Best free or cheap campgrounds on the South Island of New Zealand, camping New Zealand on a budget


The seemingly endless road to Lake Camp, Lake Clearwater and Mount Sunday (location of Lord of the Rings' Edoras), New Zealand Alps, New Zealand, South IslandTo most who love travelling, New Zealand is a dream destination. Whether you plan to go hiking, climbing, driving, sightseeing, or all of these combined, you'll need places to sleep. The longer the trip, the more nights you have to pay for, the more money the trip will cost. All of this money could have been spent on other activities if you didn't have to pay for places to sleep. 

I'd say, why pay a lot to sleep in expensive hotels or campgrounds when all you want to do is hit the road and move on through this magnificent country?

I have been able to travel New Zealand for a period of five months on a small budget, free from any expensive hotels, hostels, campgrounds or touring companies. Though I must admit, I have visited some little more expensive campsites once every few weeks when I really needed a hot shower (I may not always have smelled like roses in those days). 

Despite this travelling style, I don't feel like I have missed out on anything. The most amazing places in New Zealand are outside of the towns and in nature anyway. So why don't spend the nights in these amazing places for free or cheap instead of paying for a place in a towns? There is so much to explore in New Zealand that you will probably not have the time to enjoy your expensive accommodation anyway.

In this post, I will share one of my most important budget travelling tips: minimize costs by camping free or cheap at small campgrounds. These are scattered throughout New Zealand in some of the most amazing places. In five months, I have seen quite a few of these campgrounds, and whether you're travelling by rental camper, car, bicycle, hitchhiking or bus, I recommend you to look them up and prevent some unnecessary high expenses.

Picking 'the best' of these campgrounds is impossible. Therefore, I will share a top 5 of the most memorable of all the campgrounds that I've been. Though some of the best campgrounds that I've been are only accessible on foot, I will focus on those that are accessible by car in this post.


Kohaihai campsite and shelter

Sunset at Kohaihai Campsite on the West Coast of New Zealand's South Island
Sunset at Kohaihai Campsite


This great campground in the Nīkau forest of the Kahurangi National Park is one of the best coastal campgrounds I've camped at in New Zealand. It is located at the mouth of the Kohaihai River, in-between the coast and the forested hills/mountains. It's a great place to enjoy the scenery, forest and beach. Relax next to your campfire while staring at the millions of stars above you.

I've camped here for two consecutive nights. As my travelling buddy and I just started some amateur caving in the south of the South Island, we came to this remote campground for a day hike that led to three caves. Apart from hiking, I really enjoyed the overall tranquility of this place, the beach (though the sea was quite rough), the rain forest and the amazing sunsets (which almost made me feel romantic, yuck!).

Practical information about Kohaihai campsite and shelter

Location: Kahurangi National Park
Region: West Coast
Exact location: click here

Payment method: Self registration stand, first come first serve (prices here)
Activities: hiking & tramping, swimming, kayaking & Canoeing
Accessibility: car, campervan/RV, caravan or on foot
Maximum consecutive stay: 2 nights
Further information: check the DOC website of this campground and check this DOC brochure on hikes in the area.

Getting there: This campground is very remote, located at the end of a gravel road (Karamea-Kohaihai Rd.), about 120 kilometres from the nearest highway intersection with state highway 6 (only the last few kilometres are gravel though). This means that you have to drive these 120 kilometres back before continuing your trip along st. hwy. 6. It is quite a scenic drive though.

Highlighted activities in the area of Kohaihai campsite and shelter

Hiking the Fenian Caves route
Not sure what to do here, I recommend hiking this trail. Apart from the caves, it also allows you to enjoy the amazing forests around it. If you decide to do this hike, be careful in and around the caves and don't proceed too far into the caves without proper experience and gear.
Distance from campsite: 15 kilometres
Start: Fenian walks carpark
Distance: 5 kilometres (3 hours return)
Further information: check this DOC brochure on hikes in the area.

Short hikes to the Oparara Arch and the Moria Gate
We also did two additional short hikes to the Oparara arch and the Moria gate, both spectacular limestone arches that can be reached via a very accessible trail from the Oparara carpark.
Distance from campsite: 20 kilometres
Start: Oparara carpark
Distance: Oparara arch, 1 kilometre (± 30 minutes one way); Moria gate, ± 1 kilometre (± 30 minutes one way)
Further information: check this DOC brochure on hikes in the area.


Lake Pearson (Moana Rua) campsite

Lake Pearson from the Lake Pearson Campsite.





Visiting the New Zealand Alps is a must when travelling the South Island. There is no better way to do so than via one of the two passes (Lewis or Arthur's Pass). I've driven both two times, yet I still can't pick a favourite. 

This campground, however, is from the Arthur's Pass. It is situated on the bank of Lake Pearson right along the main road through the pass (st. hwy. 73) east of Arthur's Pass village. This campground offers amazing lake-view camping, which I highly recommend. If you're lucky, you can also spot some amazing birdlife at the lakeside or at the wildlife refuge further up the road.

Most other tourists seemed to pass this place looking for campsites closer to the actual pass. Too bad for them. To me, this made camping here this place even better, as I was able to relax on the lakeside and read my book while the resident grebes were courting on the lake. I loved this place so much that the second time I came to the pass (after completing an overnight hike west of the pass) I drove through the entire valley to enjoy this peaceful place a last time.

Practical information about Lake Pearson (Moana Rua) campsite

Region: Canterbury
Exact location: click here
Payment method: Free, first come first serve
Activities: hiking & tramping, swimming

Accessibility: car, campervan/RV, caravan or on foot
Maximum consecutive stay: Not specified
Further information: check the DOC website of this campsite.

Getting there: Driving along st. hwy. 73, you can't miss it. At Lake Pearson (±30 kilometres east of Arthur's Pass village) a roadside sign will point to the entrance to this site.

Highlighted activities in the area of Lake Pearson (Moana Rua) campsite

Driving State Highway 73
One of the most scenic drives of the country, straight through the Arthur's Pass through the New Zealand Alps. There are many highlights along this road. So many even, that I could not visit all of them during my two visits to the pass. Good reason to return to New Zealand one day.
Distance from campsite: Running right along the campsite.
Start: Kumara Junction in the west, Christchurch in the east.
Distance: 226 kilometres total.
Further information: Check this DOC website on things to do in Arthur's Pass.


White Horse Hill campsite (Aoraki/Mt. Cook)

View on Mount Sefton over the Mueller Lake behind the White Horse Hill campsite.


White Horse Hill is THE campground to go when visiting Aoraki/Mt. Cook (highest mountain of New Zealand). The campground is located just behind the village of Aoraki/Mt. Cook in a stunning Alpine setting. Many hiking trails leading into the surrounding mountains start from this campground, offering a wide variety of hikes for both the experienced and inexperienced. The communal kitchen of this campground is great for cooking in the cold evenings (take your own stoves and gas), share a meal with fellow travellers or to shelter from the cold.

I have camped two consecutive nights at this campground, freezing my ass off. But it was worth it! The scenery is amazing, and the hikes are great! I think that in all my time here, I went to the Kea Point lookout behind the campground at least 5 times to stare mindlessly at the magnificent Aoraki/Mt. Cook.

Practical information about White Horse Hill campsite (Mt. Cook/Aoraki)

Location: Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park
Region: Canterbury
Exact location: click here

Payment method: Self registration stand, first come first serve (prices here)
Activities: hiking & tramping
Accessibility: car, camper, caravan or on foot
Maximum consecutive stay: Not specified
Further information: check the DOC website of this campsite, or check the DOC website on the Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park.

Getting there: Follow the signs from Aoraki/Mt. Cook village.

Highlighted activities in the area of Mt. Cook/Aoraki

Tasman Glacier viewpoint
Everything here seems to revolve around Aoraki/Mt. Cook and the Tasman Glacier. Yet, the rest of the scenery is stunning as well. There are quite a few hikes (long and short) which offer great views on the mountain and glacier, yet (personally) I think that one of the best and most accessible views on them is from the Tasman Glacier Viewpoint.
Distance from campsite: 10 kilometres
Start: Tasman Glacier carpark
Distance: Next to the parking, takes as long as you want to enjoy the scenery.
Further information: check this DOC website on short walks around the glacier.

Hiking the Sealy Tarns route
For more adventurous people looking for a great viewpoint on Aoraki/Mt. Cook, I recommend hiking the Sealy Tarns route. This trail zigzags up a mountain flank behind the campground to the Sealy Tarns lookout, which offers amazing views over the Hooker Valley, the surrounding mountains and their glaciers and (most importantly) Aoraki/Mt. Cook. At the lookout, the trail continues further up the mountain to the Mueller hut. I haven't been at the hut, but man, it must be amazing to spend a night up here.
Start: White Horse Hill campsite, follow the Kea Point trail to the splitting to Sealy Tarns and the Mueller hut and turn left.
Distance: 2 hours one way
Further information: Read about the trail to Mueller hut, including the section to the Sealy Tarns, here.


Lake Camp overnight campervan parking

View from my spot at the pebble beach of Lake Camp.





This campsite is situated along a long and seemingly endless gravel road in a valley of which I can't recall the name (see the first picture of this post). It's not well known by tourists, yet definitely worth a visit if you have the time. The valley consists mainly of Alpine-like grasslands bordered by spectacular snowy peaks. Trees are harder to find here, though you will find those along the lakeshores. You can pick every spot you like at this campsite, but I recommend to pick a spot next to the pebble beach (because look at that view!). 


I have spent two nights here, enjoying the remoteness of the surroundings. I don't think many (international) tourists visit this area, though I highly recommend it if you have the time. Most of all, I recommend visiting Mount Sunday at the end of the only (gravel) road through the valley (Hakatere Potts Rd.), which has been the filming location of Lord of the Rings' Edoras village.

Practical information about Lake Camp overnight campervan parking

Location: Hakatere Conservation Park
Region: Canterbury
Exact location: click here
Payment method: Free
Activities: hiking & tramping, swimming, water-skiing and fishing

Accessibility: car, camper, caravan or on foot
Maximum consecutive stay: Not specified
Further information: check this DOC brochure on the Hakatere Conservation Park.

Getting there: Turn of the Inland Scenic Route (72) at Mount Somers to the Ashburton Gorge Rd. and keep following that (direction of Lake Clearwater). After about 24 kilometres, it will become Hakatere Potts Rd., which you follow for about 10 kilometres. Just before Lake Clearwater Township, Lake Camp will be on your left.

Highlighted activities in the area of Lake Camp overnight campervan parking

Mt. Sunday
As I said above, Mt. Sunday was the filming location of Lord of the Rings' Edoras village. Whether you're a fan of the movies or not, I recommend visiting this place. There are no traces of the movie set left, but the small Mount in next to the wide braiding Rangitata river provides a 360° view of the valley and the surrounding mountains. Watch out for wild LotR fans though, we came across a herd of them waving flags and swords.
Distance from campsite: 15 kilometres
Start: Mt. Sunday carpark
Distance: About 20 to 30 minutes to the top
Further information: check this DOC brochure on the Hakatere Conservation Park.


Purakaunui Bay campsite

Best spot of the Purakaunui Bay campsite.


The Purakaunui Bay campsite is located at the end of the Purakaunui Bay Rd., at the mouth of the Purakaunui River in Purakaunui Bay. How many times can I say Purakaunui in one post? Oh, well, there is also a waterfall called the Purakaunui Falls in the area that might be worth visiting, which can be reached via (of course) Purakaunui Falls Rd.. That's six! 

Now back to more serious things. The campground offers amazing ocean, beach and cliff views. If you're lucky, you can also encounter sea lions on the beach here. It is also a great campground if you're in to kayaking/canoeing, surfing or swimming (though the sea can be rough).

I have camped two very rainy days (three nights) at this campground. Because of the weather, I didn't do much in the area except from enjoying the views from our amazing spot, hanging out with sea lions at the beach and laugh at the guy who got his van stuck trying to park it right in front of us to 'steal' our views (haha, you brought this on yourself!). That's something we came across at more campgrounds, people trying to park their campervan or RV in front of yours to steal the view.

Practical information about Purakaunui Bay campsite

Location: Catlins Coastal Area
Region: Otago
Exact location: click here
Payment method: Self registration stand, first come first serve (prices here)
Activities: hiking & tramping, swimming, kayaking & canoeing and surfing
Accessibility: car, camper, caravan or on foot
Maximum consecutive stay: Not specified
Further information: check the DOC website of this campsite.
Getting there: Driving along the Papatowai Highway, turn off at Ratanui. From there, follow the Purakanui Falls Rd. until you can turn left onto Long Point Rd. Keep following Long Point Rd. (pass Maitland Rd. on the left) until you come across Purakanui Bay Rd. on your left. The campsite is at the end of this road.

Though I've listed five great campgrounds here, I must admit that almost all campgrounds I've camped were great. The 5 campgrounds above are therefore not in any ranking order, but listed from north to south. I used to keep a small folder with all DOC campsites in my car to help me navigate to the campgrounds, though you can also check out this online map of DOC campsites

I'd love to hear your experiences while camping in New Zealand. Any additions to the list are also welcome. Feel free to share this post using one of the social media buttons below. If you liked this post or want to save it for further reading, feel free to pin the image below. Want to know about free and cheap campsites on the North Island? Hold on, a post on that will follow!


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