DOC Campsite Pass New Zealand | Is It Worth It?

New Zealand is a road-trippers paradise. Every scenic road leads you through yet another impossibly beautiful landscape teeming with exploration opportunities. But the best part is, no matter where you choose to explore, you’re almost guaranteed to find a picture-perfect campsite that’s either free, cheap or one of the 200+ DOC campsites scattered across the country.

There’s no denying that New Zealand’s Department of Conservation Campsites hold the monopoly for the best locations and often have the best facilities compared to similarly priced private campsites, but the question remains – is it worth forking out the money for a DOC Campsite Pass?

We chose to purchase a DOC Campsite Pass for our recent month of travel through the South Island of New Zealand, where we camped in a car almost every night, and we’re surprisingly glad we did! In this post, we’ll break down how it works and provide you with helpful insight so you can decide whether the DOC Campsite Pass is worth it for your NZ road trip.

12 Mile Delta, a DOC Campsite in Queenstown, New Zealand

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Everything You Need To Know About The New Zealand DOC Campsite Pass

What Is The DOC Campsite Pass?

The DOC Campsite Pass is a 30-day or 365-day unlimited camping pass that can be used at most of the Department of Conservation (DOC) run campsites throughout New Zealand. While some exclusions and rules apply (which we’ll dig into below), the DOC Campsite Pass basically allows you to pay a one-off fee upfront (per person, not per vehicle) for access to over 100 paid campsites across the country.

This is not to be confused with the Backcountry Hut Pass, which provides free or discounted access to a limited list of the iconic walk-in-only huts and associated campsites that New Zealand is famous for.

Quick Info About The DOC Campsite Pass

  • The DOC Campsite Pass covers just one person – not a vehicle
  • The DOC Campsite Pass can be used for a maximum of 7 days at a single campsite within a 30-day period
  • You still need to book your campsite (where applicable) prior to arrival to guarantee your spot, this will be free but is especially essential for busy locations
  • For campsites that require bookings, a $10 fee per person will be charged to pass holders who haven’t booked before arriving or you will be turned away if the campsite is full
  • An additional $3 fee per person is charged for the use of powered sites at serviced DOC campsites
  • Carry proof of your identity and of your DOC Campsite Pass either in digital or paper form – this doesn’t need to be displayed on your vehicle or tent but needs to be shown on request
Soft morning light over a van camped in a DOC Campsite in New Zealand

Is The DOC Campsite Pass Worth It?

In short, yes. The DOC Campsite Pass proves to be extremely useful for a range of travelling styles for many reasons. The pass allows freedom of choice to some of New Zealand’s most beautiful campsites and close access to iconic destinations. Whether you’re looking to make your road trip seamlessly easy or you simply want to experience the best campsites, the Doc Campsite Pass is worth it.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t also reasons why you shouldn’t buy the DOC Campsite Pass, but overall the positives outweigh the negatives.

We debated for a long time whether to purchase the DOC Campsite Pass for our New Zealand South Island road trip and found very little information to help our cause. But after consulting with a few Kiwi friends, we decided it would be worth it and we weren’t wrong.

While there are plenty of free campsites scattered throughout New Zealand, the majority of these are accessible for self-contained campervans only and are scarce to non-existent in popular destinations such as Queenstown, Mt Cook and Milford Sound.

White Horse Hill Campsite, a DOC Campsite in Mt Cook National Park
White Horse Hill Campsite

That said, if you’re travelling in a self-contained campervan and plan to spend very little time in these popular destinations, then the Campsite Pass may not be the right choice for you as you won’t get your money’s worth.

Reasons Why You Should Buy The DOC Campsite Pass

  • It takes an average of just 8 DOC campsite stays to equal the cost of the monthly pass and 16 stays to equal the cost of the yearly pass
  • The DOC Campsites are often located closer to attractions, especially the most popular destinations
  • All DOC campsites are equipped with at least a toilet and running water – though you might need to treat the water
  • There are no freedom camping options anywhere in Mt Cook National Park or Milford Sound
  • Some campsites offer hot showers and washing facilities for a small fee, this is explained in detail below

Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Buy The DOC Campsite Pass

  • If you’re self-contained and want to save money by staying in only free campsites – but remember many don’t have toilets and are further from popular destinations
  • If you only plan to use DOC campsites less than 8 times within a month

During our month in New Zealand’s South Island, we camped for a total of 14 nights and 12 of those were at DOC Campsites. Out of the 12 nights we stayed at DOC Campsites, there were no instances where we could have chosen a freedom campsite instead.

Road Trip in New Zealand driving in Mt Cook Nation Park

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DOC Campsite Prices

As of June 2023, the DOC Campsite Pass costs NZD$95 per person for 30 days or NZD$195 per person for 365 days.

This sounds quite expensive when you first read the price, however, the majority of campsites that aren’t free cost an average of NZD$10 – $15 per person, per night. Even the privately owned campsites we came across were either the same price or more expensive.

Current DOC Campsite Pass Price List
  • Adult (18 years +): $95 for 30-day pass | $195 for 365-day pass
  • Child (5-17 years): $47.50 for 30-day pass | $97.50 for 365-day pass
  • Infant (0-4 years): Free

*If you’re a member of organisations such as the New Zealand Alpine Club (NZAC), you may be entitled to a discount on your campsite pass. Check this resource for more information.

Otto Mcdonald Campsite on near Frans Josef on the west coast of New Zealand

How Do I Buy A DOC Campsite Pass?

Purchasing a DOC Campsite Pass is easy and requires very little time. You can either choose to buy the pass online or at a visitor centre once you arrive in New Zealand. The best part is, you can select a date up to 30 days in the future for your pass to begin so that you can start booking your stays in advance – this is especially helpful if you plan on camping in Milford Sound or Mt Cook during the busy summer season.

Online

To buy your DOC Campsite Pass online, go to their online booking system and create an account. From there, you can choose the pass that you’re after and the date you want it to begin. You can also add extra people to your pass so that you don’t need to do the whole process over and over again.

Through A Visitor Centre

If you’d rather wait until you’re in New Zealand, you can purchase a DOC Campsite Pass from any visitor centre in the country. Or if you need a little extra help, you can also call the Nelson Visitor Centre or the Kauaeranga Visitor Centre and they can assist you – however, this will cost an extra $10 service fee.

White Horse Hill Campsite in Mt Cook National Park

Displaying Your DOC Campsite Pass

Once you’ve purchased your DOC Campsite Pass, you then need to print off a copy to keep with you or screenshot the pass that is emailed with your confirmation. This doesn’t need to be displayed on your tent or vehicle, but you do need to have the pass and proof of identity with you to show on request.

We were fine with simply reading out our pass numbers at a few non-bookable campsites, such as Twelve Mile Delta near Queenstown, but this was during the shoulder season and could be different at the peak of summer.

Cancelling Your DOC Campsite Pass

You only have 48 hours after purchasing your campsite pass to cancel as long as the start date hasn’t begun and you haven’t yet made a booking. After that time there is no refund. Unfortunately, they are quite rigid with their cancellation policy, so you want to be completely sure of your decision (and add the correct start date) before handing over your money.

If you happen to click the wrong start date, you can cancel your pass within 48 hours and start again. As with refunds, after 48 hours, you cannot make any modifications to the date after this period.

Kidds Camp DOC Campsite near Wanaka on an overcast day

Where Can I Use The DOC Campsite Pass?

The DOC Campsite Pass can be used for almost any Department of Conservation run campsite within New Zealand, this includes both bookable and non-bookable sites.

The best resource to find DOC campsites is the Rankers Camping NZ app. This handy little app shows you a map view of every campsite in New Zealand, not just the DOC ones, and provides a list of information and a link to the DOC booking website where applicable.

Follow the links below for a detailed list of every DOC campsite within the north and south islands.

Cameron Flat Campsite in Mt Aspiring National Park

There are 6 serviced DOC campsites included in the pass which offer additional facilities such as hot showers and washing machines and dryers for a small fee. These are excluded between the 26th of December and the 8th of February, but make life on the road much easier if you’re travelling for a while.

Note: This might be obvious for some, but I feel it’s important to share that this pass is different from the Backcountry Hut Pass and doesn’t include any huts or campsites associated with that pass. However, it does cover a small number of government-run backcountry campsites that aren’t included in the Backcountry Hut Pass.

Included Serviced DOC Campsites

North Island

South Island

DOC Campsite Pass Exclusions

Out of the 200 plus campsites that the Department of Conservation runs, 64 are excluded from the Campsite Pass, 44 of which are campsites found along the Great Walks. Of the 20 regular campsites, 6 are only excluded between the 26th of December to the 8th of February.

Granted, some of the 200 campsites are actually free to begin with, but a vast majority of them (and of course, the best ones) charge a fee and are included in the pass. For a list of the excluded DOC campsites, follow this link.

In addition to the excluded DOC campsites, the pass also excludes all cabins, cottages, baches, lodges and bunkhouses found at the campgrounds.

Who Can Use The DOC Campsite Pass?

Driving by Lake Pukaki on a road trip in New Zealand's South Island

Anyone! The DOC Campsite Pass can be purchased by anybody who is planning to camp in a government-run campsite in New Zealand. This pass covers one person (it doesn’t cover the vehicle or campervan) and can be used for tents, caravans, campervans and all other camping set-ups. Additional people can be added to the same pass at the full price or each traveller can purchase their own pass separately.

The only restrictions you’ll find for the DOC Campsite Pass regarding your camp set-up are the actual campsites themselves. As you would expect, some DOC campsites are only accessible by foot or boat and others aren’t favourable for tents due to uneven or muddy grounds.

How Does The DOC Campsite Pass Work?

While the DOC Campsite Pass eliminates the stress of paying for campsites as you road trip through New Zealand, you still need to secure your spot either beforehand for the bookable campsites or once you arrive for the non-bookable (first-come-first-served) campsites.

The best way to determine whether your campsite of choice is bookable, non-bookable or free is to search for the campsite on the booking page of the DOC website. If you know the region you want to stay in but not the campsite, this campsite page is the best reference.

Once you’ve found the campsite, you’ll have access to the fees and booking information – which also informs you if the Campsite Pass can be used – and a link that you can follow to the booking page where applicable.

View over Fox Glacier and Frans Josef from the Otto Mcdonald DOC Campsite

Bookable DOC Campsites

For bookable DOC campsites, you’ll need to click the yellow ‘book online’ button on the individual campsite page or follow the steps on the booking page. Once you’ve entered the date and number of days, you’ll be prompted to log in (if you aren’t already) and arrive at the reservation page.

This is where you’ll enter the number of people in your travelling party and pass holder details. If someone in your group doesn’t have a pass, you can also add them here. Once all the information is entered, you’ll move to the checkout page which will show a total of $0 unless someone in your party doesn’t have a pass.

Keep the reservation number with you to show the ranger once you’ve arrived at the campsite.

Pre-booking a DOC Campsite is pretty straightforward, however, you will need access to the internet. Some bookable campsites can be booked through a visitor centre and if they can’t, you’ll be able to use their wifi to book online.

Non-bookable DOC Campsites

For first-come-first-serve campsites or free campsites, all you need to do is fill out the self-registration form once you arrive at the campsite and display this on your car or tent. But remember, just because you have a DOC Campsite Pass doesn’t mean you have a secured spot or any preference for sites at non-bookable campsites.

Final Thoughts

Road Tripping in a campervan in Mt Cook National Park

The DOC Campsite Pass is the most affordable way to road-trip through New Zealand, especially if you’re planning to travel to iconic locations where freedom camping is scarce. Even though we will be travelling in a self-contained campervan for our next visit to New Zealand, we’re still confident that we will get our money’s worth for the year pass we purchased.

That said, if you’re travelling in a self-contained campervan and want to save money, there are still plenty of freedom campsites available throughout the country. Just be prepared to camp a little further away from popular destinations.

Have you had any experience with the DOC Campsite Pass? We’d love to know your thoughts in the comments below. And if you’re still on the fence or have further questions regarding the pass, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us either in the comments, via email or on our Instagram – @_trackslesstravelled.

Happy Adventuring 🙂