Excellent DoC and council-approved camping sites and well-priced holiday parks may still be found across the country, Paul Charman discovers.
Once upon a time you simply spotted a pretty view, parked the Kombi and rolled out the sleeping bags.
Today we have the Freedom Camping Act 2011, a tough and in some ways odd piece of legislation rushed through ahead of the Rugby World Cup.
This puts the kibosh on a style of freedom camping enjoyed in more innocent times. It limits freedom camping to special areas, giving councils the power to attach instant fines to any vehicles camped outside of them.
Under the new rules it's become easier for councils to prosecute miscreants and even to impound their vehicles.
Most councils instruct officers to use discretion, especially in the case of foreign tourists who don't seem to understand the rules. But the act has teeth, with officers able to issue instant fines of $200.
If a rental company owns the vehicle used to camp illegally, it must pay the fine and then recover the money from the offender.
And councils can take serious offenders to court, where penalties of up to $10,000 are possible.
So where then may I camp for the night?
Councils get to define the areas off-limits and their bylaws vary, but count on the fact that they now ban camping in parks and reserves, and on beaches.
In a fully self contained camper you can spend the night at Department of Conservation camping sites; in holiday parks or in designated council camping sites (with or without toilets).
In a non-self contained camper - vehicles with no toilet, shower or grey water storage - you may camp at DoC sites, holiday parks and designated council camping sites with toilets.
Cheer up, there are still excellent DoC camping sites and also well-priced holiday parks across the country. And also, council designated "freedom camping" sites with toilets are increasing every year.
The legislation, which changed the notion of freedom camping forever, has earned degrees of grudging acceptance.
Councils, camper van owners (the self contained and non-self contained variety) agree something had to be done about the rogue element among motorised tourists.
Plenty of photographic evidence is held in council files showing this lot are prepared to empty toilet waste and relieve themselves anywhere they like, and also to dump rubbish and damage vegetation, buildings and facilities near their camp sites.
So if nobody is exactly thrilled, neither are many calling for the Act to be abolished.
An odd aspect is that freedom camping is now technically permitted everywhere, unless prohibited by specific local bylaws.
The New Zealand Motor Caravan Association, which does support the legislation, still makes the point that councils must still have a good reason for restricting freedom camping in a given area, rather that attempting to apply a blanket ban on the activity.
Once the Thames-Coromandel District Council could greet visitors with a sign on St Highway 25 saying 'Camping Forbidden in Parks and Reserves'. Now technically every area you must not sleep in your camper has to be signposted as such.
Thames Coromandel Mayor Glenn Leach can't see the sense of dumping the cost of so much signage on ratepayers and he personally loathes the abundance of signs now telling people, "what not to do".
But Mayor Leach is a realist. He's recently returned from a holiday in Europe, having seen first hand how local authorities and Governments across the developed world now wrestle with the problem of tourists dumping waste at the side of the road, in wilderness areas, parks and reserves.
"Hiking in the southern French Alps we saw waste piles of smelly waste dumped beside the tracks which you wouldn't want to put your little foot beside".
Having been a tourist operator for 30 years, the Mayor is aware that unless his region can protect its unique environment, it will no longer draw hoards of national and international tourists.
"Nor will we retain the 55 per cent of absentee ratepayers, who own holiday homes in this area. Tourism is vital to our economy, so we don't want to hold a draconian attitude to our visitors and guests. But if we allow our environment to be spoiled by the dumping of waste and filth, the visitors a'int gonna want to come here anyway."
Economic development manager Benjamin Day says the council spends a huge amount of money advertising and explaining where freedom camping is allowed.
"Our enforcement officers educate and distribute literature far more than they issue instant fines. We have empathy for travellers confused by all the different rules in different districts.
"It's not the concept of freedom camping that's the problem - it's the volume. In the era of cheap jet travel, huge numbers of foreign tourists arrive, hire vehicles and head for the hills. The Act gives us a good mechanism to manage what's now a major issue," he says.
"But do still come to the Coromandel. We have heaps of low-cost camping grounds, or DoC camping sites where you can find the freedom camping experience - and we're opening additional council freedom camping areas as fast as possible."
For more information visit camping.org.nz