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What’s in a name? Is freedom camping actually free?

Bette Cosgrove

A freeloader effect, the ‘something for nothing’ opinion, can have a negative impact on those who like to find a quiet, beautiful natural out of the way place to stay overnight on land managed by Department of Conservation or local authorities. 

Is freedom camping the right term? 

Called ‘responsible camping’ by government agencies and tourism organisations, wild camping, outbacking, nature camping or boondocking, in other countries, responsible camping or freedom camping is a popular, low-cost accommodation option for domestic and international visitors. 

Of course freedom camping is not free from cost and definitely not free from responsibility. 

Why freedom camp? 

Social media groups offer these reasons: 

  • freedom to travel to lesser known areas without the pressure to plan ahead too much; 

  • not having to fit into a specific parking site,

  • or book for particular dates; 

  • get away from people, modern conveniences,

  • and, in particular, away from light pollution; 

  • enjoying natural surroundings: such as
the ocean, bush, river or lake views.

  •  well-being: getting away from everyday life, enjoying a sense of ‘free spirit’; taking a ‘green prescription’. 

Research commissioned by the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE) in 2019/20 summer, amplified a Department of Internal Affairs study in 2016, ‘Managing Freedom Camping’. 

They found: 

  • Camping is an important and growing kiwi tradition. It is an alternative to commercial campgrounds or a substitute in places without any. 

  • Saving money is not the primary reason for freedom camping:

  • -- 1st travel freedom;

  • -- 2nd comfort;

  • -- 3rd low cost. 

  • The responsible camping system is under pressure due to strong growth in demand, from international visitors (pre-covid in particular) and domestic tourists. 

  • Negative perceptions. The 2016 research noted the growth in negative perceptions, amplified by the media, that campers are responsible for litter, waste and bad behaviour, rousing a public concern that drives greater local restrictions. Freedom campers can be seen as costly visitors, requiring public facilities like parking, rubbish collection, public toilets. Ratepayers see themselves as subsidising them. 

Who is freedom camping? 

Estimates suggested about 245,000 people responsible camped in New Zealand in 2019, before covid. 

Around 63% (154,000) were international visitors, 37% (91,000) were NZers. 


The average age of domestic campers was 63 years of age. 

The average age of international campers was 

  • 26 yrs (purchased their own vehicle), 

  • 32 years (hired a budget vehicle),

  • 41 years (hired a premium vehicle). 

Where did they camp? 


  • designated responsible camping sites 34% of nights; 

  • commercial camps 15%; 

  • NZMCA parks 24%; 

International visitors: 

  • 17–34% at commercial camps. 

How many nights? 

2.67 million responsible camping nights; an average of 11 nights per person. 

Spending by freedom campers 

Campervan travellers report higher than average spending on activities/admission fees and transport costs. International visitors purchasing vehicles generally stayed longer and spent more than those hiring. 


Research has proven that most International freedom campers are here longer, engage more with communities, add value if on a work and holiday visa, and actually spend more per person when visiting our country, than most short-term tourists who choose luxury high-value tourism options.

See also 

If the law changes 

Freedom camping bylaws 

Waiting on a law change

Freedom camping is NEITHER free from cost NOR free from responsibility

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