If you’re planning on travelling New Zealand with a vehicle, you’ll have noticed there are two ways to go about it – self-contained and non self-contained.
At its core, a self-contained vehicle is fitted with a freshwater tank, wastewater tank, sink, portable toilet*, and bin, and must be certified by a plumber at least every 4 years. Because these vehicles are designed for camping they almost always come with other utilities such as cooking equipment, bedding, fridges, tables/chairs, and power.
The primary benefit of being self-contained is that you can freedom camp on council land where permitted. Without a self-contained vehicle, you may only freedom camp on public conservation land or a handful of locations where councils permit camping in non self-contained vehicles.
This seems useful, but it comes at a cost – you’ll pay more to buy or rent a self-contained vehicle. Self-contained vehicles are also larger and less aerodynamic (especially vans) so they use more fuel – worse for the environment and can really add up in costs if you’re driving a lot. If buying, you’ll also be dealing with a vehicle that’s flipped multiple times a year and may have a patchy service history. And when selling, you’ll be dealing with a smaller market, which might make it difficult to get the price you want at the end of your trip.
It’s also neither hard nor expensive to camp at official campsites. DOC sites are a dime a dozen and about $10 a night, but you can buy a 365 day pass for $195. And there’s no shortage of privately owned campsites/holiday parks which range from $15-25 per night and have other benefits such as pools, lounges, kitchens, and best of all – hot showers.
If you’re on a budget, you’ll have no trouble planning a trip around DOC sites for a maximum cost of $195 per person for a years worth of camping. Whether renting or buying, this is probably less than the difference in price between a self-contained and non self-contained vehicle. If you plan to sleep in your car, you’ll want to double-check that the seats fold flat and you actually fit. Otherwise for maximum efficiency you can just buy a tiny car and camp in a tent. It’s cheap and easy to get the gear you need using FB marketplace and op shops.
Apart from the experience of freedom camping, I don’t believe anyone is missing out by only staying at official campsites. However, it’s always worth checking your own itinerary beforehand to make sure it works for you.
* If the Self-Contained Motor Vehicles Legislation Bill is passed as-is, self-containment is going to go from slightly more expensive to significantly more expensive due to the new requirement for a fixed toilet. This will probably rule out people movers, station wagons, and SUVs from self-containment – leaving only vans/campervans/motorhomes.