Thursday, 26 November 2020

An overview of camping in New Zealand

Camping in a New Zealand context...

I thought we could have a look at backcountry camping in the New Zealand context. Camping is the norm for outdoor people in countries other than New Zealand...if you are staying somewhere over night you will be camping under the stars, in a tent or under a tarp.

Camping is the norm in countries like the United States and Canada....

New Zealand is slightly different...we are blessed in this country with an extensive network of public huts ranging in size from bivouacs the size of a dog box right up to luxurious mansions like the 80 person Pinnacles Hut in the Coromandel Peninsula. 

Huts range from tiny Minchin Bivy in Arthur's Pass NP..... the monster 80 bunk Pinnacles Hut, in the Coromandel Peninsula

This profusion of huts has dictated the way people plan trips when they visit the outdoors in New Zealand. A lot of people will string together a chain of huts along a track while ignoring the mass of wild country which surrounds them. There are very few destinations or tracks which have no huts along their fact you have to go out of your way to find places where there are none.

The West Coast of the South Island is camping heaven....

While we do have this wide network of huts there are still times when you need or want to spend a night out under the stars or in your favored outdoor shelter.

Great camping on the beaches of the Abel Tasman National Park...

Lets have a look at what kind of gear you will need, where you can camp and do an overview of my personal camping set up. 

Why camp when there are huts?

So...I hear you say...Jon why are you camping when New Zealand has over 900 backcountry huts to use?

Why camp when you have places like Crow Hut to stay in?

The answer is simple...some places I want to go to do not have backcountry huts or the huts are not in a convenient place. A good example of this is the Queen Charlotte Track, it has no DOC huts even though it is a trail used by a great many people each year. What it does have are numerous campsites in prime locations so this is where you are going to stay.

The DOC campsite at Cowshed Bay, Kenepuru Sound, Queen Charlotte Track

Accommodation on your chosen track may be private...and private huts tend to be really expensive. On the QCT the campsites cost less than $20 per night while the private lodges and resorts cost several hundred. Great Walk huts are also quite expensive (average $40 per night for Kiwis and over $120 per night for international visitors).

That $5 a night basic campsite is starting to look good...

It costs $5 per night at basic campsites like Woolshed Creek, Mt Somers

Huts are awesome but they can also be crowded, hot, smelly and noisy places. Many are the legends of the roof raising snorer, the midnight bag rustler or the overly amorous couplings which huts are renown for. If you are in a tent the stinks, noises and shifty behaviors are yours alone.

A busy Homer Hut, Fiordland National Park...

Another reason to camp is the sheer joy of being outside at night under the cover of a tent or tarp. Camping brings you closer to can see it, feel it, smell it and hear it much better when you are outside in its bounty. We have no dangerous animals here in New Zealand so there is nothing coming to visit you if you are sleeping in a Bears, Moose, Wolves, Snakes or Lions.

Only Drop Bears so don't forget your Vegemite...

Beware the Drop Bear....

In reality I spend most of my outdoor nights in a hut but I do like to have an occasional tenting  adventure where I can enjoy my interaction with mother nature on closer terms. 

Where should I camp? DOC campsites/private camp grounds/wilderness camping:

There are several options for finding camping spots when you are tramping in New Zealand: wild camping, public campsites and private campsites. Each of these have different rules attached to them and there is usually some form of charge depending on the type of site you use.

Wild camping:

To start with the easiest...camping in the wild. You are entitled to camp on any DOC land provided you are more than 100 meters away from the track or any huts. There is no charge to camp in these places. If you are at a designated DOC backcountry camp site then yes there are charges attached...usually $5 per night but check for local details.

Basic campsite on the Lake Christabel Track...flat ground, river for water, wood etc.

A wild campsite on the Andrews-Casey-Binser Circuit, Arthurs Pass NP

Tent city near the new Casey Hut II, Poulter River Valley

There are some exceptions to these rules...for instance where camping is specifically forbidden for biodiversity or safety reasons, along any of the Great Walk tracks, close to DOC huts unless specifically allowed and in areas of cultural or historic significance.

This tent is a little too close to Casey Hut II...

No camping is allowed anywhere along the Milford Track...

There will be no facilities provided in bush campsites so follow LNT best practice for waste removal, water gathering, fires and toileting.

Please practice Leave No Trace (LNT) when wild camping...

Public camp sites:

The next option is at backcountry campsites that are usually provided by DOC but also by local and regional councils, trust boards and private organisations like tramping & climbing clubs. Some of these will charge for their some investigation before you set out to see if, where and how to pay.

DOC campsite at Marble Hill, Lake Daniell Track, Lewis Pass

Facilities will vary at these sites but you will usually find water, toilets and fireplaces at most of them. The Department of Conservation have a handy free guide books with details of all of the DOC camp sites and camp grounds or you can look for a campsite online.

There are DOC campsite guides available.....

There is also a bit of information in the guide about camping etiquette in New Zealand.

Private campgrounds:

The last option is private campsites....there is a long and beloved history of camping holidays in New Zealand so the whole country is liberally covered with good camping grounds. Private camps are usually more developed and can feature holiday cabins, tent sites, toilet blocks, pools, cooking shelters, showers and other facilities.

The campground at Mistletoe Bay has campsites and holiday bach's...

There is a nice camp kitchen at Mistletoe Bay...

Pohara Campground in Golden Bay has varied accommodation and facilities

Most will charge for their use but there are a surprising number of free camp grounds still available so do your research. The majority of them are coastal but there are campgrounds in most small rural towns right around the country.

Private campgrounds have more amenities...Urupukpuka Bay in the Bay of Islands

There are a number of online sites with details of camp grounds around the country. One is The New Zealand Camping guide and another is the website for the Top Ten Holiday Parks organisation which is the largest holiday park group here.

Freedom Camping:

The other controversial camping option that we should discuss is freedom camping. Freedom campers will find public spaces like car-parks, river margins, beach fronts and road margins and stay there for the night. Usually these are people in cars, caravans or vans converted into campers but people also freedom camp in tents. The majority are international tourists travelling New Zealand on a limited budget.

Freedom camping is becoming a problem in New Zealand...

The problem with freedom camping is that people camp at unsuitable places with no toilets, rubbish disposal or other amenities. They also tend to congregate in the same place and there have been incidents of crime, excessive drinking, littering and irresponsible behavior. Increasing numbers of local authorities have introduced by-laws making this type of activity illegal and hefty fines can and are issued to people on a regular basis.

Some regions have fines of up to $400 for illegal freedom camping...

Never try to freedom camp if it is illegal in the place you want to stay...instead go pay $20-$30 and stay in a established campground. A lot of tourists towns have designated freedom camping sites so use them if provided.

 Don't take the piss and irritate the locals by camping where you are not allowed to!!!

What gear will I need?

When I am talking about camping gear I am primarily talking about camping while I am out on a tramping trip. Weight is more of an issue when it comes to tramping as you will be carrying all of the gear on your back. Obviously you wont be humping that 16 kg multi room mansion of a tent you use for car camping. You are far more likely to be carrying that super lite tent that weighs less than a kilo.

Ahhhhhhh....NO...not like this idiocy!!!
...more like this: Luxe Lightwave on the QCT in 2017...

Here is what I think you need at a bare minimum to camp successfully while tramping, this gear will protect you from any weather, keep you dry, warm and reasonably comfortable. It wont be fancy glamping luxury but it will be good enough for a couple of nights.

All your camp gear should fit into your pack.....

Specific gear required for camping while on a tramping trip:

Tent, 1-2 person as light as possible without compromising safety
Ground sheet to protect the tent floor
Sleeping mat/pad/airmat/closed cell mat
Sleeping bag or quilt suitable for the conditions
Air pillow (optional)
A sponge or similar for wiping spills and puddles

As well as a tent you will need ancillary gear to make life more enjoyable...things like sleeping mats, ground sheets, air pillows etc. You will probably need a heftier sleeping bag or quilt as you are more exposed to weather when in a tent or tarp. After all you have only a thin sheet of nylon protecting you from all Mother Nature can chuck at you...

An air mat provides comfort and insulation from the ground...Exped SynMat HL

You will need a sponge or cloth for wiping up water..if it is raining then getting in/out of the tent will introduce water to your living space so you want to mop that up and get it outside. I usually carry a large Chux cloth for this purpose.

Remember weight will be important so try to only carry what is really necessary and take the lightest version of anything you will be carrying.

My personal camping setup:

Here is the gear I am currently using when I expect to be camping by myself while out on a tramp. I will go through each piece of gear and offer a few comments on its use and purpose.


My current go to tent for one person is my Big Agnes Copperspur UL1 tent which I brought back in late 2017 and have been using since. It is big enough for myself and has plenty of room for storing my pack, boots, poles etc. either in the vestibule or inside the tent itself.

The Copperspur UL1 can be set up as a tarp shelter.....

The tent is perfect for me as it is light weight, it packs small and has great features while still being robust enough for most weather conditions. I probably wouldn't use this on a tops trip as Im not sure it could stand up to heavy wind.

The Copperspur UL1 unpacked...

I really like it and my only concern is the lightweight nature of the floor which needs a ground sheet to protect it from sharp debris. 

Ground sheet:

I am currently using either a sheet of Tyvek (a waterproof house barrier wrap) or a space blanket cut to size under my tent. The ground sheet provides additional protection from damage to your tent floor while also blocking water and cold seeping up from the ground.

Use a cut to size space blanket for a ground sheet

The mylar these blankets are made of is very resistant to punctures as it molds around debris rather than piercing it.. I cut mine to size and I find they are good for several trips if you carefully refold them after every use and store them in a small zip-loc bag.

You can just see my ground sheet under the tent at Totaranui campground

A folded up space blanket takes up about the same space as a muesli bar and weighs less than 100 gms so it makes a great ground sheet. The only downside is it will blow about in the wind so you have to make sure you secure it so it doesn't blow away when pitching your tent. I normally slide it under the tent once I have pitched it.

Sleeping pad:

The ground is cold...if you have no insulation from the ground you will quickly become chilled even with a thick layer of forest debris and a tent floor under you. It is also hard so you need something to provide you with comfort and insulation if you hope to sleep well.

Even in a leafy forest the ground is super hard...

The choice of insulation is up to you...closed cell foam mats are cheap and virtually indestructible but they offer little comfort due to the thin nature of the material. Air pads or air mattresses are better for comfort but are less rugged...punctures are common with them.

My closed cell foam mat has reflective material for heat retention...

I personally use an insulated air mat when I am camping. I have two good mats...the first is a lite Thermarest NeoAir which I use for Te Araroa trail section hiking. Thermarest pads have been favored by long trail hikers the world over for decades they are great mats but eye wateringly expensive. I also have an Exped SynMat which is warmer as it is filled with insulation and I think more comfortable but the downside is the greater bulk and weight.

I use whichever mat I think will best suit the trip I am on. 

The Thermarest NeoAir sleeping pad...

I also own a Kiwi Camping closed foam mat which I would take if there was snow on the ground as they provide a bit more insulation in those harsh conditions.

Air pillows:

I never used to carry an air pillow with me when I went out for a tramping or camping trip. Usually I would make do with a rolled up polar fleece or jacket stuffed into one of my shirts but it is not a comfortable way to spend a night.

Using a rolled jacket as a pillow at Anchorage Hut, Abel Tasman NP

Karen brought me a Sea to Summit inflatable pillow last year and it has revolutionized how I sleep. It is so much more comfortable when you have a pillow and I get less of the headaches I used to find myself with when I woke in the morning. 

My Sea to Summit Aeros Pillow.....

Mine is a Sea to Summit Aeros (regular size) is 34(L)x24(W)x11 thick when inflated, it weighs 79gms and packs down to a small size.
The Aeros pillow packs down to a tiny size...

 Wither camping or in a hut I always take an air pillow with me now. 

Sleeping Bag/Quilt:

I have been using a Macpac NZAT down quilt for the last two years and find that it is more than enough cover for when I am staying in a hut. It is light (850gms), large enough to cover my tall body and filled with 350gms of excellent 850 loft down which is good down to zero degrees if I wear clothing to bed.

I am a hot sleeper so anything more than this is too much for Jon and leaves me sweaty and ill rested. 

My NZAT down quilt in Hawdon Hut back in 2019....

If I was going to be camping over Spring/Autumn/Winter I would use my Exped Ultralite sleeping bag which is good down to -5 degrees. It is an excellent piece of kit and weighs only 950 gms. You are far more exposed to the wind in a tent so you need to ensure you are going to be warm enough at night.

My Exped Ultralite sleeping bag at Carrington Hut, Arthur's Pass NP

I open sleeping bags up and use them like a quilt so the Exped bag is just a warmer take on the NZAT quilt but just not optimised for that task.

All the tarps/tents I own...a list:

 If you are like me (and most other trampers...) then you have a pile of gear stacked up somewhere waiting to be used. I currently own two tarps and five tents...they are different sizes and for different purposes. You will never find one tent that fits all your needs but you can certainly try.

Here is a list of all the shelters I currently own:


I only own two tarps at the is a shelter for camping while the other is an emergency day shelter.

1. Oztrail Hiker Fly, 3.5(W)x2.1(L), 550gms (with pegs)
2. DD Tarps, 1.4(L)x1.4(W) Magic Carpet Tarp, 174gms (with pegs)

My Oztrail Hiker Tarp....

I am currently in the market for a good lite tarp to replace the Oztrail as it is nearly 10 years old and not ideal for the kind of tramping I do.


I have both tramper tents in a variety of sizes and materials and car camping tents...

1. Big Agnes Copper Spur UL 1, 2.24(L)x1.10(W)x98(H), 950gms
2. Luxe Lightwave II (1-2 person): 2.4(L) x 1.55(W)x1.05(H), 1.3 kg
3. Macpac Nautilus (2 person): 2.2(L)x1.4(W)x1.0(H), 2.1 kg
4. Coleman Spirit 2 (2 person): 2.6(L) x 1.4(W) x 1.0(H), 1.9kg (Car)
5. Coleman Coastline 3 (car camping tent): 2.6L x 2.25W x 1.4H + 1.60V , 7.6 kg (Car)

(L= Long, W=Wide, H=High, V=Vestibule)

Karen brought us a Macpac Nautilus tent in 2020....

The Macpac Nautilus can be used in snowy conditions...

My car camping tents are the Coleman Spirit 2 and the Coleman Coastal 3......Im hoping to get the Coastal 3 out on some trips I have planned for this year.

I have a 3 person Coleman Coastline 3 tent for car camping

For more information about my tent collection have a look at the post about my shelters...

Jon's camping adventures: A selection of examples...

I spend almost all of my time in backcountry huts when I am staying overnight in the outdoors so I do not use my shelters as much as I should. I am pragmatic...I love camping but if there is a lovely dry hut with seats, a firebox and thick mattresses I am going to use it.

Its hard to turn down a lovely warm hut to camp...Manson-Nicholl Hut 

I have camped on a number of occasions when there were no huts at the places I was visiting and needed to camp instead. Additionally, I always carry a shelter with me when I go out as a safety measure.

 Here are a couple of examples where I used my tent/shelter for overnight accommodation instead of a hut. Note this is a small selection...I have camped more than this but I just don't have any photos of the occasion...

Queen Charlotte Track:2016

You have two options for accommodation on the Queen Charlotte Track or QCT. The most common option people use is staying in the B and B's, holiday homes, lodges and resorts which exist on this particular track. These range from the most basic holiday bach to proper resorts at Portage, Furneaux Lodge and Mistletoe Bay. 

I stopped at Furneaux Lodge on the QCT for a refreshing cider or three...

The other option is to camp which is what I did when I walked the track back in 2016. There are both private and DOC campsites along the track and I stayed at a combination of the two. The campsites I utilised were;  Madsens Camp (Private), Bay of Many Coves (DOC), Cowshed Bay (DOC), Mistletoe Bay Campsite (Private) and Davies Bay (DOC). 

My Luxe tent set up at Madsens Camp, QCT

Madsen's Camp is attached to a holiday home about an hour past Furneaux Lodge and was a great wee camping spot. There were a couple of other people staying there and the guy who owns it was super helpful. I walked down to his wharf and got a feed of fresh mussels off the rocks there...beautiful!!! Check it out if you are doing the Queen Charlotte Track...

At the DOC campsite at Bay of Many Coves on the QCT

DOC campsites on the QCT have camp kitchen shelters...

The DOC campsites are located roughly three hours apart right along the length of the track. Some of them are located high on the ridges which feature on this track but most of them are at or near sea level. Both Camp Bay and Cowshed Bay are accessible by road while the others can only be accessed by foot, MTB or boat.

All of the DOC campsites have a cooking shelter of some type...usually a basic three sided structure. The ones at Camp Bay and Cowshed Bay were brand new and very flash. 

The campsite at Cowshed Bay was quite busy...QCT

Mistletoe Bay was once owned by DOC but is now a private resort...they have campsites and van/caravan sites here and an excellent kitchen/toilet building with a great kitchen and lounge area.There are also bookable resort bungalows if you wanted a break from the camping. 

Inside my tent at Mistletoe Bay campsite on the QCT

While it would be nice to stay in the resorts I think everyone should experience the QCT as a camping trip as the weather in the area is generally good and the campsites are not too dodgy. 

Totaranui campground, Abel Tasman NP:2018

I set out on a trip in early 2018 to walk the Inland Track in Abel Tasman NP...starting from Totaranui I made it to Awapoto Hut on the first day of the trip where I promptly fell over a tree root and injured myself. This forced me to head back to Totaranui as I was only on Day 1 of a four day trip and the terrain ahead was difficult with no bail out options till I got back to Marahau. 

The Big Agnes UL1 at the Totaranui campsite in 2018

I stayed at Totaranui Campground after visiting Awapoto Hut, Abel Tasman NP
Closer detail of the Big Agnes Copperspur UL1 at Totaranui campground

I limped back down to Totaranui and stayed for a night in the camp ground as I waited for the first water-taxi to take me back to Marahau the next morning. I set up in the Great Walk campsite and had a very enjoyable night using the fine facilities there.

I feasted like a King as I had three full days of rations in my pack...

Dinner number two at Totaranui campsite...

The Great Walk kitchen shelter at Totaranui campground in Abel Tasman National Park...

I have said to Karen that we must go for a camping trip to Totaranui Campgrounds some time as it is an excellent spot with great facilities and close to a beautiful beach. 

Ryde Falls campsite, Oxford Forest Park, Canterbury:2013

Back in 2013 I went for an overnight trip into Ryde Falls in the Mt Oxford Forest Park here in Canterbury. This is normally a day walk but there is a scratch campsite next to Coopers Creek which flows past the waterfall that I stayed at. 

Using my Coleman Spirit 2  at the Ryde Falls campsite back in 2013

I had quite a nice night camping here using my Coleman Spirit 2 tent I carried at that time. I was the only person there in the evening and I lit a fire and sat on a log seat and listened to the gurgle of the river and the sound of Morepork/Ruru in the nearby forest.

A much younger Jon at the Ryde Falls campsite in Mt Oxford Forest in 2013

The Ryde Falls campsite is super basic...but usable!!!

That campsite needs a lot of say it is very basic would be the most generous commentary in the world...but it sufficed for a night. 

Mt Richardson, Canterbury Foothills:2015

I spent a night up on Mt Richardson camping under my tarp back in was a nice wee spot to camp as it was tucked into a grove of Beech trees and protected from the wind. The only problem with the camp was lack of water as there are no rivers, streams, lakes or tarns up there. You are so much closer to nature under a can see, feel, smell and touch it.

My Oztrail Tarp set up on Mt Richardson, Canterbury Foothills

When I was in the Army in the late 1980's a tarp was our usual mode of shelter and it was o.k  provided it isn't too wet or windy. Sometimes you had to get creative with using your pack for a wall or cutting turf squares to stop the wind. Pin one end to the ground and elevate the other...

Classic New Zealand military DPM tarp set up.....

Group tarp camps are also the bread and butter of tramping clubs from the 1950's right up to the present and many a great night would have been spent next to the fire under the tarp. Tarps are especially good in thick, tight forest as they can be shaped to fit a particular camp site. A 3x3 tarp will easily house 6-8 people under it...

A group tarp set up in the New Zealand bush...

With the availability of new light weight trampers tents the tarp has taken the back burner in New Zealand to a certain extent.

More is the pity....