Camping in New Zealand: Lessons Learnt

30th January 2016

One of the most popular ways to travel in New Zealand is with your own wheels, camping in the abundance of campsites across the country.

It’s easy to see why. New Zealand is home to some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, so it’s no wonder that heaps of nature- and outdoors-lovers flock here year after year. Before James and I came to New Zealand, the most camping I had done was a few days at a time – on my Duke of Edinburgh expeditions while I was at school, or in a drunken haze at music festivals in the UK. But when we were planning our trip, we decided (without ever really discussing it) that we would travel New Zealand by camping. And after four months of travelling both the North and South Islands in our campervan, I’ve definitely learnt a lot about camping, about NZ, and about myself! Here’s a few things I’ve learnt…

Camping in New Zealand is perfect for EVERYONE

… And everyone loves it! No matter how long you decide to spend camping as you travel around the country, I guarantee you’ll LOVE camping. Sure, you’ll miss home comforts and it gets a bit crappy when it’s raining, but I guarantee you won’t want it to end.

We’ve seen just about every type of person camping whilst on our travels. There’s the energy-fuelled backpackers who play their music a little too loud and drink beer until the early hours. There’s the entire families who pour out of their RVs. There’s the young parents, travelling with their baby, one with a rucksack and the other with the baby on their back. There’s the trio of young girls who pile into a single van, giggling until they fall asleep. There’s the retired couple in their huge converted bus. There’s the kiwi families who flood to the coast during the holidays. There’s the glam girls who put on make-up in their passenger mirror everyday, and there’s the men who simply HAVE to use the BBQ, even if it’s raining.

There’s people of all ages, from Germany, France, Mexico, Malaysia, New Zealand – all over the world – who all share the same desire: to see what this beautiful country has to offer.

Te Urewera National Park

The meaning of the terms ‘powered site’ & ‘unpowered site’, and ‘self-contained’ & ‘non self-contained’

When we first started camping, I genuinely thought a ‘powered site’ was just a campsite with plug sockets, and thought, ‘Great! I can charge my camera!’… A bit embarrassing…

A powered site is used by anyone who can plug in the power cable to their vehicle (vans, RVs, motorhomes). They charge their vehicle up with power which will allow them to keep use electric appliances in their vehicle whilst the engine is turned off, without wasting the car’s battery. These fortunate souls can have an onboard fridge, turn on their interior lights and charge their laptops up using their plug sockets on board. These vehicles are always self contained, too. These sites cost more than unpowered sites.

An unpowered site doesn’t have a power socket, and is used by people with tents or vehicles that can’t be charged up, like our Honda. Since we don’t use electricity, we have battery-powered fairy lights in our car, and rely on using the library to charge my camera (we can charge USB compatible devices through the cigarette lighter adapter when the engine’s running). I also have a very handy Anker Solar Panel to USB charger – handy for sunny mornings to give our phones a boost!

Broken Hills DOC campsite, Coromandel

Self-contained vehicles are those which adhere to certain regulations meaning that they “meet the ablutionary and sanitary needs of the occupants […] for a minimum of three days without requiring any external services or discharging any waste^“; they must have an onboard toilet, sink, fresh water and holding tank (plus others, see source). Basically, they’re a house on wheels.

Non self-contained vehicles are those which do not have the above… like our car! We have about 15 litres of drinking water in various plastic bottles (which we refill at drinking fountains etc) but we have no onboard tank for dirty water, and of course, we rely on using public toilets.

The issue of power really doesn’t bother me. Although it’s a bit annoying, I can put up with having to find a plug socket to charge my camera every few days. But I admit, I have wished we had a self contained vehicle – only once!! We were at a campsite on the West Coast, trying to make dinner in the pouring rain, surrounded by evil sandflies from Hell… We ended up having a tin of baked beans for dinner… But more on that later!

Breakfast in the sun

We couldn’t have done it without these apps…

I didn’t even know about these apps before I came to NZ and I don’t think we would have survived camping around the country without them! (Well, we would have had to visit a lot more tourist/ info centres rather than quickly tapping a few things on my phone!)

Here Maps (Nokia)

This is a GPS Sat-Nav that works offline – all you need to do is download the map for the country you’re travelling while you’re connected to the Internet. New Zealand is very easy to navigate; when you’re on the highway you don’t need a map at all, but it’s a handy app to have when you are looking for a particular address or driving in the city. It’s great for planning journeys and for viewing a detailed map of NZ, as Google Maps doesn’t work offline. I use it to find supermarkets, libraries, campsites – and I even use it when we’re on foot!


This is the most popular camping app in NZ because it’s free. I like it because the colour-coordinated icons allow you to easily see which campsites are free (green), low cost (blue) or more expensive (purple). You can also search for things like wifi, supermarkets, petrol stations, drinking water, public toilets and even ‘things to do’ – points of interests that other travellers have added to the app. I always search for ALL campgrounds, not exclusively those for non self-contained vehicles, because occasionally the app gets it wrong and we would miss out on finding a site.


This is another popular app which shows campsites as well as other general attractions and facilities. The reviews on Wikicamps are instant and we have found many more campsites, particularly on the South Island, on Wikicamps than on Campermate. Additionally there are loads more points of interest, and the addresses of sites are more precise and up-to-date. Unfortunately the icons aren’t as easily distinguishable and it costs around $2.69.

One of the best drives in NZ: Queenstown to Glenorchy

Camping saves you so much money

You’ve probably already been told that New Zealand is expensive – compared to somewhere like South East Asia, it definitely is! I’ve found that some things (like petrol) are cheaper than back home, but other things (like food) are more expensive. Accommodation in particular can set you back quite a bit. A dorm bed in a budget hostel will cost around $25 per night, rising to around $30 in touristy areas. In comparison, campsites are often low cost – or even free!

My only experience of camping has been in our non self-contained vehicle. We’ve found that many regional councils offer cheap or free campsites (but they are sometimes only for self-contained vehicles – make sure you check!) Most DOC campsites cost $6pp per night, with the ‘scenic’ ones costing $10pp per night. A motor camp usually costs around $10-$20pp per night whilst higher-end holiday parks normally start at $20pp. Powered sites cost more.

Sunset by lake Te Anau. Henry Creek DOC campsite

The weather is a huge factor when you’re camping

Whilst we’re not hardcore campers (to those who are tenting, I salute you!), we also aren’t self-contained. Our car isn’t very big, meaning we have to cook, wash up, go to the loo, and even get clean clothes (which are under the bedframe), by going outside of the car. I won’t lie: if it’s raining, it’s a bit shit.

When you’re outside a lot you soon realise the pros and cons of the weather. Arriving at a campsite – if it’s raining, there’s not much else to do but sit in the car. If it’s windy, it’s really difficult to cook because the stove goes out. If it’s super hot and sunny, it’s difficult to sleep. You quickly learn how to deal with each type of weather; we’ve mastered the arts of cooking under the boot and of using the doors as windshields. And although bad weather can be annoying, it’s never stopped us from doing what we want to do (apart from when we went to Fox Glacier and it was closed because of the storms.) The mornings when you can sit in the sun enjoying your breakfast while gazing at the mountains, and the evenings when you can sit outside stargazing for hours, all make the rainy days worthwhile. The memories you make while you’re on the road – the funny times, the awe-inspiring times, even the grumpy times – all make the camping experience an unforgettable adventure!

Cooking under the boot in the pouring rain… but still smiling!

The sandflies on the West Coast are evil little sh*ts

Sandflies are my number 1 hate about camping in New Zealand. They’re small, they travel in packs, and unlike mosquitoes, they don’t buzz, meaning you don’t notice there’s one on you until you get bitten! If there’s just a few of these evil bugs flying around, a good insect repellent and keeping your skin covered up really helps. However, when sandflies are buzzing around your face and landing in your food, they can get a teeny little bit frustrating.

Sandflies can usually be found in mild weather; we have found that if it’s really hot or really cold they seem to disappear. They also dislike strong winds and heavy rain. They linger in the bushes by water sources, but parking further away from water and bushes doesn’t seem to help; it’s almost as if they can smell your blood and are drawn to you like tiny, evil vampires.

Lake Mahinapua DOC campsite, The West Coast

From our experience, there are waaayy less sandflies on the North Island than the South Island. The sandflies on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island are the worst I’ve experienced; their bites seem to itch a lot more, and for a lot longer! They also manage to really make you bleed, whereas in other areas they tend to only leave a small mark. Covering up doesn’t deter them; I’ve been bitten through my socks! Insect repellent barely works either, unless you apply so much that their legs get sticky and they drown in it…

Gillespie’s Beach, The West Coast

It’s amazing what you can cook on a camping stove

It’s also amazing what you can cook on a budget. When we first started camping I thought we would be living off pasta and baked beans for months! I admit that our meals aren’t overly varied; without access to an oven, we’re limited to boiling or frying our food. However, we still get our 5-a-day (probably more than 5) and I think we eat quite well compared to the staple camping diet of instant noodles!

I can’t really take the credit for this one though, since James is definitely the head chef of the two of us: he’s made us egg fried rice, chillis, lots of pasta dishes, chickpea and bean based soups, curries, toast with eggs and spinach, cous cous, salads… We’ve mastered the art of making a decent meal on only one hob (the stove).

But you don’t have a fridge!” I hear you say. True, we don’t have a fridge, we only have a ‘cool bag’ which is no cooler than any other bag really. Perishable items like butter and vegetables keep for a while, though not for as long as they would in a fridge. Therefore we only buy enough fruit and veg for the next few days so it doesn’t have time to go bad! Storing meat isn’t a problem since we don’t buy it; I’m vegetarian and James has (perhaps subconsciously) gone part-time veggie, but he occasionally buys some ham or chicken slices to add to his dish. I do miss tofu though!

Left to right, top to bottom: Salad & chickpea soup, popcorn, egg fried rice, free range eggs from the campsite’s hens for breakfast!

I care less and less what people think of me

This one’s a bit of a personal learning curve I guess. I don’t know if it’s because I have the excuse of “it’s because I’m travelling”, but I’ve just basically started giving less of a shit what others think. I don’t feel embarrassed about hanging my clean underwear out to dry in the sun on our makeshift washing line. If I need to shave my legs but can’t take a shower, I’ll do it out of my car door. And I get dressed every morning and evening in my front seat (getting changed on the bed is too much of a work out for both my abs and neck!) My hair is often a mess of talcum powder, I haven’t worn make-up for about three months and I wear the same outfits in all of my photos, but I don’t really care. The experiences I’m having are worth too much to be bothered about the little things.

No make up, glasses on… I had washed my hair that morning though!

I’ve quickly adapted to surviving without the luxuries I thought I needed

Ahem, before you read this paragraph please bear in mind that I am fully aware that others are in a worse situation than me and many people would give their right arm to have what I have. I know this. I’m just explaining that it’s possible to live without these ‘luxurious’ things!

Being on a tight budget + camping long term = giving up some of life’s little luxuries. The following are things I’ve gotten surprisingly accustomed to:

Normally I’m a bit of an addict when it comes to social media, constantly checking Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (and I have a bit of an obsession with Bloglovin and Pinterest), but I’ve found that it’s actually pretty refreshing to not have service for a day or two. I have a limited amount of data on my phone plan (I’m with Spark) and I only really use it to let my family know where I am every few days. Only downside is that when I do connect to a free wifi hotspot, I’m disappointed to find that I have barely any notifications aside from my family nattering in our group Whatsapp message.

You know when you fancy a glass of water so you just go get one from the kitchen tap? We don’t have that. Usually campsites will have taps but sometimes the water isn’t safe for drinking so needs to be boiled for 3 minutes first (Note: The giardia parasite is widespread in NZ waterways so drinking untreated water from rivers/lakes isn’t a good idea). We have an everyday task of making sure we have enough drinkable water with which to cook, drink, wash our dishes, and accordingly we have to find a somewhere to refill our various water bottles (this is where Campermate comes in!) Top tip: buy a bucket to wash your dishes in!*

My big red bucket is also handy for washing our underwear in*, so we don’t have to spend $5 on a cold wash at the laundrette which doesn’t even clean your clothes. And a further $5 on a dryer that doesn’t dry them. We do still use laundrettes when the laundry piles up too much and to wash our bedsheets.

Probably the grossest one and my least-favourite thing about camping on a budget. As aforementioned, dry shampoo (or talcum powder, it’s cheaper) all the way for your hair. Wet wipes to keep you from smelling gross. The beach sometimes has free cold showers available, and rivers are picturesque place to have a wash (without soap)*.

*When disposing of dirty water, if there isn’t a suitable drainage system available, you should distribute the water across the ground (the earth has difficulty soaking it up if you pour it all in one place). It’s also pretty common sense not to use washing-up liquid or soap/shampoo in rivers/ lakes, nor to empty dirty water in them. You’d be surprised how many people do it.

Living in our car means not being able to sit up in bed to read and having to get dressed in the front seat because the car is so small. But, the good side of this is that the outdoors becomes an extension of your house-on-wheels!

With no plug sockets, you come to rely on plug sockets at libraries, motor camps, or even cafés. Actually, this is the thing I dislike most about being on the road; I love taking photos and I hate having to limit them when my battery is low.

But, no matter how annoying it might be, you quickly do get used to living without these things at your disposal. They are little factors that add up to saving a huge amount of money. I’ll soon write a blog post on travelling New Zealand on a budget – if I can do it, anyone can! For us, we thought the money we saved in Auckland would last us three months at a push; we’ve been travelling for a whole extra month on top!

James making the most of a swim in the river

Camping allows you to get back to nature and see some beautiful places

When it comes to choosing a campsite for the night, sometimes you might have to drive a bit further or to a place you wouldn’t otherwise have visited. When we stayed at Kaitoke Regional Park ($6pppn; Upper Hutt) we didn’t even realise that it’s situated only a few kilometres away from a film location for the Lord of the Rings – Rivendell was filmed here! We enjoyed a coastal walk when we stayed at the Waikare River Mouth DOC campsite (free; Hawke’s Bay), and went on a bush walk close to Lake Mahinapua ($6pppn; West Coast). We explored the ruins of the old Lindis Hotel (free; Lindis Pass) and camped by the sea at Purakaunui Bay ($6pppn; The Catlins).

Purakaunui Bay, The Catlins

Sometimes the campsite itself is located in such a beautiful setting, you can’t quite believe you’re camping there. The $6pppn DOC campsites along the Te Anau – Milford highway are basic, but offer stunning views of Fiordland’s mountains and/or Lake Te Anau. I think my all-time favourite morning was when we woke up to a crystal-clear sky and a breathtaking vista across Lake Pukaki of the mighty Mount Cook. Incredible.

True Blue: Mount Cook/Aoraki on a clear morning

We’ve camped by beaches and rivers and woken up to views of lakes and mountains. Of course, we’ve camped in some pretty boring places too – public car parks, pub gardens, overcrowded holiday parks – but waking up to the beautiful views definitely outweighs staying in a hostel in the middle of a city. Here’s a few of some of my favourite campsites, set amidst Mother Nature in all her glory:

Rum Curries Free DOC campsite

How to practice ‘freedom’ camping

This one is all about Toitū te whenua (leave the land undisturbed). At some campsites where there are few facilities, you must practice “freedom camping”, whereby you leave no trace of your visit. This means taking all of your rubbish with you and respecting the environment. It’s quite simple really, though it’s surprising how many people ignore the guidelines (and that’s why I’ve included this point in this post.) Dumping huge bin liners of beer bottles at a campsite, or leaving a handful of soiled tissues in the bush – PLEASE don’t do this when you camp in NZ. We’re lucky enough to be exploring this beautiful country, so let’s respect it.

Some simple guidelines for freedom camping are below, for more information visit the DOC website.

Mackay Creek DOC campsite

After four months of living in a car, I’m ready to settle for a while

I cannot put into words how much I have loved travelling around New Zealand in our own vehicle. I love the ease and freedom that comes with living in car; you can literally go wherever you want, when you want to — funds permitting. You can wake up early to catch the sunrise, you can sleep in late after watching the sunset the night before. You can cram your days full of sightseeing, or just kick back and relax for a while. We’ve explored places I never knew existed and we have so many incredible memories from four months camping. But, since our money is running out, our next plan is to sell the car and move to Wellington where we’ll find jobs and work until our visas expire.

To tell you the truth, I’m kinda looking forward to being settled in one place for a while. I like being able to get to know an area and experience it deeper than spending just a day or two visiting the tourist hotspots. While we were working to save money in Auckland, I loved exploring the city and the surrounding area at the weekends.

I’m also beginning to miss the little luxuries of having plug sockets at my disposal and being able to sit up in bed when I’m reading, I’m looking forward to being able to eat healthier and have a shower when I need one. That said, I know I’m going miss camping after a few weeks of being settled!

Arthur’s Pass National Park

Have you ever travelled New Zealand in a car or campervan? Do you prefer camping in a tent or in a vehicle? Please share your camping tips below – I love hearing about others’ experiences!

Thanks for reading and happy travels!


Note: All of the photos used in this post are my own. All information is my own experiences of travelling in NZ from October 2015 to January 2016 in our non self-contained Honda Odyssey 1996.

6 responses to “Camping in New Zealand: Lessons Learnt”

  1. k. says:

    Hi! i am going to nz next month fot my one year advanture. Thanks a lot for your blog, there is so many information! Thank you thank you thank you!

  2. Your posts on New Zealand are so helpful – thank you! Did you ever encounter women car camping solo? I’m planning to WWOOF, Workaway, HelpX, but am really drawn to camping and the freedom of having a car. I would be alone though, and am wondering about safety. Lots of solo women travellers have assured me they felt very safe in NZ, but still, trying to ask around. Thanks 🙂

    • Hey! Yes there were lots of solo females but generally they buddied up with other solo females from what I saw! You’ll most likely meet loads of others who are looking to do the same as you, and it will be easy to travel with someone else if you want to. That said, yes New Zealand is incredibly safe and there is no reason why you shouldn’t go it alone! Enjoy your adventure! 🙂

  3. Nicole DeRocco says:

    Did you find it difficult to get last minute paid camping spots in January? Or were they pretty readily available?

    • Hey Nicole, it depends. The larger DOC sites were always fine, but holiday parks were often busy by the time we arrived… some parks were busier than others. With many sites you can book your spot, so call them in the morning to reserve a space that night if you’re worried. Although some places were busy we were never turned away. Have a fab trip!

  4. blog says:

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I’m a travel-loving sustainability advocate, on a journey to live a low-impact lifestyle alongside seeing the world. I’m obsessed with my two dogs, secondhand shopping, and growing vegetables.