There are many different ways to travel and my preference is budget travel. My partner, Val, and I decided that for our year-long trip in New Zealand through the Working Holiday scheme we would get the best bang for our buck (read: experience the most places on the tightest budget) by camping. We both did quite a bit of research prior to leaving Hawai’i for our trip. Val focused more on the “how” we would camp and I focused more on doing the research for “where”.
Choosing a Camping Style
There are a few different ways to camp and a few of the most common as you work your way through New Zealand are tent camping, vehicle camping, and sleeping in a self-contained vehicle or camper. One thing we had decided prior to leaving was that we were going to purchase a car because it would serve as our accommodation and mode of transportation giving us the freedom to explore at our whim.
Basic Tips for Camping
There are pros and cons to each situation but some key things to keep in mind: most campsites will not have showers or a place to charge your electronics; WiFi is a very rare thing to find in a campsite and free WiFi in a campsite is not a thing; have cash on hand as that is how you will pay your campsite fees- IOUs and credit cards/eftpos not accepted; you will need to have your own means of transporting and preparing your food; many campsites are remote so download your maps ahead of time; due to the remote nature of campsites you will want to make sure that you have adequate petrol for getting where you want to go.
Tent Camping: Pros and Cons
Tent camping is an amazing way to get close to the earth and the elements. There are two pieces of cloth (typically your tent and sleeping bag) separating you from the land underneath you and the stars up above you. It’s a magical way to ground yourself, travel cheaply and live in a rustic way getting back to nature. The summers are wonderful for tent camping, the weather is moderate and beautiful. You’ll want to consider sandflies if you are on the West Coast. You can travel in a more compact vehicle if you are not planning on sleeping in it consistently.
You are so close to the elements and subject to the whims of Mother Nature: wind, rain, shine, and cold. You will need to plan the time of year to be camping or plan ahead to bring the right gear for when you will be tent camping because there is nothing truly protecting you from the elements. Unfortunately, we were in a campsite when a storm blew in suddenly and a few campers had not accounted for the areas that would flood during a big rain… and had set up camp smack dab in those areas to flood.
Vehicle Camping: Pros and Cons
You are sheltered from the elements when you are vehicle camping which is definitely a plus not to have to constantly think about what the weather will be doing. It’s typically the same price to tent camp and vehicle camp.
It’s typically cheaper to repair something when it goes wrong with your tent than repairing a vehicle.
Self-Contained Camping: Pros and Cons
Usually, you have a kitchen set up and rental companies will provide a chilly bin/cooler to store chilled food and beverages. Extra space for sleeping and relaxing. Storage space for belongings.
It’s my understanding that these need regular charging and you also have to figure out your waste disposal as it’s not permitted to dump your waste (both general and toilet waste) at campsites. Additionally, I personally find with luxury and amenities it’s easier to relax in the van than get out and explore the beauty you are here to explore.
How to Find a Vehicle for Purchase
There are several ways to find a vehicle that’s right for what you are looking for. We started by looking online but what we found was that it’s difficult to shop for such an important element of your trip without seeing the vehicles in person and due to the vehicle camping friendly nature of New Zealand there’s a high turnover rate for cars and campervans. Craigslist is not a widely used outlet here in New Zealand but Facebook Marketplace and TradeMe are both popular and feasible options for finding a vehicle. Most hostels will have a book with vehicles for sale in the area which is exactly where we found our vehicle, Lucille. We opted for a vehicle that is not self-contained but the previous owner had souped it up. He had built a bed into the back that fit over the folded down rear seats, outfitted with removable curtains and effectively had a kitchen set up because the purchase also included a camper top filled with kitchen utensils and amenities. If we had the opportunity to make the choice all over again I would still opt for a vehicle that is not self-contained simply due to the lower price compared to self-contained vehicles and benefits and luxuries you can still enjoy without being self-contained (plus you don’t need charging stations!). I find that it has also allowed us to connect with our surroundings and enjoy nature more with just having enough space to sleep and hang out reading when it’s raining.
What About Self-Contained Vehicles?
We had read a lot about self-contained vehicles in our research and so that style of travel was something we were considering. Self-contained vehicles are a popular way to travel around New Zealand as “freedom camping” is a thing here. Freedom camping means you can vehicle camp wherever you want for the most part. Because you are self-contained, have the certification indicated by a blue sticker/decal that you receive upon certifying your vehicle and are traveling with a toilet that you can use you have the option to pretty much park up anywhere for the night on your journey. I did say “for the most part” and that is because there are certain areas that restrict freedom camping and these will be signified with No Freedom Camping signs. There are designated freedom camping areas which can include a pull-off from the road, parking lots, etc. and generally do not have toilets supplied. Self-contained vehicles are defined by having access to a toilet in your vehicle as well as a way to store fresh water and greywater.
To Rent or Buy a Vehicle?
Typically rental campers also have a kitchen set up included as well which is an attractive feature. The idea of having a full home on wheels was so intriguing to us until we started looking into prices. Renting a vehicle for a year would have way over-spent our budget let alone renting a campervan so we opted to purchase our vehicle. Additionally, we knew that from our experience living in Hawai’i that some of the most magical places to see are off the beaten path which generally also means it is prohibited in your rental agreement to go “off-road” or down unsealed (gravel/dirt) roads. Due to the nature of our plans and length of visa, we decided the best thing to do would be to purchase a vehicle so we weren’t restricted by rental agreements.
Did I tell you we got lucky enough (or were jetlagged and sleep-deprived enough) to buy Lucille not 5 hours after arriving in Auckland? Because of the timing of buying our car, we didn’t look any further into campervan rentals but I have, however, had some friends visit for a few weeks who did rent campervans for their travels and they were happy with what they got for what they paid: Hugo’s and Escape. I would say the benefit of using a rental company for a few weeks’ time is having someone else cover any mechanical issues, you coordinate insurance with the company you rent from, and the vehicles are typically fully loaded for everything you would want for an awesome camping experience.
CamperMate and Rankers are both apps that you can download to use in order to find campsites. It’s important to note that camping in New Zealand you should expect to pay per person. At home, campsites are typically paid for by site and not per person so this was a bit of a shock to us and our wallets! Most of the campsites featured on these sites are pay-to-camp and on our first night in Rotorua staying at a Holiday Park, we figured that $20/per person per night ($40/night for the two of us) would not be sustainable. We heard from a campsite neighbor that in order to camp for free we should be looking for DOC, or Department of Conservation, campsites.
What are DOC Campsites?
DOC stands for the Department of Conservation which is a government organization responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of 200+ campsites in their care. There is a range of price ranges and amenities offered with DOC campsites from Basic to Scenic and on the DOC website you can search by location, type of access, facilities, and landscape of the site. You can sort by if the sites allow dogs, are bookable, or our favorite box to check- free! These sites are great options for budget travelers in a vehicle that is not self-contained such as the one we have been traveling in, Lucille. All of the Standard and Scenic sites that we stayed at were unattended meaning that there was an honesty box at the entrance to register your car and pay your fees. There are several reasons to be honest at the honesty box when you are checking into your campsite and to register accordingly. We have watched cars that snuck into the campground without registering be asked to leave by roaming DOC employees who are responsible for checking the license plate registered against the vehicles present at the site. We have also seen campers get woken up because they didn’t submit the proper amount of money based on the people using the site. Additionally, these fees are to help maintain the sites and that includes the bathrooms. Do you want soap and toilet paper available when you use the toilet? We call it Camper Karma… pay your fees!
Basic Campsites- FREE!
We spent a lot of time at basic campsites because after all, we are trying to maximize our fixed income of $0 each for the camping portion of our trip. The Basic sites will have a toilet available making it the perfect option for the non-self-contained campers! We love the basic campsites aside from that because they are most often just as gorgeous as the “Scenic” sites!
Standard Campsites- $8 per adult
You may have guessed that the sites classified as Standard are right in between the basic sites and those with wonderful views and amenities. They may have basic versions or toilets/showers/kitchen shelters and depending on the location they may not have any of these things so it’s best to consult the DOC website linked above to get the full scope of what’s offered. My favorite campsite is a standard site, Purakaunui Bay in the Catlins.
Scenic Campsites- $13 per adult
In some majorly trafficked areas such as Queenstown and Milford Road, the scenic campsites are the only option for DOC sites although they are all beautiful and breathtaking. To be fair, these are typically the cheapest options of all of the accommodations so if you’re planning to put these places on your list definitely plan to spend a little because there is no freedom camping in these areas. These sites typically have more amenities such as kitchen shelters, indoor toilets (versus a port-a-loo), and water spigots for dishes.
Perks of CamperMate and Rankers?
They’re both free! Yay! We used CamperMate more than Rankers simply due to interface and ease of use. The perks we found of using CamperMate and Rankers is that it offers a variety of campsite styles. In Rotorua, we paid $19 for the two of us to stay on a private driveway that conveniently had running water, a bathroom available for use and WiFi access. In Hokitika, CamperMate pops up the option to stay in the carpark at The Woodstock Hotel which is a cool pub with good food, great beer, and access to flush toilets throughout the night and a spot to wash your dishes. The downside of these apps is that free sites like the DOC sites I mentioned don’t show up, which makes it difficult to find free sites if you’re relying on these apps and on a budget.
Deciding Where to Camp
For us, choosing a campsite depends on the cost and location. How close is it to where we want to explore in the days leading up to or the days after staying at the campsite and if there was a basic campsite available that’s the one we’re going with. Even at $13/per adult at scenic campsites that’s $26/night for us and that can add up pretty quickly. One place we enjoyed camping that is worth the $20/per person because it’s fully loaded with HOT showers and an entire kitchen building with outlets for charging stations is Gunn’s Camp off Milford Road. The owners are amazing and helped us out big time by organizing a tow for us when our car broke down just outside of the camp AND making sure we made it to our kayak trip booked the next day at Milford Sound (one of the things we made up our minds to splurge on for this trip).
Top tip: The gift and curse of camping is that it doesn’t always foster a group environment with fellow travelers. Talk to your fellow campers at your campsite! We’ve only gotten great recommendations, met some awesome people, and know about hidden gems you should check out because they’re probably doing the same thing!
Thanks for checking this out, for more information not covered here have a look at our YouTube channel, Mal and Val.
Have a question that wasn’t covered? Comment below and I’ll get back to you!