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Pitch up

12 December 2021
A young smiling woman stick in a tents her head out of a tent in new zealand.

Camping is one of our favourite national pastimes. There’s nothing like setting off in a jam-packed car, kicking daily routines, sleeping under canvas, cooking al fresco and exploring nature in jandals. Words Anna Wallace

Your friends are stocking up on insect repellent, getting the car serviced and cancelling their food boxes. They’re going camping, joining the mass exodus that occurs once Christmas leftovers have been smashed and the Home Alone movies dutifully chuckled at. If the unpredictability of 2021 has done a number on you and you haven’t sorted a campsite for the holidays yet – no worries! Bookable, or even non-bookable sites are available.

Medium to large commercial campgrounds, like Top 10 Holiday Parks (, are popular as they’re often found in prime locations, are well-serviced and have plenty of entertainment for families. Those at the smaller end of the scale are Department of Conservation (DOC) sites, or those run by community groups. There are apps that facilitate you staying on private property (, or if you’re on wheels, there’s the option of freedom camping.

Lake Rotoiti, Marlborough. Photo: Getty Images.
Lake Rotoiti, Marlborough. Photo: Getty Images.

Conservation sites

DOC aims to foster recreation in nature, connecting people with our nation’s stunning environment and unique heritage. The organisation manages more than 200 campsites throughout New Zealand – from forest settings to lakeshores and sandy beaches. Around 95 are designated ‘backcountry’ or ‘basic’. Some are bookable, whereas others are first-in-best-dressed.

“There’s still plenty of availability at many popular campsites this summer,” advises Steve Taylor, DOC’s Heritage and Visitors Director. “Booking ahead secures people a spot during this busy timeframe.”

At the time of printing, these DOC holiday spots in the South Island all had spaces available in December and January. Services vary, but many of the places listed here have powered and non-powered sites, showers, kitchen and toilet amenities, and drinking water. Check what is at each site before booking ( The DOC Campsite Pass can be used to book in some areas, although can be date-dependent.


KERR BAY AND WEST BAY: Both sites are located next to Lake Rotoiti in the Nelson Lakes region – surrounded by beech forest, with a boat-launch ramp nearby.

Momorangi Bay
Momorangi Bay, near Picton. Photo: Getty Images.


PELORUS BRIDGE: Camp amongst kahikatea, beech and rimu trees by the Pelorus River, which is suitable for swimming, fishing and kayaking. Walking tracks abound. There’s a café and shop on-site.

MOMORANGI BAY: A family campsite beside a sheltered bay, popular for swimming, boating and fishing. A short walk and glow-worm grotto is on-site. Campers can access Wi-Fi, a playground and shop.


PEEL FOREST: Discover the remnants of the magnificent podocarp forest that once covered this area. Walk to Acland Falls, fish or boat on the Rangitata River, and explore the Rangitata Valley.

WHITE HORSE HILL: Camp beneath alpine scenery, including Mt Sefton. Enjoy a variety of walks from the valley floor to mountain tops. Hot showers and shops are found in the village that’s 2.5km away.

Native forest, Lake Mahinapua, West Coast
Native forest at Lake Mahinapua, West Coast. Photo: Getty Images.


HANS BAY – LAKE KANIERE: This is a large, grassy lake-front campsite. Fish from the jetty, or boat and swim in the lake.

LAKE MAHINAPUA: Camp and enjoy water sports at the lake beside a forest. There are limited services here, such as cold showers, and the water is untreated so needs to be boiled before use.


KIDDS BUSH: Camp alongside Lake Hawea, in a large, grassy area near mountain beech trees. Go for walks and swims, or go fishing. Portable toilets are in use, due to a new toilet block being built.

PLEASANT FLAT: Located in the Mt Aspiring National Park near Wānaka. Take in the magnificent views of Mt Hooker; fish in nearby Haast River; enjoy short walks or picnics.


HENRY CREEK: You’ll find this scenic spot beside Lake Te Anau. Accommodates campervans and there are small sites in regenerating beech forest. Limited services, with water taken from a stream.

CASCADE CREEK: Good for larger vehicles, this is close by the Eglinton and Cascade Rivers that are popular for fly fishing. The Lake Gunn Nature Walk starts here. Camp fires are permitted (if no bans).

Cascade Creek, Fiordland
Cascade Creek, Fiordland. Photo: Getty Images.

Winging it

You can try your luck at one of DOC’s non-bookable campsites ( Most of these have limited facilities and operate on a first-come, first-served basis.

These places may have sites up for grabs:

  • Nelson/Tasman: Cobb River, Siberia Flat, Courthouse Flat
  • Marlborough: Elaine Bay, Harvey Bay, Butchers Flat, Cowshed Bay, Camp Bay, Waimaru, Davies Bay, Rarangi, Whites Bay, Onamalutu, Mill Flat, Marfells Beach, Molesworth Cob Cottage, Acheron House
  • Canterbury: Loch Katrine, Andrews Shelter, Lake Poaka, Temple, Round Bush, Lake Middleton, Ahuriri Bridge
  • Otago: Sylvan, Twelve Mile Delta, Moke Lake, Skippers, Macetown, Homestead
  • Southland: Mavora Lakes
  • Fiordland: Thicket Burn

When freedom camping on public land in a van or camper, you need to know where it’s permitted and what the rules are (to avoid a fine). Some DOC sites will allow it ( Every district and council has different by-laws for you to be aware of.

Be safe out there

DOC encourages people to enjoy the outdoors safely: take the correct supplies and equipment; check the conditions (and any alerts) for your destination; tell someone your plans; follow any rules, such as restrictions on dogs, fires and vehicles; and follow the Ministry of Health guidelines.

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