The Best Way to Camp in New Zealand

New Zealand’s greatest gift is by far the Department of Conservation (DOC). It’s vision “is for New Zealand to be the greatest living space on Earth” and wow do they manage it. We have twice travelled the length and breath of both the North and South Islands and 90% of our camping has taken place at a DOC campsite.

If you weren’t already aware, New Zealand has very strict laws on Freedom Camping. It is now illegal to park up somewhere and sleep for the night unless you have a self contained (read: toilet) vehicle. If you decide to and get caught you’re facing a $250 fine. To accompany this campsites up’d their prices a wee bit but the DOC sites kept on providing great spaces at great prices.

What is a DOC site?

The DOC manages over 200 campsites across New Zealand, each one situated in, you guessed it, an area of Conservation. These areas usually have a stunningly simple backdrop – either in the middle of a forest or right on the beach.
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What do they have in them?

A DOC site is usually a very simple affair. They will always feature at least a tap and a drop toilet. Seriously, we’re talking the simple life here. We’ve found a few with flush toilets (so amazing) and even some that had a shower (although the ‘shower’ was a hose sticking out of the wall). We have found the occasional BBQ area and the odd fire pit.
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Where are they?

Usually a bit off the beaten track outside whatever town you are in you will find one or two. They really aren’t that hard to miss but if you need a hand, here is their interactive map:

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Any other great app is Rankers camping New Zealand free app. This lists every site from camping only in self contained vehicle, picnic spots and all out tent camping luxury. We relied on this heavily when first exploring the country.

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How much do they cost?

A night in a DOC site varies from site to site. The majority we have stayed in have been $6 a person however expect to pay a bit more at sites closer to larger cities or ones with more features. The most we have paid was $10 per person at the 12 mile campground near Queenstown. We lived here for about a week while looking for accommodation in Queenstown. There were no showers here at all and 2 drop toilets for about 100 or so people. Amazingly though it all worked well and Lake Wakatipu was just warm enough for a morning dip.
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What should you take with you?

If you aren’t already in a camper van then you will need at least a car around. We found we had more freedom travelling with a car and a tent than a camper van. As such we also had a cooler, a stove, bedding and our usual backpack and toiletries.
Cash! DOC sites work on honesty and have an ‘honesty box’ to deposit your fee for the night. A ranger usually comes round early in the morning to collect the funds and check everyone is paid up. Please don’t be that group that ruins it!

DOC site do’s and dont’s

DOC is very keen on the ‘no trace’ camping. From their website they list these ten points:

  1. Choose your campsite carefully; set up your camp on firm, high or sandy ground. Only camp in designated areas. Please do not camp where camping is not permitted.
  2. Be tidy and always leave campsites clean. Take your rubbish with you if bins are not provided. Food scraps attract vermin.
  3. Use a cooker, fireplace or BBQ. Light fires only where permitted, collect dead wood and keep the fire small. Soak the fire with water before you go.
  4. Detergents, soap and toothpaste can harm aquatic and marine life. Use biodegradable products and wash in a container well away from the water.
  5. Always use toilets provided. There are toilets at all DOC campsites. When camping elsewhere follow the environmental care guidance provided at www.camping.org.nz (external site)
  6. Motorhome or campervan users – please always dispose of waste at official dumpstations. If you don’t have a toilet onboard, please camp where there are toilet facilities. Do not dispose of waste in public places.
  7. Campgrounds are social places but everyone needs some rest and relaxation. Please respect the rights of others for quiet enjoyment of the outdoors.
  8. Pay your fees to help keep campsites available in the future.
  9. Always thoroughly clean your equipment before and after trips to minimise spreading weeds and diseases.
  10. Protect native plants and animals.

DOC sites really are the best thing New Zealand has to offer and your roadtrip definitely has to feature at least one. If you can manage a few weeks of just an organic bar of soap and lake showers then you’re stronger backpacker than me!