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Best Freedom Camping Spots: North Island New Zealand

Self contained van at Little Waipa

Freedom camping was one of my favorite experiences during my year in New Zealand. We traveled and lived in our self-contained van for seven months, and most nights we stayed in free camping spots. I really treasure these times of self-reliance and adventure: living in a small space that felt so vast because of all the wild places it allowed us to live in and explore.

Freedom camping locations, however, range quite dramatically in quality. Some are literally a parking lot in the middle of the industrial area of a city. Others have breathtaking views and excellent facilities. Most are average: a place to park for free with rudimentary toilets.

During out travels, I collected a list of my absolute favorite freedom camping spots. These are freedom camping spots that stood out from the rest, either because of the great views, exceptional facilities, or some je ne sais quoi that made them really special.

The requirements for inclusion in this list are:

  • Must have a toilet: we didn’t use our portable toilet, so we made sure to only camp in locations with bathrooms, so we could leave no trace
  • Must be a legal freedom camping location: let’s not break any rules, and be respectful towards our Kiwi hosts!
  • Must be better than the average New Zealand freedom camping location: some freedom camping spots are functional if not pretty, and I’m super grateful for them. This blog post, however, is dedicated to the best of the best!
  • On the North Island of New Zealand. I decided to split this post up because apparently I have a lot to say on this topic.

The best freedom camping spots on the South Island here!

Below are my absolute favorite freedom camping spots on the North Island of New Zealand.

Jones Landing

Jones Landing is my ultimate favorite freedom camping spot in all of New Zealand! That is a big declaration, but hear me out!

We stayed there multiple times on our way south, and then made sure to stay there on our way back north almost a year later. Situated on the grassy banks of Lake Arapuni, surrounded by rolling green hills and beautiful farms, Jones Landing is a peaceful, bucolic reserve. One morning we woke up to a herd of cows nonchalantly strolling by our van.

The lake is a reservoir created by a hydroelectric dam, which makes it deep and calm. There’s cliffs to the right of the campsite, and a charming mini island about 30 feet out into the water. The island has deliciously climbable coiled tree roots enveloping it, and is the perfect place to swim to and soak up some sun.

POPULARITY – On summer weekends, Jones Landing is very popular with locals, so it might be a bit packed. Although there’s some backpackers there, it’s not overflowing with travelers.

FACILITIES – I think Jones Landing would be phenomenal with just drop toilets and would still make this list. The fact that it also has flush toilets and free hot showers propels it into the front as a clear winner.

There are picnic tables, BBQs, a playground, and trash cans.

There is no drinking water or sink to do dishes in, so make sure you bring plenty of water. There is no cell phone service.

BUGS – In my experience the bugs were not bad at all, but a couple reviews reported that they were unbearable: could be the time of year?

LOCATION – Jones Landing is a convenient freedom camping spot if you’re visiting Hobbiton (35 min drive) or rock climbing around Wharepapa South (21 min drive).

RULES YOU SHOULD KNOW

  • Self-contained vehicles do not require a permit
  • Maximum 4 week stay in 3 month period
  • Leave no trace
  • All South Waikato rules here

Little Waipa Reserve

Just 15 minutes north of Jones Landing is another excellent freedom camping spot. The camping at Little Waipa Reserve is on the large, flat, grassy bank of the Waikato River.

Little Waipa Reserve is a tranquil location on the shores of the Waikato river. Like Jones Landing, the beauty here isn’t dramatic, but calm and understated. I remember being able to completely let go of the day’s stresses while doing some yoga on the grass.

POPULARITY – Not too crowded! There is lots of room to camp and maybe even have a bit of privacy!

FACILITIES – Little Waipa Reserve has drop toilet and free showers! There are picnic tables, BBQs, and trash cans.

There is no drinking water or water for washing dishes. No cell phone service.

BUGS – As Little Waipa Reserve is on the banks of a calm river, beware of mosquitos.

LOCATION – Little Waipa Reserve is close to Hobbiton (25 min drive), and to climbing around Wharepapa South (21 min drive).

RULES YOU SHOULD KNOW

  • Self-contained vehicles can stay for free for 2 nights.
  • Leave no trace
  • All South Waikato rules here

Waiomu Beach Side Domain

Waiomu Beach Side Domain is a great freedom camping spot on the Coromandel Peninsula. As one of the first places we stayed on our big New Zealand road trip, it set a high bar.

The Waiomu Beach Side Domain freedom camping spot is a parking lot right by the ocean. There’s a beach to explore and a small park to relax in. We made some Mie Goreng and watched the sunset over the sea, which was fabulous. There’s also a cafe across the street that has great reviews.

POPULARITY – The Coromandel is an extremely popular destination for both tourists and locals. There are 8 spots for freedom camping, and they fill up quickly, so be there by 4 pm or earlier to maximize your chances of getting a spot.

FACILITIES – There are toilets and a cold, outdoor beach shower. There’s drinking water, picnic tables, BBQs, a playground, and trash cans, and cell phone reception.

BUGS – Low

LOCATION – Waiomu Beach Side Domain is a great place to stop on your Coromandel road trip. It’s on the way to Coromandel town (45 min drive).

RULES YOU SHOULD KNOW

  • Must be self-contained
  • Park only between freedom camping signs: they do check, and are quite serious about it on the Coromandel
  • Max 2 night consecutive stay, depart by 9 am
  • Leave no trace
  • All Thames-Coromandel Rules here

Little Bay Recreational Reserve

Little Bay Recreational Reserve freedom camping is a parking lot on the north of the Coromandel Peninsula. Situated right next to one of the most gorgeous half moon beaches surrounded by Pohutakawa trees, this spot is one of my all time favorites!

The drive up there might be a bit rough, but it’s absolutely worth it! We were all alone there for two nights. We got to share the lovely little bay only with the locals, who were all incredibly friendly. They told us about a great hike with views of the bay and town.

Even now back in the US, we still sometimes go: “Hey, remember Little Bay?” and smile. It’s a really special place.

POPULARITY – Although on the hugely popular Coromandel Peninsula, Little Bay is north of Coromandel Town and requires a drive on a rough dirt road: this reduces the number of people there! Although there’s space for 4 – 5 vans, we camped there alone!

FACILITIES – There are basic drop toilets, a picnic table, and trash cans. I don’t think there was cell service.

BUGS – Low

LOCATION – Little Bay is a great place to stay while exploring the wild north of the Coromandel Peninsula. It’s about a 1 hour drive to the Coromandel Coastal Walkway.

RULES YOU SHOULD KNOW

  • Must be self-contained
  • Park only between freedom camping signs
  • Max 2 night consecutive stay, depart by 9 am
  • Leave no trace
  • All Thames-Coromandel Rules here

Brighton Reserve

View of beach from inside van, New Zealand
Not Waihi Beach, but similar

Brighton Reserve freedom camping is in a park right on Waihi beach. We loved it so much we stayed for 3 nights! Waihi beach extends for 8 km of sandy beachy goodness. It’s perfect for long strolls, morning runs, doing yoga on the beach, just chilling with a book, surfing, etc. Just to the north is a trail leading to wild Orokawa Bay.

The camping spot is in a residential neighborhood, so there’s cafes and grocery stores around.

POPULARITY – This place is popular with both travelers and locals. There are 4-5 spots for freedom camping, and they are pretty much full by 4 pm or even earlier.

Be aware that the freedom camping is closed from the 3rd week of Dec to Feb 10th.

FACILITIES – There are great flush toilets, cold outdoor beach showers, drinking water, picnic tables, BBQs, a playground, trashcans, and good cell phone service!

BUGS – Low

LOCATION – Waihi beach is a great New Zealand beach destination. On the north edge of the Bay of Plenty, it’s a 1 hour drive to Mount Maunganui, or around 1 hour 40 min to Coromandel Peninsula’s Hot Water Beach.

RULES YOU SHOULD KNOW

  • Self-contained only
  • Must park in designated freedom camping spots
  • Max 3 night stay in any 4 week period
  • No freedom camping 3rd week of Dec to Feb 10th
  • Leave no trace
  • All Western Bay of Plenty Rules here

Kowharewa Bay

This is such a lovely freedom camping spot on a quiet, peaceful bay. The spots are very close to the water, with wonderful views of the beach. This was my favorite freedom camping spot in Northland and the Bay of Islands.

POPULARITY – The freedom camping on the way to the very popular Bay of Islands tends to be crowded. There is space for 5-6 vans at Kowharewa Bay, so make sure to get there early to secure a spot.

FACILITIES – There are free toilets, picnic tables, and good cell phone reception. There is no drinking water or trash cans, so bring enough water and be prepared to carry out your trash.

BUGS – Low

LOCATION – Kowharewa Bay is just a 5 min drive from Tutukaka, which is the best place from which to explore Poor Knights Island. It’s also on the way to Bay of Islands (~1 hour 30 min drive).

RULES YOU SHOULD KNOW

  • Must be self-contained
  • Must park in designated freedom camping area
  • One night max
  • Leave no trace
  • All Whangarei Rules here

Five Mile Bay Recreation Reserve

Five Mile Bay is a giant freedom camping area on the shores of Lake Taupo. There’s a ton of space, great swimming, beautiful views of the lake, and awesome sunsets. It can get a bit windy, however.

POPULARITY – This spot is very convenient and thus hugely popular. However, there’s a ton of room. Arrive early for the best spots, but this location isn’t as competitive as others on this list.

FACILITIES – There is only one drop toilet for the many many people here: be prepared to stand in line. There are picnic tables and good cell phone service. There’s no water or trash cans, so bring enough water and be prepared to carry out your trash.

BUGS – Low

LOCATION – Five Mile Bay freedom camping is 10 min outside of Taupo. It’s also a 40 min drive to Tongariro National Park.

RULES YOU SHOULD KNOW

  • Must be self-contained
  • Max 4 nights in a month
  • Leave no trace
  • All Taupo Rules here

Further Info

In general, the North Island has better freedom camping spots than the South Island, (although there are some gems on the South Island as well). Since there are not quite as many tourists on the North Island and the sandflies mostly converge on the South Island, freedom camping on the North Island was more of the carefree, easy experience that I imagined and looked forward to.

For more information about van camping in New Zealand, including freedom camping, DOC campsites, holiday parks, and more, please read my camping in New Zealand guide here. To learn more about how to find good freedom camping spots, please read my blog post about the best New Zealand travel apps. For everything you need to know about campervanning in New Zealand, check out my guide here. Finally, my guide to buying a self-contained has all the logistics, actionable advice, and practical tips for buying a van in New Zealand.

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