Where to Camp for Free in the South Island
Fall asleep under the darkest skies in the world for stargazing and wake up with stunning wilderness views: how can it get any better than that? The more adventurous of backpackers will definitely want to stay in some of the South Island free campsites, not only because they are a great money-saving option, but because they are an outdoors adventure in themselves. Hike, bike, swim and fish to be one with nature and live like it’s the days the old!
It’s worth mentioning that many of the campsites listed below are accessed via gravel road, so keep this in mind if your rental insurance doesn’t cover unsealed roads. Finally, if you are heading to the North Island, check out the free campsites there too.
1. Greyney’s Shelter
The Arthur’s Pass National Park is simply unmissable for any hiker looking for breathtaking views of the Southern Alps. The Greyney’s Shelter and campsite provide refuge and is a great starting point to explore the many hikes of the national park.
Location: Canterbury. Greyney’s is about 6km (3.7 miles) south of Arthur’s Pass Village along State Highway 73.
2. St Bathans
Nestled between gorgeous mountain ranges, St Bathans campsite is a great resting spot for mountain bikers looking at taking on the Otago Central Rail Trail. You can top up on supplies at the nearby St Bathan township. Also note, that this campsite is accessed by an actual sealed road pretty refreshing for a New Zealand campsite!
Location: Otago. From State Highway 85 at Becks, turn onto Loop Road and go north to just past the Fish Pond Road turn-off.
3. Robin Hood Bay
Camp by a stunning Marlborough Sounds beach and surf at the nearby Magnet Bay. Robin Hood Bay is not a campsite where you will only want to stay one night. In fact, it will be hard to leave! Be aware that there are only 10 camping spaces available so get in there early to avoid disappointment.
Location: Marlborough. 8km (5 miles) north of Blenheim along State Highway 1, turn off at Tuamarina onto Hunter Road. Then left onto Pembers Road/Rarangi Road, and left again onto Rarangi Beach Road. Now, take a sharp left turn onto Port Underwood Road and follow to Robin Hood Bay.
4. Ahuriri Bridge
This free campsite on the South Island is ideally located on one of the main highways in the South Island just outside of the little township of Omarama. Stay alongside the beautiful braided Ahuriri River.
Location: Otago. On State Highway 8, 4km (2.4 miles) north of Omarama.
5. Andrews Shelter
Another campsite in the Arthur’s Pass National Park, Andrews Shelter is a popular location for hikers or campers wanting to get off the beaten path.
Location: Canterbury. Off State Highway 73, follow Mount White Road for 5km (3 miles).
6. Cobb River
Camp on the shore of the Cobb River. Have a refreshing swim and catch a fresh dinner to grill on the campfire. (That’s if you have a fishing licence, of course). The small campsite is not recommended in winter if you are driving anything else than a 4WD.
Location: Tasman. Turn off State Highway 60 at Upper Takaka and follow Cobb Dam Road. The campsite is at the top end of the Cobb Reservoir.
On the shore of Lake Monowai, this campsite is probably one of the most isolated campsites in New Zealand. More than likely it will be just you, your campervan and your travel buddies. The wilderness will be all yours for the night. Skinny dipping, anyone?
Location: Fiordland. North of Clifden via State Highway 99. Follow Clifden-Blackmount Road then turn left onto Lake Monowai Road, where Monowai campsite is at the end.
8. Lake Tennyson Scenic Reserve
Kayaking and fishing are available on this isolated lake, but one of the most popular activities at the Lake Tennyson Campsite is mountain biking. Of course, as with every single location of the country, hiking is always an option too!
Location: Marlborough. To avoid the toll road fees from St Arnaud, access Lake Tennyson campsite from Hamner Springs. Follow Clarence Valley Road then turn left into Tophouse Road, which becomes Wairau-Hanmer Springs Hydro Road. There is a signposted turnoff to Lake Tennyson. The road is suitable for cars and vehicles under 7m (23ft) long.
9. Thicket Burn
On the outskirts of the Fiordland National Park, Thicket Burn campsite is one of the main accesses to the famous Lake Hauroko, New Zealand’s deepest lake.
Location: Fiordland. Thicket Burn campsite is about 25km (16 miles) west of Clifden. From Clifden follow Lillburn Valley Road to the campsite.
10. Lindis Pass Historic Hotel
Needless to say, the Lindis Pass Historic Hotel is not suitable for guests anymore. However, overnight stays are still available in the adjacent reserve. We bet you never thought you could treat yourself to a free hotel night while you’ve been travelling in New Zealand, ay?
Location: Otago. From State Highway 8 take Old Faithful Road. This road is not suitable for bulky caravans.