Freedom Camping in New Zealand: Advice From a Local
I'm a New Zealander, born and bred. I've traveled extensively round my own country, as well as to various countries overseas, so I'm qualified to say that in my (perhaps slightly biased) opinion, New Zealand is one of the most beautiful countries in the world for scenery, and is a wonderful place to get into the outdoors -whether it be in tent or campervan.
We've allowed freedom camping here for years in one form or another. In 2011, in response to a host of reported problems caused by unregulated freedom camping, Parliament passed the Freedom Camping Act -a piece of legislation allowing local councils to pass bylaws permitting or restricting freedom camping on public lands within council boundaries. The Act permits freedom camping unless it's prohibited or restricted by a bylaw.
Many councils here in NZ have passed bylaws designating certain areas as freedom camping zones -usually specifying either that they may be used only by "certified self-contained" vehicles for a maximum of 3 nights, or in rare cases, that they may be used by a non self-contained vehicle. All hire companies offer self-contained vehicles, and if you buy one,you need to make sure it is displaying the correct sticker showing it's been inspected and certified by the NZ Motor Caravans Association (NZMCA).
Some councils have prohibited freedom camping altogether in areas with a delicate ecosystem or high conservation values,but the Act doesn't allow a Council to prohibit freedom camping entirely within its district. The other main point is that any restrictions on camping can only apply up to 200m from a road-end. Thus in the 'back country' it's generally not restricted (there are some exceptions, such as for the 'Great Walks').
Simple and fair, you might think? You'd be wrong - the facts on the ground are that we have a massive problem when it comes to freedom campers in this country, and dare I say it, the problem appears (anecdotally at least) to be mostly created by tourists, not by Kiwis themselves. Read on...
#1: The NZ Bush is NOT your Outdoor Toilet!
Why have I included a photo of a portable toilet here? Well,simply to make the point clearly that freedom campers are expected to dispose of their personal waste in a responsible and hygienic fashion. Instead of that, we have hoardes of freedom campers poo-ing in the native bush and around lakes and other waterways, using toilet paper and leaving it to rot everywhere along with their waste, to the anger and disgust of locals and visitors alike. See here for a recent example near Huka Falls, in Taupo.
Let me be clear. The problem seems to be confined to a particular group of freedom campers -those who do not use a certified self-contained vehicle. Those with self-contained vehicles have their own onboard portable toilet and can use dump stations to empty their waste tank, so let's take them out of the equation.
In recent years it has been evident to me (and other Kiwis) that increasing numbers of young tourists (often fresh out of high school, and probably on a tight budget) make their way here to New Zealand, and their #1 aim is to buy the smallest and cheapest campervan they can get away with, and spend anything from 2-6 weeks travelling the country, parking said vehicle in permitted freedom camping zones and sleeping in the vehicle. Popular models for such 'el cheapo' campers are Toyota Previas, Toyota Estima, Nissan Serena and so on. These vehicles sleep only two people (at a squeeze), with barely enough room for packs and cooking equipment, let alone a portable toilet.
Yet year after year, campervan outfitters (mostly based in Auckland and Christchurch) churn out ever increasing numbers of these outfitted 7-seaters for the young, overseas freedom camping crowd, and sell them at rock bottom prices (anywhere from $3000-5000),often with an offer to buy back at the end of the trip - making the proposition all the more appealing.
Now we get to the pointy end of the problem (so to speak). The majority of these small campervans do not have space for portable toilet facilities. This means that the campers in such vehicles are fully reliant on local authorities to provide adequate toilet facilities at the freedom camping zones open to 'non self-contained vehicles'. Inmost cases there are adequate toilet block facilities, however the lack of restriction on the number of vehicles that can use a designated space means that small campervans are often jam-packed into designated zones, with hundreds of campers inhabiting the zone each night during the summer season in New Zealand. I've seen this with my own eyes along the Napier foreshore (East coast of North island), at the only 'open' freedom camping zone in Napier.
These huge numbers in a small space puts immense pressure on toilet facilities, and acts as a disincentive for young campers to act responsibly. However there are others who are probably just damn lazy and can't be bothered walking to a toilet block at night -they would rather disappear into the bush with a torch.
The message is simple: you must use a proper toilet of some description if you are freedom camping
#2: Can you Really Afford to Freedom Camp Here?
A lot of the debate about freedom camping boils down to cost, and economics. New Zealand doesn't like to discourage freedom campers, because they spend money here, and improve our economy. At least...that's the theory.
So far I've seen few hard facts demonstrating the clear value added to our economy by freedom campers (as a distinct group from other tourists, who pay considerable amounts of money for accommodation as they travel round the country). There's no sugarcoating the fact that accommodation in NZ is reasonably pricey -as a native, I can barely afford it myself, but a favourable exchange rate should mean that most tourists can afford at least a tent site in a motor camp when they come to New Zealand. In the South Island you'll pay $15-30 per person (for a total less than $100 p/n).
Failing that, they could hire a self-contained campervan, or use tents and stay in Department of Conservation campsites, which are well serviced for facilities. There are lots of camping options that don't involve using the native bush as a toilet.
I think if a young tourist couple comes here and buys a bang-up old 7 seater campervan without a toilet, then saves all their money to spend on food and adventure activities, they probably can't really afford to be coming here at all - simply because they cannot uphold the standards of decency and respect we, as Kiwis, expect from those who visit our country.
Human waste found along a popular mountainbiking trail close to a freedom camping area
Six 'no camping sites'monitored by Conservation staff found to have 1-4 vehicles parked there
Coromandel District Council issued 360 infringement notices for illegal camping
West Coast, South Island
Many illegal campers fined for leaving human waste on Greymouth beach
Milford and Routeburn tracks
Illegal campers leaving waste on track -camping to avoid hut fees
#3: "Kerching" - We'll Catch You Out!
Department of Conservation staff and volunteers, and local authority staff, are out in force this summer patrolling popular freedom camping areas, and the Great Walks. If they catch you camping illegally, or littering or leaving human waste in a freedom camping area, they have powers to issue you with a $300 instant fine, or you may be prosecuted if the breach is more serious. If you've not paid the fine you won't be allowed to leave the country.
So if your conscience doesn't stop you from leaving your waste out in the bush or on the beach, then the threat of a stiff fine hopefully should.
#4: What can you do instead?
Here are some ideas:
(1) If you love freedom camping, buy or hire a self contained campervan -this will open up many more places to you, and you won't need to worry about finding a place to do your business;
(2) If you can't afford a SC campervan, then buy a slightly bigger van that can accommodate a portable toilet -portaloos cost around $90,and are great to use. I did exactly this when I freedom camped on the East Cape of the North Island last year - I drove a Toyota Hiace van, with a portaloo. There was plenty of space, and you'll need to find dumpstations to get rid of the waste (burying it is not acceptable in NZ).
(3) Use a Department of Conservation camping ground - DoC manages roughly 200 of these at scenic places all round New Zealand. Here you can pitch a tent (or two), and there are toilet blocks provided. They are basic, but cheap.
East Cape of NZ - Paradise Found!
#5: Final Thoughts...
If in doubt about what you can or can't do, ask at your local I-site in the town/area you're visiting, and install the app 'CamperMate' on your phone - it has invaluable up-to-date information about where you can camp, and in what kind of vehicle.
If the current trend continues there's a risk freedom camping could be banned here altogether -and that would affect locals as well as tourists (hey, we like to enjoy our great outdoors just as much as tourists do)!
If on the other hand you freedom camp here responsibly (by hiring a self-contained van for example, or if you don't have one, ensuring you always use toilet and washing facilities provided at the campsite), then I'm confident the NZ government will continue to welcome freedom campers for many years to come.