Everyone loves a free campsite, we’ve even posted about them on the site, but what are the hidden costs of pitching a tent without spending a cent? James Shackell takes a look at how free camping is changing in Australia.

Things were different for Banjo Patterson. When he wrote Waltzing Matilda in 1895, camping in Australia wasn’t exactly ‘regulated’. Jolly swagmen just pitched a tent by the nearest billabong, under the shade of a Coolabah tree.

In 2019, the Coolabah tree has probably been logged, global warming has dried up the billabong, and the swagman would cop a fine for an unauthorised open fire (evocative bush poetry is a much tougher gig these days).

Strictly No Camping

Camping in Australia, particularly free camping, has become a bit of a regulatory mess. There’s no federal law against pitching a tent in the Australian wilderness, but there is an overlapping hodgepodge of state laws, regional policies and council red tape. National Parks are usually the state government’s business, but local shires control roadside campgrounds, some caravan parks, and anything without official NP status.

But should we have the right to pitch our tent anywhere? If we’re careful and pick up our rubbish, where’s the harm? It’s just a patch of dirt, after all.

That’s the argument put forward by most campers. But anyone in the regional tourism industry will tell you: things are never that simple.


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The End Of The Caravan Park

Earlier this year the Tasmanian state government introduced a new policy. Any free or low-cost camping now has to compete on ‘fair and even grounds’ with private businesses nearby. In other words, caravan parks.

Industry figures show that caravan parks across Tasmania have been closing rapidly – down 25% in the last decade. There are now just 77 parks left in the state, and private owners say that free campgrounds are making the business model unsustainable. Caravan parks are basically the new Blockbuster Video.

It makes sense. Parks have to pay council rates, insurance, water bills, electricity, rubbish disposal and so on. Free campsites have basically zero overheads. And with the rise of adventure travel (the industry is expected to tip $1,335,738 million by 2023) more and more campers are choosing remote-but-cheap over convenient-but-pricey. That’s putting a serious squeeze on local businesses. Free campsites have even been banned in the Meander Valley.

But Richard Barwick from the Caravan & Motorhome Club of Australia says caravan parks have held a monopoly for too long. ‘What really matters is freedom of choice. You should have a choice between a low-cost campsite, a caravan park or an Airbnb. You shouldn’t be forced into using a product,’ he says.

‘We shouldn’t get anything for free. We shouldn’t even talk about free,’ Richard says. ‘We should talk about low-cost camping – because everything comes at a cost, and that’s not always a commercial value.’

You Get Nothing For Nothing

Richard is onto something here. Putting aside cut-throat market capitalism for a second, it’s worth pointing out that free camping isn’t exactly ‘free’.

The camper might pay nothing, but free campgrounds are usually cleaned, patrolled and improved with public money. State-run parks departments (like Parks Victoria or Parks Tasmania) hire rangers and maintenance crews to keep free campgrounds safe and clean. The only reason we can enjoy these sites is the fact they’re subsidised by ratepayers and taxpayers. And this has caused friction between campers and local councils, particularly on Victoria’s surf coast (where campers have been caught dumping human waste directly into the ocean).

‘This idea that we all have a God-given right to camp at beaches or up bush tracks is quite simply nonsense,’ says Roger Grant, Director of Tourism Greater Geelong. ‘Not all tourism is good tourism.’


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Clean Up Australia

This brings us onto the biggest problems with free campsites (or all campsites, really): they tend to depend on the social conscious of the general public. Which is a pretty fickle thing.

‘It would be better if people stuck to prescribed campgrounds,’ says Steve Johnson from Parks Tasmania, ‘but even then we have problems. It’s all about educating people. We’ve had campers die of hypothermia because they weren’t prepared for the temperature drop. Or in Freycinet National Park, you get people starting campfires, which is a huge problem. It’s all peat land there, and the fire can smoulder and get into the soil. We’ve already lost 40% of our King Billy Pine forests to fire, and they don’t come back.’

Steve says designated free campgrounds are becoming more and more popular, especially with the Tasmanian tourism boom (visitor numbers jumped to 1.4 million in 2018). The problem is, not all people are responsible campers. Littering, dangerous campfires, injury, threats to local wildlife – these are risks with any campground, but particularly free sites, which are often remote and costly to patrol.

Parks Victoria has even taken the extreme step of removing honesty boxes at 197 of the state’s 680 campgrounds (campers now have to book through an online portal). Turns out honesty isn’t always the best policy.

‘More funding is always the dream,’ Steve says, ‘but it’s hard to know when it’ll happen. We’re facing increasing visitor numbers, and the whole industry is becoming unsustainable. Rangers are stretched very thin.’

Pay Your Way

None of this is to say you shouldn’t use free campsites. They’re there to be used. But their sustainability and success relies on the inherent goodness of people (and some pretty large council fines).

So if there’s an honesty box, pay it. If you see rubbish, pick it up. Do your research and follow the local campfire rules. All those small gestures can make a big difference.

Camping regulations may be a pain, but they’re a necessary response to mass tourism. The only reason free campsites exist is because someone, somewhere, is picking up the tab.

Feature photo by Jesse Lindemann