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by Mark Derby

Through the 20th century most New Zealanders’ summer vacations involved a camping holiday, often near the beach. In the 2000s camping is not as popular as it once was, but there are still hundreds of campsites around the country.

Early New Zealand campers

First workers’ camps

The bush and the beach, rivers, lakes and mountains are all within a day’s drive for most New Zealanders. Camping – holidaying outdoors in temporary accommodation such as a tent – is an inexpensive and satisfying way to appreciate the country’s natural heritage.

Camping as a recreational activity was uncommon in New Zealand until the 20th century. Before that temporary shelters and outdoor cooking fires were in common use, but generally by people in the course of their work. Hunters, shepherds, surveyors, bushmen and pioneer farmers all needed to make camp in the open air when no better accommodation could be found. Their bushcraft laid the basis for a national culture of physical self-reliance and enjoyment of the outdoors.

Snug as a bug in a rug

The geologist Ferdinand Hochstetter surveyed New Zealand’s mineral resources in 1859, using an early version of the sleeping bag. ‘The woollen blanket representing my bedding I had sewed up in triple folds at the feet and sides into a kind of sack, so that on one side the blanket was double, on the other single – an excellent invention of experienced "bush-men." … In this shape, one large, woollen blanket yields the same amount of comfort, that at other times is obtained from two or three blankets’.1

In the early 1840s colonist Edward Jerningham Wakefield travelled up the Whanganui River with a tent ‘composed of unbleached calico … The necessary poles and the pegs for the bottom were cut at the encampment each night, or carried from the wood in passing when we had to encamp in the open country. When rolled up, the tent was not so bulky as a greatcoat, and yet, when well stretched, it afforded ample shelter from a night's heavy rain to two people.’2

Samuel Butler

The earliest accounts of camping as a recreational activity are from relatively wealthy migrants from Britain. Sleeping under the stars and cooking over a fire was generally unfamiliar and exciting for them, and reinforced the Victorian attitude that simple outdoor activity was more wholesome and moral than urban life.

The young Englishman Samuel Butler (later known as a writer) arrived in Canterbury in 1860 fresh from his studies at Cambridge. Seeking land for a sheep run, he spent a restless night beside a campfire at the foot of the Southern Alps. ‘Probably after another year or two I shall regard camping out as the nuisance it really is … Well, well, that night I thought it very fine, and so in good truth it was.’3

Lady Barker

Another well-born English immigrant, Mary Anne Barker, arrived in Canterbury in 1865 to live on a sheep station near Mt Hutt. She relished accounts from earlier colonists of ‘when they have had to “camp out”, as it is technically called; and [I] have lived in constant hope of meeting with an adventure which would give me a similar experience.’ In April 1867 Lady Barker persuaded her family and neighbours to spend a night on the highest part of her property. A tent was improvised from blankets and tree branches, but not even a large fire could overcome the freezing wind, and several of the campers did not sleep at all. Later, ‘no one seemed to remember or allude to the miseries and aches of that long cold night,’ yet this proved to be Lady Barker’s ‘first and last experience of camping out.’4

Back to nature

During her 1907 camping trip the young Katherine Mansfield kept a diary which was not published in full until 1978, long after her death. It gives a vivid account of her travels from Hawke’s Bay to the Urewera, Lake Rotorua and Lake Taupō, where she recorded that, ‘All is harmonious and peaceful and delicious. We camp in a pine forest – beautiful. We sleep in the tent – the wind is our lullaby … We wake early – and wash and dress – and go down to the bath again … The birds are magical – I feel I cannot leave but pluck honeysuckle.”5

Katherine Mansfield

By 1895 the Colonist newspaper reported that ‘Camping out is well enough known in New Zealand, where it is a genial and favourite method of spending a holiday.’6 However, camping equipment was still scarce and inconvenient (tent poles were often improvised from timber gathered on site) and many parts of the country were barely accessible by road.

In the early summer of 1907, 19-year-old Katherine Mansfield (later an internationally known writer) joined family friends for a six-week camping trip through the central North Island. They travelled in horse-drawn wagons and slept in a large, heavy canvas tent – men on one side, women on the other.

    • Ferdinand von Hochstetter, New Zealand: its physical geography, geology, and natural history. Stuttgart: J.G. Cotta, 1867, p. 286. Back
    • Edward Jerningham Wakefield, Adventure in New Zealand, from 1839 to 1844: with some account of the beginning of the British colonization of the islands. Vol. 2. London: John Murray, 1845, p. 92. Back
    • Samuel Butler, A first year in Canterbury settlement, with other early essays. London: A.C. Fifield, 1914, p. 53. Back
    • Lady Barker, Station life in New Zealand. London: Macmillan, 1870, p. 125, 136. Back
    • Katherine Mansfield, Urewera notebook. Oxford, Wellington: Oxford University Press, p. 82–85. Back
    • Colonist, 10 October 1895, p. 3. Back

The golden age of camping

Rise of recreational camping

Camping as a recreational activity became steadily more popular during the 20th century. New Zealand’s population was becoming urbanised, and valued the opportunity to escape into wilderness. As the landscape was changed by farming, bush-felling and other activities, New Zealanders grew more appreciative of its natural state. Railways and roads made even remote regions increasingly accessible. Men who had spent time under canvas as boy scouts or territorial soldiers often wished to repeat the experience with family and friends. After the First World War army-surplus materials included many tents and other camping equipment.

Contented tenting

One of the first locally made tents was the Auckland-made Reliable brand, produced from the late 1920s. Within a few years New Zealand campers could buy ridge, touring or ‘squat’ tents, made in canvas, calico or duck. There was even a motorist’s tent that accommodated both campers and car. By the 1950s the square family tent with extendable walls for ventilation and a green roof with central tent pole was standard. Inside it, campers made use of rubber groundsheets, collapsible canvas beds, and a methylated spirit cooker for when the campfire was not suitable.

First motor camps

Camping holidays by private car first became popular during the 1920s. New lightweight tents, fold-up furniture, camp beds and even portable record players and radios were produced to meet a growing demand. Motor camps, often provided by local councils, could be found in most centres. By 1928 Temuka in South Canterbury had ‘a splendidly equipped camping ground with all the necessary cooking and sanitary conveniences’1 while Hastings Borough Council claimed to offer ‘probably the best camp site in the Dominion’.2 Many farmers also offered camping on their land, often for a fee, and campers were also welcome to pitch their tents for free in public places. New Zealand’s extensive coastline attracted campers from the first years of the 20th century and about half of the country’s campgrounds were located at beaches.

Physical Welfare and Recreation Act 1937

Bill Parry, minister of internal affairs in the 1935 Labour government and a noted outdoors enthusiast, believed that ‘all sections of our people should be given the cheapest and most interesting facilities possible to see our beautiful country under health-giving conditions.’3 He introduced the Physical Welfare and Recreation Act 1937, which authorised local authorities to finance the recreational needs of their communities and resulted in many more, and larger, municipal campgrounds. The Annual Holidays Act 1944 granted all workers two weeks’ annual leave, ensuring that almost everyone could afford an annual holiday. By December 1944 its effect was already apparent as camping grounds at popular resorts such as Mt Maunganui were booked to capacity.

A woman’s work is never done

A motor-camp holiday permitted men to spend the day fishing, or drinking beer around a wobbly table. Children suffered less supervision than at home or school, and often made formative friendships. For women, however, a camping holiday still entailed caring for children and preparing meals, often under more difficult circumstances than at home. Older and more basic motor camps provided only minimal shared cooking and washing facilities. Until affordable gas-fired camp stoves became widely available, the thermette, a New Zealand invention for boiling water in any outdoor conditions, was a standard camping accessory.


Post-war petrol rationing finally ended in 1950 and during the next decade car ownership more than doubled, freeing motorists to travel further and more often for leisure. A growing number towed caravans as a more weatherproof and luxurious alternative to the tent. Caravans first became available in New Zealand from the 1920s but they soared in popularity in the 1950s. The New Zealand Motor Caravan Association was formed in 1956 by a small number of enthusiasts, and held its first Easter Rally that year at Clifton beach, Hastings.

The great New Zealand holiday

‘On the Friday before Christmas,’ said one popular magazine, ‘New Zealand shut up shop, office and factory and went on holiday’.4 Well into the 1970s almost the entire population took its annual holiday over the same period, resulting in notoriously quiet and vacated cities, and crammed camping grounds. Although their cars theoretically gave them freedom of movement, many campers returned to the same place year after year, battling traffic jams in each direction.

  1. Ellesmere Guardian, 3 February 1928, p. 3. Back
  2. Evening Post, 5 November 1927, p. 26. Back
  3. Quoted in Kirstie Ross, ‘Signs of landing: Pakeha outdoor recreation and the cultural colonisation of New Zealand.’ Auckland, MA thesis, 1999, p. 54. Back
  4. Weekly News, 4 January 1950, p. 50. Back

School camps

Informal school camps

In addition to family camping holidays, New Zealanders have traditionally been introduced to camping as part of their schooling. Since the 19th century schools have encouraged their students to take camping trips for exercise, self-reliance, group bonding and other benefits. These trips were initially taken during students’ free time, since their school hours were reserved for formal academic study. Wellington College pupils made frequent holiday excursions throughout the district, such as a trip to Kāpiti Island at Easter 1877. Camps were also a useful diversion for students required to remain at boarding schools on weekends and holidays.

First official school camp

School camps were organised locally and informally until the late 1930s, when the 1935 Labour government promoted a progressive educational philosophy influenced by US and European ideas. These favoured engaging the ‘whole child’, rather than simply the brain, and advocated nature study and physical activity alongside classroom work. From this period the government’s Education Gazette published articles promoting the educational benefits of school camps, including ‘the development of such qualities as initiative, self-confidence and independence. Relationships between pupils and between pupils and teacher improve markedly’.1

The first recorded camp held in school time was at Hūnua, south of Auckland, for Auckland Normal School boys during the first two weeks of the 1938 school year. At other primary and secondary schools, camping trips remained dependent on the enthusiasm of individual teachers.

‘Showplace of school camping’

School time became systematically available for camping trips in the 1950s. From 1956 Port Waikato Camp School west of Hamilton (a former health camp), was used by a succession of South Auckland Education Board schools. Port Waikato's programme was soon followed in other parts of the country. School camps involved sleeping in tents or in more permanent structures. Most lasted five to 10 days, with students taking responsibility for chores such as food preparation, dishes and camp cleanliness. ‘Camp mothers’ (usually the parents of students) took charge of meals. Students learned the use of maps and compasses, bushcraft, swimming and water safety, and the need for nature conservation. Inner-city schools in low-decile areas reported that until their first camp some students had never been to the beach or seen a cow.

Outdoor education

Some adults were concerned that school camps interfered with traditional teaching or led to immoral behaviour. Others thought parents could best educate their children in outdoor activities. However, by the 1970s outdoor education, as it became known, was an almost universally accepted element of New Zealand schooling. At both primary and secondary levels, camping was by far the most common single outdoor activity. In 1999 it became a formal part of the school curriculum.

    • Recreation in New Zealand. Auckland: Auckland Regional Authority, 1971, p. 43. Back

Camping in the 2000s

Decline of small campsites

During the summer of 2012 Fiordland National Park ranger Ken Bradley noted the decline in the use of campsites during his 40-year career. In the 1960s, he remembered, ‘towns were basically ghost towns’ during holiday periods. ‘Now everybody has to work through.’ 1 Government-run campsites in remote areas such as the Eglinton Valley, once full to capacity every summer, were now barely used.

The last resort

Camping’s decline in popularity since the late 20th century was due to a combination of social and economic changes. The increasing age of marriage has made camping’s discomforts less bearable for some families. Many holidaymakers seem to prefer more comfort than camping offers, and greater prosperity means they are willing to pay more for services and facilities. Cheap airfares have meant that in the 21st century New Zealanders are as likely to take an all-inclusive holiday in Rarotonga as in the Coromandel. Across the country, once-popular campgrounds in spectacular settings such as the Māhia Peninsula have been closed and, in many cases, sold for property development.

Department of Conservation campsites

Camping trips remain popular among groups such as budget tourists, young people and outdoor enthusiasts. These are now the main users of the Department of Conservation’s (DoC) campsites and holiday campgrounds, ranging from tenting Meccas like Waikato’s Waikawau Bay to tiny and barely used sites such as Kumeti in the Ruahine Forest Park near Dannevirke. DoC campsites are rated as informal (no kitchens or hot showers), standard or serviced (with showers, lighting and rubbish collection). Campers wishing to be self-sufficient are now able to rely on lightweight tents, self-inflating airbeds and sophisticated cooking and other high-tech equipment.

Local authority and private campsites

Most local authorities run campgrounds, sometimes jointly managed with DoC. They usually provide communal kitchens, hot showers and bathroom and laundry facilities. The Auckland Regional Council runs the largest network, with almost 40 parks and campsites.

Black and grey water

The New Zealand Motor Caravan Association encourages people to use equipment to contain waste products when camping in areas without toilet facilities, so they can be transported to a suitable disposal point. More than 600 approved dumping stations have been created to dispose of black water (from portable toilets and holding tanks) and grey water (from sinks and showers).

Campers can also find privately owned camping grounds in many areas. The best-equipped campsites are likely to be found in holiday parks at popular tourist destinations such as Queenstown and Mt Maunganui. These provide a range of facilities, often including swimming and spa pools, children’s play areas and shops. Wireless internet access is an especially popular facility. Campervans (motorhomes), rather than caravans and tents, appear to be the most popular option for 21st-century New Zealand campers.

Freedom camping

‘Freedom camping’ (siting a tent or campervan in a place not designated for that purpose) is legal in much of New Zealand, but is increasingly regulated. Freedom campers cannot usually access facilities such as clean drinking water, toilets and waste disposal. As a result, they have caused public concerns about litter, waste and sewage disposal and other harmful environmental impacts. In the 1990s giardia, an intestinal parasite causing diarrhoea, became widespread in New Zealand through poor disposal of toilet waste near waterways. Local by-laws were introduced to restrict free camping to certain areas. Under the Freedom Camping Act 2011 campers are liable for a $200 instant fine for camping illegally and a fine of up to $10,000 for incorrectly dumping sewage.

Responsible Camping Forum

Since 2008 the New Zealand Responsible Camping Forum has provided information to campers and worked with the tourism industry to better manage camping. The Forum runs the ‘Where can I camp?’ campaign and the ‘Camping Our Way’ website, to provide information to travellers hiring campervans or wanting to camp in New Zealand.

  1. Dominion Post, 15 January 2012. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Mark Derby, 'Camping', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 June 2024)

Story by Mark Derby, published 5 September 2013