Where to Camp for Free on the North Island
The most rugged and raw backpacker experience! Camping is a great way to immerse yourself in the wilderness, which, after all, that is what New Zealand is all about. Sleep under the stars, with some of the best views of the Southern Hemisphere stars, and wake up to a stunning sunrise.
Better yet, campsites can either be a chance to meet fellow campers and sing songs around the campfire Ok, that last bit might be a bit cliche. On the other hand, you may even find yourself blissfully alone in the campsite. Just you and nature (and any other backpacker buddies you might have dragged along with you).
Oh, and we know how much backpackers appreciate anything labelled “FREE”, so this list is exclusively free camping grounds on the North Island! For free South Island campsites, check here. Just one more note, the majority of the access roads to these campsites are gravel roads, just in case your car insurance policy does not cover such things.
1. Graces Stream
The Orongorongo Valley is crisscrossed by tens of hikes and walks. After a long day of exploring the valley, take a rest along a stream shaded by a thick forest in the Graces Stream campsite. Check out more freedom camping spots nearby in the 15 Free Camping Spots in Wellington.
Location: Wellington. Graces Stream is south of Wainuiomata. Drive 10km (6 miles) down Coast Road. Take a Rimutaka Forest Park entrance and follow the road to the very top car park. This is about 45 minutes away from Wellington city.
Located at the gate of the Raukumara Forest Park, the Whitikau Campsite is the perfect base to make the most of the park. Mostly known for its hikes and mountain biking, the park is also a great place to fly fish or simply swim in the river.
Location: Eastland. Take the State Highway 35 east of Opotiki then turn off at Omarumutu. Now follow Motu Coach Road to Toatoa. Finally, take Takaputahi Road to the campsite.
3. Waikare River Mouth
With a river on one side and the beach only a 10-minute walk away on the other, Waikare River Mouth campsite is ideally located to make the most of the summer! The only downside of the camping is the access through a lengthy gravel road.
Location: Hawke’s Bay. From Putorino take State Highway 2 and turn into Waikare Road. The gravel road is 13km (8 miles) to Waikare River Mouth campsite.
4. Mangatutu Hot Springs
Camping is all about relaxing right?! What about a free hot pool to go with it? The thermal springs and its nearby Mangatutu Hot Springs campsite are very close to tons of backpacker activities such as rafting, swimming spots and hikes. This also features in our 10 Best Cheap Campsites on the North Island.
Location: Hawke’s Bay. From Napier, take Puketitiri Road then Pakaututu Road. Turn into Makahu Road and follow to Mangatutu Hot Springs. The road is a gravel road and there is a ford stream to tackle also.
5. Raetea North Side
Hidden in the middle of a rare lowland coastal forest, the Raetea North Side campsite is also home to a wide variety of native birds and even the short-tailed bat!
Location: Northland. Take the State Highway 1 southeast of Kaitaia. At Mangataiore, look for the signpost to “Raetea Reserve” and follow the gravel road and cross a stream ford to get to the Raetea North Side campsite.
6. Army Road Campsite
Situated in the Kaimanawa Forest Park in the Lake Taupo area, the Army Road Campsite is a great base for hiking in beech forest, mountain biking and fishing (make sure you have a fishing license).
Location: Waikato. 27km (17 miles) from Taupo. Take State Highway 5 onto Tauhara Road and follow for 9.5km (6 miles). Turn onto Clements Mill Road. The campsite is on Clements and Army Road.
7. Kuripapango (Ox Bow)
Lodged in the Kaweka Forest Park on the bank of the Ngaruroro River, the Kuripapango (Ox Bow) Campsite is the perfect spot for a peaceful river swim or, on the other end of the scale, crazy white water rafting.
Location: Hawke’s Bay. From Kuripapango, take the Napier-Taihape Road then a 1km (0.6 miles) gravel road towards the river.
8. Te Pakau (Eight Acre)
The majestic forest adjacent is only the beginning of this campsite on the banks of the Waimana River. This old dairy farm converted into a campsite is a great place to call home for a night or two. Be aware that it can get pretty busy in summer.
Location: Eastland. Near Waimana, follow Bell Road off State Highway 2 then onto Matahi Valley Road.
This biker’s pit stop is located halfway through the Timber Trail one of our 10 favourite bike trails on the North Island, featuring incredible forests and eight swingbridges. Learn more about the campsite on the Department of Conservation (DOC) website.
Location: Waikato. Take the Waimiha-Ongarue Road off either State Highway 4 or State Highway 30. At Waimiha, follow Ongarue Stream Road into Kokomiko Road.
Take a stroll along the Pohangina River among the Pohangina River. If you happen to have a rod with you, trout fishing is extremely popular on the river too. Check out the DOC website for more information on this campsite.
Location: Manawatu. From Ashhurst take Pohangina Road until you reach Raumai. Turn right to cross the Pohangina River bridge. Follow Pohangina Valley East Road until reaching Piripiri Bridge. The campsite is on the left just before the bridge.