Free camping sites vs caravan parks

By: Amanda Burton

Free camping near towns can be hard to come by, but increasing numbers of self-sufficient campers are looking for alternatives.

Free camping sites vs caravan parks
As campers, we need to ensure that if we make use of existing free or low-cost campsites, we support the towns that make them available

Unless you head out past the black stump, there seems to be fewer and fewer opportunities for free camping. In stark contrast, there are a growing number of us who don’t require a full-service caravan park on a daily basis.

We can generate our own power and store our own waste. We have our own water and we have all we need to cook our meals on board. We don’t want to swim in a pool or watch TV in a games room or play mini golf or jump on a bouncy pillow. All we really want is a patch of quiet ground where we can set up our rig and get a good night’s sleep.

But, when the sky is rapidly darkening and you find yourself close to a town, there is often little choice but to suck it up and fork out the cash for a heap of services that you won’t be using, just so you’ll have a space where you can safely and legally set up camp.

When your needs are few, the cost of a night’s stay in a caravan park can seem exorbitant. On more than one occasion, we’ve felt tempted to clarify that we only want to camp the night, not buy the place. Still, the provision of a free camping location within town limits is a contentious issue, with passionate views both for and against.

Park benefits

Let’s start by acknowledging that not everyone can free camp indefinitely, nor do they want to. We need caravan parks. The security of a caravan park can be comforting to some. They have rules in place about things like antisocial behaviour, supervision of children and animals, disposal of waste and times to be quiet. They provide services needed by those who don’t own a self-contained rig — showers, toilets and camp kitchens.

In small towns, caravan parks can be a valuable part of the community. They support the local economy, both through their own custom of local businesses and by providing employment opportunities. They are also in a position to provide information and recommendations to travellers, and direct them towards local services and attractions. By having a booking system, they allow you to plan ahead and to know that you’ll have a place to stay at the end of the day.

Many of us do need the facilities and services they offer. For some, staying in a caravan park is what "camping" is all about. In days gone by, that’s how it was done. Hitching up the van and shooting down the coast to the favourite caravan park after Christmas was pretty much an Aussie institution. But, as with everything, costs have gone up and now for what you’d pay for a week in some caravan parks in peak season, you can get a package deal and fly to Bali instead, all inclusive.

Though it isn’t usually the main reason for doing so, this type of potentially ongoing cost has influenced many towards spending more upfront and purchasing a rig that is self-sufficient. When you do the maths, it doesn’t take long for nightly camping fees to add up. If you can free camp a lot of the time, before you know it your rig doesn’t owe you a cent. And, if you’re not spending up to $100 a night on hiring a plot of land, it’s likely your purse strings will be a bit looser when it comes to making a few purchases in town along the way.

Recognising self-sufficiency

There are some local councils that have recognised that self-sufficient camping is a major growth trend and, rather than fighting it, they are riding the wave. They provide a designated area for short-term stays in town, often close to a public toilet block. By offering free or minimal-cost camping areas within their towns, they recognise that they will attract travellers to stay there. And, people staying in town spend money, so the businesses in town prosper.

We campers need to recognise that it costs local ratepayers a lot of money to set up and maintain even simple facilities. If we want the benefit of having somewhere to stay close to town that doesn’t require us to pay for all the extras that we don’t need, we need to do the right thing so that providing these services is seen in a positive light by locals. After all, being local they aren’t going to take advantage of the actual camping opportunity; they need to see other benefits.

Doing the right thing

Unfortunately, as always, there is a small, extremely irresponsible minority of people who spoil it for the vast majority of travellers who do the right thing. Facilities offered at this type of camping area are often damaged and defaced, disruption is caused by unruly behaviour, rubbish is left strewn around, dogs are not cleaned up after and the spirit of "short-term" use is abused. This costs local ratepayers and quickly leads to such sites being shut down.

Somewhere there must be a happy medium. Caravan park owners may need to adapt their business models to meet changing market demands. Being able to tailor their structure to meet different traveller requirements would be a huge step. For example, they could designate an area of the park for self-contained rigs only, without the provision of all the traditional services, charged at a lower nightly rate. Governments need to review existing regulations to help facilitate innovations such as this.

As campers, we need to ensure that if we make use of existing free or low-cost campsites, we support the towns that make them available. As the RV market continues to grow at a rapid rate, it will be interesting to see what options evolve as the answer to a low-cost overnight camp stop.

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Check out the full feature in issue #83 December 2014 of Camper Trailer Australia magazine. Subscribe today for all the latest camper trailer news, reviews and travel inspiration.