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If the law changes: Managing self-containment

Bette Cosgrove

From a small van to a large bus, there are thousands of commercially or home-built vehicles on our roads, providing travellers with all the necessary comforts of living. 

The goal is to be able to freedom camp in beautiful spots, to enjoy the outdoors, and stay for a while without needing to rely on an external water supply, waste disposal or cooking facilities. It requires creative thinking to fit in a basic kitchen, fresh water supply, as well as power, space for a toilet, grey and black water storage, sometimes a small fridge and, of course, a comfortable place to sleep. 

All of these facilities make the vehicle fit for the purpose of camping while travelling, and with them, a camper is self-contained. The number of days self-contained depends on the size of water and waste storage. 

Self-containment is a basic standard for any campervan builder, and this can be achieved either to suit the user, or to meet a set of standard criteria; or both. Currently what it means to be ‘self-contained’ is not defined in NZ law. 

Under the current law, you can camp in any vehicle or temporary structure in any area which is not prohibited or restricted, including a tent, caravan, motor home, or any form of vehicle with sleeping facilities. 

That is because responsible freedom camping does not rely on specific facilities you carry onboard. It is camper behaviour which makes you responsible, not the equipment you have in your vehicle. 


Changes to the law 

Thanks to inconsistent and sometimes confusing bylaws, the (2022) Minister, of Tourism Stuart Nash, decided to bring in a national self-containment standard.


The Bill, presented to parliament in 2022, among other changes, would include a definition of a self-contained vehicle in national law. Vehicles would need to comply with a new set of technical regulations written by MBIE (Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment) in order to receive certificatation.


(Ex-) Minister Nash’s obsession with the fixedness of toilets has been included in the proposed new law. He insists that portable chemical toilets should no longer be allowed to meet the needs of freedom campers.


With a change of Minister, and the new law still being at the Select Committee stage (Feb 2023), we are in a time of uncertainty. Freedom camping approaches A ‘non self contained’ camper might use a roof-top tent on top of a car, a tiny teardrop camper, or be travelling by motorbike or bicycle, which will not have the space to accommodate a sink with water, grey water storage, and a chemical toilet. They can still be responsible and leave no trace in any freedom camping area.


Self contained freedom camping, means in a vehicle which is designed and built for the purpose of camping, and has the capability of meeting the water and waste needs of the occupants for a minimum of three days without requiring any external services or discharging any waste.


It may be set up creatively, to suit the user and be fit for purpose. Certified self containment (CSC) requires an inspection of the self-containment facilities inside the vehicle. The inspector certifies that it specifically meets New Zealand Standard 5465, and issues a self containment certificate and sticker to prove it is self contained to the standard. The certificate says how many people are covered: the more people the more water and waste is required. To comply you need: a toilet; adequate fresh water storage; adequate waste water storage, which is vented and protected from overflow; a sink fitted with a smell trap; and a sealable rubbish bin. 


This NZ Standard is currently unmonitored by a government department, and is, in legal terms, a voluntary standard. Of the 69 local authorities across New Zealand, only 38 have adopted the NZ Standard as their definition of self containment in their enforceable bylaws. Only in these areas must you be able to prove certification or risk a fine. 


MBIE estimates (they do not know, so are guessing) there are at least 68,000 certified self contained vehicles, and at least 15% of these may be using portable toilets with a further 55,000 vehicles readily converted into campers, or used for camping, most of which are likely to be using a porta-potty (portable toilet). 


For those who can’t meet the revised standard... 

The new Bill will render thousands of campers legally “not self contained,” even though they are still able to meet the water and waste needs of the occupants for a minimum of three days. 


The new Bill suggests local authorities can, if they choose, provide access to NZ’s public lands specifically for these travellers. There are only a small number of councils who currently allocate ‘non self contained’ overnight camping, usually in carparks alongside public toilets.


Designating new spots would require a massive effort including site analysis, consultation and rewriting of any bylaws, costing both time and money. Even the Department of Conservation, tasked with giving NZers access to public conservation land, requires certification at many of their sites. 


Is there room? 

Modification to meet the “fixed toilet” standard will be impossible for smaller vehicles. While a portable toilet may be able to be stored under beds, or inside cupboards, then taken out an used whenever needed (as per the current Standard), a fixed toilet takes up space more intrusively. 


Can you afford it? 

The extra cost to fit a fixed toilet and associated plumbing may be prohibitive for most van builders. 

Compared to a perfectly adequate porta-potty costing up to $150 (easily cleaned and emptied at a dump station) MBIE research suggests that modification costs are 

$1200 to $5000 at the low end and 

$5000 to $30,000 at the high end. 


Effectively, the new Bill reduces the opportunity for thousands of NZers to freedom camp, either because of the size or style of their camping vehicle, or becasuse they are less affluent. 


Where to from here for the DIY campervan builder 

Anyone currently inspired to attempt a DIY campervan build is faced with challenging design decisions about the possible installation of a permanent toilet fixture, as there is uncertainty about potential changes to the law and the definition of what might comply in future. 


OPTION 1 

Setting up the vehicle for a current CSC which meets the NZ Standard now, will give 2 years of use after any law changes: you would still be able to use your vehicle for freedom camping at CSC-restricted sites until 2025 (when the proposed changes come into force). This gives time to consider options for a retro-fit or change to potentially new products which may meet the toilet standards in future. 


OPTION 2 

Hold off on toilet facility decisions until the new regulations become clear. The Select Committee is due to report on this bill March 2023. It still has to go through Parliament after that. 


OPTION 3 

If space and budget allows, look at fitting a cassette-style toilet with a permanently fixed base, which is likely to comply. Fingers crossed. Remember there is no suggestion of a separate cubicle/room for the toilet; nor a need for a shower. 


Camping responsibly 2023-style

Whatever happens with the law, or not, it is important you are ‘self-contained’ and can leave no trace, for your own comfort, health and safety.


If you want to stay on local authority land restricted by bylaws, certifying your set-up gives that extra freedom and is a future-proofing move.  There are several authorised inspection services available to certify prior to any law changes later in 2023.


Check the business listings in this magazine or online (North Island | South Island) , and shop around for someone who seems helpful, sensible and well-informed on the correct, current requirements. 


See also

What’s in a name?

Feeedom camping bylaws

Waiting on a law change


It is camper behaviour which makes you responsible, not the equipment you have in your vehicle

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