7 campgrounds you can’t miss on the South Island

Ahhh van life in New Zealand, what can I say about you apart from you are absolutely amazing! 

New Zealand is built for road tripping. Prepare for mountains, lakes, ocean, hikes, and long gravel roads that lead to the dreamiest hidden beaches, trust me when I say this country is a mecca for adventure. There is something so incredibly freeing about packing up our belongings, hitting the road without a plan, and pulling up in spectacular places to sleep. We recently toured the South Island in our Jayco JRV campervan and let me tell you something, it was THE best trip we have ever completed in New Zealand. This is the first time we have ever travelled without a plan and that my friends is how we will continue from this day forward for all our adventures. I loved the freedom, the slow pace, and the chance to soak up the beauty of New Zealand on my own time. 

Below is a list of the incredible places we stayed along the way… 

Lake Pukaki – Mackenzie Country

The first stop just had to be under the watchful eye of my good friend Aoraki. For the first time in forever, we avoided the Mount Cook Highway and stayed on the shores of Lake Pukaki. This incredible lake is the largest in the area and on a clear day the views down toward Mount Cook can only be described as spectacular. Lucky for us vanlifers there is a freedom campsite right at the end of the lake that provides some of the finest morning coffee views in the land. This campsite is for self-contained vehicles only, meaning no facilities but there are four (very new & clean) long drop toilets for you to use. You have the choice of upper and lower parking, both providing epic views of the surrounding mountains. 

Gore Bay – East Coast

The East Coast’s hidden gem! On route to Kaikoura, we wanted to break up our drive and find somewhere with a little coastal charm and hopefully some decent waves to surf. Keen to avoid Christchurch itself we continued up the coast and thanks to our good friend Campermate we found the ultimate campsite. Gore Bay is a just north of Christchurch, this tiny settlement is considered one of the safest surf beaches in New Zealand and the campground sits right on top of those waves. Take the tourist drive down to the ocean and pull into Gore Bay campground for a night of two. Registration is on the whiteboard at the entrance (payment via envelope or in person around dinner time) and only $38 a night per van, it’s a steal! We loved hanging out here and will 100% return. 

Kaikōura- East Coast

My love for Kaikoura knows no bounds. There is something so alluring about this wonderful surf town that has me coming back more and more every year. We needed a base here so booked into the Top Ten Holiday Park which is by far the sweetest campsite in the town. Walking distance from the centre and supermarket it is a great place to park up and explore on foot. We spent time surfing at meatworks, walking the coastal peninsula track, and my all-time favourite Kaikoura thing to do… visiting ALL the seals at Ohau Point. There is so much to do in Kaikoura that I am still ticking off my list! 

Abel Tasman National Park

We found paradise in New Zealand, an actual tropical paradise. Every year we seem to gravitate towards the Abel Tasman National Park. Maybe it’s the ocean, the glorious sunsets, or the adventure that brings us (and the rest of the south island) here during the holiday season but every time we visit it is always bliss! This year we based ourselves in Mārahau at The Barn and I tell you something, I will forever book this campsite. Perfect location, incredible staff, and the views… AMAZING. Located right at the end of the Abel Tasman Track and close to activities, beaches, and ocean swimming there’s not much more you need from an escape in the tropics. 

Cable Bay – Nelson Tasman

Cable Bay campsite was a happy accident. The emphasis on the word happy is important here. Busy season means fully booked campsites right through until January as the masses hit the popular tourist spots. However, Cable Bay Holiday Park had a tiny little spot left for our humble abode on wheels so we snapped it up. Cloudy, rainy, and not much view meant lukewarm ocean swims and a drizzly hike up the hill but, never fear, sunrise provided the goods and showcased the magic of Cable Bay to me, I like to think it was a little early morning treat for being the only human awake at the ungodly hour of 5.45 am. Off the beaten track and secluded is what we love about van life and this quaint little place gives you all that and more. 

Fox River – West Coast

The freedom camping in New Zealand is epic, but recently become a little stricter. The West Coast however is a place that actively encourages freedom camping through their YES camping scheme. From Nelson down to Franz, you will find an array of campsites dotted along the coast for your freedom pleasure. Most are equipped with basic long drops and nearly all come with those West Coast dream views we love so much. Fox River was more than a campsite it was like a little community and the coffee guy that turned up in the morning and made us fresh flat whites from the back of his van was certainly the cherry on top. Steps away from the surf and beautiful rugged beach, this is a place that is one we return to year after year.

Pūrākaunui Bay – Southland

The best locations are at the end of gravel roads, right? One of the most underrated drives in the whole country is the Southern Scenic route. The Southern Scenic Route is a tourist highway in New Zealand linking Queenstown, Fiordland, Te Anau, and the iconic Milford Road to Dunedin via, Riverton, Invercargill, and The Catlins. Magic, it is truly magic. We stopped off at a wee beach called Pūrākaunui Bay and I will boldly say this is my favourite camping spot EVER. We opened the back doors of the van and let the morning sun bring us to life. We surfed, ate delicious food, played cards, and walked up and down the beach, with our toes in the ocean so many times I lost count. The stunning cliffs and surrounding bush make you feel like you are at the ends of the earth… plus Sea Lions are frequent here and they are HUGE! Add this to your list team, it’s one of the South Islands’ hidden gems waiting to be discovered by more camping folks. 

Thank you Jayco New Zealand for making road trip dreams come to life!

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Full-time​ adventure seeker, based in Queenstown NZ. Obsessed with everything outdoors. My blog is filled with all our adventures and weekly happenings, feel free to get in touch. I love meeting new people!

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