How to Live in Your Car for a Month

When we bought our van, Sage, in mid-November, our main concern was to find an inexpensive 6- or 7-seater vehicle that could transport us, our children and their spouses during their visit to New Zealand over the Christmas holiday. “By the way,” the friendly car dealer said as we signed the papers, “did you know that in New Zealand you can camp in your car for free?”

No, we didn’t. Though we expected to use the van for touring the country after the kids were gone, we’d assumed our nightly lodgings would be AirB&Bs. But once again, New Zealand surprised and delighted us with what it calls “Freedom Camping.” Although the rules vary from community to community and some areas have banned it altogether, if you follow certain guidelines you can live, eat and sleep in your car in designated parking lots and campgrounds for zero dollars per night. Sign us up!

The first step is to determine whether your vehicle will be “self-contained” or “non-self-contained.” Self-contained means the vehicle must include, at minimum, a chemical toilet, a sink, a hose and container to collect gray water, and a garbage bin with a fitted lid. While this wouldn’t work for a typical car, you’d be amazed to see how ingeniously the aforementioned elements, along with a platform bed, a mini cookstove and other equipment and amenities, can be crammed into a van no larger than Sage. Some dealers sell vans already so outfitted; do-it-yourselfers are welcome to adapt their own vehicle. Either way, the vehicle must undergo an official inspection and be stickered to certify it meets the self-contained standards.

Our non-self-contained vehicle. Bulky items like the cooler and backpack had to be shifted to the front seats at night to make the bed available for sleeping

If, as in our case, you don’t have the time or desire to convert your van, you automatically fall into the non-self-contained category, as does a car with a tent. While this reduces the number of free sites available—some places don’t want riffraff, which we obviously are—there is still a fair scattering of free places. Some are no more than dusty gravel parking lots; others are grassy fields beside a creek. All will have at least a port-a-loo, while the nicer ones offer picnic tables and real toilet blocks.

By nightfall, nearly 100 vehicles had squeezed into this free campground
Free campground in the middle of nowhere with the moon overhead

Finding a free site near you is a snap with one of the camper apps. Simply tap the map in your vicinity and up they pop. Tap on a specific site to get the details and reviews. The apps also show the low-cost tenting campgrounds operated by the Department of Conservation, a good option at about $8NZ ($5.25US) per person per night, and the privately operated “holiday parks.” Geared to large camper vans, the holiday parks seem pricey at $17-22NZ ($11.25-$14.50US) per person. But they have community kitchens where you can do your own cooking, TV lounges with Internet, hot showers, washing machines and other civilized perks. Being equal opportunity travelers, we gave all three types of campground a chance.

So, how do you actually live in your car for a month? First you put down the two rows of back seats to serve as a bed. Then you pad the seats with assorted pillows and cover the pillows with a heavy comforter. This is your mattress, atop which you will sleep. Or not—our makeshift arrangement was lumpy, bumpy and cramped, and we often awoke with aching hipbones and kinks in our back. Moreover, the only top covering we had brought, the lightweight quilt that worked fine on the boat, proved completely inadequate when, on the South Island, we encountered cold—Eric swears it was “frigid”—nights. Then again, you’re talking to people who have spent more than a few nights steering a wet boat through wind and waves with never more than three hours of consecutive sleep. It’s all relative, right?

Our lumpy bed

How about eating, then? What food do you pack? Without a stove, how do you cook? You don’t—I love easy answers—and you have almost no dishes to wash either. Between staples like peanut butter, bread, cereal and fruit, most breakfasts and lunches are accounted for. Our dinners usually came in tubs from the delis in the local grocery stores: pasta/potato/egg salads, bags of mixed greens with added tomatoes and cucumber, cheese and a baguette. Serve on a plastic plate with plastic utensils, add a bottle of wine or a beer, and you’re all set. Those nights we stayed in a holiday park with a kitchen, we “cooked” cans of soup, frozen pizza or lasagne, and fresh corn on the cob. Also, given the money we saved on free camping, we promptly spent it on some meals at sidewalk cafes and restaurants.

Peanut butter–don’t leave home without it
Campfires were prohibited in most parks due to an extreme dry spell and forest fires
Dining al fresco
Luxury dining in a holiday park

Other tips for Freedom Campers: Be sure to pack a flashlight so you don’t stumble on your way to the port-a-loo in the pitch dark. Bring your own toilet paper so you don’t get caught out. Make room in the van for a good-sized jug of fresh water from which to replenish your water bottle, brush your teeth and wash your face and hands. Clean up after yourself in any campground kitchens and carry out all your rubbish. This includes cigarette butts—the Earth is not your ashtray!—and I am frustrated that even in ultra-clean New Zealand, smokers just don’t seem to grasp that butts are litter. Pick them up! Finally, take extra care not to lock the car with the keys inside as Eric did one morning. We were lucky to be in a holiday park in Invercargill just then instead of out in the wilderness.

Locked out in Invercargill

As for the trip itself, we had a blast. How could we not? The scenery was staggering, from mountains and meadows to glaciers and seacoast. We discovered weird and wonderful places like a steampunk museum and happened upon the annual New Zealand Ironman competition, an amazing event. We took way, way too many pictures, and when I get them sorted, I’ll let them speak for themselves in my next post.

We met, all too briefly, many people along our route. As you might imagine, the majority of those availing themselves of free camping were backpackers. They came from the United States, Canada, England, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Italy, Poland and Israel. Some were working their way; others had saved up to take a few months off their jobs. Above all, they were young, making us and the few other gray-haired campers we encountered something of oddities. Once we explained about our voyage, however, we immediately became fellow travelers, a good feeling to be able to connect.

We also connected with several other people who added a special note to our trip. With their boat stored in Tonga for cyclone season, cruisers Mark and Angie had flown to New Zealand to do their own freedom camping circuit. We caught up with them for breakfast on the South Island and had a great time comparing notes. Peter Craddock, project manager for Corroboree when she was built in Auckland in 1977-78, had visited us back in November. Now we got to meet his wife Anne when they took us out for a leisurely lunch. A pub dinner with Americans Barbara and Jack came about through a mutual friend in the States. Barbara, currently working in New Zealand, had emailed me even before we arrived in New Zealand to offer information and help. We especially want to thank new friends Alan and Heike for hosting us at their home in Gulf Harbour for three nights. You are warm and generous people, and we so much enjoyed our time and our conversations with you.

So, the world is small and yet wonderfully large and full, and in writing about living in our car for a month, I am well aware that for some people, living in their car is not a choice but a necessity and that too many people have no roof at all.

I wish I had an easy answer.