studio tdes on Flickr© studio tdes on Flickr
studio tdes on Flickr

Camping in the Catlins

© studio tdes on Flickr

Where Can You Camp in the Catlins?

The lush forests scattered with waterfalls, the carved coastline with unusual rock formations, the abundance of wildlife: we can hardly blame you for wanting to go camping in the Catlins. This part of the South Island’s coast between Dunedin and Invercargill is a must for backpackers wanting to get off the beaten track along some wild coastline. If you have a tent or are travelling by camper, we couldn’t recommend making use of the campsites more! There are some stunning locations to sleep under the stars in the Catlins, from forest clearings by the river to practically on the beach.

In the Catlins, you have campsites run by the Department of Conservation (DOC), privately-owned holiday parks and backpacker hostels with camping facilities. The area is also pretty open for freedom camping if you have a self-contained vehicle. Be sure read up on all the camping laws below!

Where Can You Camp?

Anyone can use the designated campsites, which are well signposted. You can stay at campsites whether you’re sleeping in a tent, campervan, car or even just your sleeping bag. Although, we would not recommend that last one.

If your campervan is fully self-contained (with onboard wastewater, toilet and rubbish facilities) then there are a lot of places that you can camp for free as long as it is on council land. You must camp away from town centres and residential areas. Otherwise, just avoid places with a “no camping” sign and private property. Read “Can You Freedom Camp in the Catlins?” below to find out more.©

DOC Campsites in the Catlins

The DOC campsites do not require any booking and are all “standard”-classed campsites, meaning they have very basic facilities. They are all NZ$8/person/night.

Purakaunui Bay Campsite

Sleep by the beach with the view of sheer cliff faces in the background. Nearby are the Purakaunui Falls and an excellent surf break. Purakaunui Bay campsite has standard DoC facilities including tap water and assisted wheelchair access. To get there from Balclutha, drive south until the Ratanui turnoff. Follow Purakaunui Falls Road to Long Point Road, then follow gravel Purakaunui Bay Road to the campsite.

Tawanui Campsite

This is a great campsite for your dose of river and forest! Camp in a small clearing by the river and close to the Catlins River-Wisp Loop Track (5 hours one way). The standard facilities at the Tawanui Campsite include flush toilets and water from the tap. To get there from Balclutha, drive South to Owaka. Follow the Papatowai Highway for about 7km (4.3 miles) then turn right onto Catlins Valley Road and right onto the gravel Morris Saddle Road. The campsite is left at cattle-stop.

Papatowai Campsite

The Papatowai Campsite is in a forest clearing near a scenic beach and estuary. The facilities include a shelter for cooking, a shop, wheelchair access and tap water. To get there from Balclutha, drive south past Owaka until you reach the Papatowai township where there is a sealed road to the campsite.©

Holiday Parks in the Catlins

Curio Bay Holiday Park

Non-powered site fee: NZ$20/2 people/night
Powered site fee: NZ$30/2 people/night

Sleep in your own flax sheltered site in close proximity to the fossilised forest of Curio Bay and some swimming beaches known to attract Hector’s dolphins and yellow-eyed penguins. Facilities include showers, washing machine, dryers, basic kitchen (microwave, hot plate and jug) and a shop. Curio Bay is situated at the end of Curio Bay Road between Waikawa and Haldane.

Slope Point Backpackers

Non-powered fee: NZ$15/person/night
Powered site fee: NZ$30/2 people/night

Situated between Curio Bay and Waipapa Point, this backpacker hostel with campsite accommodation is at the southernmost point of the South Island. Facilities of the hostel are included for campers.

Other Holiday Parks in the Catlins:©

Can You Freedom Camp in the Catlins?

In council-owned areas of the Catlins and Clutha District and with a self-contained campervan, you can freedom camp. Basically, just avoid camping where there are “no camping” signs.

Your campervan must be fully self-contained and be displaying the self-contained certification sticker. An appropriate self-contained camper can contain water waste for up to three days, including water in the form of water supply, grey water (sink and shower water), and septic waste. Read more about self-contained campers in our guide to Self-Contained Campervans in New Zealand.

If you choose to freedom camp, you must leave the area the way you found it in order to protect the natural environment. Please remember to comply with the following to avoid fines which start from NZ$500:

  • Stay away from town centres, residential areas and “no camping” areas.
  • Stay a maximum of three nights in one location in any 4-week timeframe.
  • Use the waste disposal dump stations.
  • Dispose of rubbish in town centre bins and council transfer stations.
  • Don’t light fires.
  • If asked to move by an authorised officer, move!

Keep up to date with local freedom camping laws with our Freedom Camping Rules in New Zealand: Region by Region.


Laura S.

This article was reviewed and published by Laura, editor in chief and co-founder of NZ Pocket Guide. Since arriving solo in New Zealand over 10 years ago and with a background in journalism, her mission has been to show the world how easy (and awesome) it is to travel New Zealand. She knows Aotearoa inside-out and loves sharing tips on how best to experience New Zealand’s must-dos and hidden gems. Laura is also editor of several other South Pacific travel guides and is the co-host of NZ Pocket Guide’s live New Zealand travel Q&As on YouTube.

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