Our Favourite Freedom Camping Spots – Part 1

overlooking the catlins river at hinahina reserve - the best parking spot one of our favourite freedom camping spots
The best parking spot at Hina Hina Reserve

This is a story about some of our favourite freedom camping spots – or at least about five of the 26 freedom camping spots we have stayed at so far in the South Island during our motorhome travels.

More specifically, it gives me an opportunity to showcase some of the photographs I have taken in and around those five freedom camping spots.

According to the “official” website for New Zealand, there are over 500 places around New Zealand where anyone can freedom camp responsibly. So with just 26 visited so far we still have many many more to explore, hence the Part 1 in the story title.

So, while there are five spots highlighted here in no particular order of preference I’ll also add a couple of honourable mentions at the end.

Hina Hina Reserve

Hina Hina Reserve, home of the Catlins Boating Club and the Owaka Yacht Club,  is one of the first freedom camping sites we ever stayed at – and is a real favourite of ours.

There are just under 7 kilometres of gravel road to the reserve from the Papatowhai Highway, or, it is just a 10-minute drive from Owaka via the Catlins River bridge which was closed for repair when we were there.

Although it is a freedom camping area, there is an iron maiden on-site to accept donations from campers.

Be aware though – there are no  facilities whatsoever – so make sure that you have plenty of water on board, and your grey and black tanks have plenty of room,  and be prepared to take out anything, rubbish included, that you take in.

Hina Hina Reserve is a lovely peaceful spot, somewhere to just get away from it all and blob. And when the weather is right, as it has been for us when we’re been there, the atmosphere is superb! 

If you travel with dogs, as we do, be aware that there may be stock in paddocks adjacent to the reserve.

Lake Ruataniwha

The freedom camping site at Lake Ruataniwha is at the eastern end of the lake, not far from the Ohau A power station.

Set up high on a bluff the site offers some fantastic views up and down the lake as can be seen from the accompanying photographs. Like Hina Hina Reserve this is a “pack-in, pack-out” site with absolutely no facilities whatsoever. 

There’s plenty to do here: fishing in the lake or the canals, walking, bike riding or just relaxing. 

The nearest public dump station is in Twizel township, just 5 or 6 minutes away; but be warned, on the several occasions we used the PDS there was a queue of motorhomes and caravans.

Jackson Bay

Right at the southern end of the West Coast’s road network, about 50 kilometres from Haast, is Jackson Bay –  beautiful in its isolation.

The freedom camping site at Jackson Bay is just a hundred or so metres past the world-famous (on the West Coast) Craypot Restaurant. It is an open area off the end of the Haast-Jackson Bay road with room for, maybe, half a dozen motorhomes and/or caravans. It’s first in first served here, and we were lucky enough to be first in the day we arrived so had the best location directly overlooking the bay itself.

As for things to do at Jackson Bay….well not much really. There is a lovely little bush walk – the Wharekai Te Kou walk – which takes you over the hill to Ocean Beach. And of course there is fishing, walking, enjoying the splendid isolation, the views, and not to forget, The Craypot, where they serve up great seafood meals and great hospitality. Oh…the wine is pretty good too.

And like the other freedom camping sites in this story, you need to go prepared as there are no facilities. I don’t think there is even a local shop.

But this spot is definitely well worth a visit – as long as you arrive prepared for sandflies!

Whitecliffs Domain

We discovered Whitecliffs Domain almost by chance when were travelling home from the West Coast to Invercargill. As I recall it just popped up on our NZMCA app as we headed south on the back road from Sheffield.

Turn right just south of Glentunnel, before crossing the Selwyn River bridge, and the domain is a few minutes up the road. Turn right onto Hartleys Road and the domain entrance is about 150 metres on the left.

Unlike other freedom camping sites in this post, there are facilities at Whitecliffs. There are nice clean (cleaned every day) toilets and rubbish bins, but the only water supply is non-potable – so make sure your fresh water tanks are topped up. 

There is a public dump station in Glentunnel, but there is no potable water supply, although it may be possible to get some from the local motor camp for a fee. We didn’t try.

Whitecliffs has plenty of room with sites in the sun overlooking the upper Selwyn River, sites under trees, or on grassed areas surrounded and sheltered by trees. It has always been a busy place when we have been there with people staying in motorhomes, caravans, camper vans and tents.

The bike ride into town is pretty easygoing. We cycled into Glentunnel and then down to Coalgate and back just because we could – twice.

Check when Whitecliffs is open. I recall seeing a sign that said it was closed for a period over the winter months.

Butchers Dam

Butchers Dam is actually a lake alongside State Highway 8, the Fruitlands to Alexandra highway. Yes – there is a dam that holds back the water and creates the lake.

Surrounded by rocky hills, Butchers Dam is an ideal freedom camping spot to stay at if you enjoy fishing, mountain biking, walking and generally enjoying nature. 

The best spots are close to the lake edge where the ground is more even making it easier to level your motorhome or caravan. Don’t camp in the car park at the start of the Flat Hills Walk. That is  DOC land and is not permitted.

I also understand that the area in which freedom camping is allowed is privately owned – so the area deserves your respect, and the landowner deserves thanks for letting us use the area.

Pack-in, pack-out – there are no facilities at all.

There are lots of walking options once you cross the dam itself and enter the Flat Hill Conservation area, and dogs are allowed.

For mountain bikers there are 9 mountain tracks ranging from intermediate to advanced level, totalling 26 kilometres distance. 

We have been to Butchers Dam a few times now. Our first visit was in August 2020 at the tail end of winter when overnight temperatures dropped to well below zero. That was the trip where we discovered how the anti-freeze mechanism in our Carado’s water supply system worked. We woke up in the morning to a fully drained freshwater tank! The nearest public dump station with fresh water is in Alexandra. Lesson learned!

Is Butchers Dam our most favourite freedom camping spot so far? Well – it’s certainly right up there and worthy of a 5-star rating.

Worthy Mentions...Pinders Pond and Warrington Domain

Photographs were processed in DxO Photolab 4, then finished with Kodachrome 24 emulation in Nik Color Efex Pro.

10 Responses

  1. Shirl says:


  2. Helen and David Rule says:

    This is great. I’m looking forward to your next installment!

    • Rick says:

      Don’t hold your breath too long team…I have been known to be a procrastinator when it comes to posting wee stories…and most are not about motorhoming. However, we are off to the NI in early May so you never know I’ll most likely have more to share. Watch this space!

  3. Helen Toby says:

    Great information regarding the sites. Lovely photographs. Thankyou for sharing.

  4. Kay says:

    Awesome reviews. Thank you.

  5. Mike and Rhonda Wood says:

    You may come this way while in the NI. Plenty great places around here.

    • Rick says:

      Hi Mike…it’s been a long time….yes, we are intending to get to Taumarunui but as we have no firm plans we’re not sure exactly when, but I’ll let you know. Our ferry crossing is on the 11th May and we will be in the NI for a couple of months, but not actually going all the way up north this trip.

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