There is a phenomenon here in New Zealand that dominates the tourist industry. Freedom camping is the art of driving around this magnificent country, usually in a campervan, and camping in areas of outstanding natural beauty (or beside smelly long-drop toilets, depending on the site you end up with!).
As part of a year-long expedition, my boyfriend and I decided to hire a camper and explore alone. After many bus journeys of more than 24 hours in South America, we were happy to be in control of our own destiny.
By the time I arrived in New Zealand I had eaten well into my allocated budget. Without wanting to rely on credit cards, I had to figure out a way to conserve my money, and have compiled a list of “off the beaten track” camp spots and budget stretching tips to help enhance your freedom camping experience.
Traveling in winter gave us the best bargaining tool when choosing our hire company. Most hire companies we approached had a reduced rate for off-peak hire (up to a $115/day difference). In the end we set aside nine weeks to explore both the North and South Islands, and managed to bag the campervan with fully covered insurance for less than $2000. This included two drivers and some additional treats thrown in as a bonus!
Be aware that campervans have limited or no insulation and so get cold, particularly at night. Many of the campsites we used did not have power points and so the only way to stay warm is to wrap up in as many layers as possible and cuddle up! Of course, when restrictions do not apply, a great big fire also saves on the cooking LPG and will keep you warm until you turn in for the night.
The fire is also a great social point for other campers you may meet. No one can resist the temptation to hang by the fire with a beer and new friends! But being off-peak also meant that we didn’t meet too many people; often we stayed in isolated campsites or on roadsides in hidden corners of the country. In fact, one DOC campsite that is reservation only in summer we had to ourselves!
Do you really need all those extras?
When choosing your campervan and deciding which one is best for your needs, make sure you ask yourself this simple question: do I need this?
We chose a campervan with a straightforward two-berth design; with a bed that folds up to a table and bench set, complete with under-floor storage and a simple pump sink and gas cooker. As freedom camping gets banned and frowned upon by more and more councils around the country, I would recommend upgrading to a portable or on-board toilet, as it is only legal to camp in many places with a self-contained unit. However, if you plan to stay in campsites every night then you would have no use for this; a simple fold out van should be adequate.
It is not necessary to hire snow chains from your rental company. Often they charge by the day, but if you need them (at ski fields or Milford Sounds) you can get cheap day or multi-day hire deals.
When covering both islands consider a one-way hire and fly back across the Strait. It will save you the cost of the crossing (up to $400 with the van), and a no frills airline, such as JetStar, offers flights between the cities for as little as $59.