Call it what you want. Free camping by any other name – dispersed camping, wild camping, boondocking – is just as sweet.

And in New Zealand – where it’s known as “freedom camping” – there are over 500 free sites, ranging from parking lots behind shopping centers to waterfront spots, where the sound of waves lapping at the shore will lull you to sleep. 

The budget-friendly way to explore both the North and South Island has exploded in popularity, with an increasing number of tourists traveling by van or motorhome to take advantage of the system. 

But on December 7, 2023, New Zealand’s freedom camping laws changed due to environmental concerns, making it more difficult and expensive to hit the road. In order to be certified as self-contained – a permit that’s required to freedom camp in most areas – vehicles now need to have a plumbed-in or fixed toilet. Portable toilets will no longer be permitted, meaning that for many, freedom camping in a van or rooftop tent likely soon won’t be an option. 

Fortunately, the change is being phased in the next 16 months. If you’re planning on renting or buying a van or motorhome to travel through New Zealand, here’s how the new legislation may affect your travel plans.  

A campervan drives on a New Zealand coastal road with snow-capped mountains in the background
New Zealand’s freedom camping laws have changed due to environmental concerns, making it more difficult and expensive to hit the road © Getty Images

What are the changes to New Zealand’s freedom camping laws?

In order to spend the night at recognized freedom camping sites, you can’t just pull up in any old vehicle. In most regions, freedom camping is only permitted in vehicles that are certified as “self-contained.” 

According to the New Zealand Motor Caravan Association (NZMCA), a self-contained vehicle is able to “meet the ablutionary and sanitary needs of the occupants for a minimum of three days, without requiring any external services or discharging waste.”

It’s a mouthful, but until recently, it was relatively easy to have your vehicle certified as self-contained with the bare minimum: a portable toilet, a large bucket of fresh water and a sealed container for greywater. Certified vehicles were issued a blue warrant or permit and a sticker to display. 

However, as of December 7, 2023, only vehicles with fixed toilets will be certified as self-contained. Portable toilets will no longer be eligible. Higher standards for water and ventilation systems are also now being enforced. Vehicles that pass the test will be issued a green warrant or sticker of self-containment. 

Another change? Those found in violation of freedom camping regulations will now face bigger fines of up to NZ$2400

Family eating breakfast in camper van
The new law is unlikely to affect those traveling by motorhome © Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

What does the change mean for tourists traveling by van or motorhome in New Zealand?

The new law is unlikely to affect those traveling by motorhome, but if you were planning on touring through NZ on the cheap in a campervan, you may no longer be able to freedom camp. 

The change isn’t immediate, though. If you’re traveling to NZ before June 2025, you may not be affected. Here’s what to expect:

If you were planning on renting a van or motorhome to freedom camp

From December 7, 2024, all rental vehicles certified as self-contained will need to have a fixed or plumbed-in toilet and a green warrant. After that date, only vehicles with fixed toilets and green warrants will be eligible to freedom camp, unless otherwise stated by local council bylaws. That means that those traveling by van will likely need to factor the cost of paid campsites and holiday parks into their travel budget. 

However, if you are planning on freedom camping prior to December 7, 2024, you can still rent a vehicle that has a blue warrant and a portable toilet. 

If you were planning on buying a van to freedom camp in New Zealand

From June 7, 2025 onwards, all private vehicles will need to display a green warrant to be certified as self-contained. 

Until then, it’s still possible to purchase a vehicle with a blue warrant and use it to freedom camp. Just make sure it’s already self-contained and that the certification is valid for the length of your stay in NZ. 

Blue warrants are eligible until their expiry date or June 7, 2025; whichever comes first.

A word of warning: Beware fake certification stickers and ask to see paperwork 

Shortly, NZ’s Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment will be launching a registry that will allow you to verify whether a vehicle is self-contained under the new requirements. 

Until then, the NZMCA can help you determine if a vehicle has been certified as self-contained.

Breakfast in a campervan at sunrise in New Zealand
From June 7, 2025 onwards, all private vehicles will need to display a green warrant to be certified as self-contained © Getty Images

Where can you camp for free in New Zealand?

Freedom camping is widespread across Aotearoa (NZ’s Māori language name). And even though the laws have changed, don’t despair; you’ll still be able to freedom camp in some areas, even without a self-contained vehicle. 

While the federal government is behind the new legislation, freedom camping is ultimately managed and monitored by local councils (or municipal governments) and the Department of Conservation (DOC). DOC and local councils will continue to determine how freedom camping is managed in their respective areas, and not all will require vehicles to be self-contained.

However, visitors will find that regional attitudes towards freedom campers vary widely, from welcoming to discouraging.  

Some councils – such as Whangārei District Council – actively encourage responsible freedom camping, going so far as to offer access to clean public toilets, showers and free Wi-Fi, and even allowing those in tents to spend the night. 

Others – such as Queenstown Lakes District Council – have introduced highly restrictive freedom camping bylaws as a response to overtourism. These regions typically make it difficult to decipher where you can legally wild camp, offering only cryptic maps of largely off-limits areas. 

Your best bet for finding freedom campsites and determining each spot’s requirements is to download a free app such as Rankers or CamperMate. Select “Free Campground” in the filters and then search your area. Carefully read the descriptions and comments; many sites are only available on a first-come, first-served basis, with strict limits on the number of nights you can stay. These databases will let you know whether your vehicle needs to be self-contained or if other options such as tents or cars are permitted. 

Woman takes pic beside camper van overlooking lake and mountain in Queenstown, New Zealand while man relaxes
Even though the laws have changed, don’t despair; you’ll still be able to freedom camp in some areas, even without a self-contained vehicle © Getty Images

Why has New Zealand changed its freedom camping laws?

In the last decade, freedom camping in NZ has grown beyond what’s sustainable. Reports of freedom campers leaving behind garbage (including human waste) and negatively impacting the surrounding environments have been widespread. With overtourism a growing concern in the island nation, the new legislation aims to curb the detrimental effects of dispersed camping, with law-makers calling it “a win for the environment.” 

That’s not to say there hasn’t been backlash against the new law, which seems to unfairly target budget travelers and backpackers. However, it doesn’t spell the end of affordable camping in the country, provided it’s done responsibly. In addition to freedom camping, DOC and many local councils continue to operate low-cost campsites for those looking to travel on the cheap. 

Understanding how and where you can freedom camp might seem complex, but your reward – sleeping in some of the country’s most awe-inspiring landscapes – is far greater than just scoring a free spot to spend the night.

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