Best places to go camping in New Zealand

Forget mini bars and pillow menus – some of New Zealand’s best stays are found under the stars and now is the best time to find out.

Camping tents on top of a cliff.
  • Naomi Arnold
  • September 2018

Whether you’ve got a week or six months, camping is the best way to explore New Zealand. It can be astoundingly cheap – just a few dollars a night – and lots of fun as you explore the idiosyncrasies of small-town life.

Choose your camp

New Zealand’s love of the outdoors lifestyle means there is a site to suit any camper. And spring is the perfect time to go camping – it’s warming up, but still outside of the main summer holiday period of mid-December to mid-January, when it seems the whole country shuts down and heads for the beach.

If you’re after camping amenities that are guaranteed to be decent – cabins, shower and toilet blocks, kids’ entertainment, pools, kitchens, a TV lounge, laundry – try choosing one of the Top 10 Holiday Parks’ opens in new window sites.

 

A picture of Maitai bay with a bluish sky, New Zealand.
Maitai Bay on the Karikari Peninsula has a DOC holiday park.

They’re consistently clean, great value and ideal for kids. Take your pick of 46 parks, each split into three levels of luxury: Premium, Superior and Classic. If you’re not averse to roughing it a little more, the Department of Conservation opens in new window (DOC) manages more than 200 sites across the country, usually in very scenic places, for as little as $8 a night – some are even free.

It’s wise to book DOC campsites ahead of time to avoid disappointment. Phone the local DOC office, or check the website opens in new window for availability and bookings before you venture forth.

If you’re considering freedom camping, it’s worth treading carefully. Freedom campers have become a problem in some parts of New Zealand due to visitor abuse, and are barely tolerated at a few popular sites.

If you don’t have a toilet, wastewater and rubbish facilities aboard, you’ll need to check each region’s local council website to see if there are any dedicated spots to park up free, otherwise you might be moved on.

There are also 80 i-Site Visitor Centres opens in new window across New Zealand where you can make bookings and enquiries. When you do camp for free, don’t repeat the sins of past campers by washing clothes in rivers, leaving toilet waste and rubbish, destroying native bush, and lighting fires where they shouldn’t be lit.

Useful apps to consult when you arrive in a new region include WikiCamps, CamperMate, Rankers Camping NZ, and Freedom Camping NZ, which feature reviews and note local attractions and amenities, such as supermarkets and quality free Wi-Fi. They also let you filter through different campsites according to your preferences.

A picture of a Cove rock formations at Coromandel Peninsula.
Cathedral Cove rock formations at Coromandel Peninsula.

Roads less travelled

You don’t need to head far in any direction in the Land of the Long White Cloud to stumble upon a stunning campsite. If you’re flying into Auckland, go north first.

With beautiful beaches and some of the warmest temperatures in the country, the Northland region is dotted with prime coastal camping spots.

Try DOC’s Otamure Bay (Whananaki) Campsite, $13 per adult per night. It has a rural feel with large, shady pōhutukawa trees – New Zealand’s native Christmas tree – and beachfront access to bright blue water.

Other top Northland DOC picks are Maitai Bay and Rarawa Beach campsites near Kaitaia for beautiful white sands, and Kapowairua (Spirits Bay) at the very tip of the North Island, with its wide, white sweep of sand and famous surf break. There is also freedom camping in the area, along the Te Paki Coastal Track.

Heading south, the Coromandel Peninsula has excellent camping. Try one of the DOC campsites in the Kauaeranga Valley, which has several amazing river swimming spots. Hahei Holiday Resort is right on a pink-and white-sand beach, with the famous Cathedral Cove rock formations a short walk away.

You don’t need to drive far to get to Hot Water Beach, where thermal water bubbles through the sand for two hours either side of low tide. You can even hire a spade and dig your own spa.

Out on the far west of New Zealand’s North Island, New Plymouth is a groovy little city with excellent surfing, coffee, scenery, and food. Try Fitzroy Beach Holiday Park opens in new window, on the beach and next to the city, too.

A picture of a peaceful lake in the morning.
Marlborough Sounds has two holiday parks that allow you to capture the scenery and beautiful walks.

Southern charms

If you’re driving from the North to South Islands, you’ll probably take the ferry over Cook Strait from Wellington, but don’t hurry off as soon as you get to Picton. Take a few days to enjoy the Marlborough Sounds, which have the drowsy feel of a permanent holiday destination.

Elaine Bay (DOC) has friendly stingrays and beautiful sunrises, and fellow DOC campsite Marfells Beach, near where 2016 Dreamworks film The Light Between Oceans was shot, has more incredible scenery and walks.

From Picton, you can turn west and drive to the arty, sunny, secluded city of Nelson, where you’ll find the Maitai Valley Motor Camp with spacious sites under mature trees.

The Maitai River is great for swimming, and there are plentiful walking tracks in the area. From Nelson, you can then drive to the West Coast (more on that later) or through the Lewis Pass to Christchurch; break up the trip with a stop at Hanmer Springs Top 10 Holiday Park. It’s highly rated and a great spot to park up for a few days and enjoy the springs, walking and cycling in the area.

A picture of Kaikoura whale's tail on a sea.
Kaikoura is renowned for its whales and where you can eat freshly landed seafood.

If you head south from Picton, stop in at Kaikoura, where you can go whale-watching and eat freshly landed seafood. The 7.8-magnitude earthquake of 2016 destroyed State Highway 1 from Blenheim to Kaikoura, leaving the coastal town virtually inaccessible for an entire summer season.

It’s fixed now, and there’s permitted freedom camping at Meatworks Beachfront, a popular surf stop about 15km from the town.

Jackson’s Retreat Alpine Holiday Park opens in new window, near Arthur’s Pass on the you can go whale-watching and eat freshly landed seafood drive from Christchurch to the West Coast has glow-worms nearby as well as fishing, skiing and tramping, all set in a stunning alpine valley.

Stop off on your way from Christchurch to the West Coast, the latter of which is a really rewarding area to explore by camper. The wild seas and windswept, driftwood-strewn beaches of New Zealand’s western flanks make for dramatic sunsets and bracing evening strolls.

Go north of Westport on the West Coast and explore the less-travelled areas of Karamea, Granity, Oparara, and Mokihinui, which has two beautiful campgrounds on opposite sides of the Mokihinui River.

But don’t forget the insect repellent! Biting sandflies are particularly eager on the West Coast; Māori legend tells that the god Tu-te-raki-whanoa had just finished carving the rough landscape of Fiordland when the underworld goddess Hine-nui-te-pō feared visitors would find it so beautiful that they would never leave. So she released sandflies to get them moving again.

In South Canterbury, Fairlie Holiday Park opens in new window is set among mature trees and features plenty of space. Fairlie is a cute town – don’t miss the Fairlie Bakehouse for a truly spectacular savoury pie, or the famous local custard squares.

A picture of Lupin flowers beside a the Lake Tekapo, New Zealand.
Lake Tekapo is a beautiful part of New Zealand to explore.

Another great option in the region is Lake Tekapo Motels and Holiday Park, a pristine setting on the edge of an icy-blue lake. It’s right next to Tekapo Springs and Earth & Sky, which offers observatory and stargazing tours of some of New Zealand’s darkest skies.

In the deep south, Curio Bay Camping Ground is a beachfront spot where you can roll out of bed and go for a swim with rare Hector’s dolphins, if you’re lucky. Wanaka has a plethora of beautiful lakeside camping options with some of the most stunning scenery you’ll ever encounter from a tent, and Te Anau Holiday Park opens in new window is a family favourite with hot spas overlooking steep mountain ranges.

As a five-star, Premium Top 10 Holiday Park, it’s one of the fancier holiday parks you’ll encounter in New Zealand. That’s the best thing about camping – there’s always somewhere new to make your home for the night.