If you're in the midst of planning a trip to New Zealand, you've probably already noticed the high cost of accommodation. A typical hostel dorm bed might run you 25 - 35 dollars and some campsites, specifically the holiday parks, aren't much cheaper.
If you're like me and trying to travel the world on an extremely restricted budget, this might seem like a deal breaker. But, please, please, PLEASE, don't let it be. New Zealand is a fabulous country and -- with a little bit of planning (we're here to help) -- it can be the perfect budget destination.
The answer to your budget accommodation dilemma? Freedom camping. Or, in other words, CAMPING FOR FREE, just in case you're a yank like me and think "freedom camping" sounds like some backwoods patriotic ritual most likely involving rifles and four-wheelers. (And before anyone gets sensitive, I'm from self-proclaimed redneck, so I get to say it.)
Freedom camping in New Zealand, however, is not as simple as parking your camper van on the side of the road and catching some zzzs. Where you can and cannot camp is pretty well-regulated - increasingly so as the number of campervans in NZ rises, and if you park somewhere you're not supposed to be, you'll very likely have an awkward midnight encounter with a policeman in your near future, not to mention a hefty fine.
So here are the dos and don'ts of a successful freedom camping venture in New Zealand:
…realize that freedom camping doesn't mean camping just anywhere. Many towns and entire districts have "no freedom camping" policies in place. You'll usually see signs that say "freedom camping zone ends here" as you enter the town. Obviously, this means no camping within the town limits!
…understand the difference between "self-contained" and "non-self-contained." Originally, I'll admit, I sorta thought self-contained just meant "not in a tent." But it actually means that you have bathroom facilities in your vehicle. And you can't just SAY you have bathroom facilities. You have a have a sticker on your vehicle certifying that you do. If you don't, your freedom camping will be limited to designated free campsites that have toilets. This is very important to pay attention to.
…download the CamperMate app on your smartphone. Seriously, this one is a life saver. Go to campermate.co.nz, download the app and you will have a wealth of information at your fingertips--free campsites, cheap campsites, holiday parks, hostels, public restrooms, wifi, water, etc. Every traveler to New Zealand should have this app, but especially the freedom camper, as you probably won't find information about free campsites in your guidebook.
…bring water with you. Some free campsites have water spigots with potable water or a creek with water that you can boil, but others don't. Don't get stuck 20 kilometers from town with only half a litre of water.
…ditto toilet paper. This is kind of a no-brainer for most budget travelers, but it's worth saying. Most of the free campsites I stayed in had pretty decent toilet facilities, complete with toilet paper, but there are no guarantees. And do you REALLY want to risk it?!
…fail to read the fine print on Campermate. Some campgrounds are locked in the evening around 8 or 9 pm and then reopened at 7am. Don't be that person who is climbing over the fence at 10 pm in a downpour. Trust me, it's not fun. The Campermate app will usually tell you these important details. You just have to pay attention.
…make a mess. Freedom camping is not a right--it's a privilege. And one that many townships and cities are revoking, largely because people are violating this rule. One of the things I love about New Zealand is how environmentally conscious the government is--which means, if they feel that freedom campers are trashing the environment, that will be the end. So, please just clean up after yourself. Some campsites have trash (I mean, rubbish) receptacles, but many are pack-it-in-pack-it-out. Respect the rules, don't litter and lastly…
…don't be an asshole. You will find that many of the cheap or free campsites can be extremely crowded, especially in high season and in areas like Queenstown where there are only a few budget campsites. You will be sleeping, eating and living within close proximity of strangers. For this system to work, a basic level of civility is required by all parties involved. I found most people in New Zealand campgrounds to be pretty respectful -- music was usually turned down by midnight and people only occasionally had screaming matches right outside of my tent. Still, I spent some nights flopping around in my sleeping bag, dreaming up wildly creative torture methods for my neighbors.
You might be in a free campground, but that does not give you license to behave like an overgrown frat boy. Be nice, be respectful and you might make make some awesome new friends.
Syd Schulz spent ten weeks traveling New Zealand's North and South Islands. She hails from the USA and authors Nomadically Inclined where she documents her adventures traveling the world.