Camping is the quintessential Kiwi pastime, and nothing beats camping in some of New Zealand's most picturesque spots. Well, there is one thing that beats it, and that is being able to camp in these spots for free.
It is important to note, many of these free camping spots do require your vehicle to be self-contained, meaning you need to have that handy blue sticker visible.
Ready to get adventuring? Here are the best free camping spots in New Zealand.
The Best Free Camping Spots In The North Island
If you love Northland beaches, then make sure you head to Kowharewa Bay. A half-hour drive from Whangarei, this inner harbour bay is a gorgeous spot to set up camp for a night for free. There are four spots for self-contained vehicles to roll up in which have excellent waterfront views of the bay. This is also the perfect spot to paddleboard or kayak or for a leisurely dip in the clear and warm water. Find out exactly where you can park up here.
Laurie Southwick Parade, Gulf Harbour
If you want to wake up to the best views in Auckland, without shelling out hundreds for a hotel room, Laurie Southwick Parade is the spot for you. At sunrise, you’ll experience amazing views of the gulf, Auckland City as well as Rangitoto Island. Access to this site is from 5 pm and you’ll need to leave by 10 am, but you can stay two nights in a self-contained vehicle and there are 24-hour toilets a two-minute walk away. The place offers great views of the water and wharf and provides a quiet, safe and most importantly, free spot to camp.
Hamilton's Gap, Awhitu
If you want to see the highest dunes in Auckland, then Hamilton's Gap is the place to go. Black dunes, a wild west coast beach to explore, and a beautiful spot to see the sunset from, what more can you ask for? A secluded grassed area is where you’ll camp for free in your self-contained vehicle. And as well as walking distance to beautiful wild west coast views, there is a toilet and shower which you can use while camping up at this spot. All for free. It doesn’t get better than that.
Lake Rotomanu Freedom Campsite
If you want to be centrally located in New Plymouth, without having to pay for accommodation, Lake Rotomanu Freedom Campsite is the spot for you. There are six marked spots for non-self-contained vehicles in the upper car park by the toilet. Make sure you park in the designated spots or you can get a hefty fine. For self-contained vehicles, you can park anywhere near the lake. Lake Rotomanu Freedom Campsite offers excellent views of the lake while being a short walk from the infamous Rewarewa Bridge—where photographers flock—and the coastal walkway. This 13.2km path will take you all along the coastline of New Plymouth from Pioneer Park to Port Taranaki.
If beachfront views being 100% free appeal, then camping at Tokomaru Bay is what you are after. Open to camping between 23 October - 30 April, you’ll need to get a camping permit which is found at the link above free of charge. You can camp in either a tent or a vehicle and there is a lot of space, either at the North end of the bay on Beach Road or the South end, accessed via Waiotu Road. There are no bins here, so being a responsible camper you’ll need to take your rubbish home with you. If you’re into surfing be sure to bring your board to take advantage of the great surf out these ways. And at night, the sky brightens with stars, making this a great spot for stargazing or astrophotography.
Lake Rotokare Scenic Reserve
If falling asleep while listening to the night call of the kiwi seems enchanting, then you need to spend a night at Lake Rotokare. This community-led project has built a fenced sanctuary that endemic flora and fauna call home, including hihi or stitchbirds, North Island Kiwi, and pāteke or brown teal. There are spots for both tents and campers to stay the night and you will have great views of Lake Rotokare. While staying here, make sure you check out the sanctuary on one of the walks. You can go visit the hihi feeder and watch them gulp sugar water or step out on the pontoon on the lake and spot water birds and eels. And as night falls, drift asleep while listening to kiwis and ruru. While you can stay here for free, we recommend that you donate either via the cash box at the visitor centre or through bank transfer. Your donations support the Rotokare Scenic Reserve Trust and all the awesome conservation work they do here.
Dawson Falls Carparks
This car park is a great spot to camp if you want to explore the Dawsons Falls area. Many trails start at this car park, such as the Kapuni Loop Track, where you’ll walk through the mountain rainforest to get to the stunning Dawsons Falls. There is also the Wilkies Pools Loop Track, while here enjoy a dip in one of the pools which were created around 20,000 years ago. Dawson Falls Carpark offers free camping to self-contained vehicles, a nearby 24/7 toilet, and a visitor centre open from Thursday to Sunday. It also offers great views of the mountain and a peaceful spot to sleep, with the only sound being the rurus.
The Best Free Camping Spots In The South Island
Jimmy Armers Beach
Kaikoura is the place to go if you love nature, with whales, seals and more to see, it's New Zealand’s wildlife mecca. Luckily, there is a spot to camp up for free if you are travelling around in a Self-Contained vehicle. Jimmy Armers Beach is the best freedom camping spot in Kaikoura and it seems everyone knows it. If you want to snag one of the six available spots try and get here before 5 pm. At this free camping spot, you’re just a five-minute walk from a seal colony, have amazing views of the beach and are close to the seafood roadside kiosk, famous for its BBQ crayfish. There are toilets, rubbish bins and the only thing you have to remember is to leave by 7 am. It is a bit early, but it means you will be up for the beautiful east coast sunrise.
Hanmer Springs River Reserve
Hanmer Springs is a resort town in Canterbury and is famous for the Hanmer Pools, where people flock for a swim or soak. And despite being a resort town, you’ll be happy to know that there is a great freedom camping spot for you to base yourself for a night. Hanmer Springs River Reserve has ten spots available for self-contained vehicles and it gets quite busy, so make sure you arrive early. Camping right next to a beautiful river, you’ll be guaranteed a peaceful night in this reserve, with the rushing of the river to lull you to sleep. There are also beautiful views of the surrounding mountains and you’ll be a short drive from Hanmer Springs, the animal farm park and local restaurants, making this a great spot to camp during your next South Island roadie.
Lake Pukaki Overnight Campervan Parking
For serious picturesque South Island views, this is a must-visit campground. Open to self-contained vehicles, you can camp at Lake Pukaki Overnight Campervan Parking for one night, so make the most of your stay here and soak in the gorgeous views of Lake Pukaki and Mt Cook. At sunrise and sunset on a fine day, the sky can offer brilliant shades of red and pink, and at night, the sky comes alive with thousands and thousands of stars, making this spot great for photographers. There are toilets available but no water, and for a caffeine fix in the morning, head to the nearby Hydro Cafe in Twizel.
Beach Road Camp
Camping right on the coastline of the rugged and beautiful West Coast for free? It doesn’t get much better than that. Beach Road Camp is a small gravel area available for self-contained vehicles only and up to 15 vehicles at one time. You can stay up to two nights at this gorgeous spot, which will have you a stone's throw away from the beach. This area is very remote and offers a peaceful night's sleep, with only the noise of the ocean heard. It also offers great sunset views and is a great place to stay if you are exploring the west coast of the South Island. There are no facilities here and be warned, it can get quite windy.
Crown Range Summit
Crown Range Summit is the perfect spot to camp if you’re exploring Queenstown and it also makes a great stopover if you’re heading towards Wanaka. As well as offering a great free place to camp if you are exploring the region, Crown Range Summit is one of the best areas to watch the sunset over the valley and mountains without having to hike for hours. Mountain view car parks fill up fast, so make sure to get here early to nab one of the spots with a view. This free camping place is only for self-contained vehicles and there are no facilities here.
Keen on a little camping with your pooch in tow? Here are the best pet-friendly campsites in NZ.
Image credit: Tokomaru Bay by Tairāwhiti Gisborne, Lake Pukaki by Rachel Gillespie.