New Zealand is one of the most beautiful countries we’ve ever visited. To fully explore NZ, we had decided long before arriving that we would rent a car, buy a tent, and camp all across the country. We researched a lot before heading out, and there’s a ton of stuff we found out along the way. Whether you are a local Kiwi or visiting from abroad, we’ve compiled what we learned from our bests and our blunders to bring you the best guide to camping in New Zealand.
Camping in New Zealand: When and Where to Start
Although some (not all) campgrounds in New Zealand are open year-round, camping season generally runs from October 1st to April 30th. December, January, and February are the warmest and most popular months, making the new year the ideal time to camp. However, it can still get chilly depending on where you are in the country, especially in the mountains. Spending the night in the area of Milford Sound, for example, can be quite chilly, and the South of the South Island is generally prone to rain.
To avoid crowds, pay attention to the types of campsites you select and make note of New Zealand’s holidays. Campsites near lakes and beaches can be very busy on holidays and weekends and a lot of sites are first-come, first-served (only some need to be booked in advance).
To start planning, check out the Department of Conservation website (DOC) or if you are already in New Zealand, visit the nearest DOC Visitor Centre. These offices have a lot of information on hand, including brochures outlining all of the conservation campsites throughout the country and which campsites are currently closed or inaccessible. This is also where you would purchase permits for select campsites that require them.
Helpful Apps for Camping in New Zealand
Camping is such a huge part of the culture in New Zealand that several camping apps have been made and are available to download. These apps were immensely helpful to us, so try out a few and decide which one works for you. We ended up using a couple different apps because some campsites would appear on one but not the other. These apps may also show free Wifi hotspots across the country, showers, bathrooms, etc. Wifi is not available while you’re driving in the middle of nowhere, so we would start off our day by marking the GPS coordinates of where we were going to end, as well as anywhere we planned on stopping on our way. Some of the maps and their features also work offline.
Our favorite part about the apps were the reviews. Keeping in mind that an individual’s experience of a campsite is subjective, the reviews give campers an opportunity to relay helpful information to others. For example, some reviews may advise against using a certain route to access the site, or avoiding another site because the only toilet is out of order. We once read a review that warned us about the prevalence of sandflies at a campsite. We thought it would be fine because we were only planning on staying one night, but we had to leave within five minutes because a plague attacked us as soon as we got out of the car.
While we were camping in New Zealand, we used these two apps:
Download for iOS
Download for Android
WIKICAMPS NEW ZEALAND
Download for iOS
Download for Android
What to Bring
We planned on preparing a checklist of items and gear you would need to go camping, but that list can be long and vary depending on how you like to camp. If that is what you are looking for, the folks over at Kiwi Holiday Parks have a general but comprehensive camping checklist that you can find here. We can highlight and add some items that we found helpful specifically for camping across DOC sites in New Zealand.
- Weatherproofing: Bring a waterproof tent with a rain cover. Make sure the tent bottom is also waterproof. Rain is more of a concern on the South Island, but something to prepare for nonetheless. If you may be camping where the nights are cool, a warm sleeping bag will be very important.
- Sun Protection: The sun in New Zealand is no joke. At peak hours during Summer months, the UV index can exceed 12, making sunscreen a must. Bring a hat to protect your head if you are planning on taking some hikes, and don’t forget sun protection for your lips.
- Bug Repellant: We would suggest bug spray if you can’t stand even the smallest amount of annoyance, but we didn’t find it necessary. We didn’t use any except for the aforementioned sandfly plague, but even then it was no match against the swarm. Check out Goodbye Sandfly’s NZ Map for an overview of high density sandfly spots across the country. Our sandfly experience occurred in the dense red cluster you can see at the North of the South Island, so we can vouch for the map’s accuracy in that instance.
- Gas Camping Stove: There are many camp sites where open fires are prohibited. We had with us a portable burner that worked off of a small, contained wood fire, and even that wasn’t permitted sometimes. Luckily for us, the site office had a gas stove to lend us, so go that route from the beginning and ensure you always have something to cook on.
- Flashlight (Torch): At Basic campsites (more on that later), amenities are minimal. The drop toilet can be a walk down the road with no light to guide your way. Having a flashlight will be very handy for those unavoidable nature calls in the middle of the night.
- A Pen and Change/Cash: DOC sites run on a semi-honour system. If there is no supervision on a paid site, a payment box is located at the entrance, and site patrollers make intermittent rounds to collect and ensure payment. Use your pen to fill out the form and detach the portion to be placed on your car windshield. Once complete, you can put the form and exact change in the provided ziploc bag and drop it in the payment box.
- GPS: Couple a GPS with the use of the apps for camping in New Zealand, and finding your site for the night could not be easier. While on Wifi – or using the offline maps – mark down the GPS coordinates of your chosen site and plug them into your GPS when you are ready to head over.
- Food: Stock up on groceries for your trip and make sure you can always go a couple days without restocking. Though you are never too far from civilization while camping in New Zealand, some sites are more remote than others, or you may plan to stay at one site for a few nights in a row.
- Something Heavy: Every night we found a new campsite, we had to search around for something we could use to setup our tent. We could have saved some time had we packed a hammer or something to secure the tent pegs into the ground. If you forget to pack something, find a rock that works and hold onto it for the rest of your trip.
Site Types, Prices and Amenities
New Zealand is packed with DOC campsites with a range of amenities. There is everything from free sites with nothing more than a drop toilet, to paid options with hot showers and kitchens. We stayed at Basic and Standard sites for the most part. When we just could not go any longer without a nice, hot shower, we spoiled ourselves and dropped serious coin on a $15 NZD pp Serviced site. The money is worth it for the Serviced site when you need it, but the cheaper options are better for a more rustic, nature-oriented and likely less populated camping experience. Here is an overview of DOC site options:
Serviced sites and some Standard and Scenic sites require bookings. You can still do like we did and simply show up hoping that there is space. It just means that there’s no guarantee unless you book it in advance. Basic campsites are always first-come, first-served. Use the apps for camping in New Zealand and the DOC website to find out which sites require bookings as you travel. In any case, find out whether the site has access times. The last thing you want to do is drive for an hour only to find out that the entrance gate closed at 8:00 pm.
Budget camping is the focus of this guide, but we should quickly mention that there is the other, the much more expensive option of staying in New Zealand’s Holiday Parks. For more information on Holiday Parks, visit http://www.holidayparks.co.nz/
Ferry and Car Rental
You’ll need a car if your plan is to embark on a cross-country camping road trip. After the plane tickets, the car rental is the first thing we booked. There are many rental options available, especially if you are starting in Auckland. The company we went with and would recommend is Apex Car Rentals, and there’s a very good reason. With certain conditions, Apex includes the Cook Strait Ferry ticket for your car in the rental price. The Cook Strait Ferries (there are several companies) take you from the North Island to the South Island, and vice-versa. Normally, you’re looking at a price of roughly $286 NZD for a small car, and with other rental companies, you would have to pay that.
Here are the details of the Apex Ferry deal, where you can also find the pricing information for the passenger fares (not included, but about $130 NZD return pp). You’ll need to book the ferry tickets ahead of time through Apex, so make sure you have your anticipated crossing dates on hand. If you don’t plan on crossing the strait, then you may find better deals with other companies that don’t include the ferry ticket.
Camping in New Zealand: Do Not Forget
Now that you’re informed and well equipped to experience an incredible camping road trip across New Zealand, here are a few additional basics to keep in mind:
- Fires: Many DOC campgrounds prohibit fires while others provide designated fire pits. In any case, be sure to follow the DOC’s regulations. If you are unsure, check with the site’s office or on the DOC website when there is no office. Always remember to soak your fire before leaving or going to bed.
- Garbage/Rubbish: Respect the area and don’t leave your trash behind.
- Prohibited Camping: There are spaces where camping is expressly prohibited, or limited to certain types of campers. Don’t pitch your tent on a campsite meant exclusively for campervans.
- Site fees: After only a few nights of camping in New Zealand’s breathtaking outdoors, you’ll appreciate the extent to which the DOC has made the outdoor experience so accessible. Support their efforts and always pay your nightly site fees.