One decision that weighs heavily on the shoulders of anyone considering a campervan trip around NZ is whether or not a self-contained van is worth it. Like so many others – we see you out there on Trip Advisor – we struggled with this when choosing our van.
Here we’ll cover some commonly asked questions about self-contained vs. non-self-contained vehicles in NZ. We’ll also include some info about our final decision and how we felt about it during – and after – our trip.
What is self-containment?
According to the New Zealand Motor Caravan Association, a vehicle that is classed as self-contained must meet the Caravan Self Containment Standard. In a nutshell, this means your vehicle must have:
- A real toilet – portable or fixed – a bucket just ain’t gonna cut it
- Fresh water storage
- A sink connected to a water tight sealed waste water tank
- An evacuation hose – of a specified length
- Black/grey waste water storage
- A rubbish bin with a lid
On top of this, your vehicle must hold at least 3 days worth of freshwater, greywater and dreaded nasty toilet waste. This means:
- A minimum of 4L of fresh water per person per day
- The capacity to hold at least 4L grey/black waste water per person per day
- At least 1L of toilet waste per person per day
Can’t I just tell people I’m self-contained if they can’t see inside my van?
No. Inside the vehicle, there must be a detailed self-containment certificate issued to the owner of the vehicle along with two self-containment stickers displayed in the specified locations. Even with all the facilities mentioned above, without this, your vehicle is just another non-self-contained van.*
*If renting a self-contained camper all of this should be provided by your rental company.
Why is self-containment such a big deal?
Well, NZ got tired of tourists pooping here, there and everywhere so self-containment came into play.
I like to consider myself a risk taker. Can I just chance it and hope I don’t get caught?
We didn’t do this. Not even once. We’re also not going to advise you do this, but if you insist be warned there is a hefty instant fine of $200 if you’re caught camping where you’re not supposed to be. Most importantly – wherever you decide to camp – always remember to leave no trace.
So what’s so great about self-containment?
Going self-contained gives you hundreds of free spots to choose from which aren’t an option for non-self-contained vehicles meaning you’ll potentially save money on campsites. Some other perks of self-containment are:
- You have access to many more inner city/town overnight parking spots – which are sometimes free
- Self-contained spots – even in high season – are usually less crowded
- You can avoid the stench of drop toilets on a hot summer day
- Day-to-day activities like cooking and washing are often much easier in a self-contained vehicle with fresh & greywater storage
So are there any downsides to self-containment?
Yes. Maybe. Well, if you consider them to be downsides. Here are a few things we can think of that might sway your decision:
- Self-contained vehicles are much more costly to buy and rent – especially in high season
- Freedom camping isn’t always possible – many by-laws do not allow even self-contained vehicles to park anywhere they please.
- Self-contained vehicles are often larger and more difficult to maneuver on narrow winding roads.
- As previously mentioned, there are still tons of stunning low-cost campsites available to non-self-contained campervans.
If self-contained vans are so expensive can I build one myself?
Yes. We actually met a couple who’d built out their van whilst couch surfing in Hamilton. They bought an older van in shoulder season, kitted it out and applied for a self-containment certificate. So long as their van held together – and they sold in high season – I wouldn’t be surprised if they manage to sell it on without making a loss.
So how do I decide if self-containment is the right choice for me?
Like any kind of travel, you always want to maintain a minimum level of comfort or your trip won’t really be any fun at all. These are the things we think you should consider when deciding if it’s worth splashing out on a self-contained vehicle:
Some minimalist nomads travel comfortably for months with just a car and a tent whilst others feel that they couldn’t possibly live without self-containment even for a week. If your trip is a short one you’ll need to decide if it’s worth splashing out or slumming it. If you’ll be sticking it out longer you’ll need to think about your long-term comfort level vs. your budget.
Not only could self-contained vehicles potentially be better insulated in the winter but they could also provide more space on the inevitable rainy days. However, if New Zealand is one of many stops on your RTW trip, you’re on a tight budget or you’re only travelling through the summer months it might not be worth parting with the extra cash.
The biggest factor when it comes to deciding whether self-containment is right for you is your budget. Self-contained campers – to buy and rent – are known to be considerably more costly than your standard van. If you are considering travelling for 3 months or more it can sometimes be much cheaper to buy than rent, but the details of that would be a whole other post altogether.
Privacy & Seclusion
Are you a solo-traveller looking to bond with others? A group of 18-30’s backpackers on a WHV? A family with young children or a couple looking for a secluded romantic getaway?
Whatever your style it’s worth knowing in advance many free and low-cost campsites available to non-self-contained campervans are much busier in the summer months. More often than not people are respectful but if you don’t want to occasionally be kept awake until 3am by acoustic guitar sessions or German techno maybe consider a self-contained camper for access to quieter spots.
Your bathroom ‘routine’
Let’s not be shy about this. The second biggest factor in deciding whether self-containment is right for you is your bathroom routine. If you have young children – or you’re just someone who can sleep a whole night without getting up – self-containment is going to be the right choice for you. We can tell you it’s no fun to be waddling to a drop toilet, torch-in-hand, in the middle of a cold dark night. Especially in winter.
After a short stint living in Auckland we purchased a minivan camper that did not have self-containment. This is because – due to personal circumstances – we started out in late spring when prices are 2-3 times higher than low-season. We had travel plans immediately following our tour of NZ and also wanted to save a bit of extra cash for mechanical emergencies rather than blow our entire van budget on a single purchase.
So how was it?
Occasionally we felt like kings. The wind and rain would roll in and we’d sit upon our minivan throne watching the common folk in their tents. Some days we’d have a serious case of van envy. We’d find ourselves whispering things like ‘they must have a leisure battery‘ and ‘they have the sticker’‘. Then the bus conversions would roll in and put us all to shame.
Would we do things differently?
Yes! Absolutely. 100%. If things had gone as planned we would have arrived in Christchurch in low-season as travellers often arrive in Auckland and leave via Christchurch. There we would have picked up a self-contained van for around half of what we paid for our basic minivan camper.
So do we regret our decision?
Surprisingly no. With a lot of our time spent outside the van, we still had the most incredible time. Not to say we weren’t limited when it came to where we could camp. We cooked most of our meals outside and occasionally we had to stumble like zombies to the bathroom at night but we still enjoyed many months of unforgettable experiences. If we could go back and do things differently, we would, but we’d also do the same all over again.
Still torn on whether self-containment is right for you?
Check out some helpful links below:
- New Zealand Motor Caravan Association
- Backpacker Guide New Zealand
- NZ Government
- New Zealand Backpacker Board
- Department Of Conversation Campsites
Thinking of building your own campervan?
So you’ve got your van and you’re ready to start your build, but like any big project designing and planning is key. In this section, we’ll cover everything you’ll want to consider when making your conversion plans in 5 simple steps.
Many of us tackling a van conversion – or thinking about it – aren’t willing to shell out for a shiny, brand new van straight from the manufacturer. If you are then we’re not going to pretend we aren’t a little bit envious of you. The truth is, most of us are buying pre-owned, which means buying all the shelving, rust, paneling and filth that comes with it.
It’s no surprise choosing the right van is an essential part of making conversion plans. It’s a huge decision. Making the wrong choice could potentially make or break your project, but we’re not here to tell you which van you should buy. Instead we’ll cover everything you’ll want to consider when making a choice that’s right for you.
Are you currently planning your NZ adventures? Would you go self-contained or non-self-contained?
Let us know in the comments below or get in touch if you think we’ve missed something.
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