular time to freedom camp so I suggest arriving in Spring (September-November) and buying a van, camp throughout Summer (December-February) and sell the van at the end of your trip. This will give you the most flexibility to see beautiful New Zealand.
Let me know your thoughts, would you live in a van for Summer in New Zealand?
Leave a comment below!