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There is no better way to truly appreciate the breathtaking landscape of New Zealand than by campervan! When the journey is just as important as the end destination, this is the ultimate way to do it. And there are some spectacular camping grounds on New Zealand’s South Island.
To help you plan your New Zealand motorhome holiday or caravan road trip, we have put together the complete list of South Island campsites we stayed at during our winter campervan adventure, but first, let us cover the basics of campervanning around New Zealand.
This was a completely new way to travel for us, having never really done anything like it, but we are now officially hooked and can’t wait to head back to New Zealand and other parts of the world to experience them the van life way!
Making the decision to explore New Zealand by campervan can be daunting as there are simply so many options available. Your best place to start is working out how long much time you can give to your trip and setting a budget.
The great thing about motorhome travel is the fact that your accommodation comes with you everywhere you go, and if you choose to freedom camp, it can make your trip more budget-friendly overall!
But of course, you’ve still got fuel, gas and the occasional powered site costs to recharge along the way.
You can essentially rent a car and stay at campsites with facilities if you want to rough it and keep it really low budget. I can’t think of anything worse when travelling with kids though.
Knowing we were travelling for 16 days, we wanted a bit of extra space and luxury, which is exactly what we got. It also allowed us to stay off the grid for an extended amount of time. We shared a full review of our experiences with Wilderness Motorhomes, and hiring a luxury motorhome.
Campervan travel is huge in New Zealand so most places a very well signed, making it easy for you to know whether a place is suitable for camping or not.
Essentially the rule is so long as you are not parked beside a road and there isn’t a no camping sign, you can technically camp there in a self-contained vehicle.
We weren’t this daring though so we stuck to the places we knew were approved based on freedom camping apps and signage.
Campgrounds will either be for certified self-contained vehicles only, or suited to all types of campers. To be certified self-contained you need a toilet in your camper and the sticker on your vehicle to confirm.
For places where there are toilet facilities, you can camp there in any type of vehicle and sometimes in a tent too.
In summary, here are the main types of campsites in New Zealand:
Freedom Campsites – free public campsites or parking areas
DoC Campgrounds – Department of Conservation NZ run campgrounds that usually have a small charge associated
Holiday Parks – Paid campsites with powered and non-powered sites plus toilet, shower and other facilities you pay for the privilege to use
We used 3 different apps throughout our New Zealand camping trip. Each of the apps shows different information so you have a better chance of finding a freedom campsite or low price alternative if you are on a tight budget.
Of the 3 apps we used for finding South Island camping grounds, Campermate was our preferred option as it had the biggest variety of campsites – free and paid. It also had other essentials, such as fuel station, potable water, dump station, plus where to eat and what to do.
Rankers includes a lot of DOCs campsites that may not appear elsewhere and it did list a few extra freedom camping options that did not show up on the other apps.
Campable gives you paid campsite options, many of which are private properties that allow you to park up. We did book our Lake Tekapo campsite via Campable but otherwise did not use it very often.
You may also want Google Maps or a similar map related app too if you don’t have a GPS. We found our GPS did not find a couple of the addresses as well as Google Maps did.
With a beautiful, clear day on arrival, we headed straight for Akaroa and kicked off our freedom camping South Island experience on day one.
This basic freedom campsite in Akaroa is essentially a car park near the Akaroa Harbour, with a short 5-minute walk to the harbour.
There are some views of the water, although mostly obscured by a chain fence along the harbour front and boats parked. However this free campsite is a short walk to the Akaroa town centre, with restaurants, shops and activities nearby. View on Rankers.
Cost – Free
Facilities – Flush toilets 100m away, rubbish bins, close to town.
Things To Do In Akaroa
Akaroa is a beautiful French-influenced town, right down to the street names. The drive getting there is an adventure on its own, with breathtaking scenery as you wind your way through the mountains.
Learn the local history with a visit to the free Akaroa Museum in the centre of town or stroll along the waterfront to the Akaroa Lighthouse.
2. Leeston – Chamberlains Ford Reserve Freedom Campsite
There are not really any sites for freedom camping in Christchurch, however, there are a few scattered a little way outside the city. Chamberlains Ford Reserve is located around 45 minutes from Christchurch in Leeston.
There are clean toilets, sinks to wash your dishes, plus picnic and BBQ facilities available for use. The highlight for us at this free camping spot was the swing hanging from the tree. When travelling with kids, these little things can make a big difference!
This was quite a popular campsite, likely due to the close proximity from Christchurch.
Be careful parking your campervan here after bad weather though as it was quite muddy and you may be at risk of getting bogged after heavy rain. At least for large vehicles like ours. Smaller campervans would be fine on the grassy areas.
During the off-season, they shut off some of the parking areas to let the grass regrow again which will help prevent this.
Cost – Free
Facilities – Toilets, large sinks for washing up, picnic tables, BBQ, tree swing.
What To Do Near Leeston
There is not really much to do around Leeston itself, however it is a perfect spot if you are planning to spend a day or two in Christchurch like we did.
3. Lake Tekapo – Mt Hay Station Shingle Pit Private Campsite
If you want to feel like you are the only people in the world, this is the perfect Lake Tekapo campsite for you.
This private campsite overlooks Lake Tekapo in the Mackenzie District, giving you exquisite views and a chance to stargaze under one of the darkest skies in the world at night.
Lake Tekapo has minimal light pollution making it a popular destination for astronomy enthusiasts.
This private campsite, which you can book via the Campable app, is around a 10-minute drive from the Lake Tekapo township.
It was a little tricky to find, as you will pass a lot of different entrances stating no camping from private landowners. This is to deter people from freedom camping here since it is private property.
There is no better place to enjoy the sunset or a morning stroll down to the lake and it was definitely a special spot to set up camp for the night. No traffic, no people… total tranquillity.
Aside from staring starry-eyed at this beautiful turquoise lake, Lake Tekapo is a pretty special place to explore. Wander over the bridge and visit the church by the water. They still hold services on Sunday evenings.
If visiting with kids, head over to the playground near town with an impressive flying fox – try it! We didn’t let the kids have all the fun… the view from the flying fox was pretty spectacular!
Make sure you take a drive up Mount John too. It costs $8 NZD to drive up the top and it is worth every bit! The views from the top are breathtaking from every direction. Grab yourself a coffee and bite to eat while taking in the scenery.
This is also one of the best places in the world to go stargazing due to there being such a dark sky.
This was one of our favourite South Island freedom camping spots for the trip. The reserve has room for around 50 vehicles, most with views of incredible Lake Pukaki.
They have 4 drop toilets towards the top of the reserve, making it suitable for non self contained vehicles also. Park up early so you can enjoy a walk around the lake. Then pull up a chair to watch the sunset over the water and mountains.
We made friends with a stray cat during our visit, who got a bit of fine dining with our leftover steak. The kids were also excited to go bunny spotting although only their dad was lucky enough to see one.
It’s actually pretty amazing that there are free camping grounds South Island like this, because in most parts of the world, you would pay a lot for these kind of water views!
Cost – free
Facilities – Clean drop toilets, picnic tables, rubbish bin.
Get Off The Beaten Track
If you are travelling from Lake Tekapo to Lake Pukaki, which you totally should because you will be in awe the whole time – don’t take the way the GPS wants to take you! Nope. Get off the beaten track completely and go via Braemar Road.
This is an unsealed dirt road but it is absolutely fine for campervans and cars. No 4WD required. This route will take you a little longer, but it is so worth it.
You will likely be the only vehicle on the road for most of the journey which means you can pretty much pull over every 5 minutes to snap a photo of yet another out of this world view!
We actually had loads of fun doing some video footage along Braemar Road. We saw one other car the whole way.
We read great reviews about this place and it was sort of a halfway spot for us leaving Dunedin. Kaitangata is a really small town and the park is across from the river. It is small, old and appears to be for sale.
However, they have powered sites, free use of showers and toilet facilities, as well as a kitchen and dining room you can use. They charge $3 to use the washing machine and dryer.
The owner is friendly and was happy to help us out trying to work out how our power cord worked as first-time campervan users.
The one negative which had absolutely nothing to do with the Motor Camp was the siren that went off twice during our stay.
Once at 6 PM and again at 11 PM and it is a horrifying sound, like something from a war movie. No one seemed phased by this so with the help of an online search we found an answer.
In small towns in New Zealand the alarm is sounded when there is an emergency and goes until one of the local emergency workers can get to the station and shut it off.
Yikes! We heard one a few nights later in another small town too. Apparently the locals sleep through the siren as it is such a normal occurrence.
A definite highlight for campervanning with kids. We actually stayed here twice as it is the perfect halfway point between Fiordland and heading up to Queenstown.
This freedom camping approved car park has plenty of great features to suit families.
It had the cleanest and nicest public toilets we’ve encountered at a campsite so far, plus a sink to wash dishes, plenty of large bins to get rid of trash and a dump station.
Best of all though is the massive playground right next door that kept our kids entertained for 2 hours even after the rain. There are also two restored trains they can climb on and some interesting history to learn about the area.
The campsite is also right in the centre of town so there is a convenience store with Swap and Go gas across the road, plus restaurants, pubs and more.
If you park near the library, you can also use their free Wifi during your stay. Absolutely one of the best free camping South Island NZ options.
There are no free camping spots in Te Anau for our early start, so we booked a powered site atTop 10 Te Anau.
They have kids stay free promotion during the New Zealand school holidays so this reduced the overall cost for a family of 4. The Holiday Park has plenty of fun stuff to do as a family, with a jumping pillow, playground and a TV room with a kids corner full of games and toys.
The holiday park is located right in the middle of town so you can walk down to the restaurants and shops easily and enjoy your stay in Te Anau without having to rush to a campsite before dark.
We actually encountered a little incident during our stay with our campervan becoming bogged instantly when we attempted to park in our designated spot. The owner towed us out within 10 minutes and they allowed us to park on the roadside instead, on the other side of our powered site.
These things happen and thankfully it was sorted out very quickly. You will find most people in New Zealand carry tow ropes just in case.
Cost – $50 NZD for 2 adults (kids stay free during New Zealand school holidays).
Facilities – Showers, toilets, laundry, playground, bins, powered sites, hotel/cabin accommodation, close to restaurants and shops.
Te Anau is the perfect place to stop if you are planning a visit to Milford Sound. It is close enough to make your home base for the night and do the drive yourself, or as we did, take a guided day trip to Milford Sound.
They picked us up from outside the holiday park and we arrived back mid afternoon. A much shorter journey than the day trip from Queenstown.
The township of Te Anau is a hub of activity being on the edge of Fiordland National Park. There are some great restaurants – we enjoyed a delicious dinner at The Ranch Bar & Grill. There is also a free bird reserve around 5 minutes from the centre of town where you can learn about some of New Zealand’s native bird life.
There is no free camping in Queenstown at all, however Kawarau Bridge is only around 20km outside of town.
There are no facilities and you can only free camp in the designated parking bays between 6 PM and 8:30 AM as the car park is otherwise used for the Kawarau Bridge Bungy Centre guests.
The views from the bridge and viewing area are amazing, overlooking Kawarau Gorge, however being a valley it has some crazy wind blowing and freezing during winter.
It’s essentially a car park though so no issues with wet weather at least.
If you don’t mind your campervan rocking a bit overnight, this is a great freedom camping Queenstown option. And perfect if you’re thinking about taking the leap yourself and trying the bungy jumping while in New Zealand.
Cost – Free
Kawarau Bungy Jumping Experience
Are you daredevil enough to take the leap? We weren’t however if there were anywhere I would want to bungy jump, the views from Kawarau Bridge make it a pretty darn appealing location.
New Zealand is known for being the adventure capital of the world, so why not start your morning off with some exhilarating Kawarau bungy jumping fun since you’re already parked up and ready to roll!
This is a fantastic central holiday park with views of the mountains and close to all the action. Queenstown Lakeview Holiday Park is the closest holiday park in the centre of Queenstown, so of course this means you pay for the privilege of convenience.
This was our most expensive campsite during our 16 day trip, however it allowed us to enjoy Queenstown by night without worrying about getting to our campsite before dark.
It has all the amenities you would expect of a holiday park, plus walking distance to food, entertainment and nightlife.
There is a playground for the kids, including trampolines. They have activity booking services if you want some help planning your time in Queenstown.
This holiday park is massive but it fills up quickly so you may want to book ahead so you don’t miss out on getting a powered campsite for your visit.
Cost – $79 NZD for family of 4.
Facilities – Powered & non powered campsites, toilets, showers, dump station, laundry, kitchen, playground, booking service, amazing views and close to centre of Queenstown.
Things To Do In Queenstown
You could easily fill a week (and spend a small fortune) while visiting Queenstown, with so many great things to do in Queenstown with kids. It is a beautiful city that is especially lively during the snow season due to the many snow fields that surround it.
Situated around 12km outside of Wanaka, Red Bridge freedom camping spot is a very basic camp site just over the old fashioned one lane red bridge.
It’s essentially a car park with room for plenty of vehicles.
There is a single portable toilet which is surprisingly clean and well maintained. You get a little bit of road noise but it’s nothing drastic, aside from the occasional horn blasting the next morning to intentionally annoy the freedom campers.
They have loads of powered sites, kitchen, toilet and bathroom and right in town so you can walk down to a restaurant or bar. It’s also perfect if you plan to do any of the local attractions and walks in the area.
We read that there is a glow worm cave walk nearby however it was pouring rain so we stayed in and cooked a BBQ at the campsite instead. It does sound like it is amazing though, so if you are luckier than us with the weather and stopping here, make sure you do the glow worm walk.
Cost – $47 NZD for family of 4
Facilities – Toilets, showers, laundry, kitchen, walking distance to shops, dump station, potable water, free use of BBQ
Things To Do In Fox Glacier
Some of the most breathtaking views in New Zealand are on your doorstep. If you can fit it in your budget, the ultimate way to experience Fox Glacier is by heli hike – impressive panoramic views from the helicopter before taking a guided trek through the icy wilderness.
Fox Glacier is said to be one of New Zealand’s best natural wonders and this is definitely the way to experience it. There are loads of different helicopter tours, some visiting Franz Joseph Glacier also.
This is a fantastic freedom camping grounds South Island not far from the centre of Greymouth. It is a beachfront car park area with clean flushable toilet facilities.
There is an outdoor shower although you would need to be pretty brave to have tried that in winter! A great view of the water and sound of waves crashing through the night makes it a really tranquil spot to freedom camp on the West Coast.
This campsite is a perfect spot to go for a stroll along the beach or around the river path around the reserve. The waterfront parks fill quickly so you want to arrive early to enjoy sunset views from your motor home.
Although there is plenty of room to pull up a camp chair on the beach instead if you miss the best parking spots. View Shipwreck Point on Rankers.
This is another great freedom camping site near Christchurch with excellent facilities. We arrived here really late after our last full day in Christchurch and a visit to Willowbank Wildlife Reserveso we did not get much of a chance to explore.
Located around 45 minutes from the centre of Christchurch, this is one of the closest free camping sites near the city.
There are toilets, picnic tables, and a small playground, making it a great spot if visiting as a family.
There is a community building and sports oval at Cust Domain although we are unsure what hours the community building is open, however it may mean guests have the chance to use these facilities sometimes too.
Loads of room for many vehicles. View Cust Domain on Rankers.
Cost – free
Facilities – toilets, bins, picnic tables, sink, playground, sports field
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the best camping spots South Island NZ, however we could not really fault a single one that we stayed at and would be happy to return to any of them again. We also look forward to experiencing many other camping grounds South Island in future – or maybe the North Island next!
If you are planning to campervan New Zealand with kids like we did, check out our printable road trip activity bundle to keep them entertained along the way. 16 pages of fun games, puzzles and activities they can do during the drive.
Is a New Zealand campervan holiday on your bucket list? Leave a comment below and tell us what you most look forward to seeing. We would love to hear! And save this post for later on Pinterest via the image below! Be sure to follow us on Facebook or YouTube for more travel tips like these!