To camp or to campervan? That is the question New Zealand always asks. Here are some tips and things to know about tent camping and campervanning in New Zealand and which is best for you.
We love traveling with a campervan (or RV as we call it in the States), but when it was time to plan our road trip through New Zealand, it was hard to find a camper that would sleep all 7 of us comfortably and have a place for our very large surfboard bag. Since we had already tent camped through Europe a few years ago and we tent camp in Hawaii often, we figured this would be a better, and much cheaper way to travel through New Zealand. Ther are a few things that sucked about tent camping but there were also parts to it that were way better than having a campervan. Here are some things you should know to help you decide if you should tent camp or campervan in New Zealand.
Are there really free campgrounds?
While the DOC has done a pretty great job in providing free and low-cost campgrounds, the free ones are few and far between (seriously, where did all the free campgrounds go?!) and many are off-the-beaten-path, but not necessarily in a good way. Not a problem if you have a lot of time to kill, but for us, we had trouble cramming in everything that we wanted to do into only a month so driving an extra hour into the middle of nowhere, as awesome as it sounded, was not going to work with the amount we were already driving in New Zealand.
What amenities do free campgrounds have?
There are a few free campgrounds with actual buildings that have flushing toilets, but most are just pit toilets. Some can be quite disgusting (like Waikawa Campsite, an hour north of Wellington, but it’s convenient for before or after ferry crossings).
Many free campgrounds don’t have water or if they say they do it’s just water from a stream that needs to be boiled or treated.
Note: The campgrounds that do provide water recommend to boil or treat water, but if it came from a tap we rarely did and none of us had any stomach issues (how bad could it be, it’s New Zealand not Bali). We also carried our Hydro-Blu clear flow water bottles with us which have built-in water filters.
These were two of the nicest and cleanest free ones we stayed at Te Kauwhata Domain (see location here), which is about an hour from the Auckland airport and is a common place for campers to stay on their way to the airport, and Mangaokewa Scenic Reserve (see location here), which is in a gorgeous setting and has a nice hike from the campground. There is also a rad, beautiful limestone rock climbing here which you can get the details for on mountain project.
We didn’t stop at Tongaporutu Domain because we were headed to Raglan, but it looked really nice. The free campgrounds near Arthur’s Pass looked great too with large grassy fields underneath towering mountains. Pack warm gear and clothes if you camp in Arthur’s Pass because it gets cold.
Bendigo was also a great one but not very clean as well as domain in Lumsden.
How do the low cost campgrounds compare?
All the low cost campgrounds have toilets (though not always flushing toilets), drinking water, and many had shelters, which in and of itself is worth the money considering how often it rains. The shelters provide a great amount of space to cook your meals and a place to sit and eat.
The low cost DOC campgrounds are in extremely scenic locations and that’s really what you pay for.
5 of our favorite low cost DOC sites were:
White Horse Hill at the base of Mt Cook (get directions here), which has epic views of the biggest glacier we’ve ever seen and a huge kitchen and shelter.
Lyell Campsite (get directions), where the Old Ghost Road mountain biking trail starts (this looked like an epic multi-day ride, click here to learn more) and where we captured the most incredible starry night.
Otto/MacDonald’s Campground (get directions), which is a pleasent place to camp before or after visiting Franz Josef Glacier.
Related Blog: 7 Stops You Must See On the West Coast of New Zealand
Kidds Bush Campsite (get directions) which was arguably the most scenic being surrounded by dozens of mountain peaks and sits on the teal blue lake.
And finally, Sylvan Campsite which was also extremely beautiful and is secluded. This best part about this campsite was that it was at the start of the increible Routebur Track.
Related blog: How to Backpack the Routeburn Track
The many campgrounds on the way to and from Milford Sound looked very nice too. We didn’t have enough food to stay in that area and there is NOTHING around here (no groceries, restaurants, or gas staions) so go prepared.
Are the campgrounds safe?
Yes, we felt very safe at them. Occasionally there was noise from people partying late at night, but this was very rare in our experience.
Is Freedom Camping Allowed?
According to the DOC, freedom camping is permitted on public conservation land, except in areas where it is expressly prohibited or restricted to self contained vehicles. This is indicated by signage.
So even if you are tent camping, you can free camp as long as there aren’t signposts prohibiting it.
If you are campervanning, you can free camp in areas where there aren’t signposts as well as in areas where the signposts only say “Freedom Camping with self-contained vehicles only.”
Neither campervans or tents can camp where ther are signposts of a tent and campervan with a red line crossing them out (duh).
How Hard is Tent Camping With Kids?
While campgrounds in the U.S. are filled with kids riding bikes and climbing trees, I saw very few other kids while camping in New Zealand. Maybe more normal parents stuck to the paid campgrounds and that’s why we didn’t cross paths—who knows.
Like Europe, campgrounds in New Zealand charge per person, which made staying at the high cost, and even the low cost, campgrounds very expensive for a family of 7.
The actual effort of camping with younger kids can also be challenging mostly because of the bathrooms being dirty and you not wanting them to touch anything. But there were plenty of trees around to use instead.
My older kids loved the experience. Just be prepared with good camping gear especialy when it comes to sleeping pads and water proof gear (it rains a lot).
Related Bog: What to pack for camping abroad
How strictly regulated are the campgrounds?
If they are off-the-beaten-path campgrounds they are based on the honor system. But more popular areas like Mt Cook, near Fox Glacier, and by Wanaka have a camp host who comes by to see that you have paid.
If there’s a camp host they allow you to pay by credit card, while the honor system only accepts cash.
What are the benefits of tent camping?
I liked that having a car allowed us to get into smaller areas and windy roads like Abel Tasman more easily. Not that I’m unfamiliar with white knuckling it when I drive, it’s just sometimes nice to not worry about body damage to the vehicle against rocks or guardrails while on vacation.
Tent camping, especially if you don’t have a lot of people, is also cheaper than getting a campervan.
What’s a reason not to tent camp?
The two biggest pains for us in tent camping were 1) dealing with the rain and 2) not being able to carry much food or a cooler.
If you tent camp, have a really good rain proof tent and preferably one large enough to hang out in if it is raining a lot. There are just too many of us to get a big enough car that will fit us and all our stuff.
If you have a smaller group/family, I recommend renting a car big enough to carry a cooler.
Don’t forget this App!
The Campermate app is an amazing resource. This app not only tells you where the free, low-cost, and high-cost campgrounds are, but also grocery stores, playgrounds (super helpful on long drives), toilets, WiFi, points of interest, showers, propane, laundry, hospitals, info centers, road warnings, trash cans, dump stations, gas stations and water.
All these are things you may take for granted if you are from the US but they’re not as easy to find as you may think. Seriously, sometimes finding a trash can was hard!
Have more questions? Feel free to ask us in the comments below!
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