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Best Cheap Places to Park Your Camper

Not for the faint-hearted, or those who love their creature comforts, freedom camping sites and small independent camp sites do offer those brave enough solitude, simplicity, amazing scenery and a chance to save loads of bucks.

Small Independent Sites and Un-publicised Gems 

There is no easy way to find these; you certainly won't find them listed in any publication although the local i-SITE might point you their way. However, if you are prepared to head off at that fork in the road which appears to lead nowhere or rattle your way down gravel roads the chances are you will find these on a regular basis. And boy are they worth finding. The only indication for some that there is a camp-site here at all might be by way of a corrugated cardboard sign on a piece of string or some local waving you generally and vaguely in the direction of 'somewhere to camp'. If you want tons of facilities these camps won't be for you but if you want cheap-as-chips, a back to nature experience, some of the most stunning settings and the possibility of solitude this is the way to go. 

This treasure hunt approach can unearth the totally free, the donation-only or cheap fixed fee campsites and half of the joy of these types of gems is uncovering them yourselves but in case you need a starter here's one....... travel on Highway 35 from Opotiki in the Bay of Plenty heading towards the East Cape. A rickety wooden sign, mostly hidden by the trees, will point you to Maraehako - a small, Maori owned camp right on the beach for which you'll pay next to nothing. 

Department of Conservation (DOC) Camp-sites

With the exception of the fully serviced options, these camp sites are always budget-friendly, sometimes totally free and almost without exception in the especially stunning setting category. Expect absolute beach-front, lake shore spots or set amid pristine bush or mountain or nestled in the forest. 

DOC camp-sites come in different categories ranging from the complete facilities of the serviced sites (electricity hook-up, flush toilets, tap water, kitchen/cooking bench, hot showers, rubbish collection and easy road access and sometimes laundry facilities, barbecues, fireplaces, cookers and picnic tables) to the basic but beautiful sites which give you only long-drop toilets and a water supply. This latter might be by way of a lake, tank or stream. 

There are a whopping 200 options here and it is far from rare to have one of these sites – particularly those in the standard or basic categories - all to yourself, especially outside of the summer season. At standard sites payment – around NZ$8 per night - is typically by way of self-registration and honesty box payment. Basic sites are free. If you enjoy basic camping in the most stunning, wilderness surroundings then the DOC camp-sites are ideal. 

And just in case you fancy a break from the camper or need to dry out some soggy bedding or clothes, you might like to know that DOC also offer many cheap options in the way of cosy cabins and huts on some of their camp-sites. As the standard and basic sites are often tucked away it is highly unlikely you will chance across them unless you know where they are. You can pick up a site location map and information leaflet at i-SITEs or DOC offices or alternatively download it from their website -

Weekly discount passes are available for all those in rental camper vans and van owners can also buy a 5-month pass which will save them money. The latter is not usable in peak season though. A few freebie gems include Lake Monowai campsite (fires allowed) in Fiordland National Park, Glenfalls campsite in the Hawke's Bay region and Raetea North Side camp-site in the Northland. 

Eastland Freedom Camping

If you fancy taking your camper to one of the Eastland's lovely beaches and rubbing shoulders with Kiwi folk who have shut up home for the summer to come and live in tents and vans at the beach, check out the totally unique Summer Camping scheme run by Gisborne District Council. Take your pick from one of many absolute beach-front options which run from top to bottom of this district's coastline. 

You will have to bring in your own water as well as having a chemical toilet and a gas cooker. NZ$66 will buy you between 10-28 nights of camping for up to 6 people with shorter terms possible too. And in case you are too lazy to do the maths this equates to camping for 2 people for less than NZ$3 a night (or less than 40 cents a night if there are 6 of you).

Freedom Camp Locations - Gisborne

  • Waipiro Bay – 103 km from Gisborne, 6km from the highway – secluded camp offers good surfing, fishing and diving.
  • Tokomaru Bay – 92 km from Gisborne, spread over 3 separate camps, good surfing, fishing and swimming.
  • Donneraille Park – 61 km from Gisborne, the only non-beachside camp - has a bush-surrounded riverside setting.
  • Kaiaua Beach – 60 km from Gisborne, 6 km from highway -  very secluded but very popular campsite offering good surfing, fishing, swimming and snorkelling and hosting the yearly beach horse races.
  • Tolaga Bay – 54 km from Gisborne, well off the highway, good swimming and fishing and occasionally surfing.
  • Waihau (known locally as Loisells) – 42 km from Gisborne, 6 km from highway, secluded, excellent surfing, fishing, diving, swimming and snorkelling.

The following 3 camps are only just outside Gisborne and all are directly off the highway:

  • Turihua Point – good swimming, fishing and diving.
  • Turihua Beach – good swimming and fishing, closes earlier than the rest of the sites.
  • Pouawa Beach - good swimming, fishing and diving.

You can buy a permit online to use these sites at the following place:

  • Opotiki, Whakatane, Wairoa or Gisborne i-SITEs.
  • Okitu Store, Wainui.
  • Easts Outdoor Work and Leisure, Makaraka.
  • Uawa Foodmarket, Tolaga Bay.
  • The Gisborne District Council Offices, Fitzherhert St, Gisborne.
  • Gisborne District Council Te Puia Service Centre, Te Puia Springs.

See for more information on this wonderful scheme.

Wild Camping

Freedom camping, wild it what you any kind of camping done outside of a designated and official camp-ground. It is not yet illegal across the board in New Zealand but as council after council passes by-laws on this issue there may come a time when it is. Unfortunately the idiot few have wrecked it for the rest of us and the huge drive to stem the practice is understandable. Districts with current strict wild camping policies in place (and which will come down on you hard by way of fines for any flouting of the laws) are:

  • The Coromandel, North Island – no wild camping is allowed anywhere within this region.
  • The Mahia Peninsular, North Island – no wild camping is allowed throughout the area.
  • Clutha district, south of the South Island – wild camping is allowed but only in self-contained vehicles.
  • Ashburton district, South Island – wild camping is allowed but there are guidelines similar to those for the Clutha district.
  • Westland, west coast, South Island – wild camping is allowed in several designated areas but the same restrictions apply as the Clutha district with regard to chemical toilet and grey waste storage.

However, there are still places where wild camping is possible and what's more, several councils - in an effort to stop random wild camping all over their beautiful landscape - offer up designated areas, completely for free. There are usually conditions attached – the most common being that you can't stay forever and/or have to be self-contained. One wonderful spot which you will have to keep pinching yourself to accept is for real and for free at the same time is Reid's Farm in Taupo. This majestic little riverside spot offers long-drop toilets and waste disposal.

The subject of wild camping is an extensive and thorny one so DO make yourself familiar with what qualifies you as a good and responsible camper by doing some homework on the subject before you set out.


Campermate is a must have app that loads of people are using - especially those who are not self contained. It lists loads of driveways as well as free spots, DoC areas and campgrounds.

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