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Free Camping in New Zealand: Don’t Bank on It

Wild camping isn't just a pleasure; it's a necessity for many cyclists

Caravans cram this campground in Akaroa in a scene typical of New Zealand. Cyclists and hikers, when camped among such fleets of vehicles, may wish for a patch of privacy somewhere in the nearest forest—if only there were access. Photo courtesy of Flickr user ajft.

In spite of the fences along the road and the growing sentiments against “freedom camping” in New Zealand, I must say that I’ve done well for myself in my practiced field of thrift: In the past 32 days of traveling alone on my bicycle, I have paid an average of just $4 (all prices are in U.S. dollars) per night for lodging.

That’s an achievement in a country where the average private campground charges a single traveler between $10 and $16 for the privilege of sleeping and where hostels (called “backpackers”) start at about $20. I’ve stayed in a few of these places, but more nights than not I have enjoyed the pleasures of wild camping. I’ve slept for free on a few beaches, at derelict mountain huts, on government wilderness land, on private farmland by permission, at an abandoned public picnic ground overgrown with weeds in the spooky-quiet Catlins and at several designated free campgrounds. But it hasn’t always been easy, for access to forests and other potential free camping sites is limited here, with fences lining most of New Zealand’s roadways, private property signs warning against trespassing and even public parks and rest stops usually forbidding overnight stays.

I’ve written about wild camping before—about that lifestyle of the liberated in which a traveler journeying across a landscape may stop to camp, cook and sleep virtually anywhere he or she likes. But doing so isn’t just a pleasure; it’s a necessity for many cyclists, for whom long journeys across half the globe and through a year or more of unemployment might not even be possible if they had to pay every night for a room or campsite. Fortunately, wild camping is easy, practical and accepted by locals in most parts of the world.

But not in New Zealand. The hinterlands between towns here are a giant grid of fences and gates, with much of the country off-limits to the public and fully dedicated to sheep and cows (which frequently trample river banks and turn them to mud, even though camping is often prohibited for the very purpose of protecting these sites; go figure). Since such pastureland is usually private, one must respect a landowner’s right to forbid trespassing. And though generous landowners may at times welcome travelers to sleep on their property, this can’t be counted on. What’s been frustrating for me is that so much land in New Zealand is privately owned and entirely inaccessible. Consider the Otago Peninsula, where I spent an afternoon pedaling over a winding dirt road that climbed several hundred meters on the way to Cape Saunders, to which road signs and kilometer markers clearly led the way. I was planning on some mussel and abalone hunting and a quiet night on the beach, but I ran into a surprise four-fifths of the way there: a gate across the road and a private property sign. As I retreated, in a foul temper, I chanced to encounter the property owner as he overtook me while driving out to the main road. He stopped his truck to chat and said, yes, his land was closed to the public. I huffed a suggestion at him:

“You should put up a sign back in town telling people like me, ‘Visitors not welcome at Cape Saunders.’” I proposed that instead of putting a “no entry” notice at the property line, he should place one miles back. He shrugged, unconcerned that my afternoon had been nearly spoiled (though I did manage to swipe up a few mussels before dark at Allans Beach, which would have made a beautiful camping spot, too, but for the fact that it was privately owned and posted with conspicuous “no camping” signs). It turns out there is only one legal place to camp on the whole Otago Peninsula—an unpleasant, crowded “holiday park” in the town of Portobello.

Most nights, in fact, I have watched in frustration as beautiful country and prime thickets of woods sail past me as I pedal in search of somewhere, anywhere, to lay down my head without hopping an electric fence to do so. On several occasions, I’ve had to camp in questionably legal circumstances—once on a town rugby field, another behind a church by the highway—after darkness began to fall and with no sign of a campground nearby.

The frustration has not only been mine. A German cycle tourist I met at a private campground in late January said to me, “There is nowhere to sleep but these caravan parks! In Germany, camping out is not allowed, but there are no fences. You just look around, step into the forest and leave in the morning, and no one ever knows.”

I understand why freedom camping in New Zealand has become a hot topic and an illegal activity in many places: It’s about toilets, or the lack of them. Consider that the nation’s population of 4.4 million increases during high season by about 50 percent each year as tourists flood the islands. Many stay in lodges and hotels and many more in proper campgrounds, but historically a great deal have tried to see New Zealand independently of accommodations. For vehicles containing their own toilet, or in sites fitted with a public restroom, there hasn’t been much of an issue. It’s the travelers without self-contained vehicles, however, that can make freedom camping a dirty business.

"Freedom camping" opportunities like this one, about 20 kilometers southeast of Christchurch, can be found in New Zealand. Such campsites always offer toilets, sometimes running water and usually plenty of quiet.

Fortunately, public parks with restrooms have been established in many places and allow free camping, often by rivers where highway bridges cross the water. These sites are generally clean, safe and comfortable, and often include a rainwater-catching cistern atop the outhouse that provides a source of drinking water. I might have tried to compile a complete list of these sites except that they are generally not worth visiting as destinations, just as places to stop for the night if you encounter one late in the evening. Good luck.

More worthwhile to note on your maps are the campsites of the Department of Conservation, which provide travelers places to sleep at scenic locations—usually accessible by road and usually on a body of water—for nightly fees of just several dollars per person. A full list of New Zealand’s D.O.C. campgrounds is available here.

Final word: I’m not opposed to sleeping in campgrounds. I love a picnic table to cook on at the end of the day, and I also appreciate the security that comes with the company of other travelers. But in New Zealand, as in much of Europe, many, if not most, camping grounds are privately run, more expensive than many people’s rent and unforgivably ugly. They are usually contained by chain link fencing, crammed with RVs and landscaped with hedges, lawns and asphalt pathways. Rarely are discounts given to low-impact travelers like hikers and cyclists (who often pay lower rates in, for example, California’s state park system, now imperiled by budget cuts).

So who can blame a guy in New Zealand for wishing to sleep in that patch of roadside pine trees? Too bad it belongs to the sheep.

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