This post contains affiliate links. This gives me a small commission at no extra cost to you if you make a purchase through the link, and is really helpful in supporting my blog.
To be able to travel New Zealand in the most efficient way, whilst having the freedom to see as much as possible, you have to travel by campervan. By going on one massive road trip around the country you can stop off at any point to go on hikes, see a tourist attraction, or at any campsite along the way. New Zealand has truly embraced the campervan travellers, so there are now free campsites dotted all over the country for people like us! After spending 2 months on the road, we stayed in campsites every single night and now have a wealth of knowledge on the best ones. We downloaded both Campermate and Wikicamps on our phones, which we used everyday to find the best campsites in the area.
To help you sort through the endless amounts of campsites on those apps, I have whittled it down to 9 of the best free campsites in New Zealand’s South Island for you. I have left the Number 1 spot till last, so keep reading to the end and make sure to make a note of it for your road trip!
I will of course also do this for the North Island, which will be coming to you soon! And for all the information you need on how much money you will need to bring with you, click through to my South Island and North Island travel budgets!
9. TAUPATA GRAVEL RESERVE
NEAR FAREWELL SPIT – FREE – FOR BOTH SELF-CONTAINED & NON SELF-CONTAINED VEHICLES – PORTALOO – OPEN 1ST OCT TO 31ST MAR
Situated right at the top of Golden Bay and just beneath Farewell Spit (the odd hook-shaped piece of land right at the top of the South Island) sits Taupata Gravel Reserve. Whilst it isn’t the most comfortable free campsite, it definitely deserves a place on this list. One reason being that it is the only free campsite in the area, the next one is a whole 40 mins drive South along the coast! Because of this it is the perfect start or end point for a one day Golden Bay and Abel Tasman Road Trip, read my blog post on that day here! But as it is the only free campsite in the area, this does mean that it gets full pretty quickly. There are around 15 or so spaces, depending on how the vans park, and it does get full by 6pm or earlier. So make sure to arrive mid afternoon to guarantee a spot!
Another plus is that it is situated right next to the beach! But please always respect the signs that are dotted around the campsite. There are nesting birds on the beach, so you can’t walk over the boundary as it wilL disrupt them. But a great place if you are into bird watching!
8. RED BRIDGE SITE
NEAR WANAKA – FREE – SELF-CONTAINED ONLY – PORTALOOS – 2 NIGHTS MAX
The Red Bridge Site has made it to Number 8 on the list as it is the closest campsite to Wanaka that is free! It is just a 20 minute drive away, so ideal if you want to spend the day sight-seeing in Wanaka, or are hiking up the famous Roys Peak. Wanaka is a must-see when visiting New Zealand, but this does mean that the campsite gets very full. Luckily it is a large area, with space for 50 or more vans. Although it was still full by 9pm for the 2 nights we were there!
It has 3 portaloos that get emptied every few days. This does mean that they do get a bit smelly, but I think you just have to accept these things when staying in free campsites! We stayed in much more scenic sites than this on our road trip, but for the proximity to Wanaka it had to be in this list!
VAN LIFE ESSENTIALS
7. COLLINS MEMORIAL RESERVE
NEAR PICTON – FREE – FOR BOTH NON SELF-CONTAINED & SELF-CONTAINED VEHICLES – FLUSHING TOILETS & SINK – 2 NIGHTS MAX
If you are catching an early morning ferry to the North Island then you must try and get a spot at this campsite! This is the only free one near Picton, and with just 12 spaces available it is in high demand. We arrived very early at 1.30pm and were the first ones there, it got full around 6pm. But there are other comments on the camping apps that say it gets full much earlier on other days. So arrive here as early as you can manage!
Fortunately non self-contained vehicles as well as self-contained ones can camp here too! Although no tents are allowed. The site also provides pretty good facilities such as flushing toilets, which are a welcome treat on the road! It has an outside sink, rubbish bins and some picnic tables too. It is really close to the main road, but there aren’t too many vehicles going past in the night and it is well worth it to be so close to Picton.
6. MOTUEKA BEACH RESERVE
NEAR ABEL TASMAN – FREE – SELF-CONTAINED ONLY – FLUSHING TOILETS – COLD SHOWER – 2 NIGHTS MAX
If you happen to find yourself in the Motueka area then this is the campsite you need to stay in. It was one of the best in terms of facilities that we had been to! There are flushing toilets, an outdoor sink to wash dishes in, picnic tables, a BBQ and even a cold shower if you can bear it. It is also right next to the sea, and the area has a saltwater pool built onto the small pier. This site is free, but there is a donation box if you have some spare change to keep the site maintained.
Again this is a popular campsite, and the 20ish spaces usually get full up around 4.30-5pm! Another bonus is that it is just a 4 minute drive away from the Janie Seddon Shipwreck. Which at low tide you can walk up to using the carefully placed stepping stones through the mud, a great spot for photography!
5. LUMSDEN FREEDOM CAMPING
NEAR QUEENSTOWN – FREE – FOR BOTH NON SELF-CONTAINED & SELF-CONTAINED – TOILETS – DUMP STATION – LIBRARY WIFI – 3 NIGHTS MAX
Now if I was just judging these campsites on the available facilities, this one would no doubt be at Number 1. It is situated in the middle of a really sweet, small town, where everyone seemed really welcoming. Which is definitely not the reception you get everywhere when travelling the country and staying in free campsites. It felt like the locals actually wanted you there, which is why they had made the campsite so great. It is a great place to stop for the night if you are making your way to Te Anau or Queenstown in the morning.
There are about 30 spaces in the car park, and you do have to park in the spaces quite close to one another but you quickly get used to this on the road. They allow non self-contained as well as self-contained vehicles in different areas of the car park. There are nice toilets in the playground, a sink for washing dishes, bins and a dump station. The Four Square supermarket is just the other side of the road, but best of all you can actually connect to the library wifi. The password for most libraries in the South is 88888888. We actually went into the library in the morning to charge our devices, and the lady on reception was so lovely. It just made our experience there even better!
4. LAKE PUKAKI FREEDOM CAMPING 1
LAKE PUKAKI – FREE – SELF-CONTAINED ONLY – DROP TOILETS – INCREDIBLE VIEWS
Lake Pukaki just has to be on your road trip itinerary, it is famously one of the most beautiful lakes in New Zealand. The water is a really vibrant blue, and combined with the views of the mountains in the Mount Cook National Park, it makes the perfect place to camp! There are a few free campsites around the lake, but we decided on No. 1.
It is actually a really large site, with space for over 100 vans! There are a few different levels, so you should easily find space. When you drive in there are the toilets with a large flat camping area. If you get here early you can get a spot next to the woods which are probably the best of the whole site. If you continue to drive through there are a few more levels, but seem rockier and rockier as you continue to drive. And they would also be a much longer walk to the toilet! So we turned around and parked quite close to the toilets. We usually wouldn’t park so close to them, but they didn’t smell and we felt more comfortable in this area. It seems to be a regularly busy campsite, but with so much space you shouldn’t feel too hemmed in.
Whilst you are here make sure to walk through the woods to spend some time on the shores of the lake enjoying the views. If you can stay awake it is really worth venturing out of your van later on in the night to view the night sky. This was one of the best places we experienced to see the stars, it is so clear and you can get some great photos of the Milky Way from here!
3. KATIKI BEACH ROADSIDE
NEAR MOERAKI BOULDERS – FREE – SELF-CONTAINED ONLY – TOILETS – RIGHT ON THE BEACH – 3 NIGHTS MAX
At Number 3 is a small campsite situated just off the road, but not noisy at all and is also right on the beach! You can walk literally a few steps and you are on the beach, just incredible. It is just a short drive from the famous Moeraki boulders, which should definitely be a stop off that you make! It is a small site, but it didn’t seem to fill up when we stayed the night. The toilets were nothing special, but really clean, and there were rubbish bins! Woo! It is surprising how many campsites don’t have rubbish bins, so it is a massive treat when you find one that does!
2. LAKE CAMP 2 – LAKE CLEARWATER
LAKE CLEARWATER – FREE – SELF-CONTAINED ONLY – DROP TOILETS – BEAUTIFUL VIEWS
Our very first destination on our road trip after leaving Christchurch was Lake Clearwater. Mainly because it is a short drive away from Mount Sunday, where Edoras in Lord Of The Rings was set! So we absolutely had to go there. We actually stayed at Lake Clearwater for two nights, both at different campsites. Our first night we stayed at Lake Camp 1, where non self-contained vehicles can also camp. Both of these campsites were extremely peaceful, but Lake Camp 1 turned out to be very windy, it was too much to be able to cook with our gas stove!
So we moved to Lake Camp 2 for our second night, which was much more protected from the wind. We found a nice spot settled in amongst some trees, and were able to cook much easier! Both of these campsites were absolutely perfect for our first few nights in the van. There was no phone signal, so it really was just us and the nature, and it was amazing. If you are staying here make sure to drive to Mount Sunday and hike to the top. It is a short hike, so easily doable, but just be careful at the top. It is extremely windy!
1. LAKE HAWEA FREEDOM CAMPING
NEAR WANAKA – FREE – SELF-CONTAINED ONLY – DROP TOILET – BEAUTIFUL VIEWS OF THE LAKE
So the top spot of the best free campsites in the South Island goes to Lake Hawea Freedom Camping! It is a really simple campsite, but this one tops the list purely because of the incredible views. Some might say the views are better at Lake Pukaki, but it gets so busy there! At Lake Hawea you wake up in the morning with only a few other vans around you, and look out onto the lake without even having to step outside.
We arrived here after a grueling 6 hour hike up Roys Peak, so this was the perfect place to recover for the rest of the day! There is only one drop toilet, but it doesn’t need any more for the size of the site. I would say about 10 vans could park here, and that would be with everyone fairly spaced out.
If you are looking to camp here, don’t be deterred by the information onWikicamps. For some reason it recommends that only vehicles with 4WD camp here. But we only had a 2WD and had no trouble, and can’t see what would have caused this warning!
Did you enjoy this post? Then it would be great if you could pin The Best Free Campsites in New Zealand’s South Island to Pinterest!