Freedom camping in New Zealand is pretty easy to do, as the country has some 500 freedom campsites spread across it’s two main islands. We spent ten days travelling around the South Island in a campervan, and found some beautiful spots. For this blog post, we’ve collaborated with other travel bloggers to reveal the best free campsites on South Island.
From wild beaches, to alpine lakes, read on for information about how to find free camping grounds on the South Island of New Zealand.
BUT before you go anywhere – you’re gonna need a campervan! Spaceships NZ is probably the most affordable option out there, so click here to head to their homepage to explore your options and reserve your home on wheels now!
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The Best Free Campsites – South Island, New Zealand
We found this site out of necessity, after driving across from Queenstown to the east coast and needing a place to stay. Close to Dunedin and not far from the Moeraki Boulders, we pulled up here not expecting much at all. It really took us by surprise!
Reached via Highway 1, and tucked behind sand dunes, this ample site is protected from the sea winds whilst offering an amazing beach just a two-minute walk (if that) away.
You can camp here in a self-contained vehicle, a non-self contained vehicle, or a tent. There are clear guidelines at the entrance to the site stipulating where you need to pitch up, depending on what vehicle/equipment you have.
In winter months, the grassy area can be closed off, restricting the space available. Make sure to get there in plenty of time in the evening to avoid missing out. There are toilets, a dump site, and bins.
Sometimes, the warden doesn’t open the grassy area until later in the day. If you get there and there is a low chain across the entrance, just park up in the gravel area and wait for it to get unlocked.
There was a real mix of people there when we stayed, from families, to older couples, and backpackers. In the morning, we walked out onto the beach, keeping an eye out for the sea lions that make their way up onto the sands. It was a really quiet, pretty free camp site and we’d definitely stop there again!
Monkey Island – Southland
By Lee-Ann McKenzie from Be Free With Lee
Monkey Island, located in the Southland region, is a beautiful campsite to park up for a night or two. The area is well-known for having some of the most stunning sunsets in New Zealand, as well as some of the longest days!
The beach is long and wide and a great spot for a walk, sandcastle building and motorbike riding. The little island that is Monkey Island is a neat place to explore. You can access the island by foot at low tide and enjoy a glimpse at the Fiordland mountains.
The facilities are simple, with a toilet block that is well maintained. There are spots for vans as well as tents. It is quite a popular spot so be prepared to share it with other campers! Also, don’t get confused with the day and overnight parking. The day parking is basically a gravel car park whereas the camping is mainly on grass. Just look for the signs.
The best way to find the campsite is via the app Campermate. Look for a green camping icon near the bottom by a town called Orepuki. Or, if you’re driving from Invercargill, head west past Riverton for about 1 hour.
Other places to check out along the drive include the small seaside town of Riverton, and Colac Bay for another beautiful beach vista. Remember to bring your camera, and pack a windproof jacket as it is notoriously windy in the area.
Te Moana Gorge – Canterbury
By Lee-Ann McKenzie from Be Free With Lee
Te Moana Gorge is a popular family-friendly camping location 15km west of Geraldine in the Canterbury region. Access is from Te Moana Road, which is a (mainly gravel) road leading off of State Highway 79 (the inland scenic route from Christchurch – Fairlie).
The area is perfect for spending time away and getting off the grid. There is no phone reception, but there are beautiful native birds, trees and swimming spots to enjoy! The facilities here are very basic with just a long drop in most areas and the odd picnic bench.
There are multiple little camping spots to pick from which are perfect for pitching tents. I have spent many summers camping in this area with my family. We used to park up right next to the river, which is deep enough to jump off the rocks into. There is a shallower pool at one of the first camping spots, which is perfect for younger families.
Te Moana Gorge is also a great campsite for backpackers living in a van. When I worked at an orchard just out of Timaru quite a few backpackers stayed there.
The best attraction in the area is the waterfall at the end of the road which you can swim under. It is a deep pool and freezing! Keep driving all the way until you see a car park. The area is also popular for motorbikes, so you may well hear them.
Whilst you are in the area, I definitely recommend checking out the small town of Geraldine. It is a beautiful place nestled on a riverbed with nice eateries (Running Duck is my favourite for great coffee and burgers) and home to Barkers products (chutney anyone?).
Nuggets Road layover (between Kaka Point and Nugget Point Lighthouse)
By Susan Gan from Thrifty after 50
While on a motorhome holiday in New Zealand we were looking for somewhere close to the Nugget Point Lighthouse where we could free camp for the night.
The plan was to arrive at the lighthouse early, with plenty of time to catch the sunrise. We wanted to stay as close as possible to avoid having to drive on narrow roads in the dark.
Unfortunately, the Nugget Point Car Park has signs specifically prohibiting Free Camping, so we had to look for other alternatives.
Whilst driving back towards Kaka Point we found a quiet little layover on the Nuggets Road. It’s about 5 1/2 km from the Nugget Point Car Park, roughly halfway between Kaka Point and Nugget Point Lighthouse.
While the area is not specifically advertised as a site for free camping, it also does not fall into an area where free camping is prohibited. If you are concerned about whether you can free camp somewhere, then check the Freedom Camping website for tips.
The site is quite small, just enough room for half a dozen cars. It’s essentially somewhere you would pull over to take a photo. There are no facilities, so you do need to be fully self-contained.
Practically speaking, this is somewhere that you would stay for just one night in order to get off the road, rather than setting up camp for a few days.
The location is very picturesque; with rolling hills on one side of the road and the South Pacific Ocean on the other. There are some lovely deserted beaches to walk along before settling down for the evening.
My favourite part about this location was falling asleep to the gentle buffeting of the van by the ocean breeze.
Waitapu Bridge campsite, Takaka
By Tom & Zi from Craving Adventure
Just outside of Takaka, on the shore of the Takaka River, you’ll find the Waitapu Bridge Freedom Campsite. The campsite is available for both self-contained and non-self-contained campers and has about 50 spots available.
Other than (clean) toilets it doesn’t have any facilities. What it lacks in facilities, however, it makes up for in location. There are tons of awesome things to do nearby, making it the perfect place to spend a night (or a few) during your New Zealand road trip.
Takaka itself is a cool little town with a very relaxed vibe and a lot of hip shops and cafés. Within a few minutes drive from Takaka, you’ll find yourself on golden sand beaches. If you drive another 20 minutes, you’ll enter the mesmerizing Abel Tasman National Park. A few minutes in the other direction gets you to the Pupu Springs, with the clearest water you’ve ever seen. This flows into the Takaka River and past the campsite.
South of Takaka stands the Takaka Hill. This almost 800-meter high hill is formed out of marble rock and is full of cave systems. From the top of Takaka Hill, a track leads to Harwoods Hole. This hole is a 183-meter vertical shaft that goes straight down into the cave systems. The track takes you right to the edge. If you want, you could even go on a caving tour into the hole. Close to Harwoods Hole, the track also takes you to a viewpoint with a truly breathtaking view over the Golden Bay area.
If all of the above doesn’t sound like reason enough to base yourself at the Waitapu Bridge Freedom Campsite, the Golden Bay area is where loads of open-air festivals are held in summer. So if you’re up for some good partying, then this is the perfect place to base yourself.
All Day Bay Recreation Reserve
By Lotte Eschbach from Phenomenal Globe Travel Blog
All Day Bay Recreation Reserve is found on Waianakarua Road, 3km south of Kakanui, and 17km south of Oamaru. It’s a beautiful beach as well as a great place to spend a free night!
While there is a public toilet, note that this free NZ campsite is only for fully self-contained vehicles. Plus, as always, be sure to take any rubbish away with you or use the provided bins.
The site is suitable for any type of traveller, be it a family, a couple looking for a romantic spot (hello beautiful sunrise!), or a solo traveller. There aren’t any facilities besides the public toilet, but the amazing view more than makes up for it. Who doesn’t love waking up right next to the ocean? Just be aware that you are allowed to stay here for a maximum of 3 nights in a four-week period.
Nearby points of interests are the village Oamaru (the self-proclaimed steampunk capital of the world) and the famous Moeraki Boulders. The small road along the coast, as well as Highway 1, is very beautiful in itself. Take your time and stop often to admire the view, have an impromptu picnic (yay for having a tiny home on wheels!) or grab a coffee when driving through a small village such as Hampden (Vanessa’s Cottage Café is very cute!).
Lake Pukaki Freedom Camping Site
By Jennifer Parkes from Backyard Travel Family: Active Family Travel Specialists in New Zealand
Lake Pukaki has to be one of the most incredible free camping sites in New Zealand. It is right on the shore of Lake Pukaki, an incredible glacial blue lake with views of New Zealand’s highest mountain, Mt Cook.
It is a little hidden, but if you are heading from Tekapo to Queenstown, you will see the Lake Pukaki information centre on your right. About a kilometre up the road on the left, you will see a gravel road to the parking area.
You must have certified self-contained camping status to camp here and there is a maximum of one nights’ stay. There are a couple of long drop toilets here, but no water. Do make sure you follow the rules as DOC often visits these sites to make sure everyone is complying.
The campsite is well located for visiting the townships of Twizel, Mt Cook Village and Tekapo. One of the best things to do while you are free camping at Lake Pukaki is to take on one of the incredible Mt Cook walks. The most famous is the Hooker Valley Track. This is a 3-hour return walk with a glacier lake and Mt Cook views at the turnaround point. If you are looking for a shorter walk, the Kea Point Track or Tasman Glacier Viewpoint are both an hour or less.
Lumsden – Southland
By Jordan Adkins from This Is Auckland
The town of Lumsden might not be the most picturesque spot in New Zealand. That said, it is ‘Northern Southland’s main hub’, and entices travellers to stopover for the night with some of the best free camping facilities in South Island.
Conveniently located at a junction that provides access to Invercargill, Queenstown, Fiordland, and Gore, Lumsden has both self-contained and non-self-contained campsites. You can stay for up to seven days in any 30-day period.
Lumsden’s last rail line shut down more than 30 years ago, and it has been a bit of a backwater since then. Now, in an attempt to attract some of the international tourism spend, the local community has generously turned their railway station into a freedom camping site. It has a wash-up area, undercover benches, clean toilets and washing machines.
It’s far better equipped that any of the Auckland campgrounds – and not to mention free. The only thing it lacks is showers. However, there is a community pool with showers you can use in summer for a small fee. Just ask at the Four Square next-door.
Lumsden is popular, in part, because it’s the only free camping site in Southland with toilet facilities, that is also in the centre of a town. Other nearby towns like Te Anau and Queenstown have totally banned freedom camping. Lumsden is a great base, with historic trains and some nice cafes to explore.
It all has a very retro, New Zealand-of-yesteryear-vibe to it, and definitely makes a nice change from glitzy, international Queenstown. You might only want to stay a night or two, but it’s welcoming to everyone, from backpackers to families (whose children will love the trains).
Bendigo Picnic Area
By Michelle from Intentional Travelers
Located on the South Island, in Central Otago and bordering Lake Dunstan, is a great free camping spot for campervans in the Bendigo Picnic Area. It’s easy to find, immediately off of Highway 8, and right on the lake.
If you’re road-tripping between Queenstown and Wanaka, Mt. Cook, or the East Coast, Bendigo is one of the best places to make a free overnight stop for campervans that are not self-contained. In addition to conveniences like flush toilets and bins, the park boasts a scenic view of the lake and even some hiking treks across the road.
While Bendigo is not a huge draw in itself, it’s conveniently on the way between other popular destinations. Just a short drive away is the Cromwell Heritage Precinct; a cute little area where you can do some historic sightseeing and shopping. Cromwell also has fuel, restaurants, cafes with wifi, and a visitor’s centre.
If you arrive at Bendigo earlier in the day, you’ll be more likely to find a spot with scenic views. The site is essentially a series of long parking lots, and by evening it fills up with vehicles parked side-by-side. Also, bear in mind that there is a three-night maximum stay.
Where can I freedom camp in the South Island?
Hopefully, this blog post has gone some way to answering the above question! However, our best advice is to download the Campermate or WikiCamps app to help you locate nearby free and paid campsites on your New Zealand travels.
Just be sure to follow the rules – if there are clear signs saying ‘No Freedom Camping’, then don’t push it. You will more than likely get a knock on your van at some point in the early hours from a ranger.
And make sure you Leave No Trace!
If you’ve enjoyed this blog post, take a look at our Australia van life blog post right here.
Have you visited New Zealand? Where did you go? Let us know in the comments, and remember to save this post for later!