An open letter to New Zealand about freedom camping

Dear New Zealand,

You’re amazing. Our two weeks spent road-tripping through the North Island were priceless and filled with wonderful hiking trails, delicious meat pies, and breathtaking views. Your parks, from the local to the national, all had a unique beauty we’ve never seen elsewhere. And your people are so friendly and helpful. In short, we loved you.

So it’s totally crazy to ask this of you, but could you please, please change your rules on freedom camping? They’re vague, vary by council region, and are incredibly hard to navigate as a visitor. Twenty hours of our trip were spent on trying to figure out where we could and couldn’t camp with our tent, and in most cases we still weren’t sure. There was also a huge disconnect in understanding the rules between Kiwis and visitors. When we noticed a district prohibited freedom camping, we often asked locals in an area where we could camp. “Uh, right here?” they’d reply with confusion, followed by something like, “Pretty much anywhere, as long as it’s not private property.” Asking about the ban on freedom camping usually led them to even more confusion. So it seemed like there were different rules for Kiwis and visitors. And that felt bad.

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Our tent at a free campsite we found via app and hours of driving.

At the same time, I totally understand why you’ve cracked down on freedom camping. I read online about the environmental and health problems that freedom camping caused.  It’s great that you saw a problem and wanted to protect your beautiful countryside. But letting councils regulate freedom camping hasn’t achieved that goal. Instead, it appears to have pushed budget-constrained campers who can’t afford paid campsites into a few areas where they do more damage. While camping at one of the few free sites in the Northland Peninsula, we watched campers doing their dishes in the river with soap and water. At another site, I listened to a Kiwi tell me that “camping was THE best life” as chocolate wrappers fluttered out of his campervan door and into the grass. When I pointed them out, he laughed and said “Oh no!” but made no effort to retrieve them. And then there are the hundreds of people choosing to sleep in their cars or drive on tired to the next campsite because freedom camping is banned in a district. We did this several times; it’s exhausting, it’s stressful, and you wake up miserable.

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On the upshot, sleeping terribly in the car means you’re up early for sunrises like this.

So given the problems above, I’d like to make a humble suggestion: move to an online course-and-permitting system. One of my many specialties is negotiation, much of which comes down to understanding what motivates someone. You’re motivated to keep your country beautiful and safe, to ensure that freedom camping doesn’t do damage the environment or human health. The motivation of the would-be freedom campers is to see your country’s beauty and have fun while on a budget. Both of these could be satisfied with a course-and-permitting system where would-be campers went through an online course highlighting New Zealand’s freedom camping rules, took a short quiz, and paid a small fee for a freedom camping permit. It could help New Zealand’s citizens as well, who don’t always realize what they’re doing is damaging the environment.

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Freedom camping isn’t just for those on a budget; it lets you capture picture perfect moments in New Zealand’s landscape.

And as a bonus, let’s look at whether the program would pay for itself. Let’s say that you give New Zealand citizens permits for free (they pay taxes already), but you require a $10 NZD permit for every visitor who wants to freedom camp. You had 3.2 million visitors in 2014, and let’s say on the conservative side that 20% are would-be freedom campers. That means you’ve got 640,000 visitors getting a permit at $10 per person, meaning $6.4 million NZD. Could you run a program like this for $6.4 million? As a government, you would know better than I would, and you could adjust the permit cost as needed. But beyond budgeting, the course-and-permit system would help you keep New Zealand beautiful by ensuring people know the rules of freedom camping while keeping it fun and accessible to everyone, even those of us traveling on a shoestring. I hope you’ll consider it. May your grassy hills always stay green.

Love,

Natalie

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There’s a lot of beauty to protect in New Zealand, and a course-and-permit system would go a long way in everyone knowing how to protect it.

Camping at Raetea Reserve

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Trees in the Raetea Reserve

We’ve struggled to find places to sleep since the start of our trip. There aren’t many free campsites in New Zealand for cars, which shouldn’t be an issue because of the country’s freedom camping rules: as long as it’s not specifically forbidden, you’re supposedly welcome to camp anywhere provided you clean up after yourself and act responsibly. Freedom camping is part of the New Zealand psyche: when we were planning our trip and asked our Airbnb host in Auckland about free campsites, he looked at us like we were crazy. “Just pitch a tent anywhere out of the way and freedom camp,” he laughed. The problem is that most local councils of New Zealand have now heavily restricted or outlawed freedom camping, so in most places we’d technically be breaking the law.

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A trail closed to prevent the spread of Kauri dieback disease

But let’s set that aside for now because we’ve found a free campsite to stay at for this night! It’s at Raetea, and the reason it’s free is that the rest of the reserve is technically closed to prevent the spread of Kauri dieback disease. So it means there’s absolutely nothing for us to do at this reserve, but it does mean a night of sleep free from fees and worries that someone will find and fine us for sleeping in the car.

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The campgrounds, sheltered from wind and fairly quiet.

There isn’t much at this campsite except a huge grassy field and some drop toilets across the stream. When we cross to use it, we notice people washing their dishes in the stream water. I almost want to shout at them: GUYYYYS, this is why they’re outlawing freedom camping. This is why we can’t have nice things, and it’s only a matter of time before freedom camping dies out entirely.

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There’s also this sign, so stay classy folks.

Otherwise, the campsite is absolutely lovely. Though its hiking trails are all closed, the reserve still has beautiful scenery and is blissfully quiet. And except for the moon, it’s entirely dark at night. Time to get our first good sleep in days.

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The stream near the campgrounds
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The moonlight night in the campgrounds