NZ Road Trip - CAR vs. CAMPER VAN
It’s happening!! You’ve booked your flights to New Zealand and you’ve pinned all the beautiful locations you want to see and the hikes you want to do. The only thing left is choosing the mode of transport that will get you to all these amazing places. But the more research you do and the more you think about it, the more conflicted you actually become. You simply cannot decide if it’s worth spending the extra money on a self contained campervan or if a car would get you by just fine? Which is the better option?
The thing is, there is no BEST choice when it comes to transport. Everyone has different ideas of how they want to travel the country and so the right choice (car vs campervan) will be a reflection of your travel style. Having grown up in the beautiful South Island, even I have to admit that they have become much stricter over the years, especially with freedom camping. In this article, I will be answering some of the most common questions I come across, as well as extra tips and advice regarding camping and driving in NZ. At the end, you’ll find a summary of all the pros and cons between cars vs campers.
1. Self Contained (Campervans) vs. Non Self Contained (Cars)
2. Freedom Camping Sites vs. Paid Camp Sites vs. Holiday Parks
3. How Strict is NZ with their Parking/Camping fines?
4. Extra Tips: How to get around the Restrictions on a Budget?
5. Extra Advice for Driving NZ Roads
6. Summary: Pros and Cons
1. Self Contained (Campervan) vs. Non Self Contained (Cars)
In New Zealand, you will see many Campervans or Motorhomes with a “Self Contained” sticker. Consequently, you will also come across many ‘free’ camping sites, with the restriction being that your vehicle is ‘Self Contained’ - if you ignore this, then you might wake up the next morning to find a massive fine under the windscreen wipers of your car.
What is ‘Self Contained’ and what’s the big deal?
A Self-Contained vehicle basically just means that there is a toilet and waste collection system in place, which makes it less likely for the campers to leave toilet paper strewn across public spaces or leave their rubbish in a pile, hoping someone will clean up after them - seriously it would surprise you how often this appalling behaviour happens. Due to the ever increasing influx of overseas visitors in NZ, they have had to implement some serious restrictions in order to keep these grounds as clean for everyone as possible. They often also have a cooking set up, a comfy mattress, and lots of room for your belongings. It’s basically a home in a car. Some are very spacious and beautifully renovated, while others have just the basics - you get what you pay for :)
However, you cannot simply self-claim your vehicle to be ‘Self-Contained’. It must be officially approved and bear the sticker on your vehicle for it to legally camp on these Freedom Camping sites. They have very strict requirements and so not all Campervans are self-contained. Therefore, when you are buying or renting, make sure to double check this and not just ‘assume’ - as that could be a costly mistake. Consequently, most cars and SUVs are obviously NOT Self-Contained either.
If you’re interested in how to make your vehicle meet the ‘Self-Contained’ requirements, then check out this super informative article: Self-Contained Guidelines by Backpacker Guide NZ
Where can Non-Self-Contained Vehicles camp then?
For free? - Almost nowhere. The only places where you can sleep in your car (or pitch a tent) and rest assured that you will not wake up with a fine, are the following: Paid DOC Campsites, Paid Holiday Parks, Permission from Land Owners to Camp on their property… and occasionally the odd freedom camping sites that also allow non-self-contained vehicles.
2. Freedom Camping Sites vs. Paid Camp Sites vs. Holiday Parks & Hostels
If you haven’t already, DOWNLOAD this APP:
CAMPERMATE (It’s a life saver I tell ya)
Once you’ve downloaded it, you can now view ALL the campsites across NZ, as well as your next petrol station, toilets and showers, wifi, charging stations, activities and so much more!
The GREEN symbolise FREE campsites, but often with the restriction of being Self Contained. There are many GREEN sites around, but sometimes you have to drive a little out of the way to get there.
The BLUE symbolise PAID campsite (often run by DOC) and they are often not very expensive (between $5-20 per person). They range from very basic water and toilet facilities, to the more expensive sites which also have showers and a little hut to cook and chill out in. This is the reason for the price discrepancies.
The PURPLE symbolise the more EXPENSIVE PAID camp grounds - often run by independent owners like the TOP 10 Holiday Parks. You often have the option of staying in individual huts as well and/or hostel like dorms. They have charging stations for the big campers, a nice big kitchen to cook in, and most importantly hot showers. In my humble opinion, it’s not quite worth paying just to pitch up a tent or sleep in your car/camper, which you can do anywhere. But if you’ve been on the road a while and really feel like treating yourself to some comfort, then this could be a good option. Prices are generally upwards of $30 NZD per night.
** DOC CAMPSITE PASSES: Apparently, you can also get concession passes for DOC campsites, but only if you are renting (ie. not for privately owned campers). You can find more info here: DOC Site Passes
3. How strict is NZ with their parking/camping fines?
In short, they are becoming more and more strict in penalising those who try to bypass the restrictions. Even for myself, as a local, I was ALMOST issued an Overnight Parking Fine in Wanaka, but luckily managed to talk myself out of the situation just as he was writing out the ticket - at 5am! Usually if they have already issued the ticket, then you can lose your sanity in disputing your case with the council.
What are the chances you would get caught?
This depends on the region you are in and how strict their council is towards campers: certain regions like Wanaka and Queenstown are very heavily patrolled, whilst more remote places will only periodically be patrolled.
It also depends on the time of year: October/November to March/April are the peak months and you will have to be especially careful and smart about where you camp. In winter, they are a lot more chilled out - unless you’re in Wanaka.
The last depends on your specific location: how touristic is the location you are in? If you’re camping on a beach up in the Coromandel that says ‘NO CAMPING’, and decide to sleep in past sunrise… then obviously you’re going to get fined! If you park your non-self contained car on a self-contained only site, you are also asking for it. Is it really worth the potential $200-400 fine if you got caught?
If you answered yes to that question, then my next section is for all you daredevils.
4. Extra Tips: How to get around the restrictions on a budget?
It is certainly possible to ‘dodge’ your way around these restrictions, although I should and do not advocate anyone doing this - I know that many of you will anyway. So here are a few tips for you rebels:
Try install or buy a car with dark tinted windows and/or curtains. That way, if you’re having an afternoon (or evening nap) and decided to park on a local street side, then you don’t need to worry about getting ‘curious’ looks. Your risk of getting a fine would also decrease since they can’t see you from the outside.
Find places where the rules may be grey and blurry: ie. If you’re a non-self contained car, then don’t even bother openly defying the rules by parking it in a self-contained only site.
Avoid those super stereotypical cars/campers that can be picked out as a tourist from miles away. By this I mean, campervans with decorations like magic mushrooms painted all over it… the whole point is to try blend in, not stand out.
Sacrifice your sleep to save money. Often this requires finding your spot after dinner (when it’s really dark and most people have gone to sleep), and waking up around 5-6am just to pack down and get out of there before the first light of day. Fuel up on caffeine or find a public, legal place to park and extend your snooze.
Never park in the same place twice to avoid suspicion.
Have a Plan B: what will you say if someone knocks and asks “what the hell are you doing here?” Perhaps you were tired from driving and needed a break? Weren’t feeling well? Got lost?
5. Extra Advice for Driving NZ Roads
There are so many road accidents that happen on NZ roads, it’s really heartbreaking. I often see news of tourists forgetting to drive on the left side, underestimating the curvy roads on our mountain passes, or speeding on the highway. NZ roads are not like European Roads. Our highways are not designed to go around corners like the Autobahn in Germany. On top of that, we have so many off-roads conditions in the remotes areas: gravel roads, odd rocks from rockslides or landslides, muddy roads with pot holes, sometimes even stream crossings, and steep cliffs/drop-offs that exists less than a metre away from you.
It’s wild, it’s beautiful, it’s to be respected - not underestimated.
Better to drive slowly and with caution than to put other people’s lives at risk. Driving recklessly is the most selfish thing you could do, especially if you have passengers.
Cars vs Campers on NZ Roads
Narrow, curvy roads: Cars are easier and more nimble in getting around the narrow, winding roads. Campervans often have trouble around tight corners, it’s also super nerve racking, and you can bet the trail of cars behind you are peeved off af.
Off-road conditions: if you have a heavy camper, then you must be extremely careful when going off-roads, if at all. It’s just very high risk, especially if it’s raining and there’s a lot of mud, you can get stuck very quickly. Cars get around much easier on off-roads, but if you can score yourself a 4-Wheel Drive, then that is the best best vehicle if you’re planning to do a lot of backcountry or off-road driving.
Parking: Oh gosh, finding a park in a city with a Camper is a headache and a half. No brainer here, cars are much easier to navigate and park when driving through cities.
Ferry Crossings: depending on the size of your car or camper, this will usually result in a different price range when it comes to booking your ferry crossing - so just another thing for you to consider.
Extra Tips before getting behind the wheels:
Invest in becoming an AA member: they help you out in cases of breakdown or flat battery. Life saver, honestly.
Get Insurance, it’s not super expensive and definitely worth the investment, especially if you’ll be in the country for longer than 3 months.
Make sure your WOF and REGO (Registration) is up-to-date. Best case scenario, is to buy a vehicle where the WOF and Rego will expire AFTER you leave the country.
If you fail your first WOF test, go to another provider and they might be a bit more relaxed and send you off without making you cough up hundreds in repairs & maintenance.
Never buy a car or campervan without first inspecting it and going for a test drive. So many stories about people transferring money to the vehicle owner, only to arrive and realise it’s not drivable or it wasn’t what they expected.
6. Summary: Pros and Cons
PROS of Cars
smaller, easier to get around and park
uses less petrol/fuel
blends in better, not so obvious you are ‘tourists’, which makes it easier to camp in more inconspicuous places.
cheaper ferry tickets across the strait
cheaper to buy
CONS of Cars
smaller space to fit all your belongings
constantly have to find toilets and showers
limited FREE campsites for non-self contained
might involve dodging around some grey areas with respect to freedom camping, which could incur in some fines.
if you decide after a while that sleeping in the car is not for you, then your other alternative is to find hostels, which would end up costing you a lot more than buying a campervan.
Car is most ideal for those who either:
- don’t mind sacrificing comfort to save money and get around easier - for Super Budget backpackers; or
- have a lot of money to spend on accommodation and just need a vehicle to get them around easily - Super Wealthy tourists.
PROS of Campervans
huge spaces and you can really fit a lot in
usually a good toilet system, water reserves, many have showers and even fridges.
can freedom camp on all the GREEN sites (if self-contained)
cooking is much easier and more spacious
generally more comfortable
CONS of Campervans
much more expensive than cars
trickier to drive and get around (esp. off roads)
ferry tickets are more expensive
petrol/fuel tends to be more expensive
harder to blend in: very obvious you are a ‘tourist’ and makes it difficult to camp anywhere other than the designated sites.
Campervan is most idea for those who:
…really place comfort as a high importance, are committed to spending most nights sleeping in the campervan and have the financial means to acquire that luxury - for Budget Backpackers with Savings (and good driving skills).
In the end it all comes down to personal preference and your financial means - how much are you willing to sacrifice or spend for comfort? The best choice for you will be when the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, this is something very personal and will differ between each and every person/group.
Have you experienced travelling in both Camper and Car? Which did you prefer and was there anything you’d do differently next time? Hopefully you found this article helpful! If you have any questions, comments or additional tips - feel free to drop a message down below and I look forward to reading them all :)